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Centenary: No place for jingoism in World War I remembrance

David Cameron should not be allowed to sieze upon the tragedy of war to further his own political agenda, says JONATHAN EDWARDS MP

Towards the end of 2012, I co-tabled a motion with Plaid Cymru colleagues in Parliament criticising the government’s decision to spend £50 million on plans to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war, in an attempt, as the Prime Minister put it, to replicate the national “spirit” that marked the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations. 

We argued then that, in view of the fact that an estimated 13 million soldiers and seven million civilians had lost their lives and 20 million had been seriously wounded, any attempt to observe the centenary in a jubilant manner would be deeply insensitive.

WWI commemorations should not be used as an opportunity to celebrate the “best of British” spirit. 

It should not be used as an excuse to redraft the national curriculum so that schoolchildren, in England at least, are taught a skewed, victorious version of history. 

It should instead be remembered as the unnecessary massacre that it was. 

It was, after all, the first industrialised war of its kind, and marked the first occasion on which chemical gas, machine guns and tanks had been used on such a scale.

Men and boys rushed to enlist, thinking that it would “all be over by Christmas.” 

The military leaders who led them into battle were utterly unprepared for how long the conflict would last and for the horrors that trench warfare would bring. 

The fate that awaited them, as Wilfred Owen put it, was that they would “die as cattle.” 

The sheer numbers of the dead meant that the army was forced to review the way in which dead soldiers were buried. Rather than there being mass burials and unmarked graves, each soldier’s name was recorded and then engraved on one of the war memorials that are to be found in villages and towns throughout Europe.

In probably Owen’s most famous poems, Dulce et Decorum Est, the poet exposes “the old lie” that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country. 

However, quite apart from the horrendous ways in which the young men died, this was not a war that sprang from noble causes. It was inspired by competing imperial foreign policies.

Speaking at an event in Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month, the Nobel peace prize-winner Mairead Maguire argued that: “The shot fired in Sarajevo a century ago set off, like a starting pistol, a race for power, two global wars, a cold war, a century of immense, rapid explosion of death and destruction.”

The worst lie of all was the claim that this would be the war to end all wars. 

In hindsight, we see that the end of the conflict in 1914 only marked the prelude to mass unemployment, depression and, eventually, a second world war.

In renouncing the war effort in July 1917, Siegfried Sassoon wrote that the war “on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” 

He was “not protesting against the conduct of the war but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”

A recent editorial in the Irish Times on June 18 this year summarised the politics surrounding the current WWI commemoration debate well. 

It noted that it has “been a battle for the control of memory as much as it has been about remembering those who were killed.” 

It added that “today, the fight to control history continues, since the war is seen through … the need to define and assert ‘British values’ in a changing cultural landscape.”

It is fitting that commemorations will include the reopening of the Imperial War Museum. 

The museum fulfils a highly important role in educating generations about the realities of war. 

We should never forget that when the museum first opened on June 9 1920 its chairman, Alfred Mond MP, said: “The museum was not conceived as a monument to military glory but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.”

During debates on the Imperial War Museum Act 1920, Lieutenant Commander Joseph Kenworthy MP said: “We should forbid our children to have anything to do with the pomp and glamour and the bestiality of the late war, which has led to the death of millions of men. I refuse to vote a penny of public money to commemorate such suicidal madness of civilisation as that which was shown in the late war.”

A distinction should be made, of course, between celebrating the pomp, glamour and bestiality of war and commemorating those who died. 

Being from Wales, I recently lent my support for a Welsh memorial in Flanders alongside those from countries throughout the world. Tens of thousands of Welshmen died during the war. 

Over 4,000 of them died in Mametz wood alone in July 1916. Indeed, it is bitterly ironic that some of those killed had survived the coalmining disaster at Senghennydd in 1913 — the worst mining accident in Britain to this day, which killed 439 miners and one rescuer.

It is only right that the sacrifice of all of those who died, on all sides, should be commemorated, but it would surely be more appropriate to commemorate the end of the war in 2018, rather than its beginning.

In 1929, Robert Graves said of the armistice: “The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan … cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”

Even peace, for some, served only to emphasise the futility of the war and the senselessness of so many dead.

Jonathan Edwards is Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

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