Back in the 1950s my grandmother wrote her memoirs of childhood in Edwardian London, a story that ends in the summer of 1914, when she was 14. In contrast to the image we’re given of cheering men skipping to war, she recalls her father in tears at the breakfast table, lamenting that the politicians had failed. He foresaw total disaster (optimism runs in the family). She then finds that her brother has joined up, not out of excitement or glory but because he’s ashamed not to be in uniform; he survived, although broken by shellshock, and his elder son was killed in the next war. It’s clear from her recollection that a world is ending, and all the assumptions and beliefs from that childhood now look alien.
One of the many consequences of the 1914-1945 disaster was the total cultural and moral defeat of western conservatism; it brought on the academic attacks on the nation-state, the social and cultural changes of the 1960s, the European dream, multiculturalism, high taxes and statism. The Great War and its even bigger sequel introduced everything conservatives hate about the modern world, which makes it so strange that many Tories justify the wisdom of our intervention.
Such are these changes that a century down the line the conflict is now being presented as part of Britain’s rich invented history of diversity; at the expense of the people we once would have called our kith and kin. Of course millions of soldiers from around the world did fight in both conflicts for the British Empire, which still lives on in the hearts of Britain’s new elite, repackaged as multiculturalism. But in terms of population the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian contribution to the Great War was far larger than that of the Asian or African colonies; the three old dominions lost 1.38%, 1.64% and 0.92% of their populations respectively, compared to 0.02% for India. To play down this fact in the name of community cohesion is shameful.
But then why does it not remotely surprise me? After the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, I began to fear that the commemoration of 1914-1918 would rather resemble one of those BBC idents, with African dancing troupes and people in wheelchairs playing basketball, accompanied by some Benjamin Zephaniah poems. And all of this for Belgium.