Yesterday, I found myself being involved, in a small way, to assist in plans for the forthcoming centenary of The Great War. I couldn’t help but notice that, in line with this, my Twitter feed has been full of opinions and comments on this same subject over the past few days, so I felt it would be an opportunity to make my thoughts known on this.
Whilst I admit a certain bias here, The Great War is something that should be remembered everyday, as its effects are still with us. Centenary events are important and I have noticed the debate on what will and will not be commemorated. The Prime Minister has pronounced, the Imperial War Museum is undergoing extensive renovation and interest in the battlefields is increasing. However, picking certain dates, important though they are, and assuming that nothing happened outside of these dates is the trap that I feel many may well fall into.
For me, it’s not just about an individual day or and set piece action. I often tell my guests that whilst the Official History tells us that the Somme battle finished on 20th November 1916, had you been up on the Transloy Ridges on 21st November, that fact wouldn’t have necessarily been apparent to you. The point is, for a full aspect of remembrance, you should remember each and every day. There are those that I know who do. One, who will be nameless, told me that it is the defining thought on waking up and the final thought on retiring for the night that these men should always be remembered. I would suggest that is a pretty good mantra. And, as I wandered around London yesterday, there is plenty of evidence about to remind us, if we look closely. War Memorials to Railway staff at Waterloo Station, above and Euston, below.
So what may be the outcome of what is planned. Many, I know, and I have to say I share this point of view, strongly believe that the key opportunity to further educate the wider British public into the ultimate success of what was achieved will be squandered. We like a good defeat and failure, so the Retreat from Mons, Gallipoli, the Somme, (and read for that, 1st July 1916 only) and Third Ypres will be given plenty of coverage. The role of the Royal Navy will probably be relegated to a sideshow, the emergence of the RAF will likewise probably be glossed over. The final success of the Hundred Days will scarcely get a mention.
The efforts of the Commonwealth Forces will, I hope, be recalled in the correct way, as an integral part of the BEF on the Western Front, and not some glorious ‘strike force’ that came and sorted out the mess the British had got themselves into. It’s something I try very hard to ensure that my guests take away with them, bearing in mind that over the years the vast majority have been from Australia; I think I have achieved that by the simple expedient of stating the truth and not allowing stereotypes to be confirmed.
We live in a different society now, with different values and a much wider cultural hegemony than the generation who marched off to war in 1914 would believe possible. This has to be reflected in how the Centenary is approached for a new generation, who possibly consider it to be irrelevant to their lives today, especially if they are from a background which has little to identify itself with Edwardian England. That is the job for others, who have a broader and wider remit. Educational organisations do a pretty good job, and the number of school groups that I see on the Western Front each year shows that at least it is being taught in schools, which not a luxury that I had. If only one of each coach group visiting Thiepval or the Last Post at the Menin Gate is ‘converted’ then I would say that is job done.
I’m not advocating that everyone becomes a historian or develops a fuller understanding: it is a colossal topic and no one I know would realistically profess to know everything about it, although I admit there are many who have far greater knowledge and specialist skills than I do.
Will the British public have a better understanding of what the Great War was all about come November 2018? Sadly, I suspect not. That old and discredited phrase, which I dare not even state here, will have been trotted out many times, serious academics will have looked skyward and wondered why they weren’t properly asked and the men who fought on the Western Front and elsewhere, in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Italy and across the seas will be seen as relics from a previous era.
As for me, well, I hope I will have had the pleasure of many more guests from wherever in the world to visit the Western Front, at all times, not just in July or November. And, if I have done things correctly, then they too will remember every day, not just for one day.
We will see.