Anti-war activists battle to get their voices heard in WW1 centenary events



Campaigners challenge ‘glorious conflict’ narrative and plan to highlight treatment of conscientious objectors

Anti-war activists, pacifists and others are challenging the narrative of the official programme marking the centenary of the first world war with an alternative range of activities, some of which have received government funds.

They include an event to remember conscientious objectors, which is being financed with £95,800 in lottery funding allocated to the pacifist organisation that distributes white poppies.

The “No Glory” campaign, backed by anti-war activists and high-profile supporters, such as the actors Jude Law and Alan Rickman and the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, intend to hold a concert next year at the Barbican in London.

“What those of us involved in this are concerned about is that the war will be presented as something glorious and part of our national heritage, when it isn’t really. It was a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation,” said Brian Eno, the composer and musician.

Eno said he was interested in creating something based on the testimonies of soldiers in the best-selling book, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, which was written by historian Max Arthur with the Imperial War Museum.

“They are simple transcripts of soldiers remembering what happened to them. If you ever want to be dissuaded from going to war then they are possibly the best texts for it,” Eno said.

“I’d love to do something with them because I’ve always been fascinated by them and I think it serves exactly the purpose that I would like to see served by any centenary commemorations, which is to say: ‘Don’t let’s go to war again’.”

Roger Lloyd-Pack, known for his roles in The Vicar of Dibley and Only Fools and Horses, is another signatory to the No Glory campaign. He said he was concerned that the official centenary commemorations would be a continuation of the glorification of war.

“It has to be remembered in some way. That’s for sure,” he added. “But I would rather see what is such a large amount of money in straitened times being spent on helping soldiers who have been injured in the Iraq and Afghan wars, as well as on initiatives to promote peace.”

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) has been granted £95,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund – something that took Britain’s oldest pacifist group by surprise.

“They got in touch with us and invited us to apply, so we did,” said Jan Melichar, a member of the PPU. “In a way, it was a surprise [to receive the funds], although on the other hand one suspects that because so much is being spent on pro-war things, someone thought it might be a good idea to find an organisation that is not so enthusiastic about it.

“We can’t grumble too much because it enables us to do various things and employ someone to work on this. Our concern is that the centenary will attempt to send out a message that the war was somehow necessary.”

The PPU is already focusing resources on raising awareness of the role of more than 16,000 conscientious objectors in the war through events, publications, interactive websites and outreach work in schools, including one that was the alma mater of one of the objectors who was sent to France.

In Bradford, the Peace Museum has designed what it describes as a new “alternative WW1 commemorative education project” called Choices, which will be supplemented by a multimedia exhibition.

The museum has been working with trainee teachers from Bradford College and has been developing teaching packs for schools as part of an initiative drawing on Home Office funding under the Prevent counter-extremism strategy.

Diane Hadwen, the museum’s head, said: “The project looks at the choices people made between 1914 and 1919, and modern-day choices for children and young people in response to events including 9/11 and 7/7.”

Hadwen said it asks how different the global war on terror is to the first world war. “It also looks at hidden histories, such as the black and ethnic minority experience, women who were involved in peace activities then, or confronting the English Defence League today.”

David Cameron has likened the commemorations to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and promised a “truly national commemoration”. He has said that Armistice Day and the dates of significant battles would be covered. There will be a £5m educational programme for schoolchildren, including trips to the battlefields and support for an overhaul of the Imperial War Museum.

The government’s advisory board for the commemoration includes the authors Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks, MPs and former senior military figures.

But pressure has also been building from different sources for the commemorations to take on particular approaches. Hew Strachan, a prominent military historian who is on the advisory board, has warned that the commemorations “will be repetitive, sterile and possibly even boring” if the centenary turns into “Remembrance Sunday writ large”.

The head of press at the German embassy in London has been quoted as saying that a “less declamatory tone”, which did not dwell on who was responsible for the conflict, “would be easier” when it comes to the commemorations.

The programme will begin with events in Scotland, England and Belgium on 4 August 2014, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of war. The day will be marked with a service at Glasgow Cathedral for Commonwealth leaders, who will be in the city for the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on the previous day.

In London a candlelit vigil – which the government hopes will be emulated in churches, by other faiths and by families across the land – will be held at Westminster Abbey, ending with the last candle being extinguished at 11pm, the moment war was declared.

• This article was amended on 10 September 2013 to correct the number of conscientious objectors in the first world war from 6,000 to 16,000 and to clarify that conscientious objectors were not executed. Some were court martialled and sentenced to death, but the sentences were immediately commuted.

See more: WWI commemorations, military in society,