Could the Great War centenary affect Scots independence vote?

Fri, Oct 12, 2012, 01:00

LONDON LETTER:The British prime minister says the war must be properly marked given the scale of sacrifice

IN NEARLY each and every village in Britain there is a memorial to the fallen of the first World War, a list of name upon name recording the extraordinary losses.

The few that did not lose men became known as “The Thankful Villages” – just 41 of the 16,000 parishes in England and Wales among their number.

Writer Arthur Mee, in The King’s England, a guide written in the 1930s, recorded the experience of Catwick in Yorkshire’s East Riding: “Thirty men went from Catwick to the Great War and thirty came back, though one left an arm behind.”

Fifty-nine of the sons of Arkholme in Lancashire took up uniform. Each, extraordinarily, came home unscathed.

They were the lucky ones. Nearly 800,000 were killed and 1.5 million to two million wounded. Each death and the suffering of those who returned wounded created ripples of grief that last, often, to this day.

Each November the dead are remembered on Remembrance Sunday, though plans are now afoot for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the conflict in 2014.

Yesterday, prime minister David Cameron went to the Imperial War Museum in London to outline plans for the centenary commemoration. “Let me start with why this matters so much. I know there will be some who wonder whether we should be making such a priority of these commemorations when money is tight and there is no one left from the generation that fought in the Great War,” he said.

However, it must be properly marked, he said, because of the scale of the sacrifice, the impact of the war on the century to come, and also “because of the matter of the heart”.

“There is something about the first World War that makes it a fundamental part of our national consciousness. Put simply, this matters: not just in our heads, but in our hearts. It has an emotional connection.”

Guided by poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, or latter-day writers Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks, the current generation remains “transfixed” by the four years of war.

Despite the brutality, the war prompted displays of humanity, too, he believed, noting the monument erected by the Turks after the Gallipoli campaign, which had led to slaughter for the Australian and New Zealand Corps.

“You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace,” Cameron read.

Up to £50 million (€62 million) is to be spent, with each and every community in Britain encouraged to make its own contribution not just in 2014 but for each of the other landmarks of the war, including the Somme.

Pupils and teachers in every state school will be helped to discover more about their own predecessors who went to fight “for king and country”, following them to where they fought and often died in Flanders and elsewhere.

Some local plans are already afoot, with villages and towns ready to hold football matches on Christmas morning to mark the ones held between British and Germans on the first Christmas of the war.

In Kent, the Greenhithe branch of the Royal British Legion wants “thousands of bright red poppies growing alongside motorways, hundreds in every garden, hedgerows, fields, window boxes – the entire nation covered in poppies”. To push matters along, the Greenhithe branch, founded in 1921 when wounds were still raw, is selling in packets of up to 10,000. “They will usually grow untended and need no gardening skills.” In a survey published this week, the think-tank British Future claimed that nearly 70 per cent of people want Remembrance Sunday 2014 to be like none that has gone before, where a two-minute silence is observed at formal commemorations, but rarely elsewhere.

“We all need to decide if Remembrance Sunday in 2014 is going to feel pretty much like any other Sunday where Rooney plays for Manchester United against Arsenal, and all the garden centres and supermarkets open just as usual,” said the organisation’s director, Sunder Katwala.

However, opinion is divided on how far the commemorations should go, with equal numbers believing that shops should or should not be closed. The commemorations may help to reinforce the ties within the United Kingdom in advance of the Scottish independence referendum, due a month before.

Delving into history, however, can have unexpected consequences. Unionist fervour in Scotland was strong in the early months of war. However, Scots learned after the war that 26 per cent of their menfolk who had joined up died in uniform, compared with 12 per cent for the rest of the British army, leaving a bitter aftertaste.

Noting the scale of the suffering, Cameron pointed out to his audience at the museum that “200,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the war”. He put the Irish war dead at 27,000 – a far lower figure than is usually quoted by historians, where the estimate is usually closer to 49,000.

The Irish toll includes some extraordinary individual cases: three sons of Rev LR Fleury from the village of Kilworth, Co Cork, for example, one of whom died in New Zealand uniform.