“Sir Humphrey” is on what he terms as his “very late Summer Holidays”, but left a thoughtful-as-always post on the British government’s recently announced World War 1 commemoration program:
It was announced that over £50 million of public funding will be provided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014. This high profile event will include commemoration, remembrance, and a chance for every school in the country to send students to the battlefields of the Western Front in order to see first-hand ‘Flanders Fields’.
Rarely do wars have such a dramatic impact on a national psyche, but the First world War continues to occupy a place in the heart of the British consciousness which will take generations to reduce. It is sobering to contemplate that across the whole of the UK, there were fewer than 50 ‘Thankful villages’ (locations where everyone who served came back alive). Even today, as a nation we have only just seen the last veterans of the conflict pass on, and there are still plenty of people alive who were born in this time. In Government, it is often forgotten that Lord Astor, who acts as the spokesman for Defence in the House of Lords, is the grandchild of Field Marshal Haig. Even now, almost a century on, our current links to the war remain tangible.
Humphrey has long been a ‘revisionist’ when it comes to WW1, and believes that what should be remembered as not only a violent and bloody war, also represented many of the finest feats of arms in British history. While the conventional view of the 1960s and beyond was of a war that comprised senseless slaughter, where legions of troops were thrown into battle by an uncaring General Staff, the reality is far different. Arguably WW1 represented a supreme accomplishment by the General Staff, who had to take a tiny professional army, expend it and buy time using the TA to mould a new citizen based force, which within five years became the world’s most accomplished fighting force. They did this in a backdrop of expanding the military far beyond what any would have thought possible, while adapting to technological changes at a vast rate. By the start of the One Hundred Days campaign in 1918, there is no doubt that the British Army was probably the best trained equipped and operationally effective army in the world.
This is not to diminish the slaughter or the losses felt, but it often feels that the emphasis is too greatly placed on the hellish experiences of the trenches, and not that of understanding the war, nor decision making as a whole. It is perhaps telling that the most popular public memory of WW1 comes not from primary sources, but from the comedy ‘Blackadder Goes Fourth’, clips of which to this day brighten up innumerable MOD presentations.
The Canadian memories of WW1 are a bit different from those of Britain, although shaped by the same forces: before the war started, Canada was still psychologically a colony of the Mother Country. At the end of the war, Canada stood as a recognized independent entity from Britain (though still recognizing the importance of Britain and the Empire and a proud member of the Empire), with a very hard-earned military reputation. The legalities of full independence still lay in the future (the Statute of Westminster, 1931), but the Canada of 1918 was not the same place it had been in 1914. It saw itself as a nation, not a colony.