I’m writing on behalf of the No Glory campaign; important not just because we’re commemorating something from the near past, the First World War, in a particular political and cultural way, but because the particular way in which we are doing this has an umbilical link to the present.
For the dynamics that create war nowadays, are, in many cases similar to those that sparked the First World War - expanding markets and the building of empire - with the blood of the Middle East continuing to flow from the tricky arteries of the Versailles conference. (Bodily imagery comes easily as the First World War has such a visceral place in our collective memories, with suffering caused by a fusion of modern killing machinery and brutal command.)
I grew up in Britain’s post WW2 welfare state, and most of us knew that that war was wrong. Art helped us to see this. Oh What a Lovely War, that fine BBC TV series ‘The Great War’, and later Blackadder gave us an analysis that could neither justify it nor see it as a victory. So why, we ask, have the current jingo style celebrations staged by our Government taken over for the centenary year? I think it best at this point to turn to the campaign's open letter, now signed by thousands and spearheaded by many celebrated names last May.
2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Far from being a "war to end all wars" or a "victory for democracy", this was a military disaster and a human catastrophe.
We are disturbed, therefore, to hear that David Cameron plans to spend £55,000,000 on "truly national commemorations" to mark this anniversary. Mr. Cameron has quite inappropriately compared these to the "Diamond Jubilee celebrations" and stated that their aim will be to stress our "national spirit".
That they will be run at least in part by former generals and ex-defence secretaries reveals just how misconceived these plans are.
Instead we believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers' competition for influence around the globe, and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded.
In 2014, we and others across the world will be organising cultural, political and educational activities to mark the courage of many involved in the war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused.
That letter presents an almost Haiku version of what we are about, (you can sign it at noglory.org) but for the fuller history, our publication ‘No Glory - The Real History of the First World War’ by Neil Faulkner explains the step by step process that led to a catastrophe that was not in the interests of those forced to fight. I quote:
‘Passchendaele. Let it stand for hundreds of other industrialized battles…on the western front…’ ‘Battles on a similar scale on the Eastern Front, between Russians, Germans, and Austrians...’ ‘Battles in the Alps, where half a million Italians perished…’ ‘…in Macedonia between Serbs, Bulgars, and Greeks…’…‘on the Gallipoli peninsula between Briton, Australian and Turk…’ ‘…in the snow of the Caucasus Mountains, where Turkish peasant conscripts fought Russian peasant conscripts…and in the deserts of Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, where Turkish conscripts fought dockers from East London, sheep hands from New Zealand, and farmers from Punjabi villages…and in Africa, where 100,000 black porters were worked to death in a white man’s’ war.’
In short, ‘a world gone mad.’ Our campaign also draws heavily on the arts events; poetry, music, theatre, debates and art exhibitions which are changing people’s relationship to the First World War back to what it was in the sixties.
It would seem that our activity has been far more powerful than the revisionist tomes by historians presenting various nuances of justification.
But why go to all this trouble? It’s gone – no? In the past – no? This history, although not technically living history any more, is as alive as the Flanders mud was for decades after the flesh of our relatives stopped interacting with the bio-organisms of mud.
I learned this stunning fact from a modern conflict archaeologist who told me that Northern France has only been considered as ‘dead mud,’ that is fit for excavation, since the 1990s. I don’t write this gratuitously, but to feel its drama – and yes, poetry - for it makes us closer to those murdered young men of all nationalities.
We are commemorating them on the evening of August 4 in Parliament Square - the hundredth anniversary of Britain's declaration of war on Germany. A leader in The Times in July 1914 stated:
'Who then makes war? the answer is to be found in the chancelleries of Europe, among the men who have too long played with human lives as pawns in a game of chess, who have become so enmeshed in the formulas and jargon of diplomacy that they have ceased to be conscious of the poignant realities with which they trifle.'
(Would that our current press and establishment have such clarity.)
Our speakers and performers include actor Samuel West, also of the Wilfred Owen Association, Kika Markham, Jeremy Corbyn MP (who will evoke Kier Hardie's anti war speech of 1914) writer AL Kennedy (reading Carol Ann Duffy's Last Post in honour of Harry Patch as well as her 'letter to an Unknown Soldier') and Normandy veteran Jim Radford. Other speakers represent the breadth of the No Glory campaign; Kate Hudson of CND, Hannah Brock of the Quakers and Lindsey German of Stop the War. We also have two historians with us, Neil Faulkner and Juliane Haubold-Stolle, German curator of the current WW1 exhibition in Berlin who will be speaking in a personal capacity.
Singers include Sean Taylor and Turkish performer Gunes Cerit - poets Shareefa Energy and I-sis will evoke and remember the Indian and African dead of this terrible imperialist war.