Reservations about WWI ‘celebrations’

The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One is being commemorated everywhere at the moment, from the thought-provoking poppies outside the Tower of London to the Guardian cashing in, offering trendy T-shirts bearing war-related graphics.

We’re in on it, too: we’ve got an eight-page pull out this week, though we’ve sold no advertising on the back of it, so it’s costing us money; our excellent compendium of news from 1914 is also on sale.

I’ve done a lot of the 1914 newspaper and spending so much time living in 1914 has left me with a feeling of unease at some of the “celebrations”.

Just to make it clear: we should remember the young men who gave up their lives, and living soldiers justifiably want to remember their friends who were not so lucky. But: a hundred years is a long time ago, and that’s not just stating the obvious — it was a different world. We’re remembering people whose lives we cannot imagine, in ways with which they in turn might not understand.

Motor vehicles were coming in, but people mostly used horse or steam. Child mortality was high, and life itself uncertain until a person got to about 20. Health and safety was non-existent, and fatal diseases common. There was no television or radio, or electricity. Women didn’t have the vote. The landed gentry probably still expected forelocks to be touched.
Life was hard in 1914, with the hours long, the pay low and conditions harsh. There were no state benefits. Many people were never more than a week’s wage from starving. So, you get the impression that many men snapped up the chance of good pay and plentiful food in the army; clearly, no-one had any idea of the horrors that lay ahead.

Biddolphians in particular seemed to be taken by the food, with our correspondent noting in several reports that “there was a plentiful supply of wholesome food”, and of the weight the men had put on. Some complained their clothes had got too tight — these are not men getting fat, but under-fed men eating a healthy diet for the first time.

It’s true that WWI was the first that saw mass conscription — and so more civilian-soldiers were killed — but the Boer War had only ended in 1902 and that’s now ancient history.
(Possibly because we put the Boers in concentration camps and 27,927 — 22,074 of these children under 16 —- and 14,154 black Africans died of starvation or disease. Not something we’d want to remember).

True, WWI was also the first conflict to be widely photographed. We can all picture a WWI soldier, but a Boer War one?

Then there’s the fact that the start of the war did not create unanimous agreement about the glory of defending the motherland, either.

While it’s true the Chronicle referred to a “wave of patriotic enthusiasm”, apathy is also apparent: at the first recruitment meeting, men don’t seem keen on going abroad and “evidences of apathy” are seen after Lord Kitchener’s famous call for men. In parts of Buglawton there was a real disinclination to enlist.

Considerable pressure had to be put on young men to join, whether it was Alderman Solly “working unremittingly” to press men into the ranks, or the police, who clearly forced men to enlist.

A typical case was Emily Dean, who was summoned for being drunk and disorderly, and her son Harry, charged with obstructing the police. She was obviously not drunk when arrested and Harry just annoyed but the court pressured him into having the charges dropped if he joined up. This was clearly acceptable and deemed necessary.

The men were shipped off to Europe and in their cheery letters there start to appear references to events that were too terrible to talk about. After the cliché of the trenches, the next most popular WWI cliché is that of the shell-shocked soldier refusing to talk about what he’d seen. These are not heroes, they’re people like us being mentally scarred by the truly terrible things they’ve seen.

It strikes me there’s a parallel with Diana’s funeral: a national outpouring of grief by a nation that then continued to buy photos from the very paparazzi who hounded her to death.
Similarly while we remember those who gave their lives to protect our country, the UK sells weapons to countries with poor human rights records, in particular Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe but also Sri Lanka, Russia and Belarus. We celebrate our freedom while crushing that of others and don’t seem to care.

Closer to home, people on Facebook post sentimental messages in praise of the soldiers who gave their lives for freedom and justice, and then post hate-filled rants or “share” racist posts that call for their fellow Britains to be persecuted for their religion or skin colour.
You can’t help but wonder what the good people of 1914 would have made of it all. After this year, has the time finally come to move on from WWI?

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