We’re just coming up to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. There will be many events over the next four years, but what will we be remembering? There are plenty of different perspectives, and lots of emotion too.
I’d like to suggest that instead of spending our time discussing whether it was a just war, or evaluating the strategy and tactics, that we agree that we are commemorating a tragedy. Wars may or may not be necessary, but they are always tragic. Tragedy is a complicated word – it means more than ‘awful’ or ‘wrong’. There’s space within tragedy for heroism. War is tragic because it would always be better for it not to happen – but in times of war people also perform deeds of bravery they would not have imagined possible.
The human cost of World War One was horrendous. About 17 million people died – about 10 million of them were military personnel. Casualties were of every race and religion, and from every continent – among so many others, there are about 2000 Chinese buried in WW1 cemeteries in France. About 900,000 British personnel died; to use a local example to where I live, about the same as the population now of the London Boroughs of Lambeth, Croydon and Sutton, put together.
The political consequences were huge: by the end of the war the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had collapsed, and Germany was in a state of revolution. In these islands, the lines were being drawn which would lead to the partition of Ireland. The tyrannies of Stalin and Hitler arose out of this chaos. On a much smaller scale, so did the troubles which caused so much suffering in Northern Ireland and beyond. The war was a tragedy not just because of what happened in those four years, but because it opened the door to further, and even greater disasters to come.
So how do we remember a tragedy like this? Not by standing apart – either in praise or in blame. If you’ve ever seen one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, you will know that the play invites you to experience the emotions, to share the dilemmas of the principal characters. Really good TV dramas do exactly the same. By being drawn in, we understand the complexity of what’s going on from the inside. From our hundred years’ distance, we now have the chance to understand the First World War, and at the same time to understand ourselves a bit better too