It takes something significant to bring the noisy and fast-moving world we live in today to a silent stop. We live in an age of now, all leading frenetic lives with constant demands on our time. Rarely do we pause to reflect on events that took place long before our parents or grandparents were born.
Tonight we will experience one of those moments, when Big Ben chimes 11 o’clock and marks 100 years since Britain entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. It was a conflict that changed the world forever and helped shape the lives we lead today. More than 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe would not live to see peace in 1918.
Some believe they died in a conflict that though appalling, was necessary and needed to be fought. Others argue their sacrifice was futile, in a war that achieved nothing, and could and should have been avoided. My hope is that the commemorations taking place today and over the next four years will give us each a precious opportunity to make up our own minds and reflect on our shared history.
Anniversaries like this are essentially the closest thing our society ever has to a national history lesson. Not one where governments or politicians should hand down official judgements on events from 100 years ago, but one where we can each explore this traumatic chapter in our national story in an inclusive and democratic way. There were 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, but only 40 of them would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict. It means each community has its own story to tell.
As I’ve travelled across the country I’ve met people of all ages who are researching their own family histories and learning about the impact the war had on the places where they live. This includes tales of heroes and heroines from the home front as well as the frontline. Stories of miners, factory and railway workers who kept our country going, of volunteers who worked the land and nurses who cared for the wounded.
Hearing their stories has made me revisit my own family tree. Scouring family archives with the help of my aunt, I discovered my own family connection – a previously unknown great great uncle who fought in the 16th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was christened “Nimrod” but enlisted under the name of John for reasons that nobody now knows. He would become one of the 900,000 British and the Commonwealth soldiers who never returned home, killed in Belgium on 7 October 1917. It is hard to imagine what horrors he must have experienced, even as someone who has experienced combat myself.
The First World War contains millions of stories like his, including many that reach far beyond the poppy fields of Flanders. Two examples will stay with me as I travel to Glasgow ahead of this morning’s national memorial service.
The first is the immense debt we owe to millions of soldiers from the nations whose inspiring athletes we have watched competing in the Commonwealth Games over the past eleven days. They included men from India, Australia, Canada, parts of Africa, and countless other countries. Many had never been to Britain but they came to fight for Britain in our hour of need.
The second example is the story of a woman called Mary Barbour. A century ago she lived in Glasgow’s Govan district, just a few miles from the venue for last night’s closing ceremony. When her husband David left for the frontline, she was left to look after their two young sons. With so many men away, the city’s private landlords sensed an opportunity and began hiking the rents of Mary and her neighbours. They messed with the wrong woman. Working with her friends, Mary organised a rent strike and led tenants in a protest that grew into 20,000 people. They became known as “Mrs Barbour’s Army.”
The government was forced to rush through immediate reforms to protect people from unfair rent increases, one of the many ways that the First World War changed the role of the state in our public life. Mrs Barbour would go on to become Glasgow’s first female Labour councillor. She didn’t even have a vote when the war broke out, but she was one of the millions of women who would help change that by entering the war effort and taking on roles that only men had ever done before.
Her story is an example of the social, political and economic forces that transformed Britain between 1914 and 1918. Our democracy expanded, society became less deferential, the trade union movement grew and our politics would never be the same.
The next four years provide us with an opportunity to explore all of this and more, and pass these memories on to future generations. That process should start tonight with silent and respectful tributes. But there should also be space for lively debate and discussion about how the echoes of the First World War continue to shape our lives today. That would be time well spent.
Dan Jarvis is the Shadow Justice Minister and Labour’s lead for the First World War centenary.