'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?'
So the ConDem coalition is to spend £50 million on marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. But the flag-waving nationalism that will surely surround the events will with certainty obscure the truth about the first global conflict.
The Coalition can find millions while it is savagely cutting public services for entirely political reasons. In 2014, we will be a year away from a general election and in the countdown to a referendum on Scottish independence scheduled for the same year.
Contrived nationalism will be used to push the myth of the “One Nation” that both the Tories and Labour are fighting for copyright over, in a beauty contest of patriotic virtues that will churn the stomach. Scotland’s right to self determination will be viewed with abhorrence in the same way as those who opposed World War One were condemned as traitors.
The 900,000 British soldiers who were killed, the 1.6 million maimed and the many millions more from other countries who perished, were victims of a war not of their making and fought not in their interest.
This shocking waste of life needs to be remembered and honoured – but not in the sickening and hypocritical way that politicians from the major parties and the establishment do. They still can’t even look after their fallen or wounded troops, who have to rely on charity and the proceeds of poppy sales.
We need a memorial that spells out the truth, which explains that those who gave their lives or were wounded were cannon fodder for the ruling classes in each country. Propaganda would have it that it was the “war to end all wars” and fought for British democracy against the “tyranny of the Hun”.
In reality, it was an imperialist war fought over the division and redivision of colonial spoils, with the challenge of Germany to Britain’s empire and industrial might the principal cause.
As the great war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote to his commanding officer in July 1917, declining to return to duty after recovering from his wounds:
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. 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.
World War One was followed in a short period by recession and the Great Depression, leading directly to a resumption of hostilities in 1939 in another capitalist conflict.
The same fundamentals that produced these two world wars are still present. The global economy is on the verge of a slump greater than the 1930s. Capitalism remains an irrational system that is driven to destroy its rivals, as well as a large portion of what has been created. The fall-out from the financial crash is building into a tsunami that has alarm bells ringing from London to Washington.
Wilfred Owen, the war poet, was killed a week before the ceasefire (right up until the last minute, until the 11am armistice, generals were sending troops over the top to die) and his words are more honest than those who claim to speak for the fallen. In his Anthem for Doomed Youth, Owen wrote:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Distributing his works and those of other war poets to every household would be a much more suitable way to mark the centenary of World War One.
12 October 2012