Why We Should Celebrate the End of WW1 Rather than its Start (first appeared in the Morning Star Nov 1, 2012)

My colleague Hywel Williams MP and I recently tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons in response to the Prime Minister’s announcement that the government has allocated £50 million to commemorate the 100-year anniversary since the beginning of the Great War in 1914.

As we note in our motion, the first world war was the first mechanised war, remembered for scenes of mass human slaughter and destruction previously unimaginable.

Over 30 million soldiers were either killed or wounded during the four-year conflict. All those who fought in the trenches were left with mental scars. Seven million civilians died either directly or indirectly via famine and disease.

David Cameron says he wants a commemoration similar to the diamond jubilee celebrations and something that “captures our national [sic] spirit in every corner of the country, something that says something about who we are as a people.”

As a working-class boy from the South Wales Valleys, I find the whole thing slightly strange. It’s reminiscent of the jingoistic nonsense we saw from the British state elite to drum up support for the war in the first place.

This anniversary is no time for a “national celebration.” Anyone with a basic understanding of military conflict will know the beginning of any war is not something to celebrate.

Cameron reminds me of those idiotic military commanders located 20 miles behind the trenches dining on expensive foie gras and vintage Burgundy when millions under their command were sent to their deaths.

Rather than the shell-shocked soldiers, it is these military commanders who should have faced the firing squads for their collective madness.

No 10 sources are already briefing that this is all part of Cameron’s strategy to boost the No campaign during the Scottish referendum which will be held in the autumn of 2014.

If this is the case it’s a further disgraceful betrayal and exploitation of those who were killed as a result of the war, as well as being a cynical misuse of public money.

It’s also a misguided strategy. The first president of Plaid Cymru Saunders Lewis fought in northern France and returned home convinced that Wales needed a national party to fight British imperialism to protect its people.

When remembering the war Welsh speakers also remember the death of the poet Hedd Wyn. He sent in his prize-winning poem to the national Eisteddfod from the trenches but was killed at Pilken Ridge before his success was announced.

For many Welsh people, an abiding image of the war is not the parades through the streets, the lying recruitment speeches, the endless salutes or the silly marching up and down before the horror of mass slaughter but rather the Black Chair of Birkenhead, Wyn’s prize, being carried to his lonely home in Trawsfynydd – still a place of pilgrimage today for peace-loving people.

Neither do the Irish share Cameron’s narrow view on WWI history, as the war led directly to Irish independence.

The great Irish socialist leader James Connolly (although he was born in Scotland) was one of the seven signatories of the proclamation of independence which led to the 1916 Easter Rising. Despite the uprising’s failure, it led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

After being sentenced to death for his part in the rising, Connolly issued a statement which indicated the impact of the war on Irish nationalism.

“We want to break the connection between this country and the British empire and to establish an Irish republic.

“We succeeded in proving that Irishmen are ready to die endeavouring to win for Ireland those national rights which the British government has been asking them to die to win for Belgium.

“As long as that remains the case, the cause of Irish freedom is safe. I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys, and hundreds of Irish women and girls, were ready to affirm that truth and to attest it with their lives if need be.”

After his statement, Connolly, paralysed from his injuries, was taken by stretcher, tied to a chair and shot. His murder galvanised a nation.

The people of Wales, Scotland and Ireland see Britishness totally differently from the Westminster ruling elite.

In my party we don’t celebrate an imperial history or the notion of a stiff upper lip, but rather the interlinked social and economic experiences of the peoples of these isles.

We acknowledge these links by making the case for a partnership of equals between the nations of the islands of Britain – while our opponents base their policies on preserving the status of the social and economic elites.

Cameron is playing a risky game. The case of Irish independence shows that his foolhardy plans will play directly into the hands of Scottish devolution Yes campaign if they are able to point out that one of the key benefits of independence is that no longer will the sons and daughters of Scotland be sent to die in their masses to justify the irresponsible foreign policy decisions of the Westminster elite.

The first world war not a war to save “gallant little Belgium,” as it was sold at the time, but rather an imperialist conflict between the competing European nations of the day, vying to conquer vast tracts of the globe to pillage these territories of their natural resources.

These ambitions were supported by a mighty arms race that hyped tensions between formulated military blocs, making a multistate war at some stage inevitable. Consequently a conflict between two major powers led to a domino effect, dragging other states and their empires into global conflict.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia got involved to defend Serbia. Germany, seeing Russia mobilising, declared war on Russia. France was then drawn in against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany attacked France which led to British intervention.

It was a complete foreign policy malfunction that had catastrophic consequences. To commemorate the origins and the beginning of World War I seems ill-informed and misguided at best. But Cameron may have much darker motives.

We must commemorate those that sacrificed their lives, but it would be far more appropriate to mark the end of the war in 1918 and to teach our children about the real causes of the conflict. A jamboree in 2014 only vindicates the politicians and military commanders of the time for their actions.

Wilfred Owen wrote in his incredible poem Dulce Et Decorum Est (It’s Sweet and Right to Die For your Country). What a pity that the Prime Minister and his advisers don’t understand the irony with which Owen used those words.

4 Responses to “Why We Should Celebrate the End of WW1 Rather than its Start (first appeared in the Morning Star Nov 1, 2012)” [latest first]

  1. The Great War 1914-1918 should be both celebrated and commemorated. As secretary of The Trench Experience, a registered charity whose objectives are to further the educational of the public in relation to the sacrifice of those who fought in the war and to show its effects on society on the Home Front, we welcome government funding for 2014 so that we may bring our educational message to young and old alike. However we have asked, without success, for the past 7 years for help and advice from MP’s and the MoD. So we will try again…
    On a personal note I first heard Wilfred Owens Poem ‘’Dulce et decorum est pro Patria Mori “at the age of 13, read to me by my English teacher Mr Cox. (a Welshman). I learnt the poem by heart; this was my first brush with Latin. (not much call for Latin in Dagenham, Essex). Although an anti-war poem it inspired me to want to become a soldier, which I did, joining Owen’s regiment. The Artists Rifles.
    35 years later I still have regular contact with my comrades in the regiment. So although WW1 happened nearly 100 years ago the terrible events of that time can be used in a positive way and to encourage us to be thankful for life and to make the most of it.
    Eddie Jones
    Charity secretary
    (Grandfather was from Pontypridd)

  2. Thanks for your message Eddie. i don’t disagree. we should never forget. the question is whether 1918 would be more appropriate than 1914. Pontypridd is a great town, and where ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’ was composed.

  3. Future generations should never be allowed to forget The Great War of 1914-18 and the tragedy it unfolded on the battlefields. But what is there to celebrate when more than 37 million people had to die across the planet in an attempt to satisfy the insane power lusts of the criminals who led their nations into such a hell on earth? Within 20 years the political & social elites; heads of state; media moguls and military geniuses had plunged the world into another conflagration in which, this time, more than 60 million lives were lost. Let’s never forget but let’s also keep our energies devoted to preventing such horrors occurring again and not waste our time trying to find something to celebrate or commemorate about such senseless slaughter. Despite a million ordinary people taking to the streets in Britain to protest against a war in Iraq, our political & social elites; head of state; media moguls and military geniuses take Britain to war in Iraq. Now the drums are beating over Iran. Let’s never forget but when will we ever learn?

  4. Call me a cynic but one possible reason for Cameron etc. wishing to have 2014 as a “let’all be British ” year is that in Scotland we will be having a referendum on independence. Here is betting we will have a Year of how we are all better together . Funnily enough it is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn!!!
    My village is taking part in the commemorative bit sbout WW1 by researching and doing a brief piece about the fallen named on out memorials ( we have one in the off club as well as the church. Our memorial is unusual in that it lists the jobs of the fallen before they went off to war
    Golf professional, farmer, banker, railway clerk etc.).
    I’d rather we celebrated the end of wars.

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