Less than three minutes into the documentary. Sombre violins. Zoom-ins towards black and white photographs. Paxman’s voice: “For the first time in the nation’s history, ordinary people were being dragged into total war ” Close up of a little girl. “This is the story of how that conflict transformed the lives of everyone in Britain.”
Tense drums and brass flood my ears. Fleeting shots of advancing troops, women carrying sacks, men putting on coats. “Each man and woman would have to play their part. The nation would have to change utterly and change quickly to have any hope of victory”. Yes, because Britain was the underdog. A crescendo. The titles, set to melancholy piano and layered sepia photos of soldiers kissing babies and ladies paddling at the seashore.
BRITAIN’S GREAT WAR, it proclaims. This is the tip of a four year iceberg.
I think it important here to say a true and much needed sorry to all Germans living in the UK, or can see the fuss being made here from Germany. All of you, watching our television, hearing our radios, reading our websites, attending our churches and (worst of all) talking to us are about to see the British at their worst.
It won’t even have been a hundred years until late July 2014, but already Centenary Fever has poured into our lives. Telling us to feel: to feel self-congratulatory and sanctimonious and sympathetic and grateful for our lives and liberties. Books will be released (there are already 8000 on topic). A historical blockbuster. The bloodshed, the leadership, the love stories, the relatives, all of it will be reviewed, revived and rehashed “lest we forget”.
Westminster and the BBC are leading the march (there will probably be a march) with countless nationwide history projects being funded and a four year season packed with television and radio from familiar faces revealing not a huge amount. The Prime Minister has coughed up £50million to celebrate the centenary, comparing it to 2012’s Jubilee. He has even hired a minister, Andrew Murrison, who would find it “remarkable if the Great War wasn’t woven into practically everything that goes on”.
Though what’s inexplicable to me is why the beginning of the war is being celebrated. Millions died in World War One, but instead we’re hearing of isolated stories picked out to make us tear up, which trivialises a horrible period of our recent history. Britain’s Great War spoonfeeds viewers with the hard work of British men and women right here and the sacrifices of our boys abroad. But it was so much more than that.
We, most of us, make up a country trapped in a loop of nostalgia for our past military triumphs, feeling their pride as if we won them but insulated from their cruelty and it’s beginning to get rather pathetic. We must understand our history, both the successes and the losses instead of wallowing in a chauvinistic hangover of imperial times.
For now, Britain’s Great War continues. The next episode will be shown at 9pm, Monday the 10th February on BBC One.