Close-up of Spectra, the light installation to commemorate the First World War near parliament. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny: A century of royals looking sad in expensive hats doesn’t take away the horror of WWI

On the centenary of the First World War, we must remember that millions who died had little idea what they were signing up for – nor how their deaths would be treated 100 years later. 

The truth is like any casualty of war: it dies on the direct orders of military leaders. This was as true a century ago as it is for those fighting today in Ukraine, Syria and the Gaza Strip. After a reception in 1917, far from the waking nightmare of the Western Front, David Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian, “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow . . . but, of course, they don’t know and can’t know.”

The reception was held in honour of the war correspondent Philip Gibbs, who knew precisely what was happening in France and Belgium but had been threatened with death by firing squad if he filed one more uncensored report. At the front, Gibbs lived as a fugitive, in almost as much danger from his own side as from the German troops. Today, in our rituals of public remembrance, one of the many things we try to forget is that our government did its best to keep the horror of the trenches off the front pages.

This summer marks the centenary of a war that triumphalist historians insist on calling “great”. Millions of paper poppies, thousands of melodramatic memoirs and a century of royalty looking sad in expensive hats have not done away with the central obfuscation: that this was an epic f***-up. The First World War should not have happened. Those millions of men and women did not have to die. Their deaths were not inevitable – they were extremely evitable and were resisted on all fronts, particularly by workers’ movements, which did more than anyone else to end the bloodshed.

If national leaders want to justify retroactively the pointless slaughter of millions of largely working-class men and women by telling us that they died “for our freedom”, it’s up to them. Families need comfort but not as much as governments need to save face and exploit our natural sympathy with fallen soldiers by claiming that it was all for a good cause – and, after all, we won.

If we want to pretend that the bloodshed of the First World War had a positive impact on the lives of the working class in Britain and elsewhere, rather than simply being the worst thing white people did to one another in centuries, that is cowardly but comprehensible. What we should not do is further dishonour the memory of the fallen by calling these rites of organised historical reimagining “remembrance”.

Away from the trenches, official censorship was also used to keep incompetent generals in their jobs. On one grubby, stuck-together page of this disregarded chapter of journalistic history, a young Australian reporter was entrusted with a letter to the British prime minister. The letter, from another journalist, detailed the bloody blunders of British and Allied commanders but it was confiscated when the young reporter was detained by his own side and he was obliged to rewrite the letter later from memory. The reporter’s name was Keith Murdoch and he went on to found a media empire and father Rupert Murdoch, who also disdains all state propaganda in which he has no personal financial interest.

Philip Gibbs, meanwhile, submitted to censorship in order to keep filing wartime reports. They make fascinating reading, as much for what they don’t say as what they do. The British are always advancing, when they are not making jolly jokes to a reporter, and the death of a British soldier is always brave and meaningful rather than panicked and unnecessary.

If there are eyeless, staring corpses leering out of the rotten mud, they belong only to the enemy. Gibbs described, in his scathing postwar memoir Now It Can Be Told (1920), how he had to travel with official censors, whose duty it was to “examine our screeds with microscopic eyes and with infinite remembrance of the 1,001 rules . . . Was it permissible to describe the smell of chloride-of-lime in the trenches, or would that discourage recruiting?”

On the centenary of the First World War, we must remember that millions who died had little idea what they were signing up for – nor how their deaths would be treated 100 years later, in patriotic ceremonies replete with expensive light shows and ceremonial flower-planting, while the international arms trade remains healthy. We will be treated to the weary insistence that numberless soldiers “sacrificed” themselves – or, more accurately, were sacrificed – to protect the people of Belgium, and not because, as Philip Gibbs wrote, “England knew that her imperial power would be one of the prizes of German victory.”

It is to protect this patriotic vision that journalists were considered no better than spies in the war years – and war reporters and whistleblowers today are treated as “terrorists” for exactly the same reasons. From the al-Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt to Chelsea Manning, those who seek to tell the truth about war are persecuted for betraying the interests of nations, which are not at all the same as the interests of ordinary soldiers and civilians.

When it comes to human history and especially the history of war, we do not tell it as it was – rather, we tell it as we are. And right now, we are a society whose stewards have an appetite for tragedy but no desire to end it, whose leaders refuse to acknowledge that some sacrifices are simply not worth making – not then, not now and not ever.

In the words of the “last fighting Tommy”, Harry Patch: “The politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”

The truth about the First World War is still buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on the fields of France and a century of bloodshed later, it behoves us to remember it in more than empty ceremony. 

Laurie Penny is contributing editor of the NS

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.