Time to remember World War I anniversary

Did you watch Jeremy Paxman’s excellent documentary series about The Great War? Although he definitely isn’t my favourite presenter, I found the programmes totally fascinating.

They didn’t just dwell on the horrors of the trenches and the number of dead and injured as so many programmes tend to do.

Each programme was more about what was going on in this country both in the run-up to and during the war.

The series revealed and underlined quite a few different and interesting facts and events, the enormous social changes brought about by women having to take the place of their menfolk in factories and on the land being one of them.

This led to the Representation of the People Act at the end of the war in 1918 when women over 30 were given the right to vote (it wasn’t until a decade later in 1928 that women over 21 gained the same right).

The effects of the war continued long after it ended – not least the fact that so many young women lost boyfriends, fiancés and husbands.

I remember back in the 1950s, many of my teachers were unmarried or widowed older women who had lost their partners in the war and devoted themselves to teaching instead.

I have a feeling that we are going to be deluged with First World War programmes and books in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in August 1914.

In fact, it has already started, hasn’t it? We have had a couple of travel brochures in the post recently and both have been promoting tours to the First World War battlefields in Northern France.

Have you ever visited one of the cemeteries? It’s a very salutary, not to say extremely upsetting, experience.

You walk along rows and rows of immaculately tended graves and then you realise to your horror that each white headstone bears the same date - hundreds and thousands of young men, mostly in their teens and early twenties, all died on the same day in the same place.

My father was one of the teenagers who ran away from home and signed up even though he was under age, no doubt inspired by Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters.

He would talk about his later experiences in the Second World War, but would never mention the First World War – almost as if he had completely blotted it from his memory.

It was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, but sadly, this was not to be the case and millions more young men of yet another generation were to end up in beautifully tended foreign graves or as names engraved on a war memorial.

Anniversaries of this type are a very difficult area. The outbreak of a war certainly isn’t something to be celebrated.

It will be interesting to see what is proposed on a national level.

Here in Wetherby, the Welcome to Wetherby team, along with Wetherby in Bloom, has already decided to turn the small triangle of land at the bottom of Caxton Street into a peace garden as a permanent memorial. Other plans are currently being considered by the team.

I sometimes think we are becoming a bit obsessed by anniversaries.

Last week I wrote about how much children’s birthday parties have changed over the decades. Things have changed for adults as well - you will doubtless have noticed in the card shops and from family and friends that it is now the fashion to celebrate every passing decade. Cards are available for 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th and so on. People ask ‘what are you doing for your 60th?’’ as if it is now compulsory to have some sort of celebration. Perhaps there is justification for a major knees-up once you’ve passed the 70th milestone – after all, every year after that is a bonus, but why would you want to celebrate being 40? Perhaps one of you forty-something’s could enlighten me…….

I think that some of the anniversaries which we either celebrate or commemorate are backward-looking and we need to ask ourselves exactly what are we celebrating or commemorating and why? Sometimes it’s an event which is really only relevant to those directly affected or involved. Other times, of course, like Holocaust Memorial Day, it reminds us of what can happen when people look the other way. However, the amount of time devoted to the Torvill & Dean gold medal 30 years ago was, in my personal opinion, somewhat excessive. What precisely are we celebrating – the fact that we haven’t won an ice-dance medal since?

Do you think we should be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War? If so, how? If not, why not?