Commemorating World War I
Volume 52, Number 2, February 2014
Don’t let the facts get in the way OH, for goodness sake, it’s started already . . . barely a month and a half since I mentioned in this “Comment” that I hoped that the coming year wouldn’t see certain factions putting modern day values on the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the chattering classes have already started an on-line petition complaining about the latest £2 coin from the Royal Mint! The coin, showing the iconic poster of Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener informing observers that “Your Country Needs You”, is being criticised as glorifying war, as being insensitive to the millions that died, and so on and so forth—you know the usual gripes certain people have when it comes to rewriting history to fit modern day agendas. The fact is this coin is just one of a series that the Royal Mint has planned over the next few years and it is designed to commemorate the start of the war and I’m sorry, but whether the moaners like it or not that image is absolutely perfect to remember that era. I know those complaining feel it’s glorifying war and that we should have some image of barbed wire, trenches, dead horses or suffering of some such on our coinage, but let’s be honest, back in the early days of the conflict glory was what it was all about. We were going across the channel to kick the “evil Hun” back to where he belonged. Men answered the call in their droves, eager to be part of what was going on; after all it was all going to be over by Christmas. The bogged down trench warfare, the rain, the gas, the tanks, the butcher’s yards of Passchendaele and the Somme—they were all to come later; in the late summer of 1914 (this image first appeared in September of that year) no-one was considering anything like what actually happened—they were too keen to get at the foe, too eager to give the enemy a good drubbing and the poster was seen at the time as nothing more than a request to the average man to do what was required of him and volunteer to help push the Germans into the sea. Today though, those signing the on-line petition don’t see it like that—they don’t see the iconic image of a man revered by many and whose plea was eagerly responded to, but rather they see the dark spectre of an upper class ogre sending men by the thousand to their deaths. But that isn’t how it was in 1914 and it certainly isn’t how that poster, or Lord Kitchener, was viewed back then. This is an image to represent a specific year, not the war as a whole and 1914 was a time of a reasonably mobile army of mainly regulars, topped up with those who volunteered, thanks to posters like this. It was a time when young men still believed in glory and battlefield honour, a time when a call to arms was heeded gladly in defence of King and Empire and it must be remembered as such. This was not a time of conscripts ripped from their homes and plunged into a nightmare with little or no experience or training; it was not the time of the mass slaughter or the true horror that we associate with World War I. All of that was to come later and indeed may well be reflected in the coinage of 2016–18, we just don’t know yet. As we don’t know what the Royal Mint has planned I would like to humbly suggest to those moaning about the £2 coin that they’ve rather missed the point and they would be better off waiting to see what the next few years brings coin-wise rather than complaining now. They won’t wait of course, the kind of people who are moaning now will always moan about such things; they will always try to take the moral high ground without letting the simple things like the truth get in the way. They will always try to put the values of today, and their own beliefs, onto the past and cannot see how the events of days gone by must be viewed in the context of their time and not through rose-coloured spectacles. No one is suggesting that war should be glorified per se, but those who suggest that the men who heeded Kitchener’s call in 1914 did it without any thought of glory at all are deluding themselves. L. P. Hartley said “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” and so they do—it was different 100 years ago and what has gone before cannot be ignored just because it doesn’t suit the PC brigade today. I know this sounds like a rant and for this I apologise, but I’m just fed up with seeing history distorted, or ignored, in favour of nice, fluffy falsehoods or a political agenda that has more to do with anti-establishment rhetoric than what’s real and I’m already dreading what is to come over the next few years in terms of the political correction of the truth. Thank goodness some of us are interested in what really happened: how it really was rather than how some in the 21st century think it should have been. Without people like us medal collectors, historians and the like, I fear the truth simply wouldn’t get a look in. Of course this is a somewhat ironic state of affairs as those signing the petition are calling for a coin design that reflects the truth of the War—well I’m sorry but the truth of 1914 is shown on this coin: it is Kitchener and all he represented, it is the young men eager to get to the foe and it is of glory and honour. I’m just not certain that’s the sort of truth the petition signers are looking for, though as it doesn’t quite fit with their views on how things should be. All I can say to that is “tough luck”!
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