Admittedly, I am somewhat late to this debate, but I cannot put it off any longer: it is time to talk about World War One. Before we begin, whilst this post will reference Michael Gove’s column from two weeks ago, it is not going to discuss it directly. So much has been written about that particular opinion that for me to comment on what a poorly argued, reactionary and jingoistic piece of anti-history it was would not be so much flogging a dead horse, but whipping remorselessly at its headstone and hoping to draw blood. Rather, I am going to talk about a few issues that I hope are not overlooked during the commemoration year, as there are several topics that can easily be forgotten if we are not careful.
Firstly, the commemoration year should be used to have a genuine debate about the British Empire and its legacy. Among his more objectionable claims about the Great War, Mr Gove argued Britain’s intervention was justified on the grounds of Germany’s “ruthless social Darwinism… pitiless approach to occupation…aggressively expansionist war aims, and their scorn for international order.” The problem with this statement is that it could just as easily describe Britain’s foreign policy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The litany of abuses which British officials committed in her colonies before, during and after are legion; and similarly Britain’s wartime conduct can hardly be considered enlightened or benevolent, such as our involvement in the Allied blockade of Germany between 1914-1919.
As such, any debates about how far Germany’s international policies were the main cause of World War One must be placed in the context of how other Great Powers, such as France, the U.K. and Russia, conducted themselves on the international stage. This is not to say that we should excuse Germany’s behaviour, but that we should at the very least critically analyse whether Britain’s status as the largest Empire in the world affected Germany’s imperialist ambitions. Furthermore, we must use Germany’s expansionist policies as an opportunity to reflect on our own experience of Empire, and more specifically whether the traditional view of the British Empire as an overall benevolent and civilising force is a fair interpretation rooted in historical fact, or whether it was a myth created to explain and excuse morally and legally dubious acts committed in the name of ‘civilisation’.
We must also be careful not to forget about the courage shown by conscientious objectors during the war. In his column, Mr Gove was quick to praise the heroism and sacrifice demonstrated by those who died, but forgot to talk about the bravery shown by those who refused to go to war on moral principle. It is, admittedly, incredibly easy to see conscientious objectors as cowards, but to do so would be wrong, as conscientious objectors were not just mocked or taunted; they were openly vilified and portrayed as traitors, given white feathers so that everyone who saw them would know immediately to treat them in the same degrading fashion, and often imprisoned for their refusal to fight. As David Mitchell once said, they were brave, it was just a different type of bravery they had to display, and at the end of the day it takes a lot of courage and determination to fight against popular opinion for a cause you believe in, something that we often fail to recognise.
However, the most important issue that must be kept in mind during the commemoration is the damage suffered by those involved in the war. Whilst I am reasonably sure that issues such as the execution of deserters, the psychological and physical injuries soldiers suffered, and the number of men who committed suicide upon their return will be discussed, it is imperative to discuss them in their full moral complexities, and also consider the very real impact these issues had on their families for generations after they themselves had passed.
Moreover, we cannot just focus on the effects it had on those the front line, but also on those who were left behind. We must always remember that World War One was the first significant total war, and as such it had a direct impact on the home front. Whether it was the wives left without husbands and the children left without fathers; or the families who found their loved ones returned in body but not in spirit, the Great War hit everyone equally, and it hit them long after the final guns had been fired.
There are a host of other issues which must be addressed during 2014, such as how the realities of post-war Britain betrayed the ideals of the men who fought for her, and how far the Treaty of Versailles was a direct cause of the rise of Hitler and as such World War Two, but overall as the crucial lesson we must learn is that any commemoration of World War One must not only take a holistic view of the War’s effects on British society, but that it must also be nuanced. It is easy to shy away from difficult debates for fear of dishonouring the dead, but we cannot. To reduce World War One to crude sound bites or over simplistic interpretations, whether it is ‘lions led by donkeys’ or ‘Great Britain defending the world against evil Germany’ is not just bad history, it is immoral, and does more to betray the memory of those who lived and died than any Blackadder episode ever could.