I have spent the weekend trying to get to grips with why I feel so uncomfortable about David Cameron’s announcement of £50 million toward the centenary commemorations of the war. On the face of it, all his announcements are self-evidently Good Things – more money for the Imperial War Museum (still one of my favourite archives if only for the irony of reading about war under a burnished 10 Commandments in the reading room that used to be part of the hospital chapel), school visits to the battle fields, additional funding for local history groups, a focus on memory and commemoration.
So why am I not embracing this announcement wholeheartedly? I have come to the conclusion that it is mainly due to the steering committee that was announced, filled as it is primarily with former servicemen and politicians. Yes, Hew Strachan is an excellent representative of the community of First World War historians in Britain, and Sebastian Faulks seems a sensible choice to represent the arts, although I am sure there are plenty of others who would be just as appropriate. But they are so far outnumbered by ex-servicemen as to raise the question of what the steering group believes these are commemorations of. Are we going to see commemoration the war as a total war, one that influenced every facet and stratum of society, not just in terms of mourning (as is usually commented on) but also in terms of changing attitudes, new forms of work and service and technological developments? Or are we going to have commemorations limited to the Armed Services? How much of the focus is going to be on this particular conflict and how much on the service and sacrifice of all British (and Imperial/Commonwealth) forces since then?
My other source of unease is the fact that no reference at all was made to the work that universities around the country have been doing for several years now and will continue to do for the next six years. Yes, many of these projects come under the aegis of the IWM’s First World War Centenary Partnership but so do many of the Heritage Lottery funded local history projects that get a name-check. I am acutely aware that the Legacies of War project, one which is partnering similar local initiatives, has taken two years of hard work to get off the ground. A similar amount of time has been spent at the University of Newcastle developing an international network of research into children’s experiences of war in the early twentieth century. Birmingham and Kent are both centres of research excellence for First World War studies. And the International Society for First World War Studies, now in its eleventh year, was founded by two academics based in Britain. There is a wealth of passion and expertise to be tapped in our research institutions in this country, equal to that of the local history groups who will, quite rightly, be contributing so much to the commemorations, passion and expertise which Cameron, in his announcement seems to ignore. Hopefully it can be used fully by the Centenary Partnership and those of us who make our living out studying the Great War can demonstrate the leading role that British academics have played and continue to play in the study of the First World War.
Oh, and the award for most fatuous comment must go to General Lord Dannatt, quoted in The Times as saying, ‘This needs to be the start of an education programme on the history of the events that led to the outbreak of the war, to make sure it never happens again.’ Given the number of conflicts to engulf the world since 1918, I suspect that ship has sailed.