British ballet about World War I

This video from England says about itself:

Lest We Forget: Trailer

24 March 2014

Witness English National Ballet like you’ve never seen them before at the Barbican Theatre in a programme marking the centenary of the First World War.

Lest We Forget includes three new commissions by Akram Khan [Dust], Russell Maliphant [Second Breath] and Liam Scarlett [No Man's Land]. George Wiliamson’s Firebird completes the programme.

By Peter Lindley in Britain:

Dance: Remarkable WWI requiem

Wednesday 9th April 2014

Lest We Forget — Barbican Centre, London EC2


On the face of it a dance programme commemorating the onset of the first world war might seem a lightweight proposition.

But Lest We Forget is both a vision of the hell of those distant battlefields and a comment on the war’s destructive impact on society.

The English National Ballet production, a quartet of contemporary ballet and dance works from the ENB’s Liam Scarlett and guest choreographers, is something of a triumph.

There is grace and superb technique in Alina Cojocaru and Fabian Reimair’s performances in Scarlett’s ghostly No Man’s Land, about the loss and longing of men and women separated by war.

Equally compelling are Ksenia Ovsyanick and Junor Souza, who give a mesmerising display of power and characterisation in George Williamson’s brilliant depiction of a decadent society in pursuit of beauty in the Firebird.

But in stark contrast to the lyrical impulses of Scarlett and Williamson it is the shocking tableaux of falling soldiers in Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath that provide the programme with its most sensitive act of remembrance for lives sacrificed.

Akram Khan, dancing in Dust (pictured) and pushing physicality to the very limits, makes an equally striking impression.

In a duet with ENB’s artistic director Tamara Rojo, Khan’s persona appear to be at the mercy of invisible forces in a desolate yet ferocious struggle to survive.

The sombre mood deepens as the themes of love lost and beauty destroyed are explored.

And, as the evening progresses, the sense of impending hell on earth becomes almost palpable.

Runs until April 12. Box office: (020) 7638-8891.

Birdsong is a a powerful representation of life and death on the Western Front during WWI, says SUSAN DARLINGTON: here.

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Pro-peace people persecuted during World War I

Vanessa Redgrave as Sylvia Pankhurst

Vanessa Redgrave playing anti-war dissident Sylvia Pankhurst, in the film Oh! What A Lovely War, which government education minister Michael Gove singled out as propagating what he called the myth of the first world war as a ‘misbegotten shambles’. Vanessa Redgrave was one of the early signatories to the No Glory in War Open Letter.

By Priyamvada Gopal in Britain:

We must not forget those ridiculed, jailed and worse in the first world war for daring to fight for peace

27 February 2014

Fighting for peace earned you anything from vitriolic accusations of cowardice and treachery to job loss, state-abetted mob attacks, arrest, imprisonment, hard labour, courts-martial, show trials and even execution orders.

The commemorations of the first world war now under way in the media and museums are, we are given to understand, intended to be inclusive.

They will cover the roles of women, soldiers from Africa and Asia, even animals, and examine the impact of the war on everything from the economy and technology to medicine and cinema.

This is all to the good if it furthers our understanding of how that terrible conflagration still shapes our difficult present. But in an atmosphere thick with invocations of “courage” and “sacrifice”, there seems to be a curious exclusion. The bravery of those who rallied behind the powerful banner of nationalism will be honoured, but what about the courage of those who took the path of most resistance and dissented from the status quo by challenging the war itself?

Unlike those historians who can, with the benefit of hindsight and peer approval, lament the pity of that war, the motley coalitions that organised resistance to the unfolding of the first world war did so in the face of enormous social disapproval and institutional pressures. As the War Propaganda Bureau‘s massive efforts, along with press acquiescence, kept public opinion on side, it took a special kind of bravery to query the wisdom of bloodshed before shots were fired, or call for a negotiated peace mid-carnage.

Fighting for peace earned you anything from vitriolic accusations of cowardice and treachery to job loss, state-abetted mob attacks, arrest, imprisonment, hard labour, courts-martial, show trials and even execution orders. As a consequence, many campaigners suffered nervous breakdowns and ill health. Their sacrifices must not go unsung.

Well before the first trenches were dug, questions were being asked about the motives for and conduct of the war by an expanding anti-war coalition, fronted by some of Britain’s most distinguished people. Denounced furiously by Rudyard Kipling as “human rubbish”, Britain’s dissenters included Liberals, Labour supporters and socialists; a striking number were women. They ranged from the aristocratic philosopher Bertrand Russell, who lost his Cambridge lectureship over his activism to the socialist James Keir Hardie, raised in a Glasgow slum; the lion tamer John Smith Clarke; and the train driver’s daughter Alice Wheeldon.

There were aristocratic pacifists like the conscientious objectors – or “conchies” – Clifford Allen and Stephen Hobhouse; feminists like Catherine Marshall and Sylvia Pankhurst (whose stance estranged her from her pro-war mother Emmeline; and the famous exposer of Belgian atrocities in the Congo ED Morel, imprisoned on obscure charges for criticising secret diplomacy. Adam Hochschild’s excellent To End All Wars tells some of their stories.

While anti-war organisations like the Women’s International League, the Society of Friends, the Union of Democratic Control, and the No-Conscription Fellowship differed on many matters, including whether it was all right to work in non-combat roles, what brought them together was a sense that behind the rhetoric of a “glorious, delicious war” for civilisation and freedom lay rather more grubby interests, not necessarily those of ordinary Britons. Some, admitting they too felt drawn to nationalism and war fever, believed this was not so much a war against militarism as a war between militarisms. In claiming to fight militarism in Europe, asked Labour leader Ramsey McDonald, was Britain actually giving it “hospitality, harbourage and welcome” at home?

As the commemorative drums of national unity start to beat again to rally us behind dominant narratives, it is time to remember that more than 20,000 men, remembered by the No Glory Campaign, refused conscription after it was introduced in 1916, seeing it as a violation of freedom. Then as now, dissidents – who included thousands of Clydeside workers who staged walkouts – understood that the belligerent question “do you love your country?” is not answered by blindly following politicians’ commands, particularly where there is lack of consultation.

The distinguished economist JA Hobson, neither socialist nor pacifist, saw the war as rational only for the capitalist ruling classes who stood to benefit from the “ever-worsening burden of armaments”. Wasn’t massive state expenditure better directed towards a “beautiful school … a grander sight than a battleship”? To be anti-war was to actively fight poverty, mediate for peace, build schools and workshops, undertake relief work, and provide food and refuge for troops and civilians alike.

Many critics of the war also understood that it was being waged for stakes outside Europe in great tracts of colonised land in Asia and Africa. While it is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifices made by soldiers from these regions, it is dishonest to assimilate them to Kipling’s narrative of “everybody’s war” for freedom. These were colonised subjects whose war this was certainly not, and in whose countries Britain was doing anything but defending freedom – its own occupying troops as unwelcome as German ones in Belgium.

It is no surprise, then, that many prominent anti-war leaders, including the feminist Sylvia Pankhurst and Labour politician Fenner Brockway, became trenchant critics of British imperialism, which believed itself better than the German brand. At a 1917 Leeds anti-war conference, resolutions were also passed calling for the independence of Ireland, India and Egypt.

Commemorating Britain’s anti-war campaigners – invoked by the National Archives in a small online exhibit – is not about fetishising the past. Many of the issues they faced remain pressing today. They were on the front lines of the criminalisation of dissent, the erosion of civil liberties and press freedom in the name of national security, and crackdowns on industrial action and popular unrest at a time of economic privation. Then, as now, the poor were requisitioned to fight the wars which enrich the few, dying and suffering disproportionately.

The fighting spirit we need to invoke today is that which was willing to face down a small but powerful ruling class with control of state and media apparatuses complete with embedded war correspondents and close advisory relationships between politicians and press barons. Remembering that the Great War also unleashed revolution and anti-colonial rebellion, it is this spirit of principled dissent that we must seek to channel and honour.

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World War I, don’t celebrate it

This is a music video of a song from the British musical Oh! what a lovely war. The lyrics are:

Forward Joe Soap‘s Army

Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.
He boasts and skites from morn till night,
And thinks he’s very brave,
But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.
Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.

By Seamus Jennings in Britain:

Honour the courage, reject the jingoism

Thursday 20th February 2014

SEAMUS JENNINGS shares his reservations about the tone and intention behind the commemorations of the outbreak of WWI

We are all about to plunge headfirst into a potentially tub-thumping commemoration of the outbreak of WWI, and I for one have some reservations.

Michael Gove, a man who stains public life with every piece of ideology that passes through his blubbery lips, has already made the commemoration Anglo-centric following his comments about British soldiers fighting for “Western liberal values” against the Jerry and the “blob” of lefties who threaten his objectively correct interpretation.

Dolchstosslegende, or “stab in the back,” was a popular notion in post-WWI Germany – the idea that the war was lost because of liberal and socialist plotting against the brave heroes at the front.

This smear against the left, which fascism so easily latched on to, was propagated in order to cluster the population around the flagpole. It is alarming that our politicians seem to eager to return to this politicised nationalism.

In an article in the Daily Mail headed “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” Gove accused Richard J Evans of demeaning the memory of the British soldiers who fought in WWI and that he had “attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice.”

The source of Gove’s kneejerk, a piece Evans wrote for the Guardian called Michael Gove’s history wars, did nothing of the sort. It compared the “jingoism” of Gove’s curriculum redraft, ridiculed by the Royal Historical Society, and the broader plans of Culture Secretary Maria Miller for the commemoration. Its critical tone seems to have touched a nerve with Gove that he shouldn’t even have.

Critical analysis of Britain’s role in WWI must be a priority of this commemoration – Gove’s attempt to sanctify warfare on such a cataclysmic scale is the real insult to the “heroes” he claims his opponents denigrate.

The backlash Gove has received, not only about his comments on the commemoration but also his ill-fated plans to enforce an Anglo-centric narrative on the school history curriculum, has been widespread.

To honour Gove’s dedication to public debate I will of course offer you two opinions on the disputably qualified Evans.

Evans Kt, MA, DPhil, DLitt, DLit, FBA, FLSW, FRSL, FRHistS is regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge. Over the years, his work has won the Wolfson Literary Award for History, the William H Welch Medal, the Hamburg Medaille für Kunst und Wissenschaft and the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History.

Alternatively, Richard J Evans is an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to proper historical debate.

The latter, a cack-handed attempt at a character assassination, can of course be attributed to Michael Gove MP, BA, DHead.

It is important to honour the courage of the soldiers who fought and died in WWI. But it is equally important to question the war which mixed so many men’s blood with soil.

If we are to remember the outbreak of WWI in the form of a “commemoration,” we must not to do so idly.

Nationwide, irrespective of age, class, sex or religion, a commemoration is an attempt to bring society together and act as a collective group. If we are to remember WWI as a country, we mustn’t make remembrance a nationalist pursuit, or collectively worship a certain view in the face of preaching politicians. To talk as if it is unimpeachable to criticism as Gove has done is dangerous.

Such a view promotes a passive acceptance of war, which not only threatens how we deal with the past but also the present, where millions await a future down the barrel of a gun.

Normalisation runs entirely counter to how we should view human conflict. As Ruth Benedict, the legendary pioneer of cultural anthropology, wrote in her 1934 book, Patterns of Culture: “War is, we have been forced to admit, even in the face of its huge place in our civilisation, an asocial trait.”

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World War One in London musical

This music video is called We need recruits! – “Oh! What a lovely war!

The lyrics of the songs of this musical are here.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Theatre: Oh What A Lovely War

Tuesday 18th February 2014

The revival of a classic play on WWI is a must-see, says JOHN GREEN

Oh What A Lovely War

Theatre Royal, London E15

5 Stars

How well has Oh What A Lovely War, that iconic collaboration between Charles Chilton, Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles, survived the ravages of half a century since its first production in 1963?

The answer is that it is as hale and hearty as ever and remains one of the most powerful anti-war dramas ever. This improbable collision of form and content still sends out an unexpected explosion of dramatic intensity.

At its opening, we’re greeted by a troupe of pierrots who banter and play lightheartedly and engagingly with us before we’re transported to the first world war front and immersed in the horrors of that conflict.

Simply by donning helmets and jackets over their pierrot costumes, they present us with Tommies, Germans or French soldiers, generals and businessmen. Making full use of creative lighting techniques and the sounds of gunshot and detonations, we are in the trenches with the troops on the Somme, at Ypres and Verdun.

The story of the war is told in short, snappy episodes, interrupted by the songs of the time – full of pathos, earthy humour and irony – and jolly cabaret routines. Even Michael Gove makes a fleeting photographic appearance as a donkey at the beginning.

In true Brechtian style, and despite tearful and poignant moments, we are not allowed to wallow in sentiment but forced to confront the harsh realities of an incompetent ruling class indifferent to human misery and mass slaughter.

On a moor in Scotland we see businessmen having a pop at grouse while discussing their war profits and expressing their fears of an early peace.

An army chaplain tells the troops that God is on their side and, despite mounting losses, the generals order the troops forward regardless.

In the background above the stage, rolling text on a panel gives the unbelievable numbers of dead as the weeks and months pass.

There is not a minute of boredom with this excellent ensemble in which there are no stars or main roles. They keep us transfixed with their bursting energy and enthusiasm, easy banter, dancing and singing.

The leader of the troupe at the end brings us back to the present by reminding us that this war game has continued since that century-old conflict and is still being played today.

A really must-see drama. It can’t be recommended strongly enough.

Runs until March 15. Box office: (020) 8534-0310.

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World War One, a hundred years ago

This video is called World War One in Color: Slaughter in the Trenches.

From the site No Glory in war 1914-1918, in Britain:

World War One 1914-18: One hundred years of failure to learn from ‘the war to end wars’

Written by Michael Faulkner on 12 February 2014

The First World War had little or nothing to do with the defence of “western civilization”, “liberal values” or democracy, it was at root a war of inter-imperialist rivalry

The government’s promised launch of a four-year long commemoration of World War One kicked off with a salvo from Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. He set the tone of what we may expect by shooting down the popular TV satirical/historical spoof of the 1980s, “Black Adder”, which parodied several hundred years of British history, culminating in in a final episode with the whole cast “going over the top” to collective annihilation on the western front.

He then had a go at Joan Littlewood’s popular musical of the 1960s “Oh What a Lovely War”, which charted the course of the conflict and its impact on the participants through the changing nature of soldiers’ songs from the naïve music-hall jingoism of 1914 – “Belgium’s put the Kibosh on the Kaiser! Britain didn’t want to go to War” – to the cynicism, anger and disillusionment of the later years.

Then he let fly at “leftist historians”, reserving his most vitriolic bombardment for Regius Professor of Modern History, Richard J. Evans, who is one of the world’s leading historians of modern Germany.

Lumping them all together, Gove charged them with lack of patriotism. By concentrating excessively on the mass slaughter of the trenches they besmirched the heroism and the honour of “our brave soldiers” who “gave their lives for King and Country”. They fought, and died, he averred, to defend democracy and freedom against a tyrannical aggressor – imperial Germany.

The debates that have raged and the volumes that have been written in the intervening years discussing the origins of the war might just as well never have been undertaken as far as Gove and his acolytes are concerned. In similar vein, a recent television documentary dealing with the outbreak of war and its impact on the home front in 1914, began and ended its explanation for Britain’s involvement, with the observation that in August 1914 the Kaiser suddenly decided to attack France and Russia. That was it. All the signs are that we can expect more of the same for the next four years.

Since the beginning of the century there has been a noticeable increase in militaristic propaganda in Britain. This is connected to the deployment of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, both wars that were and remain very unpopular. Official attempts to justify these wars have failed to convince a skeptical public. The present government and its New Labour predecessor have claimed that British forces are fighting to protect the country from terrorist attacks on our streets.

The claim has failed to convince. This is potentially very problematic for the government because bereaved relatives of those killed, and the wider public, need to be persuaded that they did not die in vain for a cause that was not worth fighting for, or indeed for an unjust cause.

As the anniversary of August 1914 looms closer, the industrialized slaughter of the trenches which shattered the old European world to its foundations, needs to be seen as a noble sacrifice in a just cause. On every anniversary of the armistice of November 11th 1918 the nation is supposed to observe a two minutes silence “in remembrance” of those who died.

The second Sunday in November is “Remembrance Sunday”. It is the occasion for a national ceremony at the Cenotaph in London, with a huge march past and a wreath-laying. This solemn event, staged by the Royal British Legion, is attended by the “great and the good” from the armed services, the government and the opposition. It is a state occasion with a wreath-laying by the queen. Everyone in public life is expected, as a sign of respect, to wear a poppy.

So de rigueur has this ritual become that refusal to wear the poppy is not only seen as disrespectful, but as unpatriotic. A few public figures who have chosen not to comply have been pilloried in the tabloid press. But what is supposed to be remembered, and how should it be remembered?

Lessons of carnage

What, if any, lessons are to be learned from the carnage into which Europe was plunged in 1914? The armistice of 1918 which ended a war which was supposed to end all wars, turned out to be a twenty year truce between the 1919 peace treaty of Versailles and the resumption of war in 1939.

So, how should we remember the war of 1914–18? Although it is usually referred to as the First World War, it was not a world war in the sense that the war of 1939–1945 was, and even the Second World War did not become a world war until 1941. 1914-18 was primarily a European war, although very large numbers of British colonial forces took part in it. Can its outbreak be put down simply to aggression by Imperial Germany?

That is the explanation that was given at the time and that is the explanation we are expected to accept now. Accordingly, the war fought by Britain and France was a just war to resist aggression by a predatory, autocratic imperial power whose victory would have stamped out the freedom and democracy for which Britain was fighting.

And, indeed, those who wish to accept this simple explanation might draw some support from the work of German historian Fritz Fischer, who, in the far from simple interpretation in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht. 1961 (Germany’s Aims in the First World War), demonstrated convincingly on the basis of a wealth of documentary evidence that the German ruling elites did indeed aim to dominate the European continent and make a bid for world power in the years leading up to 1914.

But – and it is a big but – this has to be seen in the context of the time, not to excuse German imperialism, but to place it in relation to the inter-imperialist rivalries that had been growing ever more intense from the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Put simply, but accurately, all the major powers were engaged in imperialist domination, protecting their empires, and expansion between the 1890s and 1914. Some were stronger than others. The Ottoman Empire had long been in decline. The Habsburg Empire faced deepening and intractable crises, not least of which arose from the determination of its numerous subject nationalities to break free from their subject status. The decrepit Tsarist autocracy ruling over the vast Russian empire had been in a state of permanent and intensifying decay since the revolution of 1905. The British empire was the largest of all.

Since the end of the Napoleonic wars one hundred years earlier, Britain’s rulers had based their foreign policy on maintaining a “balance of power” in continental Europe while placing the defense of their overseas possession in the hands of the Royal Navy. France, since it suffered defeat at the hands of the newly united Germany in 1870/71, had lived in a state of permanent apprehension about, and hostility towards, its powerful eastern neighbor, determined to avenge the humiliation and loss of territory it had suffered.

Italy, the weakest of all the states with claims to “great power” status, awaited whatever opportunity might arise from an upset to the European applecart.

Imperial late-comer

But imperial Germany was the single most powerful player amongst the European rivals. Its industrial strength outstripped that of Britain and was surpassed only by that of the United States, which before 1914 continued to occupy the isolationist stance it had adopted towards Europe since the foundation of the Union. Only a perceived existential threat from one or more of the European powers would induce the US to change its stance. German imperialism was a late-comer on the world scene.

Its staggering industrial advance after 1871, fed by a highly educated, highly skilled population, had produced a mentality amongst its ruling class that mixed vaunting ambition with deep resentment at having been denied its “place in the sun” – a dominant role in Europe and an overseas empire.

Germany’s political system was profoundly anachronistic. The Bismarckian compromise had saddled the united Germany with a nominally democratic electoral system subordinated to a semi-feudal authoritarian monarchy. This reflected the uneasy alliance between a dynamic industrial bourgeoisie and a reactionary agrarian class of militaristic Prussian Junkers whose power was personified by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Between the late nineteenth century and 1912 the rise of the industrial working class in Germany had, despite its systematic persecution, also seen the rise of the world’s largest nominally Marxist party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany. By 1914 it seemed only a matter of time before the SPD would win political power and sweep the authoritarian monarchy into the dustbin of history.

In 1914 the Kaiser was fully aware that the political system that sustained him in power faced the prospect of collapse. His statement on the outbreak of war to the effect that from then on he would recognize no political parties, but only Germans, was his attempt to play the nationalist card – waving the flag to obliterate class divisions and class conflict. The whipping up of nationalist fervor and hatred of “the enemy” in the name of patriotism was rampant in every combatant country on the outbreak of war in 1914.

From the beginning of the twentieth century the European powers had been engaged in a feverish arms race. Europe had become a tinder-box which needed only one spark to ignite it. All the powers were aware of the growing danger of war, though few perhaps had any notion of just how catastrophic such a conflict would turn out to be.

By 1912, apart from a handful of pacifists, only the socialist parties of the Second International had taken a firm stand against a coming war. The war that they saw coming would, they believed, be an “imperialist war” for the re-division of the world, in which the ruling classes would call upon the working classes to be its cannon-fodder. In the event of such a war they pledged to call upon the workers to refuse to fight, and should it break out, to urge them to turn war into revolution against their own ruling classes who had dragged them into it. In the event, nearly all the parties of the Second International supported their governments’ call to arms.

Only the Bolshevik party stood firm to its pledge and they were to have little impact until 1917. All had seriously underestimated the power of nationalism to sway the masses. The arguments in favour of war are worth recalling.

Schlieffen Plan

Germany had realized early on that a war in which France was allied to Russia would necessitate fighting on two fronts – something that Bismarck had warned must be avoided at all costs. The “Schlieffen Plan” was designed to deal with this by launching the German army against France first, delivering a knock-out blow quickly (pretty much what had happened in 1870) and then using its still enormous strength to deal with Russia, which, it was assumed would take longer. It was, in fact, Russia’s mobilization in August 1914 that led to Germany putting the Schlieffen Plan into action.

Tsar Nicholas II had ordered a general mobilization (which threatened Germany) in support of Serbia to whom Russia had pledged its assistance as soon as Austria-Hungary declared war on the Serbs in response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Germany had pledged its support to Austria-Hungary. The German SPD voted for war credits. They believed that Germany was threatened by the hated Tsarist autocracy, in their view the greatest enemy of socialism. Only the left of the party, represented notably by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, opposed the SPD’s capitulation.

Russia went to war in support of Serbia on the basis of “Pan Slavism”. This was part of the appeal to the peasant masses. Actually, Russian imperialism had long had its eyes on Constantinople and an access route to the Mediterranean. Imperial Germany struck an alliance with the Ottomans and hoped and expected to use its leverage over them and the Habsburgs to dominate the Balkans after the expected defeat of Russia.

British policy after 1870 had sought to prevent any one power becoming dominant on the European continent. By the end of the century it had become clear that the one power moving in this direction was Germany. Ostensibly, Britain went to war in 1914 because of the German invasion of Belgium. The 1839 Treaty of London promised Britain’s support to defend Belgium’s neutrality. There was no obligation on Britain under the Entente Cordiale to go to France’s assistance in the event of war.

Obviously inter-imperialist rivalry was at the root of Britain’s decision for war with Germany in August 1914, as it was in every other case. It had little or nothing to do with the defence of “western civilization”, “liberal values” or democracy. Only about 40% of the male electorate in Britain had voting rights – far fewer than in Germany. Women’s suffrage campaigners were still fighting for their rights and going to jail for their principles. German control of the Channel ports was perceived as a threat to trade and Britain’s imperial interests.

The war that started in 1914 was initiated by the ruling classes of the powers involved to defend and/or extend their various empires. It was an imperialist war.

Women, work and the First World War: here.

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Rudyard Kipling, British anti-World War I poet

This video says about itself:

My Boy Jack by Rudyard Kipling – Poetry Reading

About the poem – This poem is an emotional piece, about an old man waiting for his young son to return home from war, and is devastated by the news that he won’t be coming back. Rudyard Kipling wrote this poem after his son John (called Jack) went missing in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos, in the first world war.

About the poet – Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was an English poet, short-story writer, and novelist. He was born in Bombay, in the Bombay Presidency of British India. He is chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his tales for children. Kipling received the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

More to Kipling than meets the eye

Wednesday 22nd January 2014

Recent stories about World War I have sent PETER FROST to his bookshelf in search of an unlikely poet

A number of recent stories in the Morning Star have made me think. Don’t they always? That’s why I read the paper.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, a few of them have made me think of Rudyard Kipling.

The jingoism of the official celebration centenary of the first world war, alongside the reports of casualties of the current Afghan war, reminded me of one of the poet’s greatest verses.

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Kipling wrote that about his 18-year-old son John who died in the first world war.

Kipling had pulled strings to get his son into the army despite his poor eyesight. John’s death, in 1915 at the battle of Loos, wiped away the last shreds of jingoism in the poet’s work.

Those lines were, of course, also a perfect epitaph for all those who died in the Iraq war – on either side.

Every time I read those lines I see Tony Blair and George Bush, or David Cameron and Nick Clegg lying through their teeth.

When Blair, Cameron and Clegg are finally laid to rest, I for one would like to propose a bit more Kipling. Some lines from his poem A Dead Statesman would do the job perfectly.

I could not dig: I dared not rob:

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

Perhaps you begin to see why I like Kipling and his writing?

Those of us on the left have often had a real problem with Kipling and his poems written in what he saw as the glory days of the British empire.

Despite all the people who tell me I shouldn’t, I really like him. I still enjoy his stories and poems.

Nobody has captured the English countryside and the rich history of the far from ordinary people of England like Kipling.

I do love England. Not in that awful jingoistic way that assumes we are better than the rest of the world but in the same way that the Vietnamese, Scots, Iraqis, Palestinians, Cubans, South Africans, all the nations on the globe in fact, can love their own countries, their cultures, their landscape and their histories without embarrassment or guilt.

Sadly England’s far from noble history of imperialism and racist wars seems to have undermined, in my mind at least, the right to be proud of the country of our birth.

A myriad of organisations from Oswald Mosley‘s blackshirts in the 1930s to today’s English Defence League seem to have stolen away the right to be English and proud without being racist and hateful.

Billy Bragg wrestled with some of the same issues in his book The Progressive Patriot. Bragg loves, and sings, Kipling too.

I’ve never hidden my love of the poet. Indeed when his copyright ran out in 2006, a publisher who was considering publishing some of his work told me: “I’m amazed that an old commie like you still reads Kipling.”

I had to tell him I wasn’t the only old commie either. Bertolt Brecht loved the man and his poetry and even translated some of his poems and used them as songs in his plays.

True, Kipling was in many ways the spin doctor for a British empire on which the sun never set.

Anti-imperialists at the time quipped that the reason was God didn’t trust the British in the dark.

Another reason I still read Kipling is because no-one has ever been as good at capturing the voices of ordinary English working people speaking to us down through the centuries.

No-one, either, was better at capturing the essence of the English countryside in which they lived.

He never tired of listening to ordinary people, in the London music halls he loved to visit, with the foot soldiers in the British army in India, in the trenches of the first world war and with the country folk in the fields around his final home – a yeoman’s house – in the Sussex Weald.

Take his poem The Land. It’s about that very house, Bateman’s, near Burwash in East Sussex.

The poem looks at the house and the land it stands in through the eyes of two groups of inhabitants.

First we meet the so-called important people who owned the land and the house over the centuries. And then the common folk from round about who know the land well and usually get the better of the owner.

The first owner is Julius Fabriciusa, Roman Sub-Prefect. Sixteen-hundred years ago he is having trouble with the same level of flooding that is making the headlines in the Morning Star today. The sub-prefect takes advice from Hobdenius. The aged local tells him:

I remember as a lad,

My father told your father that she wanted dreenin’ bad.

They still find bits of roman clay pipe from the draining on the estate today.

Then came Ogier the Dane. His Hobden advises adding lime to the land. Chalk and flints still turn up in the ditches from time to time.

Anglo-Saxons then held sway until William landed at nearby Hastings.

The little brook floods the Norman’s land and Hob the local bailiff offers his advice. The remains of his elm plank channels, hard as iron, are still in the ground today.

More history and then it’s 1915, the first world war, and Kipling buys Bateman’s.

The poet knows he owns the trout, but Hobden tickles them. The game birds are Kipling’s but they end up in Hobden’s pot. Kipling ends it much better than I.

His dead are in the churchyard – thirty generations laid.

Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made;

And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line

Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

A few years ago when I visited Bateman’s, the little brook that has powered the clacking water mill for centuries had just overtopped its banks and Kipling’s precious book-lined study was in danger of flooding.

National Trust staff were rolling up valuable carpets and hurriedly sandbagging the doors.

They’d called on some men from the village to help and thankfully they seemed to know just what to do.

Kipling would have loved it. I just wonder if any of the local tradesmen were named Hobden?

I’m following similar flood stories in the Morning Star today, the slashing of jobs and funding from the Environment Agency speak of exactly the same arrogance of ignorance Kipling describes in his landowners.

The waters are rising at Bateman’s, but sadly Kipling’s hero, the latest Hobden, will be signing on down at the jobcentre.

The First World War was a imperialist bloodbath—yet the establishment wants to rehabilitate it as a struggle for freedom. Adam Hochschild has written a book on the brutal reality of the conflict. In a recent talk he discussed people who rejected the call to war from the outset: here.

I must apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, largely at their expense. It will be the British at their worst: sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, worshipping at the tomb of the unknown, awful German. The centenary of the first world war is already flooding the television schedules before the date of its outbreak (in autumn 1914). History bestseller lists focus on little else: there are no fewer than 8,000 titles on the subject. War magazines cram newsstands. Churches will fill with candles for the fallen. Children carry flowers “of reflection and remembrance”. The horror, the mistakes, the cruelty, the crassness of war will be revived over and over again, “lest we forget”: here.

Abe sees World War One echoes in Japan-China tensions: here.

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