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It is an instantly recognised and powerful image which has endured for over a century. The foreshortened pointing finger, extravagant moustaches and braided military cap of Lord Kitchener have been utilised across a wide range of advertising since they were first employed to tell young men that their country needed them.
The power of that recruitment poster overset the judgement of my grandfather, who, despite being raised in the ways of peace, responded to the image as a 19 year old boy and broke his parents' hearts by cycling to Carlisle to enlist. He had a better claim to the pastoral conceit of being a “harmless young shepherd in a soldier's coat” than did Edmund Blunden, the author of those words. When the shot that was to convulse the world was fired in Sarajevo, Grandad was minding Herdwicks in the Patterdale fells and had never left his native village.
Five years later, having survived the Somme in body if not in soul, he came home with the rank of major and decorations for bravery under fire – an honorary gentleman with an elementary school education and a strong Cumbrian accent. Misplaced, traumatised and fitting in nowhere in a rigidly stratified society, he eventually found employment in the West Cumberland coalfield and did his best to settle to the outward requirements of a post-war life.
I was only 10 years old when he died and much of what I know of his wartime experience has come from my mother. But I do remember his debilitating attacks of 'shell shock' and – most vividly – his once telling me that “a bayonet is a weapon with a working man on each end of it.”
The call to 'duty', the undoubted courage, the suffering and the ultimate refusal to accept the deceit practised on him and millions of his generation, are all typical of an age which seems very far from us now. But precisely because the remove is so great, it is easy for a 'myth' in the commonly used sense of that word, to be grown around the world-changing events of those years. Already, certain lines of engagement have been drawn.
Michael Gove's ill-conceived attack on those who would take a different view of the catastrophe which cost around 40 million lives and left unnumbered others maimed in mind and body has already received justly deserved criticism. David Cameron has spoken of the centenary year as a "truly national commemoration" of the first world war that will "capture our national spirit ... like the diamond jubilee". There will be more from those whose agenda depends on vainglory and a narrowly-drawn concept of patriotism.
It is not making a 'left-wing' point to remind ourselves that this was a war of empires in which the common man was largely considered a disposable asset. Around 40 per cent of the men who suffered so appallingly in the trenches did not have a vote. Like my grandfather, they were disenfranchised through being under 21 and not being property owners. Not a single one among their mothers, wives, sweethearts, sisters and daughters had a vote. 'Duty' was expected of them with very little by way of the rights of free citizens offered in return.
The empires which contend for dominance in our own times do not manifest in double-headed eagles or elaborate robes. But be in no doubt, they have an interest in us being taken in by unexamined appeals to a world view which was in its death throes a century ago. It is right that we should commemorate the world-changing events of the 1914-18 war. But in the words of the historian Nick Mansfield, "The key role of working-class people and their struggle for a different society and its outcomes needs to be given full attention if we are appropriately to commemorate the many lives lost."
Perhaps we could start by signing this petition: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/royal-mint-replace-the-kitchener-...
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet