Close-up of Spectra, the light installation to commemorate the First World War near parliament. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Tusk is merely calling out Tory hypocrisy on Brexit

And the President of the European Council has the upper hand. 

The pair of numbers that have driven the discussion about our future relationship with the EU since the referendum have been 48 to 52. 

"The majority have spoken", cry the Leavers. "It’s time to tell the EU what we want and get out." However, even as they push for triggering the process early next year, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s reply to a letter from Tory MPs, where he blamed British voters for the uncertain futures of expats, is a long overdue reminder that another pair of numbers will, from now on, dominate proceedings.

27 to 1.

For all the media speculation around Brexit in the past few months, over what kind of deal the government will decide to be seek from any future relationship, it is incredible just how little time and thought has been given to the fact that once Article 50 is triggered, we will effectively be negotiating with 27 other partners, not just one.

Of course some countries hold more sway than others, due to their relative economic strength and population, but one of the great equalising achievements of the EU is that all of its member states have a voice. We need look no further than the last minute objections from just one federal entity within Belgium last month over CETA, the huge EU-Canada trade deal, to be reminded how difficult and important it is to build consensus.

Yet the Tories are failing spectacularly to understand this.

During his short trip to Strasbourg last week, David Davis at best ignored, and at worse angered, many of the people he will have to get on-side to secure a deal. Although he did meet Michel Barnier, the senior negotiator for the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative at the future talks, he did not meet any representatives from the key Socialist Group in the European Parliament, nor the Parliament’s President, nor the Chair of its Constitutional Committee which will advise the Parliament on whether to ratify any future Brexit deal.

In parallel, Boris Johnson, to nobody’s surprise any more, continues to blunder from one debacle to the next, the most recent of which was to insult the Italians with glib remarks about prosecco sales.

On his side, Liam Fox caused astonishment by claiming that the EU would have to pay compensation to third countries across the world with which it has trade deals, to compensate them for Britain no longer being part of the EU with which they had signed their agreements!

And now, Theresa May has been embarrassingly rebuffed in her clumsy attempt to strike an early deal directly with Angela Merkel over the future residential status of EU citizens living and working in Britain and UK citizens in Europe. 

When May was campaigning to be Conservative party leader and thus PM, to appeal to the anti-european Tories, she argued that the future status of EU citizens would have to be part of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. Why then, four months later, are Tory MPs so quick to complain and call foul when Merkel and Tusk take the same position as May held in July? 

Because Theresa May has reversed her position. Our EU partners’ position remains the same - no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered and Britain sets out its stall. Merkel has said she can’t and won’t strike a pre-emptive deal.  In any case, she cannot make agreements on behalf of France,Netherlands and Austria, all of who have their own imminent elections to consider, let alone any other EU member. 

The hypocrisy of Tory MPs calling on the European Commission and national governments to end "the anxiety and uncertainty for UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories", while at the same time having caused and fuelled that same anxiety and uncertainty, has been called out by Tusk. 

With such an astounding level of Tory hypocrisy, incompetence and inconsistency, is it any wonder that our future negotiating partners are rapidly losing any residual goodwill towards the UK?

It is beholden on Theresa May’s government to start showing some awareness of the scale of the enormous task ahead, if the UK is to have any hope of striking a Brexit deal that is anything less than disastrous for Britain. The way they are handling this relatively simple issue does not augur well for the far more complex issues, involving difficult choices for Britain, that are looming on the horizon.

Richard Corbett is the Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber.