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Why We Shouldn't Commemorate World War 1

By Richard Dormandy.

When the news began to filter through the media that "we" (whoever ‘we’ refers to) were going to be commemorating the centenary of the outbreak World War One, my heart sank. Remembrance is already a muddled time for any thinking person, and it was just about to become even more so. Why would anyone want to commemorate the beginning of possibly the worst war in history?

Then of course, all the big abbeys, Cathedrals, civic churches and the like roll into action, and the message filters down: "We'd love to know what you're doing for the WWI Centenary.  Please let us know." It's all too reminiscent of that invidious campaign question of the time: "What did you do in the last war, Daddy?" I feel I'd like to give an answer akin to Keir Hardie’s friend Bob Smillie, leader of the Scottish mineworkers: “I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.”

And there it is on the news: little titbits of freshly dug up local information about a skating rink that became a clothing store, or the shire horses that were put to work - as if these things are what is important to consider when we reflect on that terrible time. The presenters talk glibly about those who gave their lives, or even those who "sacrificed" their lives.  But they didn't give their lives. Their lives were stolen from them. And they didn't sacrifice themselves (except in a few acts of individual bravery) - they were sacrificed by the demons of murderous lust. Yes - they chose to join up, but they were drunk on the blood of jingoism. They were taken over by a demonic force of fake patriotism. Churchill said that he was looking forward to "this delicious war." Can you think of any statement more demonic? But that was the spirit of 1914.

Repentance, Not Commemoration

Simon Schama once described WW1 as "the original sin of the Twentieth Century." It's not hard to see why. It led directly to WW2, the Atomic Age, the Cold War, Vietnam and more. Did you ever hear of anyone commemorating the original sin of Adam and Eve? Did you ever hear of anyone commemorating any sin for that matter? I seem to recall Screwtape doing so fairly heartily, but he was working for the other side.

The distinctive gospel message regarding sin is that it needs to be repented of. Repentance is necessary because sin is so destructive. "Repent of your sins and believe the Good News", Jesus said. Where are the voices of repentance? I'm sure they were there in the liturgy of some service - of course: as good ministers, we always make sure every angle is sensitively covered! But repentance should be the key note. It should have been the keynote in 1918. But instead, the Treaty of Versailles was more about retribution and played right into the hands of emergent German fascism.

Everything was wrong about WW1: the conception of it in the German High Command; the anticipation of it among the British military; the execution of it at nearly every stage; the propaganda machine. So if we are to remember it, we should do so in order to repent. It was a war in which British commanders referred to the deaths of thousands of men per week as "normal wastage."

Of course there is a place for remembering the dead, especially when so many have died in such abominable circumstances. For decades after the War, the nation - the "Empire" - was in a state of shock. Of course that grief needs working through, but nowadays we are far removed from that process. The older ones among us may remember a grandfather who fought in the war, but this is hardly the same as a whole nation working through post-traumatic stress. The centenary of WW1 was (and is still) an opportunity to do something different - and the beginning of change is repentance.

Learning, not Fond Recollections

How can we learn purposefully from the awful collective sin that was the Great War? How did it come to be known as the Great War? Shouldn't it always be spoken of as "the Terrible War"? What was great about tens of thousands of troops being knowingly ordered to certain death, wave upon wave? What was great about General Haig thinking the casualty numbers were an acceptable cost? What was great about the war that boasted the first use of lethal chemicals by both sides? 

When we commemorate by telling little stories that are effectively trivia, we normalise something that was abhorrent. Instead, we could be asking much more searching questions:

  • "Where were the voices for peace?" 
  • "Why were they ineffective?" 
  • "Were there any moments when the voice of humanity was heard?" 
  • "If so, how did that come about?"
  • "What can we learn for the future?"

One thing is certain: we have not learned anything from the Great Abomination, except perhaps, that chemical warfare is beyond the pale. Even that practice was continued by the Americans in Vietnam. War has continued throughout the world and our nation continues to be involved. Violence continues to beget violence and our society is shot through with it. Two women continue to die through domestic violence every week. Gang warfare is rife in our cities. Ten per cent of my congregation have been personally affected by murder in the past five years. British citizens sign up as mercenaries in wars that are nothing to do with them, or as jihadists in wars fuelled by crazy fantasy. What have we learned? There is a huge task of learning but, instead of "learning about WW1" we should be "learning from WW1".

Learning For Peace

Armistice is a word rarely used these days, partly because our Remembrance events tend to focus on exactly that, encompassing as they do more and more soldiers from more and more recent conflicts. However, Armistice is an important word: it means "laying down of arms." To reflect on Armistice is to reflect on the day when we stopped fighting. We called it a day. We realised there was no more point. We had a painful chance to gain some perspective. Of course, the centenary of the Armistice is still to come. In the meantime we should be working towards it. Conservative estimates are that more than 8.5 million soldiers were killed on all fronts, but the civilian war deaths were even higher, estimated at 12-13 million. Some of these were the result of bombing, but more were due to unmitigated massacres like the Turkish genocide of Armenians. An even greater number were due to the near-famine conditions that overcame the Central Powers and their occupied lands. It turned out that the first and last British soldiers to die did so just a few miles apart. Coincidentally, they are buried just seven yards from each other. How can anyone "commemorate" such futility?

The centenary of that Appalling War should be the catalyst for learning about peacemaking, mediation, building relationship. The Cabinet should mark it by giving themselves to a three-day training on how to work peace into policy. Consideration of the alternatives to war should be included in every school curriculum - not simply in an academic way, but in a practical way that makes connections with peacemaking in everyday life.

So what are we doing in Tulse Hill?

Here in Tulse Hill we are going to mark the Dreadful War by calling together a "Peace Gathering" ("Peace Rally" sounds too scary; "Peace Vigil" sounds too religious). Led by the church, we're going to meet on the evening of November 8th (Saturday before Remembrance Sunday) in the middle of Tulse Hill Estate.

Tulse Hill Estate is not a peaceful place. Many people feel afraid to live there. Violence is not uncommon but, working with the Residents' Association, we hope there will be some who will come out and stand with us to say, "We want to live differently. We value life."  We hope to have some speakers: young people, for example, to share how they would like to live; testimonies from those who have made peace with someone they were previously fighting with; we hope to have representatives of others faiths present - especially Muslims - to demonstrate that our common desire for peace is strong, in spite of differences of opinion or belief. I hope we might have some from the local Territorial Army. We think there may be others who live in other parts of Tulse Hill, ready to cross estate boundaries for the sake of peace. 

It's just a gathering; it's just some people with candles; it's just some prayers (or thoughts for the non-religious) in a public place on a cold, dark, November evening, but we hope it will be meaningful and pertinent, and provide some inspiration for actual change in our individual and social lives.


For further reading:

To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain (Adam Hochschild)

Boy Soldiers of the Great War (Richard van Emden)

Meeting the Enemy (Richard van Emden)

Forgotten Voices of the Great War (Max Arthur)

Richard Dormandy

Vicar, Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, South London

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You are reading Why We Shouldn't Commemorate World War 1 by Richard Dormandy, part of Issue 62 of Ministry Today, published in November 2014.

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