Monday, 26 May 2014

Centenary Misgivings

As welcome as the renewed interest in the Great War is and as worthwhile as some of the centenary projects are – the IWM lives of World War One – is an example, I am beginning to have serious misgivings about the centenary.

Firstly, the BBCs laudable efforts since the beginning of the year particularly the Hastings and Ferguson debates have been rather let down by the quite ridiculous The Crimson Field. Having caught up with the series and watched it until its conclusion I have to confess to finding it complete and total bilge. Of course I am aware that the programme is designed for entertainment first and as such most historical detail can be cheerfully cast aside in the name of ratings but some of the bizarre coincidences the soap opera like nature of each characters storyline and the complete lack of commentary by anyone that mentions anything to do with the actual fighting are just some examples.

Shelling only seems to take place once every other episode and nobody ever seems to get their hands, let alone their uniforms, dirty. The weekly arrival of a convoy of wounded, accompanied by some heartfelt plucking of various string instruments seems to be the only real acknowledgement that a war is taking place. Various characters seem to have enough time on their hands to make secret assignations in the woods or to slope off to the nearby town for a jolly. Virtually every Great War cliché has been explored in this first series and I fully expect that if a second series is commissioned one of the characters will start writing poetry. Utter tripe!

But far worse is the recently launched Football Remembers Project. As I understand it the football connection is being introduced to commemorate the football match that took place between British and German soldiers during the Christmas truce of 1914.  There’s just one problem. There is no valid historical evidence that any such football match ever took place. The brilliant author Henry Williamson, who was actually at the front on Christmas day 1914, does say that a football was kicked into the air and several men chased after it. He also reports that a game was proposed to take place behind German lines. The idea that any Officer would let his men go off behind enemy lines to enjoy a kick about is ludicrous. There is no doubt that the truce took place but the main priority of the men of both sides, after exchanging festive pleasantries, was to bury their dead. I cannot imagine that the men would be quite happy to have a game of football whilst being surrounded by the torn bodies of their dead comrades. It could hardly be said that the shattered landscape of No Mans Land would be a conducive surface for the beautiful game. Some re-thinking is needed.

We should always bear in mind the dangers of re-writing history. The stories of those terrible times and the people that lived through them should not be embellished or ‘sexed-up’ in the name of entertainment or because that’s what we wanted to have happened. That generation deserves to have the facts and nothing but the facts told about it. We should also consider that history will remember our generation for how we marked the centenary. We must be very careful to stick to the facts and not pass on our version of what happened then. 

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