Part 1 – Centenary of the Armistice: what should we remember?

1.  Dulce et Decorum Est.

By Martin Gorsky, Professor of History.

In a year of big anniversaries – the NHS, Alma Ata, birth of the WHO – November 2018 brings the centenary of the armistice that marked the end of the First World War.  For us in the London School this one matters every bit as much as the others.  It was a public health catastrophe.  On the British side, 885,138 soldiers lost their lives to conflict, with about 1.6 million injured, many of whom suffered lifelong physical impairment or mental trauma (dubbed ‘shell shock’).  Worldwide there were probably 16.5 million deaths, of which about 7 million were civilians, lost to violence, hunger or disease, with a further 21.2 million wounded.  This excludes the mortality from the contemporaneous Spanish influenza, whose spread was almost certainly facilitated by the war.

How do we begin to recall this event, which has now slipped beyond living memory?  Of course there is the state ceremonial, the silence observed, and the tradition of wearing the poppy, symbol of remembrance and gratitude to those who died.  Yet these can also feel impersonal, conventional, and far removed from reflection about how this great disaster occurred.

For me, a personal experience is shaping my thoughts.  It happened on the anti-Brexit march in October, when I paused for a few minutes at the Cenotaph in Whitehall to wait for friends a little way behind.  Every now and again, from the cavalcade of colour streaming by, a marcher would peel off, pause, and place a hand on the stone monument as they passed.  This intimate and familial touch, connecting to a lost relative, was deeply moving.  For me it brought into focus what was really at stake in the internationalism we were marching to defend.

My generation, raised in the Sixties, had amongst our cultural architecture Wilfred Owen and the war poets, then on every school syllabus, and Joan Littlewood’s savage satire, ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, memorably filmed in 1969.  Together these overturned patriotic narratives, juxtaposing the ordinary soldiers’ suffering with the lousy leadership on all sides that had led the world into war.  They hammered home the absurdity of trench warfare, where commanders unprepared for the machine technology of modern war pushed their troops into suicidal strategies.  Efforts to break the military stalemate by throwing vulnerable infantry at enemy lines failed because prior artillery bombardment was unable to clear defenses.  The result was slaughter on industrial scale at battles like Gallipoli, Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme.

As for causation, we understood it as the general collapse of a world political system founded on nation state rivalry.  At base was the economic competition for commodities that drove imperial conquest – the Scramble for Africa being the latest manifestation. Britain and France were the dominant colonial powers, and the lately unified Germany the upstart newcomer.  Having demonstrated its prowess in the Franco-Prussian War, Germany then embarked on an arms build-up that destabilized Europe.  A diplomatic alliance system pitted Russia, Britain and France against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany in a fractious balance of power, which spiraled into chaos in 1914.  The trigger was the almost-botched assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, which prompted inadequate politicians to ‘sleepwalk’ into war.  Popular enthusiasm was sustained at super-structural level by a European society shot through with jingoism and militarism, from the classroom to the music hall, from the visual culture to the material.

More recently revisionist British historians have argued that this is all wrong.  They claim that 1914-18 was a ‘just war’, legitimately fought to stem German aggression that would otherwise have threatened national survival.  This view arises both from scholarship on the high political history, and from recorded testimony of ordinary soldiers about their motives for fighting.  As such it is important to engage with, to interrogate our own assumptions and to acknowledge the subjectivities of our predecessors.  Yet for me this rethinking still seems inadequate to the scale of the tragedy.  In apportioning culpability, and forcing historical judgment back into national silos, it effaces the structural factors – economic and cultural – in which human agency was embedded.  And its happy fit with contemporary jingoism marks it as a history just as timebound as that of Sixties idealists.

So, unrepentantly, my remembrance of November 1918 is through the words of the now derided Wilfred Owen, and a few lines of his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’:

‘ … If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.’ *

  • It is a sweet and noble thing to die for your country.