The Times digest of events in the Great War and Mike Schuster’s Great War Project continue to come down the wires once a week, together with scores of daily Tweets from the Imperial War Museum, from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, from individuals visiting the war graves of their relatives in distant places. Segments of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s poppy installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ continue to tour the country, we have just lived through three months of official and personal commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele, thousands still embark on visits to the battlefields. The nation’s engagement with World War I hasn’t loosened one bit since 4 August 2014. I for one am surprised by that.
It makes me reconsider an idea that first popped up just after the result of the EU referendum, which, if you remember, was held shortly before the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme (a ‘sacred, holocaust moment’, David Reynolds has called it). I regularly see three French newspapers and three German ones (but I only buy one in any given week). Since August 2014 there have been interesting articles about aspects of the War in each — most memorably, a full-page photograph with text of ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ in Die Zeit, which I regard as the best newspaper in Europe. But there has been nothing in them remotely like the coverage in British newspapers. Although, of course, I have seen media reports of official commemorations in France, Belgium and Italy, I do not get the impression that the War has seized people in those countries, for instance in terms of online family research, the way it has in Britain. Of course I may be mistaken, but I feel Britain’s engagement with the event has been more complete, more deeply reaching, more visceral, more painful.
In the shock of the referendum result, I considered whether our preoccupation with 1914-18 could have affected it; but I quickly rejected the idea as rationalistic and simplistic. How many people who voted Out could realistically have been influenced by events a hundred years ago? Mind you, a Brexiteer businessman neighbour whom I don’t know well recently expressed to me his frustration with the EU’s negotiators by saying: ‘They don’t get it! They don’t understand that we’ve twice had to save them from themselves in a century!’ Although our emotional entanglement with the First World War seems to exceed that in the rest of Europe, it was still impossible, I thought after 23 June 2016, to believe there is any direct rational link between, say, the first day of the Somme and voting Out.
But I am now seeing the subject differently. It was hilariously naive of me to dismiss the hypothesis in terms of reasoning, of rational decision. Any election or referendum is going to be influenced by emotion, and there are those who believe that Brexit was entirely decided by it! The question still is, though, how all our emotions about the centenary could have influenced the vote, and I am not suggesting that they directly influenced it. I suggest that the mood and overwhelming sense of the national commemoration affected us unconsciously, subconsciously, and this may have influenced the vote.
Our commemoration focusses us all the time on ‘going into’ Europe, not on ‘being part of Europe’. We stood morally by the Belgians, French, Italians, but we had physically to join them across the water (and we know that as early as post-Mons there were people who wanted us to pull out). I would go so far as to say that the commemoration of the First World War daily re-enacts for us Churchill’s idea, expressed in print in 1930 and again in the House of Commons in 1953, that we are ‘with’ Europe but not ‘of it’, we are ‘linked but not combined’, ‘interested and associated but not absorbed’. I increasingly feel that the commemoration’s continuous ‘message’ that we intervene from outside in European affairs — that we always ‘go into’ and then ‘come out of’ Europe again — reinforced the Out vote. Looking back, might historians conclude that?