Why we should celebrate the First World War as well as commemorate it

Professor Hew Strachan is one of several leading historians speaking at BBC History Magazine’s First World War Day in Bristol on 4 November. Here, as a taster for the event, he considers how we should view the war today

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Over the next few years, and particularly between 2014 and 2018, we are going to stand before our local war memorials, looking at the names of those who went forth to the Somme and Passchendaele, to Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, and did not come back. Quite a few will travel to see their graves, still so beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We may be moved to tears, by the youth of those killed, or by the words put at their relatives’ request on their headstones, and in our emotion too many of us may repeat those accusatory adjectives thrown so often at the First World War: ‘wasteful’ and ‘futile’.

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There is a paradox here. How can we honour those who died if we do not honour the cause for which they gave their lives? The question is pressing enough today, as we struggle to differentiate between our support for the armed forces (which is high) and our doubts about the wars in which they are engaged (for which we blame not them but politicians). Today’s soldiers rarely describe what they are doing in terms that are patriotic or ideological, preferring instead to stress professionalism and comradeship. However, those who fought in the First World War were mostly citizen soldiers, whose values reflected the society from which they were recruited.

Last letters home may not be particularly reliable sources. They were composed by men who knew that they would have to provide succour to their families in their despair. So they were not going to use words like ‘wasteful’ or ‘futile’. Equally they could not afford to lie in these, their final words to their loved ones. We pass over too quickly their references to the justness of the cause. If we treat those beliefs flippantly, we cannot in truth be honouring their authors or their motivations.

Remarkably few of those who died doubted the legitimacy of what they were doing. Of course they could not afford to, given that they were sacrificing their own lives for it. Nor could those who mourned believe anything else, because to accept that their deaths had been in vain would be both a betrayal of their memory and an end to one form of consolation. But this belief that the war was both necessary and in a good cause, that it was “the Great War for civilisation”, in the words of the Victory Medal struck by Britain after the war was over, has been largely forgotten.

In 1904 Britain and France came to an understanding which formed part of the reason why the British army went to Europe ten years later. The entente required Germany to see it as a hostile alliance for it to become one. It was a resolution of outstanding colonial disputes between two imperial powers, a continuation of old diplomacy between two great powers, more than it was a harbinger of the war which ushered in the modern world. But the Manchester Guardian, whose editor CP Scott would oppose Britain’s entry to the war in July 1914, welcomed “the new friendship” for ‘”the chance it affords of a genuine alliance between the democracies in both countries for the furtherance of a common democratic cause”.

We need to reintegrate these ideas, which suggest that the First World War was fought for values that we also respect, as we approach its centenary. If we cannot admit competing and sometimes contradictory interpretations of the war, then its commemoration is unlikely to deepen our understanding, and so will prove as futile and wasteful as the stock clichés about its appalling losses.

Hew Strachan will be among a host of leading historians discussing the latest research on the First World War at the BBC History Magazine First World War Day, which takes place at M Shed, Bristol, on Sunday 4 November. Find out more, and book tickets, at www.historyextra.com/events

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Don’t forget, there are still tickets available to hear Tracy Borman, Marc Morris, Laurence Rees and Ashley Jackson speak at the BBC History Magazine Lectures at the British Academy