The Old Lie

The First World War ended 100 years ago today, on 11 November 1918. Four years ago, Matthew Cookson looked at how poetry of the period reflected growing resistance to ruling class justifications for war. Now he returns to the theme to explore how struggles over how it is remembered have continued to this day.

Wifred Owen: ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. (BL Add MS 43721)

One hundred years ago, on 11 November 1918, the First World War came to an end. While millions celebrated the end of four years of slaughter, which had seen the death of 16 million soldiers and civilians, a poignant event occurred in Shrewsbury.

There, as the bells rang out for the Armistice, Susan Owen, the mother of ‘The Great War’s’ greatest poet, Wilfred, received a telegram informing her of her son’s death a week before. The family’s individual tragedy powerfully encapsulates the horror and futility of the war, which Owen’s poetry continues to capture today.

At the beginning of the war a patriotic fervour led to large numbers of men signing up to what many considered would be a short, exciting adventure. However, the burning brutality of their experiences led to a change of many people’s attitude as the war lumbered on through the seasons, a change displayed in the war poetry of Owen, and that of his contemporaries such as Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg.

Since the end of the war there has been a continuing conflict about the remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives. Our rulers have instituted Remembrance Day, the wearing of poppies and minutes of silence to memorialise the dead.

It is certainly the case that all those who fell during the First World War, and others, should be remembered. But it should also be the case that that any remembrance should be designed to play a role in ensuring the horror of war is never inflicted upon another generation.

However, the official institutions and symbols used have been moulded to obscure the truth of the First World War and the participants’ sacrifice: that it was an utter waste of human life, all to satisfy Europe’s rulers desire to retain their influence and power.

King George V inaugurated Remembrance Day, originally called Armistice Day, in 1919. Poppies became a symbol of remembrance inspired by the imagery of John McCrae’s In Flanders Field poem, a pro-war poem in which dead soldiers invoke the living to ‘Take up our quarrel with the foe.’

The poppy was popularised by Douglas Haig and the British Legion in the 1920s, and it was sold to raise money for ex-servicemen struggling to get by in post-war Britain. Haig’s stirring of conscience about their treatment was a rather belated one: he was the commander of the British army who had sent hundreds of thousands of troops to their deaths on the killing fields of the Western Front.

The official commemorations have been organised and continued by the people who have dispatched soldiers across the world to kill and die in defence of our rulers’ interests.

They deny or excise any argument that the First World War and other wars are unjust and wrong, because they want to continue to be able to do the same today and in the future. They want to force us all to abide by the hypocrisy of the official Remembrance Day commemorations to quieten any contemporary anti-war voice.

They want us to still believe in the ‘old lie’ that Wilfred Owen so powerfully castigated in his most famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est: the idea that is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.

The growing popularity of the white poppy, which is produced by the Peace Pledge Union and represents opposition to all wars, highlights the enduring mood that exists in Britain against imperialist conflict. This has become sharper following the tragedies visited on Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 17 years. The white poppy also remembers all those who have suffered in war, not only focusing on British servicemen and women.

The government’s treatment of those very British soldiers after war is illustrative of the attitudes that our rulers have towards the working class.

At the end of the war, millions of soldiers returned home expecting that their suffering for their country’s behalf would be rewarded with a better life that they had experienced in the years running up to the war, which had seen the Great Unrest of working people demanding better rights and living standards, alongside the Suffragettes’ fight for votes for women.

Rising discontent as the war dragged on led to strikes in industry and on the docks. Britain’s rulers realised that they had to give workers something to ensure there was no return to the height of the pre-war struggles. The vote was extended to all men over 21 and property-owning women over 30 while Prime Minister Lloyd George promised homes fit for heroes.

But the latter promise was not fulfilled, and there remained a democratic deficit and a wide division between the classes. The disappointment at the lack of real change fed into class struggle, including the General Strike of 1926. The creation of the British Legion was a way that some believed that conflict between classes could be ameliorated.

The historians Mark Garnett and Richard Weight argue that the British Legion was set up by Britain’s upper class, but found a large working class membership:

It was a product of the First World War and the combination of altruism towards, and fear of, the working class…. The social dislocation caused by veterans’ mental and physical trauma, coupled with the industrial unrest and disillusionment with war as an instrument of foreign policy, made the need to bring officers and men together in one body seem more pressing.

The paternalistic and hierarchal attitude of the British army and institutions remains the same today. Working class soldiers are supposed to be grateful to be sent to kill and die for Britain, and are then often abandoned by the armed forces after they return home. It is estimated that thousands of soldiers, including many suffering from PTSD, are homeless in Britain today.

Yet the government claims it remembers and celebrates soldiers and their sacrifices. This is nothing but bloody hypocrisy.

The director Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old film has been the most poignant of the more recent tributes to those who fought and died 100 years ago.

The act of colourising and slowing archive film of the war, while adding sound and voices, has created a stunning memorial. Seeing the soldiers as they were, hearing the voices and the first-hand accounts helps us empathise with them more, as the juddery old black and white film could create a distancing, unreal effect for a modern audience.

The best way to remember them and their sacrifice is to fight for a world where the horrific cycle of war is ended. This can only be achieved in a world that is free of the conflict between nations that produces the wars that continue to blight and destroy lives today, just as they did on a much larger scale 100 years ago.


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