The Relevance of It All…

15 06 2009

Last Saturday was the final meeting of my MA class for this year. This time next year I will be in the midst of writing a dissertation on some element of the First World War. Naturally therefore, I have spent some time thinking about what topic I will do this on. Whilst thinking about this, I somehow stumbled upon the thought of discussing the relevance of the war to a modern society. I’m not entirely sure that this would make a disseration though, so have decided to scribble some thoughts down here.

So, is the First World War still relevant to society in the Twenty-First century? Obviously there can be no simple answer to this. It would depend entirely upon what criteria you judge it upon. And indeed, how you determine ‘relevance’.

It was the dicussion about the recent death of the first swine-flu victim which led me down this road. A lot has been made of this death, and the potential threat of swine-flu, although, as has been pointed out, ‘normal’ flu kills a fair few people yearly, and there is no media coverage of this. The Spanish-flu in 1918 spread worldwide killed anywhere between 40 and 100 million people, depending on what you read. That’s quite a lot of people. At its peak, roughly one-third of the world had the flu. So, could lessons learnt in 1918 help people appreciate the scale of the current situation? I’m not so sure, simply because the nature of the media is different now. It is a 24 hour thing, with access from papers, television and internet to anything, anytime. There needs to be something to fill this insatiable appetite for news, and, at the moment, that is swine-flu. If there is something there, the news will use it. They have to, simply to stay afloat. Experiences of the soldiers in the war of the spanish-flu vary, but, generally, the troops seemed to have suffered badly from the flu, due to a variety of things, of which malnourishment was certainly one. Indeed, some have argued that this helped the allied cause, and proved to be the tipping point. I’m very much not convinced by this argument as it ignores all the rest of the stuff that was going on at the time (ie Britain finally developing a decent arms system, sorting out the logistics, and Germany shooting her bolt too early in 1918), but that this has been argued at all shows the impact the Spanish-flu had in 1918.

Experiences of the flu tend not to vary over time. Either you get ill, suffer for a period of time, and then get better; or you get ill, suffer for a period of time and then die. The only experience we will really know about is the former. Solutions to the illness have developed, medicine has progressed (although it should never be assumed that the medical care in WW1 was poor, certainly for the British, it wasn’t). People learnt from the lessons of 1918. They learned how to deal with large scale pandemics. So much so that come 2009 we know the need to have a standing stock of vaccine for such outbreaks.

However, does this make the experience of 1918 relevant to today’s society? Possibly, although it would be easier to argue the other side. How can you really compare a nation coming out of the industrial revolution threatened by other countries around her to Britain today, in the midst of a digital era, moving away from her industrial past, and threatened by countries on the other side of the world? There is call to say that a comparison is impossible. However, I’m inclined to disagree. Pre-war Britain was not this unified harmony that was abruptly shattered by a war started in the east. Far from it, at least half the population were concerned with the suffrage, and a percentage of that were demonstrating their concerns through violent activity. There was some unrest in the waning, although not yet dead, industries which had for so long provided Britain with a platform in the world. Compare that to 2009 and the collapsing British car industy and the impact that this is having on the world car market. People in Britain are concerned with the political system and how it is working. It might not be the top-hats of 1914, but there is a distinct alienation of the politicians from the people in 2009.

However, this is but a digression from the original question. Does the war still have a relevance to today’s digitised society? Flu aside, I think there is cause to think that it does. As bands such as Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs (although their name was taken from a South African football team, this is evidence of the stretch of empires and the lasting memory of the Kaiser) march their way up and down the pop charts, this is evidence that the war has a wider ranging impact upon society than perhaps first realised. There is further musical evidence too, take the well-played Christmas song “Stop the Cavalry”, deliberately a critique of war, but holding further historical connotations. The most famous line “I wish I was at home for Christmas”, can be read in light of the famous thought of Kitcheners volunteers presuming the war would be over by Christmas. Even the title of the song has implications relating to the First World War, with the use of the cavalry in an industrialised war being one of the main bones of contention amongst historians. The misinformed suggestion that Douglas Haig was intent on using the cavalry at every opportunity appears evident is one which the main detractors of the war manfully stick to. Even the video for the song has Jona Lewie appearing in khaki as if on the front line. There is obvious connection to the famously “futile” war that remains today.

Blackadder perhaps has much to do with this. You can barely escape the sitcom in any discussion of the war. Most take it as read that Curtis and Elton were playing with the truth of the war, and whilst there was ‘artistic licence’, there was also a sense of reality to the plight of Captain Blackadder and crew. Rowan Atkinson’s titular character is an obvious critique of what a Captain was, or at least, the perception of what a Captain was. Obviously at odds with the concept of war, he has obviously been promoted earlier than he should have been, and it is only the men around him which make him appear good enough to lead. There are other comparisons too, General Melchett is the archetypal “donkey” general: mad, traditional, and out of touch with the reality of the situation. Even the representation of Haig is of him ‘playing soldier’ with plastic characters and a dustpan, indicative of his apparent scant regard for human life. The fact that he was a devout religious man perhaps detracts slightly from that particular myth. Naturally, it gets left out of the detractors thoughts.

There are other forms of entertainment derived from the war, various films in recent times have played upon a continuing fascination with the conflict. This is obviously part of a larger whole however, with war films as a genre growing in number. Indeed, in comparison to later conflicts, the First World War has got away without the ‘Hollywood’ treatment which has perhaps ruined public knowledge of the Second World War.

Moving away from entertainment, the war still resonates with the public at least once a year. I have, in the past, complained about a startling naivity in relation to the war, and the acts of remembrance that are performed every year on 11 November. However, there is clearly a large part of society which understands the significance of the emblematic poppy, and appreciates its pre-WW2 origins. The acts of remembrance still centre on WW1, which then encompasses the following conflicts.

The reason for this is simple enough to explain, WW1 was the first global war, and the first on the path towards total war. It was the original conflict for the industrial age. For this reason alone it will always have a certain resonance. However, whether this is enough to claim that it still bears relevance to today’s society is less clear.

There are other things which must inevitably must be considered (I haven’t mentioned the role of books, or indeed the middle east conflicts which could easily be claimed to be a product of the First World War), but this was only intended to be a few notes on the issue. Obviously there is plenty more to say, but I am not going to go into them now. Perhaps in the future. It is, for the time being, sufficient to suggest that the First World War is a remarkable period of history which perhaps shaped the course of the entire 20th Century, and indeed, the early period of the 21st.

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