“This is not a celebration; it is a commemoration. There will be no triumphalism or jingoism,” Culture Minister Helen Grant concluded at the House of Commons debate on the commemoration of the first world war held on Thursday 7th November. The emphasis on getting the tone right, while seizing the opportunity of the centenary to deepen understanding of local, national and international history was a recurring theme, writes Sunder Katwala.
British Future’s research into public understanding of the history, and attitudes towards the centenary, were cited in both opening frontbench speeches.
Most people “know about mud, trenches and iconic things such as the Christmas truce. Thereafter, it starts to get a bit hazy,” Dr Andrew Murrison told the Commons. “Improvement of our grasp of the causes, conduct and consequences of the first world war must be at the heart of the centenary that is about to break upon us.”
Murrison said that the government planned to disappoint “some of our more shouty newspapers, [which] are salivating at the prospect of the government attempting a grotesque impersonation of Basil Fawlty, in which we do not mention the war for fear of upsetting Germany. Disappointingly for those newspapers, the history is untweaked by the government and will remain so,” he said.
He noted that YouGov’s polling for British Future had found that 77% of the public see the centenary as an opportunity for reconciliation with former enemies. “We know from comments made by Harry Patch—the “last Tommy”—in the final years of his life that he would agree with that wholeheartedly. The history stands, but the government will of course seek reconciliation not only with the former central powers but with partners in Europe and the former empire, wherever we share a complex and nuanced history,” said Murrison.
“Getting the tone right is imperative,” said Dan Jarvis MP, responding for the Labour opposition. “We agree with the government that there should be no flag-waving, that there should be an absolute right to remember those whose opinions differed, and that there should be no rigid government narrative.”
But this did not mean avoiding controversy, he argued. The war poets and Blackadder provided “powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of world war one, but if they are all that we know of the war, they are poor history,” he explained, while noting the sensitivities of recognising that the British military did defeat Germany in the final stages of the war. “It does explain why there was so much public grief at Haig’s funeral in 1928 from the veterans who had served under his command, surprising though that is to us now,” he said.
Graham Jones (Labour, Hyndbourn) spoke of the colossal losses of the Accrington Pals on the first day of the Somme. They had come to symbolise the tragic story of the Pals Battalions who, because they signed up to fight with friends, saw entire communities devastated by the huge losses.
“The fighting started at 7.20am and by 8am, just 40 minutes later, a generation of young men from in and around Accrington had laid down their lives or had it altered forever.” In those ’40 minutes of madness’ 584 out of the 720 pals were killed, wounded or declared missing, he told the House.
Wayne David MP (Labour, Caerphilly) talked about the need to remember conscientious objectors. “They too were people of courage who stood up for what they believed in and experienced enormous public opprobrium as a result.”
The conscientious objectors included two of his predecessors as MP for Caerphilly: Morgan Jones and Ness Edwards. Jones had been imprisoned after the introduction of conscription, yet in 1921 had become the first conscientious objector to be elected to the House of Commons.
The role of Commonwealth soldiers was highlighted by Paul Uppal (Conservative, Wolverhampton), who spoke of his pride in the Sikh contribution to the war effort, and by Damian Collins MP (Conservative, Folkestone), who spoke about the town’s role as the major port of embarkation for the war, with 10 million servicemen coming through the town.
“Another Folkestone story that is important to us is the role that the town played in accommodating tens of thousands of refugees from Belgium in the first weeks of the war. We gave succour and comfort to people who had been dispossessed of their homes,” he said.
Clive Efford (Labour, Eltham) said that local remembrance services had become much more diverse over the last two decades, thereby reflecting the armies of 1914:
“The people who attend nowadays represent the diversity of the armed forces who took part in the first world war, much more than they ever have in recent years. It is a real community event with everyone coming together… British Future’s publication about the first world war refers to ‘the graves of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus lying side by side, just as they fought side by side.’ It is often at these times in the field of human conflict that humanity shows its greatest attributes,” he said.
Several MPs expressed the hope that the centenary could provide an opportunity to deepen reconciliation in Ireland. Jeffrey Donaldson MP (DUP) quoted the Irish Nationalist MP Willie Redmond, who had written in 1916 that it would be a fine memorial “if we could over their graves, build up a bridge between North and South.”
“We cannot change the history of the century that followed, but the time has come to build those bridges. The time has come to use this shared history of the first world war to build those bridges across the island,” said Donaldson.
Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.