Britain's first world war centenary plans show a reluctance to face history | Richard Norton-Taylor

The government seems intent on avoiding any serious debate about the war and its causes

In August 1914, the first of 887,000 soldiers from Britain and the empire killed during the first world war was shot dead by German rifle fire on the Franco-Belgian border. In a recent press statement headed One Year to Go, the government announced plans to restore war memorials and commission special paving stones in places where recipients of the Victoria Cross were born.

It was the first of what will be many initiatives focusing on local community and individual family links to the war. But they will skirt around the big questions. There are important lessons, including some with significant contemporary resonance, to be learned from the way the protagonists sleepwalked, as a leading historian has put it, into the horrific conflict. Yet with one notable exception, the government seems intent on avoiding any serious debate about the war and its causes, ducking responsibility, apparently fearful of getting embroiled in a blame game.

Andrew Murrison, the defence minister chairing David Cameron’s advisory board set up to generate ideas on how to commemorate the centenary of the war, told the Guardian earlier this year: “What really interests people is human interest stories.” It was for historians and academics to do the “heavy lifting in terms of debating the background to the war”.

The exception is what Murrison referred to as the idea that the war was prosecuted by bungling generals leading brave soldiers – “lions led by donkeys“. The Ministry of Defence is worried that the image of Blackadder’s General Melchett, and the sentiments behind Oh! What a Lovely War, have taken hold of the popular imagination. It is looking to historians to rehabilitate the generals, in particular Earl Haig, grandfather of the current defence minister, Lord Astor of Hever, and commander of British forces from 1915 until the end of the war.

“The machine-gun is a much over-rated weapon; two per battalion is more than sufficient,” Haig told the war council in April 1915. In his book, The Donkeys, Alan Clark, writer of military history and former Conservative MP, records that in the battle of Loos in September 1915, British casualties amounted to 385 officers and 7,861 men in just three and half hours. The Germans suffered no casualties. Haig’s problem, said one defence official recently, was that he was no good at “personal PR”.

While the government encourages historians to rehabilitate the generals, ministers will try to persuade people, the young in particular, to concentrate on the part played by their local or family war heroes. Murrison suggested the public would be less engaged with the big questions, and prefer to focus on the local, “the history of the Great War played out at that intimate level”.

The government seems to be frightened by the prospect of people asking questions about the causes of the first world war, of getting involved in a blame game. Yet the …read more