I would like to associate myself with comments made by honourable Members on all sides of this House in paying tribute to the millions of people – of all nationalities – who lost their lives during the First World War.
I must admit, however, that I have been somewhat uncomfortable with the way in which debates surrounding the commemorations of the ‘great war’ have been framed in recent months.
At the end of October 2012, my colleague, the honourable Member for Arfon [Hywel Williams], and I tabled an Early Day Motion criticising the government’s decision to spend £50 million on plans to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war, in an attempt, as the Prime Minister put it, to replicate the same national “spirit” as the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
We argued then that, keeping in mind that an estimated 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians lost their lives during or as a result of the conflict, not to mention the millions who were injured or left in mourning, any attempt to observe the centenary in a positive manner would be deeply insensitive.
This should not be, as some have argued, an opportunity to celebrate the ‘best of British’ spirit; it should not be used as an excuse to redraft the national curriculum so that schoolchildren in England at least are taught a skewed, victorious version of history.
The First World War should rather be remembered as the unnecessary massacre that it was: it was, after all, the first industrialised war of its kind, and marked the first time that chemical gas, machine guns, and tanks were used on this scale. Men and boys rushed to enlist, thinking that it would “all be over by Christmas”. The military leaders who led them into battle were utterly unprepared for how long the conflict would last, or what horrors ‘trench warfare’ would bring about.
And the fate which awaited them, as Wilfred Owen had it, was that they “die[d] as cattle” – truly, the sheer numbers of the dead meant that the army was forced to review the way in which dead soldiers were buried: rather than mass burials and unmarked graves, each soldier’s name was recorded, and then engraved on the war memorials which are to be found in villages and towns throughout Europe.
In another of Owen’s celebrated poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, the poet exposes “the old lie” that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country. But quite apart from the horrendous ways in which the young men died – which, of course, was what the poet was referring to in his closing couplet – the war itself was not a war sprung from noble causes. It was instead inspired by competing imperial foreign policies. Speaking at an event in Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire argued that:
“The shot fired in Sarajevo a century ago set off, like a starting pistol, a race for power, two global wars, a Cold War, a century of immense, rapid explosion of death and destruction.”
The worst lie of all was that it would be the “war to end all wars”: in hindsight, the end of that conflict in 1918 only marked the prelude to mass unemployment, depression, and eventually a Second World War.
During a period of convalescence in July 1917, the soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon, wrote a letter renouncing the war effort to his commanding officer. Copies of the letter, under the title ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’, were printed in newspapers and his words were quoted during a debate in this place by Hastings Lees-Smith MP.
In his letter, Sassoon lamented the fact that: “the war upon which [he] entered as a war of defence and liberation ha[d] now become a war of aggression and conquest.”
“I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”
Sassoon only escaped a court martial by being diagnosed with shell-shock, and was declared unfit for service.
A year later, the English Officer Charles Carrington said that, “England was beastly in 1918 … Envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness, fear and cruelty born of fear, seemed the dominant passions of the leaders of nations in those days.”
Hardly a sentiment worth commemorating.
Yet a recent editorial in the Irish Times summarises the political capital of the debate rather well. The piece, published on 18th June, points out that: “[T]he first World War has been a battle for the control of memory as much as it has been about remembering those who were killed.”
It also argues that: “Today, the fight to control history continues, since the war is seen through the prism of the growing debate about the need to define and assert “British values” in a changing cultural landscape.”
This is perhaps what Jeremy Paxman had in mind when he commented recently that: “The events now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged.”
It is fitting, of course, that part of the commemorations will include the reopening of the Imperial War Museum. The museum fulfils a highly important role in educating generations about the realities of war, and it should be commended for the work it does. But we should not forget that when the museum first opened on 9th June 1920, the Chairman of the museum, the Rt Hon Sir Alfred Mond MP, said that: “The museum was not conceived as a monument to military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.”
Those in public life today would do well to keep this in mind.
During debates on the Imperial War Museum Act (1920), Commander Joseph Kenworthy MP had said:
“We should forbid our children to have anything to do with the pomp and glamour and the bestiality of the late War, which has led to the death of millions of men. I refuse to vote a penny of public money to commemorate such suicidal madness of civilisation as that which was shown in the late War.”
A distinction should be made, of course, between celebrating the “pomp and glamour and … bestiality” of war, and commemorating those who died. I am firmly in support of the campaign to erect a Welsh Memorial in Flanders, which has already raised over £100,000 of its £150,000 target. I understand that the Welsh Government has also pledged money to the project. The memorial, which will be made from stone donated by Graig Yr Hesg Quarry in Pontypridd, will be unveiled during a ceremony on 16th August this year.
In May, my colleague, the Rt Hon Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd [Elfyn Llwyd], hosted a reception in this place to raise awareness of the campaign in parliament. I was glad to lend my support then and to do so again now.
Because it is only right that a memorial of this kind should be in place. More than 20,000 Welsh men died during the war, and every village in Wales was left in mourning.
Over 4,000 Welshmen died in Mametz Wood alone in July 1916 – most from Monmouthshire and Brecknockshire – indeed, it is bitterly ironic that some of those killed had survived the mining disaster in Senghennydd in 1913. I know that Owen Sheers has written a poem about Mametz, which is now on the GCSE curriculum, and that his play Mametz is being staged by the National Theatre of Wales this week in Usk.
It is pertinent, though, that the new memorial will be in Flanders, where the majority of Welshmen lost their lives – including our celebrated poet, Hedd Wyn.
“Hedd Wyn” was the pen name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, who was awarded the prestigious ‘Chair’ prize in the Eisteddfod of 1917 for his winning awdl, ‘Yr Arwr’, or ‘The Hero’. Evans was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele on 31st July 1917. During the chairing ceremony the following September, when his poem was declared the winner, it was also announced that he had died in battle, and the chair was draped in a black cloak. Ever since, Evans has been referred to as ‘Bardd y Gadair Ddu’, ‘The Bard of the Black Chair’. In a moving poem of that name, R. Williams Parry imagines that the arms of the chair itself are reaching, “mewn hedd hir am un ni ddaw” (“in everlasting peace, for one who will never come”). I should note that the English meaning of “Hedd Wyn” is white, or blessed, peace.
I would of course wish to associate myself with tributes being made to those who died – and believe that it is only right that their sacrifice should be commemorated.
But, as my colleague and I argued in our EDM, it would surely be more appropriate to commemorate the end of the war in 2018 rather than its beginning.
In Goodbye to All That (1929), Robert Graves said of the Armistice, “The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan (an ancient battlefield, the Flodden of Wales), cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”
Even peace, for some, served only to emphasise the futility of the war and the senselessness of so many dead.
This year’s commemorations should provide an opportunity for sombre reflection, for pausing and for remembering those who died.
But we should not forget the pity of war and the pointlessness of the conflict which began in 1914.
As history has shown, it was far from being the “war to end all wars”.
I’d like to end by quoting an englyn, by William Ambrose (Emrys):
“Celfyddyd o hyd mewn hedd — aed yn uwch
O dan nawdd tangnefedd;
Segurdod yw clod y cledd,
A’i rwd yw ei anrhydedd.”
The closing couplet translates as:
“Idleness is the glory of the sword
And rust is its distinction”.
Diolch yn fawr.
Here is a beautiful setting of the R Williams Parry poem performed by Meibion Prysor.