First World War anniversary: we must do more than remember

Breaking ranks with the Government’s centenary advisory board, Hew Strachan argues that our commemoration of World War One is in danger of becoming sterile and boring.

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is only 20 months away. The clouds of the media blizzard are forming. Publishers have planned their lists – many hoping to pre-empt the market by bringing out books this year. The theme of much of this, as it was of the Prime Minister’s announcement on October 11, 2012 of his plans for the centenary, is remembrance.
So what is it we are going to “remember”? There is no veteran of the war alive today. Anybody who claims that they can remember the war was only an infant at the time and is now very, very old. Many can remember veterans remembering (or not, because many of them were reluctant to talk). Their memories were coloured and shaped by the intervening years, including the knowledge of the Second World War, and some of their reminiscences could be a misleading guide to their feelings at the time. What we also “remember” is the familiarity of Remembrance Sunday, of poppies and the Cenotaph, the symbols through which the First World War is still most commonly refracted today.
The centenary of the First World War must not be Remembrance Sunday writ large. We have few precedents with which to approach this landmark, which will not be a single event but will last more than four years. If it simply reworks the familiar themes of remembrance, it will be repetitive, sterile and possibly even boring. If we do not emerge at the end of the process in 2018 with fresh perspectives, we shall have failed.
We need a sense of progression through this war: perhaps different themes for different years. We also need to recognise the degree to which this war shaped our thinking about all war: our notions of when it is right to fight and when not, of warfare as simultaneously necessary and wasteful. Indeed, those very dilemmas are to be found in how our predecessors elected to interpret its conclusion – both victory, as marked by Armistice Day, and mourning, as marked by Remembrance Sunday.
In the 1920s those who had experienced the war kept those rituals separate precisely because they recognised that the forces that underpinned each of them also created tensions. We shall confront the same problem in 2018. So how we commemorate the beginning of the war must reflect a quest rather than pre-empt the answers – just as those who went to war in 1914 did not know what they faced, did not know when or if they would come back home, and were not sure of their own courage.
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