Remembering the First World War is a very immediate emotion for me. I was the youngest child of a late family. My father had been born in 1899. He joined up in mid-1917, and went out in a reinforcement draft to the Highland Division on the Western front in late March 1918, just as the great German attack got under way. As others died and he survived he rapidly rose from lance-corporal to staff sergeant. When at last in his 80s he began to talk about his experiences, he told me that at one point he was second in command of the remnants of his battalion, since only one officer was left. When he told me what he had been through, I wondered if he was exaggerating. Now that I have read the histories of the Highland Division and of the Gordon Highlanders in the First World War, and checked the place-names he gave me against these records, I know that it was as awful as he said.
But I want to focus on how well we have commemorated the centenary of the first global war, and what lessons we should take from this for the approach to future commemorations, including those for the centenary of the Second World War in 20 years’ time. I was on the government’s Advisory Group for the Commemoration of World War One from the beginning. I saw the early exchanges in Whitehall about the approach to take, and I was the first British minister to talk to the German foreign office about how we might work with them to remember together
History, as we all know, is a constant battle over preferred narratives. As a nation, the British are deeply divided, even confused, about which historical narratives we prefer. I recall seeing an early memorandum to the then-Prime Minister, in – it must have been – 2012 which stated that ‘we must ensure, in our approach to the commemoration of World War One, that we do not give support to the myth that European integration is the outcome of the two world wars.’
The stated purpose of the UK Government’s approach to commemoration of the centenary was educational. We achieved that aim in engaging our younger generations in discovering the histories of their local communities, and the impact of the loss of life on families throughout Britain. We have done very well in symbolizing reconciliation with Germany, from the 2014 shared ceremony in St. Symphorien and the shared concerts with the Bundestag Choir in Westminster Hall to the participation of President Steinmeier in the ceremonies of next weekend. But we have failed in educating them about the wider context of the war, of the extent to which British forces depended on the contributions of allies and of imperial troops.
I recall entering a bookshop in the Yorkshire Dales two years ago, one as well-stocked with volumes on the two world wars as on steam trains and Yorkshire traditions, to find the owner arguing with a visitor about Brexit. ‘After all, we beat the Germans in two world wars’, he said. That is, after all, one of the widely-held counter-myths of British history, one propounded by Margaret Thatcher among many others: that Britain stood alone, in two world wars. I tentatively answered that we’d had a lot of help from others, most of all from the Americans, in both wars – to be challenged that so far as he knew the Americans had not been involved in World War One.
It’s not that surprising that few Britons appreciate the scale of the American contribution to World War One. In spite of proposals that we should make a major event of the US entry into the war, the only significant event in the British programme of commemoration took place on the west coast of Islay earlier this year, beyond the reach of major news programmes. It marked the wreck of two US transports as they approached Scotland, at the memorial high on the cliffs: important, but not helping our younger generation to understand just how vital the USA was to the achievement of victory after four exhausting years of a war of attrition.
In contrast to the gestures of reconciliation to our former German enemies, we have neglected to mark the contributions of our allies and our imperial forces. We held a small ceremony by the statue of Marshal Foch in London, to mark the point at which British forces came under his overall command – with a Guards band and two French soldiers in attendance We have not recognized that elements of the Belgian army held part of the Ypres salient throughout the war, using England as their support and supply base. We have done very little to inform our younger generation of the importance of the Indian Army, over a million men who fought on almost every front and won 25 Victoria Crosses. Nothing has been said of the West Indies Regiment in the Palestine campaign . Many of today’s south Asian and Caribbean citizens of Britain are descended from those who fought for the empire in 1914-18 or 1939-45: Baroness Scotland and Baroness Warsi among them, as well as Lord Bilimoria. What a lost opportunity to contribute to national integration, and to a better understanding of how closely our history is linked to our continental neighbours.
The French commemoration has been far more generous to its partners and allies, as well as its former enemies. An open-air exhibition along the Champs Elysees, in 2014-15, carried pictures of allied troops in all their diversity: Scots, English, Indian, Moroccan as well as French. British troops have marched in the July 14th parade. A special ceremony marked the American entry to the war, impressing President Trump so much that he wanted to initiate regular military parades in Washington. The British have focussed on our own war and our own forces, leaving Americans, French, Belgians, Indians, even Australians and Canadians in the background.
The Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph is, in effect, the annual symbolic representation of British history and identity. In 1919, the first parade past the Cenotaph included troops from 12 empire and allied forces as well as from Britain. Since then it has shrunk to an entirely British ceremony, unchanged for half a century. I welcome the participation of the German president in this year’s event, as a sign of openness to change. Should we not follow the French example from their July 14th ceremonies in future years, and invite forces of other countries with whom we have shared common dangers and threats to take part?
Contingents from India and Pakistan, to mark how much Britain depended on their predecessors in past conflicts? Polish troops and airmen, to tell our young people the crucial contributions they made in the Second World War, in intelligence, in the Battle of Britain, at Arnhem and Monte Cassino? Belgian forces, to tell our right-wing politicians that many Belgians fought on, from British bases, in both world wars? I recall in government a Conservative minister remarking that the Belgians never fight, to be corrected by an official who told him that Belgian and British planes were flying joint missions over Libya at the time. And of course the French, our vital ally in World War One whose resistance to occupation we supported in World War Two.
Britain did not stand alone, in either World War. The myth that we did, that we not only ‘invented freedom’ but also saved it from continental tyranny, is embedded in the most widespread national narrative, and in the way we have approached the commemoration of the sacrifices of the two wars. As we reflect on the efforts we have made to educate our younger generations on the national experience of World War One, I hope that we will learn lessons for a more inclusive approach in the future, a recognition that Britain’s security has been maintained with the support of others, and will only be maintained in the future if we continue to cooperate with others..
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.