Fight continues to control history of the first World War

The war is now seen though the prism of the debate about defining ‘British values’


A single candle will stand on the altar of Westminster Abbey on August 4th, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the first World War.

At 11pm that night it will be extinguished, symbolising then foreign secretary Edward Grey’s remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”.

Most of all, the dying of the light will symbolise the beginning of darkness, the ending of hope that was to come with four grim years of war.

Earlier that day, trumpets will play in the St Smyphorien military cemetery east of Mons in Belgium in a joint British and German ceremony to mark the opening of war.

St Smyphorien holds an equal number of dead from both sides, including John Parr and George Lawrence Price – the first and last men to die in the Great War that became the first World War.

Just 50 of the 14,000 parishes in England and Wales – later described as “the thankful ones” – were to see all of the men who left for the battlefields return.

Today, the 800,000 dead from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – but also including the 27,000 men from the rest of Ireland who died – are buried in 2,400 cemeteries, from Belgium to Brazil.

£50m grant

Plans that have centrally involved British prime minister David Cameron have been in gestation for more than two years, backed by a £50 million grant from Downing Street.

However, the first World War has been a battle for the control of memory as much as it has been about remembering those who were killed.

The years after the war, were marked by the unveiling of thousands of monuments to the fallen. Within a decade, its memory had become darker.

The first slew of memoirs from some of those who served, such as poet Siegfried Sassoon, brought forth the horror – often the futile waste – of the trenches. By the late 1920s, the sacrifices seemed to have been in vain to a population left often unemployed, hungry and destitute by the Great Depression.

In the 1930s, Britain’s suffering – visible because of the numbers of wounded still seen daily on the streets – partly, but not entirely explained the desire to appease Hitler.

For decades, it receded into history, before soldiers such as Harry and Jack – in Sassoon’s words – re-emerged in the 1960s as “the lions who were led by donkeys”.

Today, the fight to control history continues, since the war is seen though the prism of the growing debate about the need to define and assert “British values” in a changing cultural landscape.

Westminster Abbey’s vigil, for instance, will be attended by scouts, cubs and brownies, along with soldiers – while it will be replicated that night in hundreds of churches and town halls.

Millions, it is hoped, will turn off house lights and, instead, put a match to a solitary candle in the “Lights Out, One Million Candles” project led by the British Legion.

Nearly £6million will be spent to fund school visits to the Western Front battlefields, while £15 million of lottery money will help children to conserve local heritage linked to the war.

Independence debate

In Scotland, meanwhile, the memory of a century-old conflict, one that claimed 100,000 Scottish lives, has already become part of the Scottish independence referendum debate.

Westminster Abbey may have a candlelit vigil, but Britain’s national service, attended by Queen Elizabeth, will be held in Glasgow Cathedral that day.

Officially, the decision to choose Glasgow is explained because Commonwealth leaders will be there for the closing of the Commonwealth Games the day before.

However, Glasgow was chosen just as much, if not more, by the need to emphasise to Scots the union’s shared history just weeks before they vote.

Each side is determined to put its stamp on the past. Notwithstanding the Glasgow service, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond will lead Scotland’s own commemoration in Edinburgh just six days later.

Drums will be nearly piled for a multi-faith service before military bands parade on the Royal Mile in a commemoration that will seek to highlight the impact of the war on Scotland.

Nationalists in Scotland point to Scottish regiments’ higher-than-average losses to argue that while all lives may have been regarded cheaply, but Scottish lives were regarded more cheaply than others.

Meanwhile, there are others, such as actor, Jude Law and film director Ken Loach, who are disturbed by Cameron’s determination to stress Britain’s “national spirit.

“Mr Cameron has quite inappropriately compared these [commemorations] to the “Diamond Jubilee celebrations,” said the group, who have come together under the “No Glory” banner.

“Far from being a ‘war to end all wars1 or a ‘victory for democracy’, this was a military disaster and a human catastrophe,” they said, in an open letter.

“Misconceived” plans

Cameron’s decision to let the planning for the commemorations be put into the hands of “former generals and ex-defence secretaries” – such as Tom King – “reveals just how misconceived these plans are.

“Instead we believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe,” they went on.

In a time of international tension, August 4th and afterwards should be used “to promote peace and international co-operation”, not to remember Ypres and Passenchdaele, they argued.

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