On the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, there was, of course, a political controversy: David Cameron was allowed to lay a wreath with a personalised message; Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were not (i). Was this a cynical ploy from the Conservative party? Or a well-meaning attempt to avoid polarisation on a day of national remembrance? The episode may have led some of us to overlook the implications of what the Prime Minister’s message actually was: ‘Your most enduring legacy is our liberty. We must never forget’ – David Cameron.
The phrase ‘we must never forget’ is empty and ambiguous. What is it we are remembering? Are we remembering tales of camaraderie and tragedy, or lies, betrayal and the crimes of the elite? For Mr Cameron, the human cost was massive but the cause honourable: our freedom. This narrative resembles the elite framing of national history lamented by Howard Zinn, where ‘[t]he history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers’ (ii).
The National Museum of Scotland has subscribed to this approach in its commemoration of the First World War. In keeping with the spirit of the Commonwealth Games, its latest exhibition is titled Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War (iii). The title is placed against an image of young uniformed Scots smiling and – seemingly in celebration – throwing their fists in the air. On show are ‘poignant objects’ such as the kilt worn by members of the 4th South African Infantry, 1918; a slouch hat belonging to a senior Scots-Australian officer who commanded troops at Gallipoli in 1915; and the regimental band of the 48th Highlanders Division from Toronto, Canada.
Such fascinating artefacts were widely praised in the exhibition’s visitors’ book, where anonymous entries wrote of ‘an amazing exhibition!’ or ‘a beautifully researched and moving collection’. The phrase ‘Common Cause’ implies a patriotic war with a just goal. It is difficult to sanitise the well-known images of poison gas attacks and disease-ridden, squalid trenches, but if the cause is presented as noble and (British) statesmen as blameless, then the images can be framed as ‘tragedies’ to be ‘remembered’ – not as calamities facilitated by deception and propaganda. One visitor, however, struck a different note: ‘I am uneasy about the celebratory tone that one derives from this exhibition. More than anything else, the wars of the twentieth century were an abortive and disgusting sacrifice of the working class to the agendas of the rich and powerful. Never again!’
But wasn’t Britain fighting against an expansionist and authoritarian Germany? Britain’s democracy was in danger, and it had the right to prevent German and Austro-Hungarian continental domination. Forget that the British army was buttressed by over two million colonial troops from subjugated countries. Forget that Britain allied with the feudal regime of Tsarist Russia. Forget that Britain and France secretly agreed to carve the Arab World into new spheres of European domination. Forget that in the course of a ‘patriotic war’, the families of wounded British soldiers had to fight drastic rent increases and evictions. Forget that after British tanks were turned on Germany, they were turned on tens of thousands of revolutionary workers in Glasgow’s George Square (iv).
At another of Edinburgh’s war exhibitions – the National Library of Scotland’s Behind the Lines (v) – the visitors’ book also contains voices of dissent. A message signed ‘Ex-Serviceman’ simply read: ‘The war to end all wars. Still it goes on. Why?’ Another note fiercely criticised the ‘light look at aspects such as conscientious objection and how these men were often so inhumanely treated; and nothing on the severity of mental and physical injury. Earl Haig – A TRUE WAR CRIMINAL.’ These voices resonate with those of John Maclean, imprisoned twice and sacked from his teaching job for his opposition to the war; of the 180 British women who were denied visas to attend the Women’s Peace Congress at The Hague in 1915; or of Jimmy Maxton, who was charged with sedition, lost his teaching job, and even had his dog stoned to death by pro-war fanatics (vi).
Such voices are often lost in the echo-chamber of wartime hysteria and the airbrushing of resistance and activism from official history. But why – from the Maxtons and Macleans, to the millions who have protested attacks on Vietnam and Iraq – do they refuse to go away?
Arthur Ponsonby, MP, in his 1928 study of Falsehood in Wartime provided an eloquent and powerful answer that deserves to be quoted in full: ‘There is not a living soul in any country who does not deeply resent having his passions roused, his indignation inflamed, his patriotism exploited, and his highest ideals desecrated by concealment, subterfuge, fraud, falsehood, trickery, and deliberate lying on the part of those in whom he is taught to repose confidence and to whom he is enjoined to pay respect’ (vii). The National Museum of Scotland and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom may describe a ‘Common Cause’ or a ‘War for Liberty’, but they will never erase from our minds the true horror and injustice of war.
(i) Mason, R. (2014), ‘Wreath row over Cameron and Miliband’s First World War messages’, The Guardian (Online), August 4, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/04/ed-miliband-criticised-impersonal-wreath-first-world-war
(ii) Zinn, H. (1980), A People’s History of the United States 1492-present, (New York: Harper Collins), p.10.
(iii) The National Museum of Scotland (2014), ‘What’s On: Common Cause’, July 11, http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/whats-on/common-cause/
(iv) The Jimmy Reid Foundation (2014), Remembrance, Empire and Resistance: On the Real Causes of the First World War, June 15, http://reidfoundation.org/portfolio/remembrance-empire-and-resistance/
(v) The National Library of Scotland (2014), ‘Exhibitions: Behind the Lines’, June 27, http://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/behind-the-lines
(vi) The Jimmy Reid Foundation (2014), Heroes of Peace: Profiles of the Scottish peace campaigners who opposed the First World War, June 15, http://reidfoundation.org/portfolio/heroes-of-peace/
(vii) Ponsonby, A. (1928), Falsehood in War-Time: Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated Throughout the Nations During the Great War (London: Garland Publishing Company, 1928), p.9.