“The politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.” - Harry Patch, trench war survivor
“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.” - Michael Gove, Education secretary
The last fighting Tommy, Harry Patch is barely cooling in his grave as the centenary commemorations of the First World War get under way. His verdict on the conflict that saw a million young British men die in the trenches was damning. For generations the mass sacrifice of men in Flanders was seen as a lesson in the futility of war. Even the later war against Hitler didn't erase the sentiment and the red poppy of remembrance remains an ambiguous symbol still. Is the monarch's annual trip to the Cenotaph a celebration or an apology?
Michael Gove, the man in charge of the national history syllabus, is in no doubt. Last week in the Daily Mail he weighed in against the left-wing propaganda of Blackadder, condemning the show (along with earlier fictions the Monocled Mutineer and Oh! What a lovely war) as presenting a lop-sided view of the conflict. According to Gove, the 1914-18 conflict was a “just war” because “The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.” The fact that all of the above makes just as much sense if you substitute the word “British” for “German” seems to have escaped his attention. For a tub-thumping jingoist like Gove, Britain's empire is a source of pride, Germany's ambitions to have one – a source of shame.
Understandably, in almost all discussion of the First World War, it's the horrific slaughter amongst the barbed wire and trenches of the Western Front that is fore-grounded. However the first British troops to go into action did so in Iraq in 1914. The battle of Basra which lasted ten days from 11th November 1914 saw British colonial troops fighting those of the Ottoman Empire for the possession of the Persian oil-fields. They were victorious and Britain ruled Iraq under mandate until 1932.
This leads us directly to why Gove's pointed critique of Blackadder was no isolated incident. Gove is not a stupid man who has made a silly mistake about history, this isn't just a case of trench foot in mouth, he is part of an effort to alter our collective memory, rehabilitate the war and with it the right of British elites to interfere in the international order using military force wherever it serves their purpose. Those elites were alarmed at the scale of disagreement with Blair's adventure with Iraq and were disappointed with the public's reaction to the idea of an intervention in Syria. From their point of view the public simply must be convinced to be more warlike. Need convincing? How about the fact that we now have an annual “Armed Forces Day” - something that seems like a ghost of Franco's Spain.
The war to end all wars might become the war to justify all wars. The commemorations of the 1914-18 conflict are set to be a festival of jingoism as the memory of the conflict is whitewashed. £50 million has been set aside from the Heritage lottery fund to organise events. The opening salvo in the circus was the bizarre episode of the “sacred soil”. Last November seventy sandbags of soil were removed from Flanders fields and conveyed with great ceremony via naval frigate and gun-carriage to a new memorial garden near Wellington barracks in London.
The garden will be officially open to the public on November 9th 2014. The centrepiece will be an inscription of John McRae's poem “In Flanders Fields”. Now this poem is undoubtedly from the right era – it was written in 1915 by a serving officer but it is notable for being one of the few poems that emerged from the conflict that could be described as pro-war. The opening of the third verse reads “Take up our quarrel with the foe”. Of course neither Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen get a look in. The soil is “sacred” because it is blood-soaked. Blood and soil of course are treated as the highest sacraments in all nationalisms, but especially one famously led by a certain one-bollocked Austrian corporal.
The only way to combat this will be to remember the real history of the war. A war of European empires whose skirmishing in far-flung colonial lands finally dragged the whole continent into the abyss. A war whose moral vacuum was recognised by millions at the time, who were then forcibly conscripted and shot for deserting or showing 'cowardice' in the face of the enemy.
It might not seem much in the face of such lavishly funded government propaganda but some are trying to keep the memory of those who resisted the conflict alive. Peace News have embarked on a project to celebrate, deserters, resisters, internationalists and mutineers. To find out more head here.