SOLOMON HUGHES finds that the last thing the generation who fought in the ‘Great War’ wanted was to mark the start of the carnage
MICHAEL GOVE announced that the government wants to celebrate the anniversary of the start of the first world war in the Daily Mail.
The Education Secretary attacked “left-wing myths” that the war was “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”
For Gove it was a “just war” which was “seen by participants as a noble cause.”
Gove wants to enlist the Great War dead in his own desire to “challenge existing left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.”
But Gove is doing what none of the people who actually went through WWI would dream of — celebrating the declaration of the war, not its end.
Who commemorates the outbreak of war instead of the arrival of peace? Who would want to have parades and celebrations to remember 1914 instead of 1918?
Gove does. Cameron does. But the people of 1918 did not.
Gove believes he is the man to blurt on about the “heroism, and sacrifice, of our great-grandparents.”
But when it ended, those “great-grandparents” rejected any idea of celebrating the start of war.
Britain declared war in August 1914.
During WWI there were annual official celebrations of the declaration of war in August.
So on August 4 1917 there was a “great patriotic meeting” in the Queen’s Hall.
The prime minister and the archbishop of Canterbury addressed the 2,500-strong audience, where, according to the programme, “the singing of Rule Britannia will conclude the proceedings.”
But by August 1918 the mood had darkened.
The official Remembrance Day marking the anniversary of the declaration of war was a more sombre church service for the king and his ministers, where “any display of pageantry, any musical decorativeness was avoided.”
The archbishop of Canterbury still spoke about “glory” and “heroic sacrifice” but also said: “The world has been learning by fearful experience what war actually is.
“The facts have been burned into our living souls. To most of us war used to seem a far-off thing.
“There was about it a romance and glamour which pushed its horribleness not out of sight, but out of the foreground.
“Four years have taught us much.”
These lessons of “war’s unspeakable hatefulness” meant soldiers “are the first to resolve that, please God, a repetition of its ghastly horrors shall become impossible among men.”
As soon as the war ended in 1918 all suggestions of having any ceremony to mark the outbreak in 1914 disappeared.
I’ve searched through the Times and the Mail of August 1919 and there is no suggestion of commemorating the start of war.
Anyone who was actually in the war only wanted to remember the end, not the beginning.
The first attempt to remember the war by the generation that fought it came on “Peace Day” on July 19 1919.
A government committee led by foreign secretary Lord Curzon planned elaborate celebrations.
They were a big event, with a huge “victory march” by troops in central London and bonfires around the country.
But many servicemen wouldn’t even celebrate peace because they were so angry about the conditions they faced on returning from the trenches.
The Times records that “several hundred ex-servicemen in the Chertsey area have decided against participating in any peace celebrations as a protest at not having secured all their rights.”
This was one of many rejections of Peace Day by soldiers’ organisations angry at the lack of “homes fit for heroes” or decent jobs for ex-servicemen following their terrible fighting.
Gove wants to celebrate the start of the war, but many of the war’s veterans wouldn’t even celebrate its end.
In Luton the Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers were enraged that they were not allowed to have their own ceremony in the Town’s Wardown park.
They felt the official ceremony at the town hall was the kind of empty “patriotic” guff Gove wants to revive now.
Discharged soldiers went to the town hall and made speeches complaining about “the inadequacy of pensions” for former servicemen and “the fact that no steps had been taken to provide a peace feast and entertainments for discharged men and their families.”
The demobbed soldiers were so angry that their Peace Day protest turned into a riot.
The crowd set fire to the town hall, leaving it a burned-out shell. The Mail reported that “the police charged again and again but the crowd remained supreme.”
Rioters dragged pianos from a looted shop into the street “and played Keep the Home Fires Burning, afterwards breaking up the pianos and using the wooden and iron supports as weapons.”
Alongside the violence the Mail reports that “gramophones were also brought out of the shop and set playing in the streets. It was a kind of an orgy for an hour or two. All this time the town hall was blazing.”
A platoon of active soldiers finally restored order, although there were more riots the next day as Luton ex-servicemen demanded their comrades be released from the police station.
The July Peace Day was never repeated.
The only “celebration” of the war that finally stuck with the generation who fought it was Armistice Day, quietly remembering the November 11 1918 end of the war.
This was marked in 1919 by “two minutes silence” — what the Times called “two short minutes to thanksgiving, rejoicing, pity, lifelong pride and grief,” a time when “many were experiencing again the grief of the war.”
It was only this silence that was acceptable to the people who went through the war.
So any remembrance of the war beginning disappeared in 1918. Even attempts to celebrate peace that looked to bombastic could provoke protests and riots by ex-servicemen.
The only way to properly reflect the feelings of those who lived through the first world war is to ignore Gove and sign up to the No Glory campaign at www.noglory.org.
Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @Sol_Hughes_Writer.