The House Magazine article: Remembrance of things past

As we look forward to beginning the centenary commemorations of WW1 next year, there will be those who say we should seek to understand the fundamental question of why Britain went to war in the first instance.

Some might conclude that, aside from the strategic rationale, Britain’s motives for entering WW1 demonstrated a conscientious effort to uphold international law and a desire to defend smaller, more vulnerable nations. There will be those who will quite legitimately seek to have this informed debate; but regardless of the history, none of us should be in any doubt about the profound impact the war had on the country.

So it is important that we remember WW1 for more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought with it. The war paved the way for numerous world events – events that have ultimately gone on to shape the world we live in today – including, of course, the outbreak of WW2. The war had a profound impact on Britain too and it’s important that we seek to understand, reflect upon and learn from the wider social change that occurred over this tumultuous period in our history.

In light of that it is essential to ensure that the right tone is struck when we seek to commemorate and remember that period. I believe we are all clear that this is not a celebration; it is a commemoration. War should never be celebrated; but it should be remembered, understood, and we should seek to learn from it. It was once famously said about a previous Government that “we don’t do God...” Whether we ‘do history’ remains to be seen, but what is clear is that getting the tone right is vital and potentially not without controversy.

My view is that there should be no flag-waving, no glorification, an absolute right to remember those whose opinions did and do differ, and no rigid Government narrative. It is right for people to be given the facts, but that they be free to conduct their own analyses and form their own judgments.

Therefore, the commemoration provides a unique opportunity for people to come together collectively and better understand the profound impact the war had on the country – the changing role of women and universal suffrage are two obvious examples. If we’re really smart, we’ll do it a way which provides a relevant focus on our lives today and in the future.

As part of this process, it is important that we do not shy away from addressing some of the war’s complications. There is a strong public perception of what the war was actually like, formed partly by the war poets and reinforced by the 1960s production of “Oh! What a Lovely War” and TV programmes such as “Blackadder Goes Forth”. Those cultural representations stand as powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of WW1, but if they are all that we know of the war, they are poor history.

In order to ensure that WW1 is remembered and commemorated appropriately and its complications are addressed, those of us involved in the centenary events should be mindful that there will be debates about the history. Some will say that we should address the gap between the “pointless futility” narrative and what soldiers actually believed that they were fighting for, both during and after the war.

During those years, soldiers fought for much. They fought because of a belief that their country was threatened, but ultimately, when it came down to it, they fought for their regiments, and for the man standing next to them in the trench. If we want to pay proper tribute to the war dead and also to those who came through the war, we need to remember that.

Around the country, I have been privileged to see the coming together of people and communities as they begin their preparations for the commemoration. I have seen the passion and the interest that the commemoration has already invoked. I join with Andrew Murrison in urging colleagues from across the House and from around the country to continue to encourage debate in their own constituencies, to support local groups in the work they are doing to commemorate local experiences and ensure that their communities come together to commemorate the war.

There is no doubt that the importance of WW1 cannot be counted in terms just of battlefield casualties or military innovation. By dint of its influence and its timing, and the wider social change it brought about, it is the single most significant event of the 20th century.

As such, it is something we must commemorate, we must learn from and we must educate our children about, but above all we must remember, because it is only through remembering that we will truly understand the impact that World War One has had on British society and, in so doing, better understand what it means to be British. (This article was first published in The House magazine on 21st November 2013).

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