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.'