I was invited, as Acting President of ULU, to lay a wreath at today’s University of London remembrance service. I have declined this invitation on principle: this letter explains why. If you want to discuss these issues further, I am organizing a meeting in ULU on Thursday 17 November at 7pm in room 3C to give an alternative, socialist, account of the war and remembrance. Details here: http://www.facebook.com/events/268424839941983/
Dear Reverend Stephen Williams,
Thank you for your invitation to lay a wreath at the University of London remembrance service this Friday, the 9th November. I will pay respect to the millions slaughtered in the First World War, and the many more maimed and killed since. However, I shall not be taking part in the remembrance service. I would like to explain why.
Ordinary people in the UK formed many of the first war veterans’ organisations. For example, the Labour-aligned “National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers” was set up in 1917, campaigning for better war pensions and jobs, excluding officers from membership. The left-Liberal organized “National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers” campaigned under the slogan “justice not charity”. In opposition to these organisations a charity for ex-servicemen was launched in 1921, and the sale of poppies was used to mark the build-up to Remembrance Day. It is named after Sir Douglas Haig, the British senior officer responsible for the massacre at the battles of the Somme and the Passchendaele. The British Legion continued to veer further to the political right, with figures like Lord Derby taking a lead on its work.
Today the colossal loss of life, misery and suffering is commemorated in a way that doesn’t fit with the reality of what took place in WW1.
Before 1914 there had been no major war for a century. This was the first example in history of “total war”, a break from the hitherto dominant model of state craft and diplomacy. Powerful nations in the foregoing decades had begun an arms race to develop their industrial capacities to unprecedented levels. Modern machinery – machine guns and heavy artillery – were used, transforming the killing potential of weapons. The war has been described as a ‘hurricane of steel’. The ‘Great War’ was profoundly different because it represented warfare between competing global empires and industrial mass production. As the longest living survivor from WWI, Harry Patch, has noted, the war was “legalised mass murder”. It plunged the world into a chasm of barbarism, industrialised killing and ruin beyond imagination.
The poet Siegfried Sasson wrote poignantly on the destruction the war caused:
Lines of grey muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
The war wasn’t an act of liberation, or self defence from despotism, as our leaders today preach. The British Empire feared the growing industrial and military power of imperial Germany. The war that exploded in 1914 was a war to re-divide the world. It was a scramble for colonial possessions, markets and resources amongst the major nations. Young men and women were told that they would be back within 6 weeks of the start of war; their rulers envisaged a quick campaign. But this wasn’t the case – 16 million people lost their lives.
The primary claim by governments at the time, and today, is that the war would be laying claim to our freedoms, and preserving our democratic traditions. But at the same time as the war, most in the UK were not politically enfranchised or even held basic democratic rights, particularly women and working class people. Internationally the British government played a barbaric role.
The survivors who returned from war faced a desolate world. The economy was depressed, and the recompense for many returning was the poverty of joblessness. Popular loathing against the war came together with class anger against exploitation and hardship. A wave of revolutions followed across Europe, some were limited, and others developed into full blown changes in the status quo, for example in Russia the working class took power.
This legacy is not documented. The Prime Minister David Cameron wants the lessons of the war to remain with us but the dominant narrative on show is one-sided and distorted. It mourns the dead and regrets their loss. But at the same time it exalts their “necessary sacrifice”. The war was terrible, the argument goes, but the price was worth paying.
Cameron deems Friday’s remembrance should be a “to capture our national spirit” and display “national pride”, this is the same sentiment as the purported challenge to accepted national values trumpeted by war politicians in the lead up to 1914 . Today the military and monarchy stand tall at the front of the day of remembrance. Mourning the butchery of thousands of ordinary people through an act of remembrance side by side with the inheritors of an economic system which created the war is not something I wish to take part in. It is an insult to those sent to die, victims of the self interested advancement of the British Empire.
Karl Liebknecht, a German parliamentarian who voted against war credits, was one of thousands from many countries who spoke out against war. There were mass demonstrations in opposition in many countries. Liberknecht was later imprisoned for arguing that the main enemy is at home, not against our brothers and sisters abroad. He is absolutely right!
We should instead remember the internationalists and socialists. We should remember the figures like Karl Kraus, one of many poets and satirists, who denounced the war. We should remember the soldiers that downed tools to build relationships with each other.
I mourn and remember the dead. But my mourning is mixed with bitter anger against the rulers and the system that create such bloodshed.