Jeremy Corbyn MP: The reality of the first world war is far from glorious
Last Friday St James's church in Piccadilly was full for the launch of No Glory - a campaign to bring some reality to the government's commemoration of World War I, which will take up £55 million of our money next year. The most poignant part of the evening was the I Maestri and the London Musical Arts Orchestra playing Vaughan Williams's Lark Ascending.
This is not just a brilliant piece of music, which puts huge pressure on the violinist who does much of it as a solo, it is also extremely moving given its context. Williams was a soldier in the first world war and during the breaks between mutual bombardment by allies and German forces soldiers could hear the larks singing above what were once their happy feeding grounds of wheat fields in northern France and Belgium. Their songs were then immediately extinguished by yet another round of industrial warfare, as high-velocity shells rained down on soldiers in the trenches on both sides of the mayhem.
The concert also included powerful poetry from Kika and Sonia Markham, concluding with Billy Bragg putting music to a Thomas Hardy poem about two soldiers in different uniforms, the same age and similar in other ways, shooting each other. The event was extremely moving for everyone there, and is the kind of way we should be commemorating World War I.
The Prime Minister, in launching the government's huge commemoration events planned for next year, rather bizarrely claimed that he was aiming to celebrate Britishness and the national spirit.He is clearly a man who doesn't do irony or have much understanding of artistic history. He was standing in front of Paul Nash's painting Menin Road as he made this statement.
The painting is a depiction of utter destruction with ruined buildings, barbed wire and stagnant pools of fetid water where many soldiers breathed their last. It depicts Passchendaele, but it could just as equally have been any of the thousands of places along the western front that were destroyed during the war.
World War I was, at one level, a battle between empires. On one side of the divide were the British and French empires, on the other were the German and Austro-Hungarian. Their rivalries both for colonies, markets and commercial supremacy brought Europe to war in 1914. Interestingly JL Hobson's mammoth work on imperialism published in 1902 predicted a European conflict as a result of the competition for empire.
David Cameron seeks to present the war as the British empire succeeding over all the others. I don't expect he will pay much attention to the enormous anti-war movement that existed on both sides in 1914.
Working-class communities did not wish to destroy working-class communities in another country just because they were of a different nationality. Indeed, in 1914 there was a huge movement against the war, and the government was forced to introduce conscription in 1916 having already seen hundreds of thousands of lives taken in the first few months of the war. This figure then stretched into the millions as the war dragged on.
In commemorating the war we should remember those conscientious objectors and opponents of the carnage and also perhaps try to learn something from the conclusions.
The modern war machine was born during the first world war. Industrial munitions and aircraft took over from cavalry and rifles. The consequences of the war were far-reaching.
The Russian revolution in 1917 brought Russia out of the war and founded the Soviet Union. The German empire collapsed and the Versailles treaty sweepingly handed colonial people over from one European power to another - thus in distant New Guinea the colonial masters changed from being German to Australian, what is now Tanzania changed from German to British and Lebanon and Syria became French protectorates. We should not forget that Palestine was handed as a mandate to the British, notwithstanding the Balfour declaration of 1917 which indicated something different.
The victor's justice of the treaty of Versailles ordered Germany to pay reparations which in turn led to impoverishment and inflation which gave rise to the circumstances that allowed the nazis to take power.
Historian Neil Faulkner has written a very readable 33-page history called the Real History of The First World War in which he gives a quite brilliant account of the war and its aftermath:
War was no longer the business of small professional armies campaigning in distant places. It had become a monstrous mechanism of destruction that engulfed entire societies. Millions were conscripted. Millions worked in munitions factories or laboured on the land to feed the war machine. Millions starved as consumption collapsed. Germany lost 1.8 million soldiers in the war but almost half that number again died of hunger at home.
Faulkner goes on to point out that as the scramble for Africa was reignited after the war, the consequences for many African people were not that different:
Far more Africans had died in the fighting in these countries than Europeans. Often this was because they had been conscripted as porters, beaten, starved and worked to death. They now discovered what the war meant. The policemen had different uniforms. Exploitation by white farmers continued as before across the continent.
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who has written many brilliant and exciting poems, did a preface for the book called the Last Post, the last verse of which is:
You lean against a wall
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards
then it would.
Parliament recently voted against military involvement in the Syria conflict and instead indicated support for a diplomatically attainable peace. There is nothing good about the war in Syria which has cost already 100,000 lives, plus two million displaced. There is no indication that British and US bombs would have brought peace any closer, but we should remember that Syria was a creation of the treaty of Versailles and those more recent lessons of the war in Iraq show that Western involvement doesn't bring peace but only profits for arms companies and bodies coming home in coffins.
Over the next two weeks we will be treated to an almost mawkish festival of politicians and generals, arms manufacturers and journalists feeling the need to wear a poppy wherever they go. I have no objection to people wearing poppies in memory of those who died in wars, but in doing so we should have enough humility to realise that war kills and, as the first world war showed, is usually futile.
There are alternatives but they require a different way of administering the world and standing up to commercial pressures, arms and mineral companies who seek to move in behind Western intervention. Perhaps this is where we should be focusing and not on the jingoism and bunting that was hung out in 1914 for the young men who were seen off on train stations in London before breathing their last on the western front.
Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for the London constituency of Islington North and Chair of Stop the War Coalition