First World War: the hundred years view

Sunday 20 October, 5.15pm until 6.15pm, Frobisher 1-3 Contemporary Controversies

David Cameron has announced £50m will be allocated for an ‘historic’ commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. But while we can all agree that the war itself was an epochal event, what will be the meaning of a commemoration? Can you commemorate a world war without celebrating the savage butchery of millions? Critics such as Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards suggest it would be more appropriate to remember the end of a conflict, rather than its beginning. So is there anything to be said for a commemoration next year?

A recent survey indicates that only six out of ten people feel that they have sufficient knowledge of the First World War, with that number falling with reducing age. Perhaps therefore, the centenary is an important educational opportunity. But are we sure what lessons should be learnt? Cameron argues that however frustrating and difficult are today’s debates in Europe, at least ‘we sort out our differences through dialogue at meetings around conference tables, not through the battle on the fields of Flanders’. But is the implication that ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’ any more than a cliché? Some insist that the ‘Great War’ was one of the greatest mistakes of the 20th century – in which lions were led by donkeys. Is this the full story or a myth as simplistic as any jingoistic account?

We are told one core aim of the centenary is to honour those who served and remember those who died. But who should be remembered and honoured? There is already controversy about whether the names of every German soldier who died should appear alongside the British dead soldiers at the Cenotaph, or how much emphasis should be placed on the achievement of the allies; France’s losses were double Britain’s, and by the end of the war, the largest army on the Western Front was American. Can and should the centenary avoid squabbles about victors and losers? Or might such debates help us learn more about the reality of the First World War rather than a one dimensional version of history?

Paul Lay
editor, History Today

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Sir Hew Strachan
Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford; member, UK National Committee for the Centenary of the First World War

Lesley Katon
creative director, Pagefield

Produced by
Lesley Katon creative director, Pagefield
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