How Britain exploits the dead of the First World War to promote militarism today

Britain’s dominant historical narrative is one of victory and pseudo-remembrance in a country that has never stopped using military force abroad and often prides itself on its willingness to do so.

British dead at the Somme 1916

British dead awaiting burial at Battle of the Somme 1916

A visit to Berlin throws our very different historical and political cultures into sharp relief. The Holocaust memorial is a stone’s throw from the German Parliament, the Bundestag, and the one to the 600,000 murdered Roma and Sinti is in its shadow. The banks of the River Spree are dotted with crosses representing those killed trying to cross the river from the former East Germany. History is vivid and close. Superb museums convey an unvarnished sense of the past from the broad sweep to the personal and deeply poignant.

From the 1970s, Germany’s engagement with its past ceased to be denial or avoidance and became reflective, uncompromising and honest. An outward- looking culture and politics is symbolised by Norman Foster’s ‘transparent’ design of the Bundestag. This ethos may be under challenge from the fallout of mass immigration but it has deep roots culturally, educationally and politically. It is reflected in the country’s non-violent foreign policy.

In contrast, Britain’s dominant historical narrative is one of victory and pseudo-remembrance in a country that has never stopped using military force abroad and often prides itself on its willingness to do so. Our recent wars have lead to attempts to inculcate a military ethos in our society.

Over the last ten years our governments have spent a great deal of money to enhance the reputation of the armed forces and embed them in our schools and wider society. Armed Forces Day, the expansion of the school cadet forces, the placing of soldiers at public and sporting events, the military ‘covenant’, and numerous other recent initiatives are part of a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the ‘separation of the Armed Forces from civilian life’, as advocated in the 2008 Government report, National Recognition of our Armed Forces.

The two countries’ treatment of WW1 is revealing. Germany sees it as the Urkatastrophe, the primal catastrophe, with the focus firmly on its causes and consequences. Its non-military Volkstrauertag, People’s Mourning Day, commemorates all those killed in armed conflicts.

In Britain we have a plethora of tributes, displays and church services commemorating past wars and battles with the emphasis firmly on the fighting, sacrifice and victory. The old sense of WW1 as a cataclysmic tragedy captured by Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est has been eroded by recent attempts to rehabilitate it as a fight for freedom with Kaiser Wilhelm II as a proto Hitler. Jeremy Paxman concluded his 2014 BBC TV series, Britain’s Great War, in an idyllic English village claiming that this was what we had been fighting for. The same year the then Minster for Education, Michael Gove, condemned the Oh What A Lovely War! and Blackadder view of the war as ‘an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage’.

Our ceremonies and commemorations are unashamedly martial, nationalistic and often triumphalist. In recent years, mainly through the efforts of the Royal British Legion and the armed forces, remembrance has become synonymous with support for our military and, by extension, the wars they fight1. Images of war have become entirely sanitised, sentimentalised2 and even commercialised. The hugely popular ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in 2014 naturally represented only British and Empire military deaths. The media celebrated Harry Patch as the last surviving British solider of the conflict but drew a veil over his view of war as ‘organised murder and nothing else’.

No British television programme would now open with the kind of horrific images that introduced each episode of the BBC’s classic 1964 series, The Great War. The messy realities of that conflict are banished. These include the fact that those who enlisted in Britain did so for King and Country and a desire to fight the ‘Hun’, not for freedom, or that victory marked the high-tide of the British Empire with huge swathes of territory and millions of inhabitants taken from the German and Ottoman empires with consequences that continue to reverberate today in the Middle-East and beyond.

With recent wars, the rise of the military ‘hero’ culture, and the creation of Armed Forces’ Day in 2006, remembrance has taken on an unprecedented cultural and political significance which saturates our media in early November. During an ever-lengthening period, TV programmes that have nothing to do with history will include comforting or poignant stories from the two world wars. Major commercial brands now pay the Legion to use its trade-marked poppy logo to sell anything from sliced bread to turkeys. In December 2014 Sainsburys ran lavish TV adverts featuring the British and German 1914 Christmas day football matches between the trenches to market its products. The wearing of the poppy has gone from a personal choice to a duty for all public figures, anyone appearing on television, and for whole groups like professional footballers.

Remembrance is not just exploited by supermarkets. Arms manufacturers are now major sponsors of the Royal British Legion. The sight of a Tornado jet bomber painted with poppies symbolises this marriage of death and money- making. Not content with rebranding WW1 as a noble cause, in June 2015 we commemorated the bicentenary of Waterloo as a national victory. At the St Pauls service, the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, praised the ‘courage and resolution of the great Duke and those who fought with Wellington at Waterloo.’

One can only wonder how he would honour our fallen in the Opium Wars, or in the punitive expedition in Afghanistan as retribution for our defeat in 1842, or the one in India following the so-called mutiny of 1857. In a similar vein, in 2007 we celebrated the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. Again, inconvenient truths such as slavery being fundamental to Britain becoming ‘great’, and it outlasting the trade for decades ending only on payment of massive compensation to the owners, as millions starved in Ireland, are not allowed to intrude. It is a distinctly British trait that we draw succour from distant and very questionable anniversaries which in most countries would merit only historical study and perhaps debate. By contrast, when the descendants of slaves raise the issue of compensation they are told to ‘move on’, as they were by David Cameron in his 2015 visit to Jamaica.

Elements of our past may be rose-tinted but others are simply airbrushed. Few schoolchildren will ever learn that some ten million died in the Bengal Famine of 1770 largely because of the British East India Company’s policies including the forced cultivation of opium to export to China and a fivefold increase in land tax3. They will not discover that Britain committed genocide on numerous occasions, contributing to the destruction of indigenous populations as in Tasmania and Caribbean islands; or that it invented concentration camps during the Boer Wars in which thousands of women and children died of disease and malnutrition, and used them again in the 1950s in vicious anti-colonial struggles in Malaya and Kenya./4 They will not be taught that the bombing of the Kurds was pioneered by the RAF, not Saddam Hussein, that Winston Churchill said he was ‘strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’,5 and that the 1914 British Manual of Military Law stated that the rules of war did not apply to them. You would have watched our TV’s reporting during our thirteen long years in Afghanistan without discovering that it was actually our fourth Afghan war and that those fighting us were only too aware of this6.

The jewel in the crown of our national self-image is an almost comic book version of World War 2 deeply embedded in public consciousness, our school curricula, and the stuff of countless hours of drama, documentaries, films, endless publications and annual commemorations. The inexhaustible theme is one of defiance and military success. No anniversary ending in a zero or a five can pass without the marking of additional military anniversaries. In 2015 we celebrated both the beginning and the climax of the Battle of Britain and in the autumn the BBC was inviting viewers to send in their memories of the Blitz on its seventy-fifth anniversary. This treatment of the conflict is replete with myths. These include the notions that in 1940 Britain was ‘alone’, rather than being able to call upon millions of commonwealth and colonial troops; that the Battle of El Alamein was the turning point of the conflict rather than Stalingrad; that the ‘Dambusters’ raid was success; and that the D-Day invasion led to the German defeat when the war was, in fact, being decided in Hitler’s Rassenkrieg (race war) on the Eastern Front costing some 27 million Soviet lives.7 Only in Britain could a bomber, the Avro Lancaster, acquire the status of national treasure despite the bleak truth that it was used in a militarily pointless campaign which deliberately targeted civilians, killing some 350,000 of them.8

The remembrance culture and its twin, the victory narrative, exercise a profound and baleful influence on our culture and politics. Together, they provide a seamless story of courage and sacrifice stretching back generations. Wars have become old friends in which our dead are forever pressed into service irrespective of whether the conflicts in which they fought were just, rapacious or futile. But like most powerful myths ours has far more to do with the present than the past.

On one hand, it is a comfort blanket compensating for the lost certainties of empire in a country which has failed to come to terms with inexorable loss of influence and power. On the other, it serves to justify key elements of our foreign policy whilst being exploited by military and corporate interests. Trident, our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, foreign wars, and our vastly expensive aircraft carriers9 are seen by our political, administrative and military elites as essential to ‘punch above our weight’ and our ‘top table’ status. The hard truth is that our military casualties are a blood price for the vanity of our leaders who demonstrate a scandalous lack of concern for the survivors.

In a post-imperial age, such vanities require an underlying moral narrative which the myth sustains. One of Tony Blair’s more bizarre justifications for invading Iraq was that just as we had apparently gone to war in 1939 to stop Germany’s persecution of the Jews, so we had to fight Saddam. If all our wars for the last two hundred years have been good ones, those who question the totems of nuclear weapons and a military that still needs to ‘project’ its power overseas are at best naïve, at worst unpatriotic.10 The irony that an overblown arms industry and foreign military adventures undermine our economy and reduce us to the abject status of mercenary to a foreign power is entirely lost on our governing elite and media.

The potency of a mythical view of one’s history depends upon the maturity of a country’s culture and democracy, a key component of which is its willingness to look at itself dispassionately as others might see it. It took the trauma of defeat and a new generation for the Germans to adopt a reflective and non-partisan view of their past. The stranglehold that our myth has on us and the power of the vested interests that exploit it presents a huge challenge to those who would loosen its grasp. We could start by trying to look at our history honestly.

1 Rod Tweedy, The British Legion and the Control For Remembrance
2 For example, the Legion’s removal of the more graphic verses of Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land (Green Fields of France) for its 2014 poppy appeal.
3 The causes of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943-1944 in which further millions died remain hotly debated.
4 Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape (2008)
5 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, (London: Heinemann, 1976), companion volume 4, part 1
6 See Investment in Blood by Frank Ledwidge (2013), Yale University Press, on the egregious ignorance of the British towards the Afghans.
7 As Churchill put in a speech to the House of Commons on 2 August 1944: “It is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army”.
8 See, eg, Leo McKinstry, New Statesman 21 December 2009 and Richard Overy, The Bombing War: 1939-1945, Allen Lane, 2013. The campaign also cost some 55,000 RAF crew.
9 Currently estimated at £6.2 billion with aircraft anticipated to cost £70 million each.
10 Witness the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn’s views on both as essentially illegitimate by those in the political and military establishments and many in his own party.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

Why WW1 veteran said dandelions instead of red poppies should be used to remember WW1 dead