Pacifists bid for place in war commemorations

Never forget: Four famous memorials to those who died during World War One.

The government’s plans for commemorating World War One are under attack on two fronts: to some they seem jingoistic, to others too meek. Was the war necessary, or simply evil?

‘A total disaster that was totally unnecessary and destroyed a generation’: the pioneering musician and composer Brian Eno has little time for any justifications for World War One. Along with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and actor Jude Law, Eno is among an array of high-profile supporters of the No Glory campaign, which vigorously opposes any hint of triumphalism or patriotism in plans for the war’s hundredth anniversary in 2014.

No Glory in War has taken issue with some of the official plans for commemoration. UK prime minister David Cameron agrees on the need to mourn the tragedy of the carnage and reflect on ‘lessons learned’. But he has also called for next year’s ceremonies to capture the atmosphere of the Diamond Jubilee and celebrate the triumph of Britain’s ‘national spirit’. Anti-war figures demand instead a celebration of ‘peace and international cooperation’.

Yet Cameron is under attack on another front as well. While pacifists worry about jingoism, others are concerned that the commemorations will be too meek in tone. This faction is led by historian Max Hastings, whose new book portrays World War One as a ‘necessary’ struggle to defend democracy and prevent Europe from domination by a militaristic German state.

‘Nobody in the government is the least embarrassed to say we were right to stand up to Hitler,’ says Hastings, ‘so why should we be embarrassed to say we were right to resist German militarism in 1914?’

Behind this sentiment lies one of the main causes for disagreements over how to remember World War One: while we are fairly united in perceiving the second world war as a virtuous struggle against tyranny, there is very little agreement over the nature of the conflict preceding it.

Productions such as Blackadder and war poets like Siegfried Sassoon have infused popular culture with a ‘lions led by donkeys’ narrative which blames callous and incompetent generals for manufacturing an entirely avoidable tragedy.

Red poppy or white?

Supporters of Max Hastings argue that portraying the war as futile is an insult to the families of those who fought in it. Every violent death is an unspeakable tragedy, they say – that goes without saying. But these soldiers did not die in vain: they sacrificed their lives in the name of their country, and in doing so saved a whole continent from an aggressive authoritarian power.

It would be comforting to believe that this slaughter was worthwhile, pacifists reply, but it is simply not the case: the idea that it is heroic to die in battle is an insidious lie. Every war casualty is a terrible and needless waste of life, and the coming commemorations must do nothing to suggest otherwise.

You Decide

  1. Is there anything heroic about dying for your country?
  2. ‘There will always be wars. They are as easy to stop as glaciers.’ Do you agree with Kurt Vonnegut?


  1. In ten words or fewer, summarise what you think war commemorations should be about. Compare your answer to the rest of the class.
  2. Imagine you are a soldier in World War One. Write a letter to a family member describing how you feel about the conflict.

Some People Say...

“Either man will abolish war, or war will abolish man.’Bertrand Russell”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do we need to commemorate the first world war at all?
Because it killed over ten million young men, changed the face of Europe and set the course of history ever since: everything from Hitler to modernism was a product of World War One.
So what kind of events can I expect?
For a start, an awful lot of war-related television. The BBC has programmed a 2,500-hour season on World War One over the next four years, spanning documentary, drama and archive recordings. The No Glory campaign is planning a concert in aid of peace and many galleries and museums are planning major exhibitions. The first world war will be hard to avoid for the next few years – but the government insists that commemorations will be broad enough to keep everybody engaged.

Word Watch

Diamond Jubilee
A 60th anniversary, in this case of the rule of Queen Elizabeth II. The queen came to the throne in 1952 and citizens of Commonwealth nations celebrated her jubilee last year. In Britain there were street parties all over the nation.
Aggressive or blinkered patriotism. The term comes from a 19th century war song which contained the phrase ‘by Jingo’.
Max Hastings
A historian and journalist who has achieved the rare mixture of popular success and academic respect. His main expertise is in World War Two but he has recently made controversial forays into the previous conflict.
An era-hopping British comedy which stars Rowan Atkinson as a member of the British gentry at various points in history, always accompanied by his idiotic servant Baldrick.
Siegfried Sassoon
A poet whose pre-war work is generally considered unremarkable. Sassoon became famous during World War One for his eloquent attacks on high command and on warmongering civilians.
Lions led by donkeys
Originally from an ancient Arab proverb but used to describe the failings of British strategy ever since 1921. Critics say that the tactic of sending waves of troops to attack heavily defended positions was futile and inhumane. But some historians argue there were few other options.

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