Dr Andrew Murrison MP has been appointed as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for the Great War centenary. His book Tommy this and Tommy that: The Military Covenant is published by Biteback (royalties to The Royal British Legion).
In 2014 the parties to the conflict will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.
War broke out in summer 1914 on the basis that it would all be done by Christmas. Four years later, there were 15 million dead and 20 million wounded. Nothing would ever be the same again and in 1939 we had the sequel.
Marking and learning from the Great War is not just right, it’s a duty owed to those that fell, their posterity and ours.
However, there is a minority view that we should do nothing until Armistice Day 2018 on the grounds that in the UK we mark the end of conflict rather than its beginning, a process facilitated by a habit of victory. The proposition advanced is that we should celebrate the peace without commemorating the pain. Not only would that, in my view, be failing in our duty to remember, but it would miss the opportunity for reflection, enlightenment and community offered by the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the ensuing drumbeat of battles.
The parties to the conflict have plans for 2014-18 at various levels of maturity. It is clear that each country will emerge with a very different way of marking the series of anniversaries that respects its traditions, the different perceptions it has of the Great War and the legacy it seeks. France, for example, has plans centred on its battlefields and a museum, the Flanders provincial government proposes an initiative called ‘Flanders Fields.’ Australia will focus on Gallipoli.
The young men that returned from the trenches in 1918, when asked how their comrades might be memorialised, invariably suggested fairly modest local schemes, often practical and enduring, invariably on an intensely human scale. Impressive national memorials in sandstone and granite tended to follow later.
What would they expect to see a hundred years on?
Well, up and down the country, there has been an upsurge of interest in local and family history across which the Great War is plastered. Fascinating accounts have emerged celebrating the unsung achievements of men and women in sepia photographs. Posing stiffly in uniform for probably the first and last image that was ever taken of them, they have a curious way of connecting to young people today.
The narrative of what war meant to ordinary people breathes life into the history of conflict. There can be no better way of marking the war-to-end-all- wars, than interpreting the great events of 1914-18 on a local canvass.
There, I suggest, lies the opportunity for a uniquely British commemoration of the events leading on from 1914. It is one that MPs can do a great deal to encourage and be a part of. It is very Big Society.
Like no other, this country enjoys a rich tapestry of voluntary organisations and non-governmental institutions. Some of their plans for 2014-2018 are already well advanced. They are impressive and will ultimately succeed partly because they are independent of Whitehall. Of central importance, the Imperial War museum, a truly great national institution founded shortly before the end of the Great War, will open a multi-million pound permanent exhibition of the war to end all wars. In commemorating throughout the country the pivotal event of the twentieth century, central government must provide leadership and encouragement, it must facilitate and coordinate. But it must not dictate.