It would seem that the present is a time for remembrance of one thing or another. We have only just recovered from the events of the present monarch’s “Diamond Jubilee” and we are now called to remember the similar anniversary of her coronation. We will also be remembering the suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, and observing the centenary of her death under the hoofs of the king’s horse at the Epsom racecourse. That event has become iconic for the Women’s Movement and, though linked to royalty, is far removed from a coronation occasion. We have also recently remembered the occasion when, in late May, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Add to the above the commemoration of the famous 617 Squadron, RAF, the “Dambusters” of “Operation Chastise” – a special and dangerous mission to destroy the dams of the Ruhr Valley and with them the weakening of the military/industrial complex that contributed so much to the Third Reich’s Second World War effort. Special attention is also being given at this time to the importance of the last Lancaster bomber capable of flying. This aircraft was a most effective contributor to the Allies’ Second World War effort.
It would seem that the British are fond of a commemoration or two – not only involving royalty and the military – and the opportunity to remember past triumphs and glories. In only three years’ times it will be 2016 and the opportunity to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the only football World Cup triumph by a British team – England, at old Wembley, in 1966. Standby for that one!
With this in mind, I was interested in the recent announcement by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, that there are plans to spend £55m on “truly national commemorations” to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. This news comes after Cameron spent £10m of tax-payer’s money on a state-like funeral for a former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. With the Scottish electorate to vote next year on the matter of Scotland’s independence from the UK, continuing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and a growing tumult on the Conservative benches of the ruling Coalition Government for the UK to come out of the EU, as well as the severe austerity to which this present government is subjecting the British nation, I am not too sure what Mr Cameron means by the term “truly national commemorations”!
What is disturbing, however, is the fact that the Prime Minister has quite inappropriately compared these commemorations to the “Diamond Jubilee celebrations” and stated that their aim was to stress the British “national spirit”. What is known is that these celebrations will be run, at least in part, by former generals and ex-defence secretaries, thereby revealing just how misconceived these plans are. It is a known fact that poorly performing governments, British or otherwise, often appeal to national spirit, past glories and events of a national proportion, invariably involving royalty, the military or the church, or all three, in order to occlude their failings and machinations.
It is salutary to ask as to when it was that ordinary citizens were ever invited to a royal coronation, the celebratory banquet of a great occasion, or a church service of truly national significance; most times the ordinary citizen is a victim, or a mere bystander, or one that is expected to cheer from the side-lines, despite the fact that it is ordinary citizens who are in the majority when it comes to “sacrificing for one’s country” – as has been shown by the history of the present war in Afghanistan, never mind the First World War and wars since!
The hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War comes around in 1914. This was hardly the “war to end all wars”, nor was it a “victory for democracy”. Without equivocation, it could be said that this war was a military disaster and a monumental waste of human lives.
Including the writer of this article, there are many who believe it to be of intrinsic importance to remember that the First World War was driven by the competition of the big powers for influence around the globe. The suffering caused by this conflict is all too clear in the statistical record of 15 million people dead and 20 million wounded. With this in mind and across the world the anniversary of the First World War will see the organisation of cultural, political and educational activities to mark the courage of many involved in that war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation it caused.
It has been estimated that, since the end of the war “to end all wars”, there have been approximately 130 further wars in various parts of the globe (and it will probably cause surprise to realise just how many of these involved, directly or covertly, the United States of America). Therefore, in this time of international tension it behoves concerned people to speak out for, even campaign in favour of, this anniversary to be used to promote peace and international cooperation. You may even care to register an online protest about “How we should remember World War 1: ‘the war to end all wars’?” (see ww1.stopwar.org.uk).
By the way, when Tenzing and Hillary together conquered Mount Everest, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, was awarded a knighthood; Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa, without whom the venture could not have taken place, was given the George medal! It would seem that there are some things time fails to change.