"I AM not sure that we need all this First World War stuff
dragged out over four years," someone said to me the other day.
After all, he concluded, it is hardly something to celebrate.
Commemoration, of course, is a very different thing from
celebration. Still, he would have a point if what happens between
now and 2018 proves to be only an undifferentiated series of
lamentations about the futility of the war to end all wars.
It is easy to fall into a clichéd view of the Great War as a
sterile stalemate of fatal, fruitless to-and-fro across the deadly
mud between the trenches of the Western Front. Even those who
acknowledge the war to have been a massive historic turning-point
in British social, economic, and political realities often probe no
further into the reality of the war than a dulce et
The ceremony last week in Westminster Abbey to mark the
centenary of the outbreak of the war avoided that pitfall (News, 8 August). The
historian Sir Hew Strachan began by quoting from Sir Edward Grey's
reported remark as Foreign Secretary in 1914: "The lamps are going
out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our
lifetime." It set a sombre tone for the symbolic extinguishing of
candles as the service progressed.
But Sir Hew also reminded us that those who went to war in 1914
did not know what they faced. The first reading was from the letter
of one soldier to his wife. It recorded the excitement of the men
as they went to war. "It's a funny game!" wrote Captain Alfred
"Mickey" Chater of the Gordon Highlanders. "We are all fairly
shouting with joy at going and I daresay we shall soon be cursing
the day and then when we get back we shall say we had the time of
War was for those men a grim quest of discovery. That was
brought home to me the other day on a visit to the Imperial War
Museum's airbase at Duxford, where a demonstration First World War
trench has been created. As you enter the trench, it is 1914; when
you leave, it is 1918. On the way, you are guided on a brief
journey through the changes that took place in uniforms, helmets,
gas masks, and weaponry for both sides over the gruelling years.
Gas masks went from urine-soaked rags to charcoal filters.
Trenchcoats were invented, shortened, replaced with sheepskins, and
then jerkins, whose design continued through to the next war; so
did the Lee Enfield rifle, in its various upgrades. All of this is
a metaphor for understanding more profound changes.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,
Edmund Burke is often quoted as having said (although more careful
study suggests that the quotation is from George Santayana).
Remembrance is about more than remembering. It should be, as Sir
Hew said, less about judging than understanding. We now have four
years to understand the war of 1914-18, and perhaps also to learn
something about war in our own time. If we do not emerge in 2018
thinking differently, we shall have failed.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and
Media at the University of Chester.