Sunday, 5 January 2014

In Remembrance of Lions

Harry Patch - A coin for our times?
The Government has come under substantial criticism for deciding to put Lord Kitchener on the new £2 coins to mark the beginning of what could easily see-saw uncomfortably between commemoration and celebration of the slaughter of the First World War as we approach the centenary of its beginning in August. Education Secretary Michael Gove, who worryingly is responsible for the current review of the history curriculum to make it more supposedly patriotic, has added to the furore by claiming the war to have been a noble one, seen as noble by those fighting it, and a "just" conflict. He has accused supposedly left-wing historians as well as programmes such as Blackadder Goes Forth and the Monocled Mutineer of tarnishing it out of some sort of seditious lack of Britishness and an apparently perverse support of Prussian militarism.

There is not the space here to consider his claims, but both Labour's Tristram Hunt and Cambridge University historian Sir Richard Evans have given powerful responses to Gove, castigating his simplistic and narrow-minded view of events and, in Sir Richard's case, his cunning plans for history teaching in schools.

Gove, who has never served in the military or been in harm's way in the service of our country, is just like so many politicians who talk tough with other people's lives - but as for Kitchener himself, he is an odd choice  for a coin.

Conqueror of the still-troubled Sudan in 1898 in as bloody a campaign as might be imagined, Lord Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum ceased being a serving general to become a member of the Liberal Party Cabinet as Secretary of State for War at the commencement of hostilities. He was key to the drive to raise a volunteer force for what some have described as "the war that had to be fought". After a record-breaking period of over 40 years of general (though not total) peace, the European imperial powers - Russia, Germany, France, and Austro-Hungary (and arms merchants far and wide) - were itching for a conflagration to settle their primacy as industrial, social and political changes swept their peoples, challenging the long, tense equilibrium of The Powers. Britain, with its naval supremacy and huge overseas Empire, was to an extent on the sidelines, but tied to Russia and France through the Tripartite Alliance. So, when the Czar declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, we were drawn in within a matter of days.

Kitchener himself played no part in the fighting as regiment after regiment were slaughtered on the fields of Flanders, whose red poppies today commemorate the blood spilled on its soil. Perhaps contrary to popular imagination, he did argue for a cautious approach and opposed what he termed "too vigorous offensives". But while other generals still genuinely believed the war would last months, Kitchener was planning for at least a three year conflict which he believed would last "until the final million", whether as a warning or as a strategy, or both, it is not clear, but chilling under any circumstance.

After initial success in organising the new armies for the front, Kitchener came under increasing criticism for failing to organise weapons and munitions supplies and was gradually sidelined by Prime Minister Asquith. He became an envoy to the Czar and died in June 1916 en route to Russia when his ship was sunk by a German mine off the Orkneys.

For a century now, the Great War, once seen as "the war to end all wars", has been judged as far from just in either its cause or execution. It was grounded in squabbles between unelected Royal families in eastern Europe and led directly to the deaths of fifteen million people, with many more injured and disabled or displaced. It traumatised a generation and led rapidly to the conditions that would claim over sixty million lives in the 1939 to 1945 war.

We should commemorate those who died - no one can doubt their bravery and sacrifice, but unlike the Second World War and the struggle against the Nazis, their deaths were at the hands of their political leaders as much as at the ends of their opponents guns. That the conflict unleashed consequences on a scale they could perhaps not have imagined (although Kitchener apparently did) is no mitigation.

Commemoration should therefore be about the people who were at risk, who lived and died in the trenches, rather than the men who sent them there from the safety of their Whitehall office desks. So rather than Kitchener on our coins, why not Harry Patch, the very last veteran of the 1918 army, who died in July 2009? His perspective on the conflict was rather different to Mr Gove's gung-ho take on it. Rather than a noble cause, Harry Patch, a veteran of Passchendale, warned that the war was "organised murder, and nothing else."

Harry Patch would be an appropriate face on our coinage, but it is doubtful if his views would chime with our Government's intentions for the remembrance of the war, coming as they do ahead of the difficulties they face in the European elections in May and the General Election next year. When he was 106 years old, Harry met a former Austrian solider, who was 107, and, declaring his former opponent to be a "nice gentleman", he said, "He is all for a united Europe and peace - and so am I."

Lions led by donkeys is a long used phrase to describe the British Army of the Great War, men who lived and died in the most appalling conditions. Many of those suffering shell-shock were punished in on way or another, and over three hundred, including at least one 16 year old child, were executed by firing squads sanctioned by the British Government and Lord Kitchener. It is an insult to them to lead their remembrance with a coin that has no space for anyone who served in the actual conflict and all the more galling to have Michael Gove try to put such an appalling spin on the slaughter. He might do well to think on this extract from Harry Patch's book, The Last Fighting Tommy, and ask himself if this really is what he believes to have been noble:

"We came across a lad from A company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: 'Shoot me'. He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was 'Mother.' I remember that lad in particular. It's an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind."

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