I’m sick of the First World War. I’m sick of the hype. I’m sick of the sentimentality. I’m sick of the emotional manipulation. I’m sick of the trivialization. I’m sick of the rewriting and reinterpretation of history to serve contemporary political ends.
Both my grandfathers and three great uncles served in the First World War; one family photo, taken in England, shows my grandmother’s cousins in their Canadian uniforms, emphasising the international and imperial dimensions of this war of empires.
Another picture shows two of my great uncles – the one I knew as a kindly old man and the one who died on the Somme, age 24; the one whose name is on a plaque with 72,194 others who fought in the same action and have no known grave. As I grow older, this particular photograph not only refuses to fade, but becomes more poignant with each passing year. It’s the thought of what might have happened; what should have happened – he should have had the opportunity to be married, to have children and grandchildren, to grow old, to have a life.
There was an interview on the radio the other day with a girl who’d been on a school trip to the battlefields and cemeteries of the First World War. They’d been asked to choose the grave of an unknown soldier and then to give him a name and a story. She explained how doing this helped to make things real, how the young people felt that they could relate to “their” soldier, how they could represent his family and honour his sacrifice.
Just because we don’t know who’s buried beneath that stone doesn’t mean that somewhere there isn’t a family who remembers that soldier’s name, recounts his real story and treasures his photograph. Is it really respectful or useful to reduce the brutal reality of an unmarked grave to a sentimental exercise in creative writing? If we really want to honour those who fell, shouldn’t we be teaching our young people about the causes and geopolitical consequences of the conflict as ancient enmities reignite in the remnants of the Russian and Ottoman empires?