William Wallace writes….Britain’s security depends on our co-operation with others

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..

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • John Marriott 11th Nov '18 - 10:10am

    I can’t remember his exact words but, during his speech to the Labour Conference this year, Jeremy Corbyn said something like; “2018 represents the centenary of an important event.” I was thinking “the end of WW1”, when he added “of our party introducing Clause Four”. Well, you could see what turned him on.

    While we should honour the dead of all conflicts, including those innocent civilians caught in the cross fire, let us not indulge in hubris. The First World War was a product of nationalism on both sides. Putting all the blame on Germany and its allies for this conflict as the victorious allies did at Versailles was a mistake, which led inexorably to a renewal of hostilities some twent years later. In football parlance, you could argue that WW1 was the first half, WW2 was the second, with rather a long half time!

    Nationalism appears to be back on the agenda. We need to ask ourselves why. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Fascism is back as well. What politicians of all colours have neglected to do is to pay enough attention to the concerns of ordinary people, who are increasingly feeling detached from what is going on where the power brokers do their business. ‘Strong’ leaders play on this fear. Pride in your country should never mean ‘My country right or wrong’.

  • nigel hunter 11th Nov '18 - 10:30am

    Can we also remember the Chines ‘coolies’ewho worked behind the lines in support.

  • John Marriot
    Nationalism never went away. We live in nation states and we vote as people in nation states.
    I think what drove both World Wars was the belief in the values of expansion and of empire. Behind all expansionist thought is the idea that the values being expanded are or should be seen as universal and right. Communism and religion share a similar conceits and war like tendencies.
    Plenty of countries exist as nationalistic entities without going to war on their neighbours. What we are seeing at the moment is not the growth of populism , but the reassertion of the nation state as the basic unit of democracy as the noble lie of globalism unravels.

  • John Marriott 11th Nov '18 - 2:27pm

    You may be right in your explanation of what “drove both world wars”. I have for many years subscribed to the theory that the first, whose unsatisfactory conclusion planted the seeds for the second, while undoubtedly motivated by what you call “values of expansion and empire”, was the inevitable result of the turn of the century arms race and a desire, particularly on the part of Austria-Hungary, Germany, Turkey and Russia, to maintain their particular form of autocracy in a rapidly changing world.

    By appealing to their populaces, circumventing the politicians (“I do not recognise parties any more, only Germans” – Kaiser Wilhelm II in his address to the German people on the outbreak of war), Emperors Wilhelm, Franz Josef, Czar Nicholas, the Sultan of Turkey and their advisers were able to cover over to some extent the cracks that were appearing in their regimes and use war as a way of saving their own skins. They failed and, as we all know, the result was that they all became a footnote in history.

    There is no doubt that the prevention of further wars, particularly in Europe, was a major motivator behind Monet’s and Schumann’s efforts in the immediate post war period. To assume that more European wars would have been inevitable unless states got together politically as well as economically misses the point that, if only the ‘victors’ had been as magnanimous towards the other side at Versailles after WW1 as they had been at Potsdam after WW2 the latter might have been avoided. You could add the fact that, despite the efforts of President Wilson, the USA declined to join the League of Nations, whereas, a quarter of a century later, it was prepared to engage fully in the post war world by helping to found the United Nations and underwriting NATO, which has done more to uphold the peace than any European ‘superstate’.

    Having said that, if Trump gets his way, perhaps Messrs Schumann and Monet might yet be proved right. Whatever happens, it will undoubtedly be ordinary men and women, who will be expected to pay the price.

  • John Marriot.
    I think you are right about the arms race. I’d trace a lot of the militarism back to Bismarck. However, I suspect one of the main reasons for WWII was that a blind eye was turned to the rebuilding of Germany’s military capability that saw bomber and fighter development being passed off as research into the production of airliners and racing planes. Having said that, there probably was no way of stopping it short of occupation, which would have resulted in a different set of problems.

  • nvelope2003 12th Nov '18 - 3:00pm

    In recent years the Irish Ambasador has laid a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in recognition of the contribution of the Irish people to the Allied Victory in both wars. This year the German President laid a wreath.
    As has been said above, the war was not all Germany’s fault. Not so sure about the way it was conducted though but a quicker response to their peace feelers and less determination to humiliate them by demands for unconditional surrender might have saved many lives and faces though I suspect that might have been hard to bear for those who had lost so much.

  • Christopher Haigh 12th Nov '18 - 5:13pm

    The French Revolution 1789 destabilised the existing European order, and the shock waves reverberated through causing territorial tensions right up to the formation of the. EU.

  • John Marriott 13th Nov '18 - 8:37am

    Thanks for the history lesson, Mr Bourke. I think that most people would agree with your sequence of events, although the late AJP Taylor reckoned the mobilisation was all down to railway timetables! (It’s a good job that our current military planning is reliant on railways, especially over here.)

    By 1914 Imperial Germany and the US were starting to overhaul the U.K. as economic powers. Indeed, there is some speculation that Imperial Russia might have done the same had not the revolution intervened. Indeed, the Kaiser recognised this fact as he did the rise of China and Japan (the ‘yellow peril’), which may have influenced his calculations. Incidentally, it was Churchill, I beiieve, who factored Islam into the equation as early as the 1890s.

    Germany undoubtedly envisaged the creation of a European economic block of vassal states with itself in the driving seat. Where have we heard that before? Britain thought that it could rely on its Empire, with the support of its navy, to provide the raw materials for continued economic success. Unfortunately, history teaches us that every Empire has its day. Are you listening, Mr Trump. Sadly, it’s the ordinary people who have to shoulder the burden for ambition. That’s what November 11 is really all about. As Marlene Dietrich famously sang; “When will they ever learn?”

  • John Marriott 13th Nov '18 - 10:12am

    Oops! The last sentence of the first paragraph should read “isn’t reliant on railways”.

  • Peter Hirst 13th Nov '18 - 3:58pm

    If I remember anything useful from the history of World War 1, it is that leaders distant from the population with little accountability take risks that others more connected would never contemplate. Political like military leadership needs to have flexibility and never forget the possible collateral damage from their decisions.

  • The role of the French has been overlooked. Since at least the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) they had tried to extend their borders to the Rhine which they considered to be their natural frontier. The fact that the inhabitants spoke German was considered irrelevant but there had been a longstanding rivalry between France and the Habsburg German Holy Roman Empire. The French Revolutionaries and Napoleon continued this policy and the Rhineland was occupied with little opposition from the inhabitants in the period before nationalism became dominant.
    After the defeat of Napoleon what had previously been many small states became the Prussian Province of Rhineland greatly increasing the power of that Kingdom and posing a threat to France.
    In 1870 the French declared war on Prussia and lost. Parts of Alsace and Lorraine were ceded to the new German Empire and and an embittered France looked for every opportunity to recover them. This Republic formed an Alliance with the Tsarist Autocracy and when Austria and Germany declared war on what they considered the terrorist supporting Serbia in an area which resembles the modern Middle East, France backed Russian support for Serbia and declared war on Germany who invaded through Belgium thus permitting Britain to declare war in line with their treaty obligations to that country, which Germany had neither expected or wanted.
    France got Alsace and Lorraine back and then again after 1945 but that time the local German dialect was effectively banned and people obliged to speak French although not at home if they were older.The French did try to keep Saarland but a plebiscite prevented that.

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