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It’s only February 2014 and already Britain seems to be mired in controversy about how best to commemorate the start of the First World War, which has its centenary on August 4 this year. Should we celebrate it as a heroic fight for British democracy against German despotism? Should we commemorate the British decision to defend brave little Belgium against German aggression? Or should we take our cue from war poets like Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, who wrote so movingly about what they saw as the senseless suffering of the troops on the western front, from the critics like the late Alan Clark, who described those men, thrown heedlessly into battles in which they were slaughtered in hundreds of thousands without any tangible military result, as “lions led by donkeys”?
While the secretary of state for education has condemned those who criticise a patriotic, celebratory approach as leftwingers out to denigrate the memory of brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives to preserve British freedom, others have pointed out that Alan Clark was a Tory member of parliament, and that former editor of the conservative newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings, is among the generals’ fiercest critics.
Some have gone further and pointed out that “brave little Belgium” was the perpetrator of some of colonialism’s most grisly atrocities in the Congo, while Britain, where 40 per cent of adult males did not possess the right to vote in 1914, could hardly be described as a democracy. As for liberal values, these were notably absent from Britain’s rule of its own vast colonial possessions in 1914, while one of the country’s two main allies, tsarist Russia, was a despotism almost entirely lacking in civil freedoms or human rights.
What, then, should we be commemorating? The row has recently spread to what at first sight would appear to be an entirely innocuous topic: the issue of commemorative coins to mark the anniversary. The Royal Mint has issued a coin for 2 pounds sterling featuring one of the most iconic images of the war, indeed of the 20th century: Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, who was appointed secretary of state for war when the conflict broke out in 1914.
There he is, pointing his outstretched right arm and finger, just as he did on the celebrated recruiting poster, uttering the words: “Your Country Needs YOU!” According to the Royal Mint, the design was chosen because it was the most recognisable to the British public of all images from the First World War. The Royal Mint said that the image of Kitchener “has come to stand for the call to fight for King and country, which is why it was judged worthy of its ‘national theme’ by an advisory committee”.
But it immediately ran into criticism. Dai Lloyd, a Welsh nationalist politician, said: “It is hard to imagine a more offensive and jingoistic message to send to the rest of the world than this unfortunate image.” Others pointed out that as commander of the British army in the Boer War at the turn of the century, Kitchener had been responsible for the atrocities of the concentration camps in which Afrikaners and their families were imprisoned in conditions so terrible that thousands died. A petition to withdraw the coin was launched: it has so far attracted 27,000 signatures.
“The coin”, said the organisers, “does nothing to commemorate the millions of people who died in the war, or the millions more who were wounded, traumatised, displaced, impoverished, imprisoned or bereaved.” The shadow culture minister, Helen Goodman, speaking in the House of Commons for the Labour Party, said that if the remarks of the secretary of state for education and the decision to put Kitchener on the 2 pound coin were anything to go by, the government seemed to be embarking on an unnecessarily jingoistic approach.
Instead, campaigners want the coin to be withdrawn and a new one issued, featuring the British nurse, Edith Cavell, who was executed by a German firing squad during the war for helping wounded British soldiers being treated in her hospital to escape back to the lines. Just as important as her work in this respect, however, was the fact that she also treated wounded German soldiers in the hospital. “Patriotism”, she famously said, “is not enough.” For many of the critics, this is a more accurate representation than the militaristic and unthinking image of a soldier calling upon men to fight “for King and country”.
The coin is unlikely to be withdrawn. Meanwhile, largely ignoring the pleas of its education secretary for a patriotic commemoration, Culture Secretary Maria Miller has announced that funds will be made available for a wide range of events, many of them put on by local initiatives. The row continues.
The writer is Regius professor of history and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge