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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32 thoughts on “World War I, don’t celebrate it

  1. Sung by Bob Kerrey on election to the US Senate, the new US Senator from the state of Nebraska sang this Australian anti-war song from WWI. Kerrey lost a part of a leg inViet Nam and was rewarded the highest military honor of a Congressional Medal of Honor.


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