Saturday, 20 October 2012

2014: Norman Stone, not Eric Frogspawm

We've got a year or so to get straight what exactly we will be commemorating in August 2014. Over 5m men saw service in HM Armed Forces; 900,000 were killed, 1.7m bore physical wounds and many more were mentally broken. There's not a hamlet or settlement in the land that didn't lose a son to the war. 

The consequences of the war were epochal. 1914 marked the end of the 19th century, of a European settlement intact since Waterloo together with its opera bouffe monarchies, and the end of the Age of Empire; it marked the start of universal suffrage and cemented the all-powerful central State as the default model of governance. The gentle, blowsy chiffon portrait art of Sir John Lavery was out; the harsh metallic planes and angles of Wyndham Lewis were in. Grantchester was a misty remembered dream, and the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle echoed instead in men's heads along the Cam.

We each have our own watershed references. Peter Hall's 1974 film Akenfield is amongst mine, of an England not even then quite lost(1), for Julian Tennyson's Suffolk Scene paints vividly the places I also knew and deeply loved in youth, but he never to return, the victim of a mortar splinter in Arakan in 1945, aged 30, during the second-half.

So what exactly are we commemorating? Loss? Change? 

Before we decide, we need to do some serious thinking. The raddled cliches and over-simplifications of Eric Hobsbawm are really past their sell-by date, belonging with the muddled mantras of Socialist Worker in the early 1970s. Yet this is what we will get from the BBC and the Guardian. The clearest and most cogent account I've ever read is actually a thin volume by Norman Stone; in just 140 pages in World War One: A Short History Stone distils into almost footnote length the impact and causes of 1914 - 1918. In a review for the Observer in 2007 Robert McCrum wrote; 
Behind the jokes and the fireworks, there's a serious argument, though hardly a new one. For the British Foreign Office, the strategic choice in Europe has always been: Germany or Russia? Here, Stone wants to argue that, in the transformation of Europe from 1914-18, the deepest anxiety among the allies was that a disintegrating Russia would allow Germany to dominate the east. Simultaneously, he points out that it was precisely Germany's paranoid fear of Russia's potential strength that, in the run-up to hostilities, inspired Berlin to manipulate the European alliance system into war while time was still on the side of the German railway timetables.
BBC Editors please note. It was not a war of capitalism or colonial power, as Frogspawm would have us believe. Nor must it be a banal celebration of 'self sacrifice', for few of those 900,000 can have died willingly, and for most it was duty owed to their mates, their family and their own honour that drove them into a maelstrom of death and white-hot shell splinters. That men were sacrificed by their commanders for strategic reasons surely cannot be a cause of commemoration. 

We've got barely two years to work out what we're commemorating - and it needs to be something that the political spectrum can agree upon, that ordinary people can understand and that the media can articulate. And all as sombre as a scarlet Haig poppy. 

(1) Not that you'd want it back; as Leonard told Simon ' It was very hard living indeed... our cottage was nearly empty, except for people. There was a scrubbed brick floor, and just one rug made of scraps of old clothes pegged into a sack. Six of us boys and girls slept in one bedroom, and our parents and the baby slept in the other. There was no newspaper, and nothing to read except the Bible. All the village houses were like this. Our food was apples, potatoes, swedes and bread. Nobody could get enough to eat, no matter how hard they tried. Two of my brothers were out to work. One was eight years old and he got three shillings a week. Our biggest trouble was water. There was no water near... 'Drink all you can at school', we were told. There was a tap there.Our parents and all the cottage people were very religious and very patriotic. The patriotic songs and church hymns seemed equally holy. They took our breath away. It was all 'My country' - country, country, country. You heard nothing else. There was no music in the village then, except at the chapel or the church, and our family liked it so much that we hurried from one to the other to hear all we could. People believed in religion then, which I think was a good thing, because if they hadn't got religion there would have been a revolution. I want to say this simply as a fact, that Suffolk people in my day were worked to death. It literally happened. It is not a figure of speech. I was worked mercilessly. I am not complaining about it. It is what happened to me.'

18 comments:

Barnacle Bill said...

Unfortunately Blair with his vanity wars has sullied many's atttitudes to the sacrifices made by our fallen heroes.
Now Cast Iron wants to use it for petty political ends.
It should be left up to us from whose ranks those came who were prepared to lay down their lives as to how we remember 2014.
Better to leave it to the British Legion than allow our politicians to highjack it.
But celebration it cannot be.

parlington said...

A minor observation, I believe the village 'Upper Slaughter' in the Cotswolds is famous for being the only place to have come out of the war without any fatalities. Ironic given the name of the place!

Anonymous said...

Flower of England's youth and I can't help but think, without the Flanders slaughter that somehow we'd be a better country now.
It we had learned lessons? We never do, do we?
In scale, it is nothing like, I hear about the sheer altruism of madness, the courage and bravery of the lads and lasses in Afghanistan. Contrast the quiet admiration and marvel I have for our troops, with the rage and black contempt that I feel for the idiots who put them there, made to go to war and for what? For lies, false promises, insane and impossible strategy and political hubris.
A parallel can definitely be drawn - so no lessons learnt then.

G. Tingey said...

It is worth remebering that Howsbawm was a seriously deluded religious believer (Yes, I know, that's an oxymoron), but it always has to be borne in mind.
He's about as reliable as a jesuit history of England 1558-1661, & for the same reasons.
As for Stone, he is just professionally incompetent.
He has written about "the space programme" being useless ....

As an historian he ought to be aware that of two men born in 1781 (in obscurity in Northumberland) & 1769 (minor French/Italian nobility) the former altered the planet beyond recognition, whilst the latter merely killed millions, but the latter is the one that gets the historians attention, the idiots.


Meanwhile remember the last verse ...
"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

Faith has, indeed been broken, has it not?
[ Two of my unlces served, & survived - one went around again & survived Burmese/Jap captivity ]

Durotrigan said...

Whatever is being commemorated, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that there is a significant resident element that will be actively identifying against this act of remembrance in any form. This is amply attested to by the sad fact that young poppy vendors in Bradford this year are being provided with protection by the local branch of the Royal British Legion’s Riders, following abuse from members of a certain ‘faith’ in the city last autumn.

Span Ows said...

Great post Raedwald. Very interesting too. Not sure what Greg is getting at, did Stone not recognise 'Geordie' or something?

Anonymous said...

You can bet we will be asked to celebrate the participation of some black, female, homsexual muslim - just looking for a 'new' slant, mind, not pushing any revisionist agenda, as if 'they' would.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

There were 52 "thankful villages" in England and Wales after WW1 where every man who went to war came back. Fourteen of those villages went on to be "doubly thankful", losing no one in WW2 - one of those is Upper Slaughter. None of which facts will prevent the useless media or our equally useless PM from proclaiming that not a single place in the country didn't lose someone. Mustn't let facts interfere with a nice quote. The war was terrible; there really isn't any need to big it up.

I remember my grandfather (Argylls, there from start to finish) saying in the 70s that he couldn't understand all this nonsense about the 'Great War' being folly. He viewed it as necessary to stop an aggressive German military dictatorship from dominating Europe, albeit with frightful consequences. He had fond memories of the comradeship, appalling memories of suffering and slaughter he wouldn't ever discuss, but he was steadfast in saying it was worthwhile and necessary - and very resentful of modern historians "belittling the war". The thing he most liked about the war was the Army giving him three good square meals a day. He didn't get that very often in pre-war Glasgow. I suspect he and his ilk were hard men beyond modern imagining.

He was quite sympathetic about the war poets. "See that fella wi' the Hun name, Sassoon? Awfy o'erwrought. A wee bit bomb happy, probably. Some fellas just couldnae stand it in the end. Nice poems, but, and he did his bit."

cascadian said...

Strange that a country can contemplate massive spending to introduce disinterested schoolchildren to WW1, but cannot cover relatively minor costs related to the Bomber Command memorial opening.

Like many I suspect the moment will be over-run by political correctness and a Diana-fied generation's wailings about how all religions, political systems and peoples are equal (spit).

Anonymous said...

When you think of those lads and the sacrifices they made, the hell they went through.............if they could return to the present day Britain, to witness the cultural and demographic annihilation of the country.

What would they then think?

In today's Britain, we all owe them [those who lost their lives inWWI] a great debt of gratitude but to that they would reply, "yes but how you've wasted your great opportunities".
They would be correct in that assertion.

DeeDee99 said...

WHY are we proposing to commemorate the START of WW1? Normally, you would commemorate the end of such a catastrophic, bloody war.

But timing is everything .... and in 2014 the Kommissars will be presenting their new Federalising treaty. They will be using the deaths of millions to force the EU Federation of Nations upon people, without getting a mandate.

And Call Me Dave is proposing to go along with it. We should not commemorate the start of WW1. There should be a simple service in Westminster Abbey or St Pauls - which is then replicated in every church in the land. The Commemoration should come at the end.

We lost so many fine men in the trenches and I know it's wrong to single out one .... but whenever I listen to The Banks of Green Willow, I think of George Butterworth and what else he might have gone on to write, if he hadn't died so young.


G. Tingey said...

DDD999
There was another really great loss in WWI
There was no Nobel Prize in Physics for 1916 - the proposed recipient had been killed at Gallipoli.
Henry Moseley.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"If ye break faith with us who die"

Well we did break faith, didn't we?

We've (or rather the political class has) sold their sacrifices for a mess of pottage and sinecures for the elite.

We've become the vassal state that they died to prevent.

Anonymous said...

Trafalgar day, we would also do well to remember our history today and think on about why Nelson attacked the combined Spanish and French fleets off the Peninsula:
To triumph over and to vanquish a European tyranny.

Raedwald said...

DeeDee - Agree. The major memorial efforts should be in 2018 - when at least the US can join in.

cuffleyburgers said...

Raedwald - a though provoking post. Nothing to celebrate indeed, but very much to mark event whose baleful effects we are still feeling today. The world in 1914 was making huge strides in industrialisation, and in feeding, clothing and liberating the masses. This came to an abrupt end in 1914 to be replaced by statism, communism, and eventually fascism, and as inevtably as night follows day, the second warld war, the cold war, the EU, more and more statism and further encroachments on liberty.
As an optimist I believe that developments such as the internet will enable us eventually to get back on the course of increasing liberty that was so rudely interrupted in 1914, however it will not happen if people do not realise the extent this has been taken from them, and I am quie certain cast iron dave's plans do not include educating the current lost generation in that respect - that will be the role of the blogs.

G. Tingey said...

cuffleyburgers
Like section 5, you mean?
Apart from other "bigger" issues.....

William Gruff said...

Now that there is a memorial to the animals who 'served' and suffered in the two world wars, and the march past the Cenotaph includes 'representatives' of those evacuated wearing luggage tickets I'm sure that the festival of remembrance will follow the model established for the 'lympics and exaggerate the 'contributions' of politically favoured minorities while almost ignoring the losses of the majoriy. Apart from which I cannot see that the one hundredth anniversary is any more significant than the ninety ninth, or the first.

An excellent post Raedwald.