Oh dear. I think we can already see how this one is going to play out: mud, futility of war, lions led by donkeys, a bit of poetry, a nod to the nurses and the munitions girls and a solemn conclusion that it must ‘never be allowed to happen again’.Thus does Robert Hardman start his non-PC World War I article in the Daly Mail.
As we approach the centenary of the Great War, we must strenuously avoid acknowledging that it actually achieved anything, let alone that we were vaguely on the side of right. For that would commit two sins.
First, it might upset the Germans. Second, it might suggest that there was actually a point to all that slaughter.
And that would never do.
‘There is an intent in government not to upset the Germans.’ So says a senior source on the Government’s centenary advisory committee, talking to the Sunday Times.
As usual, then, the villains will be those blimpish British generals and the hard-faced arms manufacturers.
Certainly, when I called yesterday, the Department of Culture (supervising the £50 million anniversary) was happy to confirm that the main focus of next year’s centenary is to be remembrance.
As for history? Well that seems to be secondary. But let no one mention the V word.
Indeed, you can scan the official blurb about the centenary and the word ‘victory’ is barely mentioned.
No one ‘won’ this war, is the subliminal message. It just stopped because everyone had had enough.
Little wonder some military historians on the committee are hopping.
‘For much of Europe, including Britain in 1918, Germany was a militarist and imperialist regime which had to be defeated and from that point of view, the victory is a serious victory,’ says Brigadier Sir Hew Strachan, Oxford University’s Chichele Professor of War History.
If the centenary is simply going to reassert the usual message that it was just a colossal waste of human life, he says, then it would be ‘sterile, a waste of both effort and resources’.
Now, every child is taught, rightly, about the carnage on the Western Front. And the passage of time has done nothing to diminish our gratitude and respect for those who died. Indeed, visitor numbers to Great War cemeteries and Remembrance Sunday events are on the increase.
… When it comes to the deployment of poison gas, of attacks on civilian shipping, of genocide on disobliging colonies and of general brutish expansionist aggression, it seems that the official line will be: ‘We were all guilty’.
Well, at the risk of sounding like Basil Fawlty — or the boy baffled by the Emperor’s new clothes, let me pose a quick thought: who started it?
This is not about gloating. It’s not about jingoism.
It’s about asking whether this epochal loss of life was completely devoid of cause and purpose.
… Everyone is terrified of being called ‘triumphalist’ or, worse still, ‘jingoistic’.
… for Heaven’s sake, let us not have a re-run of New Labour’s pathetic 2005 attempts to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar with a ‘blue fleet’ and a ‘red fleet’ — so as to avoid offending the French.
The French — who refuse to acknowledge Trafalgar as much of a battle anyway — thought the whole thing hilarious.
Moulding the Great War to suit contemporary sympathies is not just a case of historical inaccuracy. It is setting a dangerous precedent.
For once you start allowing everyone on all sides to be winners, losers and victims as they see fit, then they will make the most of it.
Just look at the way Argentina is rewriting the Falklands saga to suggest that Britain was the imperialist bad guy all along.
We might scoff and point to the 1982 invasion of the islands by a fascist junta. But Argentina’s victim narrative is taking root across South America.
Who knows? Give it long enough and we may find that we actually lost the Great War after all.