An Exercise in Forgetting

Lorna Finlayson

Amid the poppies, the parades, the TV programmes on military themes, the commemorative art works springing up in towns and villages across the country, Theresa May said last week that she would be laying a wreath at the graves of British soldiers in France on the centenary of the Armistice to commemorate ‘every member of the Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect what we hold so dear’.

It seems that it isn’t enough to reflect on the pity of war, the senselessness of the loss of life in the four years between 1914 and 1918, the unnumbered deaths of young conscripts and volunteers who had initially been told they would be ‘home by Christmas’. The First and Second World Wars are now often spoken about almost interchangeably as events in which people ‘died for our freedom’.

The actions and hardships of our contemporary, professional army, too, are assimilated to this ‘heroism’ and ‘sacrifice’ (while overlooking the thousands of homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated veterans who have been abandoned by the state). Afghanistan and Iraq are thrown into the conversation as though there were some basic continuity between the Somme, Dunkirk, and the destruction of Middle Eastern societies by aerial bombardment. The echoes of an anti-racist, anti-totalitarian message in the commemoration of the Second World War are drowned out by the roars of mindless patriotism.

There is no sense in which my great-uncle, who died at the Somme along with hundreds of thousands of others, gave his life for my freedom. He was cannon fodder in a needless imperial war which created fertile conditions for the rise of totalitarian regimes that killed millions, and which millions more would lay down their lives to defeat.

The centenary of the end of the First World War comes at a time of resurgent nationalism, rising hate crime and normalised racism. Those who wore a white poppy – a way to honour the dead while registering a protest against the glorification of war – noticed the increase in hostility and aggression with which the gesture was met this year. Many people without white faces did not want to take the risk. For all the talk of ‘lest we forget’ and ‘never again’, this Remembrance Day was an exercise in forgetting.


  • 14 November 2018 at 6:59am
    Joe Morison says:
    The morality of the First World War is as hard to pin down its causes. Just because it was a moral catastrophe that should have been avoided doesn’t mean the allies were wrong to engage in it. For all its faults, Britain was far more democratic and far less militaristic than Germany. Eric Hobsbawm urged us to see the two world wars as episodes in the same conflict, and it’s certainly the case that the second part was a struggle for freedom.

    I think it’s worth remembering the dead, the instinct to fight for one’s home and the safety of those one loves is a noble one even if it is often subverted to foul ends. The dead of the First War gave their lives for much the same motives as those of the Second, and I think they deserve our remembrance. The hideous rise of nationalism, hate crime, and racism shouldn’t detract from that.

    • 14 November 2018 at 11:41am
      mototom says: @ Joe Morison
      For what it is worth, and she has given it some thought, Pat Barker is of the view that future historians will see WW1 and WW2 as one conflict.

      As for:

      the instinct to fight for one’s home and the safety of those one loves is a noble one

      well not if such instincts are easily triggered by a hegemonic patriotism.

      Of course we should remember the dead, no one is suggesting we should forget. The argument though is that a remembrance that does not contain a political critique of the reasons for the slaughter is positively dangerous.

      UK remembrance is a deeply ideological beast and feeds the mythology of British (English) exceptionalism - these myths are alive and well and, at least in part, continue to fuel the Brexit malarkey.

    • 15 November 2018 at 3:01am
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ Joe Morison
      "the instinct to fight for one’s home and the safety of those one loves is a noble one"

      Is it? I don't say you're wrong, but it seems to me an open question. It may be understandable - even natural - to want to defend your home and loved ones, but I'm not sure I'd say it's necessarily a 'noble' impulse. Less noble, perhaps, than fighting on behalf of strangers and somebody else's home for which on has no affection and no bonds of loyalty.

    • 16 November 2018 at 7:47am
      Joe Morison says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      So, what would you say of someone who left their kith and kin to be slaughtered while going off to protect strangers? I would say they had their priorities very seriously wrong.

    • 16 November 2018 at 1:38pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Joe Morison
      "For all its faults, Britain was far more democratic and far less militaristic than Germany."

      I'm not sure how you come to that conclusion? Even if you reduce Britain to Great Britain rather than the Empire it's still the case that the SPD were the biggest party after the 1912 Federal election and that suffrage was wider in Germany.

    • 17 November 2018 at 6:33am
      Joe Morison says: @ Stu Bry
      Suffrage may have been wider in Germany but their legislature had far less power. The British Parliament was sovereign (admittedly, it included the House of Lords, but Lloyd George had effectively cooked their goose years before the war started). In contrast, the Reichstag had minimal powers: the Kaiser had absolute control over ministers and government decisions, set foreign policy, and was commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

    • 20 November 2018 at 3:45pm
      apologues says: @ Joe Morison
      Then all the British boys had their priorities wrong: they fought on behalf of Belgian neutrality and to save the French army. The alliance did not require the British to bail out the French who acted on their own initiative to support the wild-eyed Russians.

      The best evidence is that the Germans were always going to start throwing their weight around on the continent. The diplomatic dance and competing mobilizations in July 1914 throw sand in our eyes about the true cause of the war. We do better to apply the principle implied by Thucydides when he said that the real cause of the Peloponnesian War was the growth of the power of the Athenian empire and the alarm this caused in Sparta. The Great War was made inevitable by the growth of the power of the German empire and the alarm this caused in the United Kingdom. We probably can't construct a scenario in which the British were going to sit it out, whenever or however it started.

      Lorna Finlayson merely calls our attention to the mostly unpalatable facts. The dismaying truth is that rich old men in all the warring nations -- nominal Christians all -- thought nothing of sacrificing their sons and grandsons to shore up what they absurdly called their nations' honor.

    • 20 November 2018 at 9:50pm
      Rod Miller says: @ apologues
      It's a mystery to me (a Canadian who has often been stunned to see the sheer length of KIA lists on memorials in the smallest villages) why the Brits got involved with the business At All.
      One longstanding argument is that people worldwide were simply Bored with Edwardian peace and -- obviously -- had No Clue what it would involve.

    • 21 November 2018 at 8:51am
      Joe Morison says: @ apologues
      “Then all the British boys had their priorities wrong”. Er ... no, because they weren’t leaving their loved ones to be slaughtered. I agree with your comments about the causes, though.

    • 21 November 2018 at 5:02pm
      Diplodoctus says: @ Joe Morison
      Quite right. How ever cynical one may be about European power politics, there was something very noble, in comparison with Germany's behaviour, about Britain going to war in 1914 to uphold its treaty obligations to defend Belgian neutrality and in 1939 Poland's.

      On the broader issue, is now perhaps the time finally to declare an end to "remembrance" (strange word, hardly applied to anything else) and the start of more dispassionate historical assessment?

  • 14 November 2018 at 9:15am
    steve kay says:
    Sadly this year, friends and I experienced more hostility to white poppies than ever before. Usually merely mutterings, and Quakers got away with by announcing that they were Quakers. For others a white poppy was less easily forgiven, not sufficiently providing support, and help, for heroes.

    The ceremonies in Cathays in Cardiff on Sunday , with gleaming uniforms, marching military bands, regimental mascot goats and ponies, had far more to do with military celebration of victory than remembering the dead and their sacrifice.

    With all due respect to Joe Morison who is no doubt a far better historian, to describe a country that had military and administrative occupation of a world wide empire, kept secure by the world's most powerful navy, and had fought wars in Afghanistan in the 1880s and South Africa in the early 1900s, when not quelling tribesmen and other natives, as less militaristic than Germany is an interesting interpretation.

    • 16 November 2018 at 7:46am
      Joe Morison says: @ steve kay
      The German's came to it a bit later than us, but their Weltpolitik was every bit as aggressively empire building as ours. What I was really thinking of, though, was their structure of government: with the Kaiser at the top and the armed forces responsible to him with no democratic control over them, the armed forces had a significant say over foreign policy in a way they didn't in Britain.

  • 14 November 2018 at 4:22pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Using WWI as an exemplary case, it would be easy to demonstrate that “most soldiers” do not willingly sacrifice themselves on the altar of nation, state, or ideological cause. This was true of both the Allied and Central Powers. Once the initial wave of enthusiastic volunteers is spent (pretty rapidly), men at the front become thoroughly skeptical of such ideas as “defending our freedom” or "preserving the fatherland/motherland against fiendish foes.” That was all blather then, and it remains all blather today. Most soldiers in combat situations (usually a small minority of any armed force during wartime) will take risks to defend each other; men are operating in units of a size where everybody knows everybody else reasonably well, and the “bonding” is pretty strong. As to other risky operations designed to achieve goals that will reflect well on the top command’s ability to “make progress”, soldiers carry them out (however unwillingly) because they feel forced to carry them out – the alternatives for men in combat are seldom rational or attractive. I speak from some experience, having served as an enlisted man in Vietnam during 1968-69. Nobody liked (or trusted) an enthusiastic, gung-ho lieutenant, captain, or (usually young) sergeant – older sergeants were deemed to have more common sense – and never once did I hear a fellow enlistee or conscript voice patriotic goo or claim that we were actually protecting anyone back in “the real world” as we called the USA. And, most men who die in combat are not heroes, but victims of mechanical slaughter, which reflects poorly on both civilian and military leadership that have led them to such slaughter. All that having been said, commemorative markers and ceremonies held to honor those who died in wars are necessary to keep up our obligatory basic human ties with the dead and also to ritually enact what should be a “cautionary tale”. I’m also skeptical that this continues to work after a sufficient amount of time has gone by, and societies produce new cohorts of inexperienced men who are easily persuaded by faulty geopolitical arguments and macho sentimentality that we need another war again (or that such a war is an acceptable path to a political goal). These verities prevail all across the political spectrum – e.g., a few years after the US was sending men to Southeast Asia to “defend freedom” and defeat communism, Cuba was sending hapless troops to Angola to “defend socialist freedom” and retard capitalism. Need I say that both “geopolitical projects” (formulated by "realists") were abysmal failures.

    • 16 November 2018 at 7:52am
      Joe Morison says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Perhaps one of the reasons you never heard anyone saying that you were protecting people back in 'the real world' is because they weren't. Soldiers in the Second World War most definitely were and I'm pretty sure they knew it. My father was a bomber pilot in that conflict, and he was certainly aware that he was fighting to stop something unspeakably evil happening to the world.

    • 16 November 2018 at 1:45pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Timothy Rogers
      "Cuba was sending hapless troops to Angola to “defend socialist freedom” and retard capitalism. Need I say that both “geopolitical projects” (formulated by “realists”) were abysmal failures."

      Cuban troops helped defeat the White Supremacist South African Defence Force.

      You may say it was an abysmal failure but the people of Namibia no doubt think differently.

    • 17 November 2018 at 2:41pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Joe Morison
      I was merely pointing out that most combat soldiers seldom think in terms of these conventional patriotic tropes, and I would include many an Allied soldier in WWI in that "most".

    • 17 November 2018 at 2:45pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Stu Bry
      And yet the eventual outcome was not very good - I have absolutely no idea how the people of Namibia think about the carnage of the recent past, and I doubt you do either. We both need a "reality check" on that point, provided by Namibians of the right age - I don't think many of them are LRB blog-readers.

    • 18 November 2018 at 7:24am
      Joe Morison says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I heard someone on the wireless yesterday say that ‘soldiers don’t fight for Queen, country, or regiment; they fight for the men standing next to them’. That seems very plausible to me, while they are fighting (which sounds to me what you are talking about); but there’s also the question of why they are fighting in the first place. Of course, many are conscripted but many volunteer (conscription in the First World War didn’t start until 1916), and surely patriotism is often a strong motivating factor here (particularly, as in both world wars, when it is a conflict in which the homeland is obviously threatened).

    • 19 November 2018 at 5:52pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Timothy Rogers
      "And yet the eventual outcome was not very good"

      The outcome was the defeat of political white supremacy.

    • 20 November 2018 at 6:12pm
      MajorBarbara says: @ Stu Bry
      I'm not defending white supremacy, but considering the leadership of SA post-Mandela and the reign of Mugabe in Zimbabwe, I fear the philosophy of well-meaning white leftists in the west boils down to 'as long as the hand that wields the whip is as black as the back that gets the welt, we're fine with oppression and kleptocracy.'

  • 15 November 2018 at 11:13am
    BBeckett says:
    The Great War (yeah right) led to some structural gains - increased suffrage, coherent taxation, the dismantling of sceloritic empires.

    As for the rest - John Maynard Keynes took to his bed in anguish at the Treaty of Versailles, as all he foresaw was the continuation of conflict.

    Angela Carter described war as "Old men sending out young men to die" and the survivors of the "colonial" conflicts sent them to the Great War and the Great War survivors sent them to WWII.

    The anti-conscription and pacifist movements were incredibly engaged with their societies - in Australia there were two referenda and the vote AGAINST conscription INCREASED on the second vote.

    And old men continue to send out young men to die.

    • 22 November 2018 at 11:43am
      Dectora says: @ BBeckett
      Keynes was of, course, horrified by the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, but to put matters in perspective the French thought the treaty was too kind to the Germans. No Head of Government could have modified France's position significantly. Woodrow Wilson tried and failed.

  • 16 November 2018 at 1:53pm
    Stu Bry says:
    As children we are taught of the inevitable slide towards the first world war. The simplistic story places the responsibility at the hand of a young working class Serb and absolves the powerful.

    The revisionism over the past four years has been staggering. The voices who opposed the war such as Lenin, Jaures, Hardie, Leibneckt and Luxembourg have been totally erased.

    • 20 November 2018 at 2:05pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Stu Bry
      This comment also represents a "simplistic story" with respect to Lenin, Liebknecht, and Luxembourg. Lenin, of course, came to see WWI as a great opportunity for Bolshevik influence as the Tsarist state began to crumble. He didn't have a pacifistic bone in his body and was more than willing to expand the Russian civil war into Poland, thinking it would be an easy land-and-people grab for his cause. (Luxembourg, though dead by this point, might have approved since she was resolutely opposed to Polish nationalism). And she and Liebknecht had no qualms about violence when it came to an attempted takeover of the German state during the period leading up to constitutional assembly that established the Weimar Republic. These three may have been opposed to WWI as an imperialist fiasco, but not to the political uses of violence when it might help them reach their goals.

  • 16 November 2018 at 10:32pm
    Peter Ayley says:
    It was noticed in France that May did not appear in Paris on 11th November, on behalf of the more than 700 000 British that died on French soil. Putin and Trump made the detour. Macron's speech made it clear that the English simply do not understand why the European Union was created, nor how it is superior to the Punch and Judy show of British politics.

    • 21 November 2018 at 5:11pm
      Diplodoctus says: @ Peter Ayley
      Should she really have absented herself from the cenotaph and snubbed the Commonwealth representatives in order to suck up to Macron, Trump and Putin? Be fair: she could not be in two places at once. If Macron is so clever, why's he so unpopular?

  • 17 November 2018 at 10:36am
    XopherO says:
    The blog rightly questions the talk of the 'nobility' and 'sacrifice' of the men who died. I am surprised no one has commented that 'deserters' were shot, pretty summarily, even though many were shell-shocked or could not face killing another German or seeing men die around him, and knowing anyway his number was probably up sooner or later. All soldiers knew the fate that awaited them. Surely nobility and sacrifice both require a choice? Perhaps some in letters home needed to imply there was a choice, and they had made it to defend their country - originally Belgium anyway! Those at home needed to feel some reason for the death of sons, husbands and fathers - and indeed the 'old men's' propaganda was directed at making them think this.

    The book 'A social history of the machine gun' describes quite convincingly how it was that men walked into hails of bullets for several years - no nobility or sacrifice - and how it was the military had no worthwhile strategy because the gun had only been used previously to quell the African 'natives' armed with assagais - except when it jammed (frequently) when they became dead 'heroes'.

    • 18 November 2018 at 2:29pm
      XopherO says: @ XopherO
      Just to add: today I read a report in a local French newspaper about a certain Albert Valet who in 1915 claimed he had been shot in the hand while moving electric cable (presumably in no-man's land). Three military doctors said it was self inflicted to get away from the front. He was summarily tried and shot as a deserter. It was later proved he had indeed been shot and he was pardoned! But these things happen in war, we are told - it is just sad.

      There was an arms race in the years leading up to 1914, between the British and German navies. Generals and admirals (and politicians) can only prove their 'superiority' in weapons and tactics by actually going to war. Which is at least in part why the world has not been without war since the year dot, and why nuclear weapons WILL be used - just a matter of when, particularly in a world with Trumps and Bojos, and failed states like Pakistan.

    • 18 November 2018 at 3:17pm
      XopherO says: @ XopherO
      I forgot to mention, and it probably was some consolation for his parents, Albert's name was included on the memorial of the village where his parents lived, 'Mort pour la France'.

    • 20 November 2018 at 4:42pm
      immaculate says: @ XopherO
      The best estimate of the total number of British and Empire soldiers who served at some point during WW1 is 8.7 million. Of these, 309 were executed for desertion, or roughly one in thirty thousand.

      Deserters were court-martialed; of the 200,000 or so men court-martialed during the First World War, 20,000 were found guilty of offences carrying the death penalty. Of those, 3000 actually received it, and of those sentences, 346 were carried out. 37 of these were for murder, the other 309 for desertion.


    • 20 November 2018 at 7:34pm
      Coldish says: @ XopherO
      XopherO: nuclear weapons have of course already been used in combat, twice, against a non-nuclear nation. Some would claim that the possession of such weapons by various states can be effective - and thus 'useful' - as a deterrent against 'conventional' or nuclear attack. It was rumoured at the time that if the Falklands/Malvinas war had not gone Britain's way a nuclear attack on an Argentinian military base was being considered. Perhaps just a rumour. The nuclear powers India and Pakistan have been careful not to confront each other directly. Soon after Libya dropped its (probably useless) nuclear programme it became 'fair game' for risk-free elimination. It would certainly seem prudent for powers such as Russia and China to hold on to their nuclear weapons in order to deter an attack from, say, the west.

    • 23 November 2018 at 10:33am
      XopherO says: @ Coldish
      Although not particularly relevant to this blog, if deterrence has any meaning then all states should have nuclear weapons, including Iran. All of which makes their use more likely. The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the military value of which is more questionable and was probably intended as a first test of a plutonium bomb) killed fewer civilians than Blair and Bush have managed, directly and indirectly.

  • 18 November 2018 at 11:27am
    Delorean says:
    In 1940 my dad was a twenty-two year old private stationed at Dover. He told us kids about the night before an expected German invasion. He was planning to somehow scale down the cliffs while the Germans were coming up them, he said, in order to outsmart them. As a socialist from the Valleys he had few noble illusions about the war, and had volunteered for the army fairly early on only because he knew that war was on the way and by showing willing he hoped to get as much preferential treatment as possible. His scepticism about the whole thing was only fortified by the fact that in his company of dozens of men, there was only one rifle. Everyone else had been issued with a length of wood. A mate of his consoled him on the eve of the “invasion,” explaining that the cunning plan was to watch the enemy paratroopers as they fell from the sky, wait till they were coming to land and then dart out from the trenches and smack them smartly across the knees. In this way they were to disable the military might of the Reich.

    In later life dad loved, appropriately enough, “Dad’s Army” and for the same reason millions of fellow veterans did. This didn’t stop him - or them, I’d imagine - from feeling that Hitler had needed to be fought, but there was as much to satirise and ridicule about the war as to feel proud about it. He hated what he felt was the bullshit of Rememberance Sunday, because it falsified memory and implicitly glorified war.

  • 20 November 2018 at 2:11pm
    XopherO says:
    In a little village in the north of the Creuse, the monument for those Mort pour la France has the name of a woman, Emma Bujardet, with the names of her three sons and nephew, but after her name is carved Morte de Chagrin, literally, died of grief, more colloquially, died of a broken heart. The returning combatants opposed this inscription (non-combatant, no right etc) until her husband offered to pay for the whole monument. Surely that is remembrance. More expressive than the thousands of other monuments (which carry the same but absent implication). Is it unique? It may be simple-minded, but how many royals, politicians and generals etc, all male, died of a broken heart? Tony Blair is alive and smiling.

    (I read about this in a letter published in Telerama)

  • 20 November 2018 at 6:46pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    When it comes to assigning blame for the massive carnage of WWI, both the military and civilian leaders (who went along with military recommendations) bear the biggest burden. After the fronts "stabilized" in the Fall of 1914 any commander with common sense knew that casualties would be near suicidal in the face of machine gun and vastly improved artillery fire (with each shrapnel shell-burst being the equivalent of hundred of bullets). Yet, in spite of this they all believed (or argued) that some combination of "esprit de corps" and "the spirit of the offensive" would overcome these fearsome defensive weapons.

    This applies to Joffre, Falkenhayn (Moltke's quick replacement), Conrad von Hoetzendorf, Haig, et al. Pershing's only hang-up was his desire to have American troops operate entirely under their own high-command control - casualties didn't bother him either. Falkenhayn based the Verdun offensive on the idea that he could bleed the French army to death - if he lost 500,000 men, so be it, as long as the French lost a few more - he knew Germany had greater manpower reserves, so he could afford to be prodigal in wasting lives. I've left out the Russians here, but they were also indifferent to huge losses. You can fairly say that all of these men (and their replacements, e.g., Hindenburg-Ludendorff) were thoroughly amoral (or immoral) in their readiness to spend the lives of their troops to achieve military objectives which they presumed would be converted into some kind of political victory (enhanced territory, losers paying the cost, rearranging the balance of power, etc.),

    As the death-toll mounted civilian leadership intransigence increased too, making "war-aims" more total and preposterous. The post-war tears shed by any of these leaders over the lost troops were truly crocodile tears, with many of them devoting the balance of their lives to ensuring that their reputations were falsely burnished rather than realistically appraised.

  • 21 November 2018 at 12:20pm
    Dectora says:
    Lorna Finlayson misreads history by insisting that her grandfather had been told that the war would be 'over by Christmas'. This sentiment, often imported into fictions about WW1, has as far as I know, no documentation in 1918. It surfaced in post war fiction, written by those who were wise after the event. If she can direct me to a printed or manuscript source of 1918 I will stand corrected.

  • 21 November 2018 at 12:26pm
    OldScrounger says:
    According to the 1964 TV series "The Great War", this much may be said in Pershing's defence: he resisted French pressure to throw his boys straight into the front line and certain slaughter before they underwent training appropriate to the peculiar nature of this war.

  • 22 November 2018 at 4:17pm
    thebluecat says:
    This November 10th, Saturday, was celebrated by a small group having a demonstration by our war memorial. I'm not sure what they called themselves: there were some pro-Brexit posters in evidence, but the most notable thing was demonstrators standing in front of the war memorial making Nazi salutes at the counter-demonstrators, focusing particularly on a group from the local synagogue - while wearing red poppies on their jackets. There were about 30 of them, and about 400 of us, dancing, drumming and singing "you're not welcome here" in several languages (including Welsh: we're about as far from Wales as you can get without having to swim...) It struck me then that irony is dead, and also how ugly they were. I realise it's shallow to judge people on appearance, but on the basis that over the age of 40 everyone has the face they deserve, they'd obviously been up to all sorts. We were having a lot more fun, mind you.

  • 23 November 2018 at 6:54pm
    Steven Taylor says:
    The further away we get from WW1 the more easily it becomes to insert sacrifice for idiocy, bravery for carnage, and pride for pointless slaughter. Most often the reasons for war depend on where you are on the battlefield, and the choices you're given. The armchair explainers on this thread never worked a machine gun or marched towards one on the Western Front. My Grandfather did both and he was reasonably clear about things. You survived as best you could. My Dad was in the RAF in WW2. He told me the main thing was to get back home in one piece. Neither mentioned Versailles or the wonders of Western democracy.

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