As we pass into the New Year, 2014 brings with it the approach of the Great War Centenary. While it will not be until the summer before the actual anniversary of the start of the First World War begins, books are already appearing and the planned television coverage for the centenary starts this month with some of the first BBC material being aired, including Jeremy Paxman’s flagship four-part series about Britain in WW1.
Discussion on how the centenary should be interpreted began last year but the announcement of a commemorative coin from the Royal Mint, showing a rather ugly depiction of Lord Kitchener – no doubt inspired by the famous recruiting poster – kicked off a bit of a Twitter storm as to whether Kitchener was an appropriate figure to feature; was he too ‘martial’ a symbol? Some forget that Kitchener died in the war and was in the fact the most senior ranking soldier to die between 1914 and 1918; he is as much part of the ‘glorious dead’ as any other casualty. More debate followed with Michael Gove’s statement that “Left wing myths peddled by left wing historians and comedies like Blackadder belittle Britain and clear Germany of blame.” Already politicians are beginning to use the Centenary to push their own political agendas and one wonders how much this will increase as the 2015 looms closer.
For many the politicisation of the Great War Centenary and the issue of cheap souvenirs only confirms what they believe: that 2014-2018 could be as much of a disaster for those interested in WW1, as a blessing. I have some sympathy with this view but the web, Twitter and other aspects of social media are a way to redress this.However, it will require some action. Those who have studied the Great War long before it became fashionable, those who have moved the knowledge beyond Alan Clark, and those few who interviewed WW1 veterans have the perfect time to share that knowledge with a wider audience, who will be keen to see genuinely new material and hear new ideas as the centenary unfolds. It isn’t enough to sit there and moan. It is about engagement: realise that a subject no-one cared about when I first went to the Somme more than thirty years ago is now almost mainstream and use that – so a wider tale can be told than just the pronouncements of a few politicians and authors of fiction. The Great War Centenary is our challenge, and I hope that many will rise to it: evidence from the Blogosphere and projects like Lives of WW1 seem to demonstrate that this has already begun.