Note: While No Glory in War are a very successful organisation and will not feel the benefit of this repost, this is the best review of 2014 I have read to date.
15 January 2015
No Glory in War: Review of 2014
A year of activity countering attempts to gorify the First World War in the year of its centenary
Think back twelve months. Last January we feared the conscription of the nation, as Eric Pickles and Michael Gove unleashed a chorus of Jingo and Hero, blending sobs and hurrahs in their zeal to banish the war poets, silence Blackadder and restore the glorious propaganda of John Buchan and his chums.
On came the waves of revisionist spin. Gove used the Daily Mail to attack ‘left-wing myths’ that the war was ‘a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’ The BBC let Max Hastings play historian, so disastrously that even pro-war historian Sir Hew Strachan blanched when Hastings swallowed without suspicion the line about Britain entering the war to defend Belgian democracy.
The Economist asked if we were stumbling into world war again. It compared modern America to 1914 Britain, a superpower on the wane, and modern China to Germany, ‘a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation’. Yet its article never mentioned the Ukraine which, in the event, proved the year’s most potent parallel of 1914.
The BBC filled its schedules with great war output, much of it magnificent. But sadly it reserved its main historical analysis for the likes ofJeremy Paxman, Dan Snow and Niall Ferguson, as well as Hastings and Strachan. For a time it felt like revisionists controlled the airwaves.
And in January we sadly lost Roger Lloyd Pack, the fine actor who spoke widely on political issues and gave much support to No Glory, Stop the War and the People’s Assembly.
So, not a good start to the year, but gradually a reaction grew. Simon Jenkins wrote, ‘I must apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia … the British at their worst: sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, worshipping at the tomb of the unknown, awful German.’
More establishment voices joined Jenkins in decrying the government’s plans. The No Glory website started generating serious traffic. Our pamphlet by historian Neil Faulkner The Real History of the First World War sold strongly. Local groups organised events nationwide. Messages of support arrived from abroad.
There was pressure for debate about the start of the war. In a typical historians’ event at the British Library in February, Neil Faulkner stood alone in stressing the imperialist interests at the heart of the conflict. He also came up against Max Hastings on a Radio Two phone-in where, once again, an establishment pundit was baffled at the notion some forces within Britain might actually want war.
On 15th May, hundreds of people crammed into St Giles-in-the-Fields church in London to hear a No Glory evening of poetry and music. Michael Rosen read in French and German, AL Kennedy read her Letter to an Unknown Soldier, George Szirtes and Blake Morrison shared work, and Sam West made Wilfred Owen sing out afresh.
In June, the Government announced £1m to set up 100 new army cadet units in state schools to ‘ensure that as many young people as possible can benefit from military-themed activities’. It’s hard to think of a less appropriate way to commemorate the jingoistic militarisation that helped foster World War One. As historians Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge explained, the Officers’ Training Corps (OTC) ‘provided the institutional mechanism for public school militarism … and contributed to the generation of 1914’s overwhelming willingness to march off in search of glory.’
The summer of 2014 proved as beautiful and unending as that of 1914, described by Vera Brittain as ‘the one perfect summer idyll that I ever experienced.’
July saw a campaign to write a Letter to an Unknown Soldier, part of the 14-18 NOW cultural programme. This inspired many to create poignant bridges with the past. It also triggered a letter from David Cameron, claiming ‘our world have been far darker if you had declined the call to act … from your toil and sacrifice there will be a better world.’ Thanks Dave, why not brighten the world with another war?
Come 4th August 2014, the day the war started 100 years before, the government had little to say beyond let’s turn the lights out for an hour or so. Yes, Cameron did hold hands with the French and German leaders, but it was lowkey. No Glory held rallies in Parliament Square and Glasgow (close to the Commonwealth Games) and focused on the political failure and horrific number of those killed or wounded in the war.
On 25th October No Glory organised a major conference on 1914-2014: One Hundred Years of War, at which one of the keynote speakers was Adam Hochschild from the United States, whose recent book The War to End All Wars is already regarded as a classic.
Learning new things
So much attention was focused on WW1 last year that many interesting perspectives emerged. Beyond the traditional narrative of the trenches, we found out more for example about the role of women, the numbers of conscientious objectors and their fate, the use of slave labour and the role of colonial conscripts. Every day during August, the No Glory website presented a different foreign language poem from the war – the poetry of the First World War you don’t study at school.
We learnt about anti-slavery hero ED Morel — the journalist acclaimed for exposing corruption in the Congo, but then jailed during the war for campaigning against it. We heard how the Daily Mail vilified Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood. We read about Africans rising up against their colonial overlords.
Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s best-loved nature writers, wrote about poppies and skylarks among the horrors of World War One.
No Glory made culture a feature of its campaigning throughout the year — whether it was art, poetry, video, music — and our final event of 2014 was a fantastic concert from radical songwriter Robb Johnson. His Gentle Men song cycle conveyed all the anger at the heart of our campaign, along with compassion for those who had done the fighting and the dying.
Those red and white poppies
The river of poppies at the Tower of London drew millions of visitors. Some commentators were appalled by this, others preferred not to judge how people grieve. But the government wanted feelgood grief and that’s what the Tower poppies provided: grief without anger.
But wouldn’t it have been amazing – the actor Sheila Hancock told the BBC – if suddenly without warning a line of lawnmowers was sent in to harvest those lovely poppies. What better way to bring home the horror of a war that slaughtered over 20 million, close to one million of them British soldiers?
As 2014 Remembrance Day approached, the demand for white poppies could not be met, as thousands of people chose to wear a symbol of peace that said, ‘never again’. On 9 November Remembrance Day veterans from more recent wars marched to the Cenotaph carrying awreath of white poppies.
Much more to do
Just as the war in 1914 was not over by Christmas — as the soldiers believed or were promised — our campaign continues to counter attempts to glorify a war that the politician said would be ‘the war to end all wars’, but which in fact heralded 100 years of UK wars.
No Glory’s original purpose, as announced in the open letter that launched our campaign, remains: to help ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.
Our thanks to everyone who has supported us through the year. We are particularly grateful to those who have given us donations, which have enabled us to fund our small office and finance our events.
No Glory in War’s 2014 Awards
1) The most cynical exploitation of WW1 for commercial gain – the Sainsburys Xmas Truce advert.
2) The crassest castration of an anti-war song – Jeff Beck and Joss Stone for their cut-down version of Eric Bogle’s classic The Green Fields of France.
3) The dumbest statement by a politician to glorify WW1 – Michael Gove claiming Britain fought WW1 for ‘western liberal values’.
4) The most disappointing statement by a politician to glorify the ‘war to end all wars’: Barack Obama whitewashing WW1.
5) The most blatant hijacking of the Red Cross campaign by the arms industry – Lockheed Martin sponsoring the Poppy Rocks Ball.
6) The most prettified and toothless war memorial – the river of red poppies around the Tower of London.
7) The Paxman Prize for glib nastiness – sneering to the granddaughter of a WW1 conscientious objector that her grandfather was a ‘crank’ and ‘just being awkward’.
8) Award for most egregious toadying of the government – the BBC giving the reins of its documentaries about the start of the war to Max Hastings, Jeremy Paxman and Niall Ferguson.
9) Best contemporary comment on WW1 – remains Harry Patch’s description of the war as ‘legalised mass-murder’.