Remembrance – but of what?
Another Remembrance Day: the last one before the four years of commemoration of the centenary of the First World War begin. Already, the announcements and the controversies are coming thick and fast. Will it all be too jingoistic / too downbeat? Will it offend the Germans / not mention them enough? Is Jeremy Paxman really the right person to front the BBC’s flagship documentary? And so forth. What is already apparent, though, is that for the next four years, the centenaries of 1914-18 are going to drown out everything else.
There is a great risk with all of this, though: the risk that the ‘everything else’ will not be properly marked. This applies to the First War itself, where much of the coverage to date – and, no doubt, most of it in the four years to come – has focused on the familiar themes, and the even more familiar imagery, of the trenches. Will adequate attention be paid to the war at sea, for example, other than at (perhaps) the centenary of Jutland in 2016 – a battle which proved to be singularly atypical of the nature and importance of the naval campaigns of the war? Will there be sufficient (or any) coverage in Britain of the Eastern Front, or of, say, the campaigns on the Isonzo? One very much doubts it.
But the First World War commemoration threatens to blot out much else, too. True, there is a campaign to commemorate the bicentenary of Waterloo in 2015, but this appears to be sending cold sweats down the backs of politicians and civil servants anxious not to offend the French. And apart from a plan to get a few hundred archers together, there appears to be no significant effort to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, also in 2015; certainly, the anniversary lacks those essential attributes of any modern campaign, a website and a Twitter account. (Sorry for the lack of a link to the ‘archers’ story; this seems to have been covered only by the Daily Mail, and I refuse on principle to link to that!) Much of this myopia can be attributed to political correctness and historical ignorance, but there is more to it than that. I was talking recently with a diplomat from the German embassy, and he was making the point that for Germany, the 1914 centenary is very low down the list of priorities for next year: his country is much more focused on the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and, above all, on the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. National memories are always very, very selective – a sad truth that has caused (and still causes) a great deal of ill-feeling between nations, and not a few wars.
In her recent guest blog on this site, Louise Berridge put the case for a new memorial to the fallen of the Crimean War, and thus reminded us of the crucial need not to forget those who fought and fell in earlier conflicts. With that in mind, I’d like to make a plea that we don’t forget the forthcoming 350th anniversaries of the second Anglo-Dutch war – a hugely important conflict for all sorts of reasons. The Dutch will certainly be commemorating it, particularly in 2017 when we come to the 350th anniversary of their successful attack on Chatham, but a few in Britain also hope to mark the anniversaries of other key events. For example, 3 June 2016 will mark the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Lowestoft, one of the greatest sea-fights of the Age of Sail. June is not a time of year that one associates with remembrance, and a battle in 1665 is not something that people usually choose to remember. No doubt the anniversary itself will be swamped by the commemoration of the centenary of Jutland, just four days earlier, and that of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, twenty-eight days later, but that does not mean it should be ignored entirely. After all, there is now no ‘living memory’ link to the First World War either; it is just as much a part of ‘the dim and distant past’ as the Battle of Lowestoft, and in that sense, events like the latter – and, dare one say it, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – are just as worthy of serious commemoration in Britain too.