Today David Cameron announced the British government’s plans for commemorating the centenaries of the key events of the First World War. It was interesting in many different ways. Cameron announced an ambition for a ‘truly national commemoration… that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country … that says something about who we are as a people.’ He also announced his determination that his government would play ‘a leading role’. There’s a video here.
The framework of memorialisation and remembrance around war in Britain has been profoundly influenced by the First World War, but these events will speak to the present at least as much as they speak of the past. Following disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and amidst recession and stagnation at home, calls to unite around particular representations of the past speak to a number of political ends. Intensifying calls to respect and affirm military and police forces coincide with austerity and downsizing, and controversy over their political and social roles. As with the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee (mentioned by Cameron), the centenary of the First World War will be mobilised – and experienced by many people – as an occasion for nation-building.
All that said, what struck me most about Cameron’s announcement was that it was made at the Imperial War Museum London, in front of Paul Nash’s 1919 painting The Menin Road. This is an amazing work that surveys the utter devastation of a section of the battlefield, ‘perhaps the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War’. Like Nash’s equally desolate We Are Making A New World, which expressed a bitter irony towards the enthusiasm with which many artists as well as politicians had welcomed the war, it also foreshadows in chilling fashion the dark modernity of the rest of the twentieth century. It’s a deep and profound statement that all but drowns out the politician speaking in front of it.
Paul Nash 1919 The Menin Road
Image reproduced under IWM Non Commercial License © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)