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Britain's WWI Centenary Is Bound to Be a Disaster

The government already have Europe squabbling over the right way to remember the war.

by Katie Engelhart, Illustrations: Cei Willis
13 November 2013, 1:00pm

Next Christmas, some Germans and some Brits will get together in Flanders to play a game of football – and it will be historic. The 2014 game will mark the hundredth anniversary of the First World War’s famous "Christmas truce", in which German and British soldiers – facing off on the Western Front – declared an impromptu ceasefire, wandering out into no-man’s land to sing carols, exchange gifts, bury the dead and kick some footballs around. (With Christmas behind them, the soldiers quickly got back to shooting, shelling and trench warfare-ing the lives out of each other. Almost a million Brits died on the battlefield between 1914 and 1918.)

By Christmas of 2014, Britain will be well into its four-year-long, balls-to-the-wall commemoration of World War One. With over £50 million pledged for remembrance events, "It would be remarkable if the Great War wasn’t woven into practically everything," said Andrew Murrison, David Cameron’s special centenary planning representative. Britain’s remembrance campaign will kick off on the 4th of August, 2014 with a candlelit vigil at Westminster Abbey, followed by a heap of battlefield tributes and a four-year culture programme, organised by Jenny Waldman, the creative producer for the London 2012 Olympics.

With ten months to go, few seem pleased with the government’s game plan. Critics argue that Cameron’s £50 million of centenary expenditure is grossly excessive. Others say it’s paltry – especially compared to Australia’s colossal £84 million. Some accuse the government of striking a triumphalist tone in its memorialising, while others bewail that Cameron is downplaying Britain’s epic victories. Shit really hit the fan in August, when news leaked that Germany had sent a special envoy to London to discuss the centenary and reportedly asked Britain to tone down its commemorations.

Recently, members of Cameron’s own centenary planning committee have broken rank. Committee member Professor Sir Hew Strachan of Oxford University told me that that the PM had "created a totally false impression" about the amount of money available for centenary events. He has also attacked the government’s line that the 1914-18 war should be "commemorated", but definitely not "celebrated". "There are causes for celebration too," Strachan rues. "It would have been pretty bad news if this war had been lost."

So much for the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Regardless of varying public opinion, the 100-year anniversary of Europe’s seminal catastrophe is going to be huge. In an October, 2012 speech, Cameron gave us a taste of what’s to come; he launched the government’s spanking new centenary website and previewed its new centenary logo. He announced that the Imperial War Museum, with £35 million of government backing, would curate new galleries and lead a network of over 1,000 centenary-minded organisations. The Prime Minister also promised that two students from every state-funded secondary school in England would be sent on a tour of the Western Front.

Over the next few months, the government promised memorial refurbishments; patronage of centenary-themed artwork; commemorative paving stones for over 400 Victoria Cross recipients; local heritage projects; educational seminars for children; a centenary apprenticeship scheme; money to repurpose old battleships; £10 million of national cultural programming; and an online database of soldier profiles described as "Facebook for the Fallen".

"There is something about the First World War that makes it a fundamental part of our national consciousness," said Cameron. "It has a very strong emotional connection. I feel it very deeply." (Cameron then revealed that his absolute favourite book is the WWI battlefield memoir Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves.)

Since then, dozens of local projects have been announced – and covered faithfully in a stream of wildly banal BBC headlines, such as: "HMS Monitor M33 to become Portsmouth tourist attraction", "HMS Caroline 'can be key WWI commemoration project'", "A relative of a Swansea soldier whose story helped inspire a memorial to the tunnellers killed in World War I has been traced ahead of its unveiling". In June of 2012, BBC’s Radio 4 commissioned what will be the longest ever one-off radio drama: a four-year Great War saga.

There's clearly a lot in the works, but back in 2011 – says Professor Sir Strachan, Professor of the History of War at Oxford University – the situation looked tenuous: "Whereas other countries had begun to think about what they were going to do, Britain hadn’t," he said. "So I convened a meeting."

Strachan said that some government lackeys believed it was only appropriate "to mark the ends of wars, but we don’t mark the beginnings of wars". Others thought "it was not the government’s job to intervene" in historical reminiscing.

But soon, Cameron caved. In 2012, he convened a council of mostly old white men to serve as a centenary advisory committee, under the guidance of Secretary of State for Culture Maria Miller. The PM promised a commemoration "like the Diamond Jubilee [that] says something about who we are as a people".

Over the last year, tension has built inside that committee, fuelling a broader sense that the government has, as far as we can see, screwed things up for 2014.

The Great War began on the 28th of July, 1914, shortly after the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian-Serb ultranationalist named Gavrilo Princip. The assassination is thought to be the spark that ignited the war, because soon after it was carried out Austria-Hungary delivered its fateful ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia.

But unlike WWII, with (simplistically) its bad (Nazis, fascists) and good (not Nazis, not fascists) sides – and thus causes – WWI’s origins are muddier, its purpose less obvious.

WWI, the historian Margaret Macmillan recently explained, is "over-determined… there were so many reasons why it might have happened". Even in hindsight, the Great War appears to have risen from a sundry brew of territorial ambition, imperial friction, economic rivalry, technological advancement, mounting nationalism and lousy diplomacy. Add to that the fact that Europe’s biggest players – the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy – were said to be "sick" and unstable, and thus prone to lashing out. (By 1918, the vast empires had crumbled.)

Looking back, WWII has a tendency to appear inevitable, what with the rise of Nazi Germany. But "in July 1914", writes historian Samuel R Williamson Jr, "one or two key decisions taken differently might well have seen the war averted".

WWI’s rollout was also more evenly blighting, and each country has claims to victimhood. Our collective memory of WWII recalls war-wearied Allies liberating concentration camps – and crematoria, and emaciated bodies, and starry-eyed heil Hitler salutes. Mention of WWI recalls some trench-lined field in Belgium, its dugouts full of conscripted young men who were, alternately, terrified and suffering and bored stiff – but often devoid of vitriol. When we speak of the Great War, we speak of its "futility". And sometimes its absurdity, as exemplified by that 1914 Christmas Day, when men from both sides stopped killing each other and climbed out of their trenches to play a bit of football.

What the "Facebook for the fallen" might look like.

Last month, Jeremy Paxman warned that Cameron’s centenary was turning into a "celebration of war". A year earlier, a Guardian editorial had similarly dictated that Cameron "not use these events to wrap himself in the flag". Last summer, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles fretted that the centenary could become an "anti-German or anti-Turkish festival", echoing concerns that – for the sake of the EU – Cameron should keep mum in 2014, so as not to piss off Germany.

Meanwhile, a group of anti-war activists and pacifists began "No Glory in War", a campaign (backed by £95,900 of Heritage Lottery centenary funding) to highlight the Great War’s conscientious objectors. In an open letter, No Glory organisers expressed chagrin that the centenary "will be run at least in part by former generals and ex-defence secretaries". The letter was signed by the likes of poet / playwright, Carol Ann Duffy and actor / babe, Jude Law.

All this fussing on the Left fuelled paranoia on the Right – a fear that Cameron was too focused on Britain’s defeats, on carnage and stalemate and the utter futility that was trench warfare. These critics charged that WWI was not futile and avoidable and the explicit fault of nobody in particular, as the centenary committee seemed to be saying, but rather necessary and noble, just like WWII. "We find it very difficult," wrote Strachan, "to elevate our gaze from our parochial preoccupations with the mud of the Western Front." There was some damn heroic fighting, and some epic victories.

In a string of biting articles, The Telegraph reminded readers that "Germany and Austria were responsible for starting the First World War" and that "our commemoration of World War One is in danger of becoming sterile and boring". In one particularly thinly-sourced report – "Historians complain government’s WWI commemoration ‘focuses on British defeats'" – a Telegraph journalist cited an anonymous academic (an anonymous academic) who claimed that Cameron’s centenary committee had been "co-opted" by starry-eyed historical fiction writers.

Germany definitely didn’t help the situation in August when it sent its special centenary envoy to London for a series of meetings. The envoy reportedly expressed concern that a too-jubilant British centenary could chill Anglo-German relations and mess with EU stability. It "would be easier", said Norman Walter from the German embassy in London, if Britain took a "less declamatory tone" in 2014. "We would prefer not to have any celebrations, having lost," Walter continued, adding that the causes of WWI were "less clear cut" than those of WWII.

Lately, it seems that centenary drama is a continental affliction.

Already, Dutch-speakers in Flanders are using the centenary as yet another occasion to push for autonomy within Belgium, and little Italy is begging the continent not to forget its wartime contributions. In France, rabble-rousing historians are engaged in a feverish debate over the 650 French soldiers who were shot for "cowardice" during the Grande Guerre. Eastward, Turkey is none too hyped about 2015, which will mark the 100-year anniversary of its massacre of 1.5 million Armenians. (It is illegal in Turkey to speak of an Armenian "genocide", so the whole world taking notice isn't likely to go down too well.) Commemoration will also be iffy in Russia, given that WWI paved the way for a post-war Bolshevik coup.

There’s also the small issue of the Commonwealth. Britain has been carefully coordinating with its Commonwealth underlings "to make sure that we are all doing similar types of things and also joining in for many of the commemorations". In April, British Baroness Warsi kicked off a campaign to recognise the Indian army’s Great War efforts: "As I have said before, our boys weren’t just Tommies, they were Tariqs and Tajinders too," she said. And the commonwealth committee promises a "strong Commonwealth theme", probably as a means of foreswearing a pro-Europe theme.

Over the next four years, Professor Strachan thinks Britain is likely to cough up a bit more cash for centenary events. "The list is getting big, as is the budget," he notes. "There’s pressure from the bottom-up." Indeed, a 2012 YouGov online opinion poll of 1,700 British adults showed that 69 percent wanted this year's Remembrance Day "to be a special national day", though Brits were roughly divided on the question of whether shops should be closed.

Perhaps, wrangling aside, we should all take solace in what the WWI centenary truly is: a dress rehearsal for the historical clusterfuck that will be 2039.

Follow Katie (@katieengelhart) and Cei (@CeiWillisArt) on Twitter

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