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By Calum McMillan

The Kaiser was not a warmonger in the same way that Hitler was, but he did like to play soldiers. – Max Hastings

Almost a century after the outbreak of the First World War it is being referred to in documentaries as “playing soldiers”.

The BBC recently released a documentary called “The Necessary War”.  In it Sir Max Hastings lays out his view that the First World War, though undeniably tragic, “wasn’t for nothing”.  In another BBC documentary, the much more interesting and combative “The Pity of War”, Scottish historian, Niall Ferguson, lays out the contentious view that Britain’s involvement in the war was a foolish political move and lays most of the blame at the foot of the British for making the First World War more than a contained European conflict.

It would be entirely naive to suggest that the world would certainly be a better place without either world war. No one is blessed with that kind of epistemological or metaphysical certainty. However, the idea that any war and particularly the First World War was “necessary”, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Photograph by Calum McMillan

To reduce the complex causes of conflict that consumed so many lives to a simple “it was x’s fault” argument is no better.

As we approach the centenary of the First World War, we would do well to remember that the attributions of blame are not what is most important.  To blame any country, who has few to none of those involved in the conflict left alive, is ridiculous.  War has always been the fault of people, never the fault of nations.

As nations we would do well to remember all those who lost their lives in the war, whether in the trenches or at home.  We would do well to mourn every life lost, regardless of nationality.  The First World War was a tragedy for every nation involved.  Academics may well feel that they are able to apportion blame, but they would be hard pressed to accurately apportion the loss and despair of the war.

Photograph by Calum McMillan

The United Kingdom lost 995,939 people during the course of the war.  148,000 of those were Scottish, as the monuments throughout Glasgow bear testament to.  After a hundred years they’ve become comfortable background noise to so many of us.  The romanticism of the First World War, that owes so much to the poets of the trenches, has deadened the impact of it for so many.  Where once those words were visceral, shocking and heart-breaking, they’re now used in schools to demonstrate rhythm schemes and rhyming patterns.

The BBC is not alone in its guilty of adapting the tragedy for ratings. In The Scotland on Sunday, Michael Fry penned an article that questions whether the First World War was the catalyst for the Scottish Nationalist cause.  The obvious combination of a volatile political issue with historical fact is certainly an astute journalistic angle, but does a tragedy on the scale of the First World War really require an angle?

The historical analysis of the war is important academically. Now, in this year, it is not as important as celebrating the lives of all those who fought, regardless as to the reasons they were brought into the conflict, and the sacrifice they made.  Soldiers don’t start wars, but they do end them.  Or the war ends them.  It seems an odd choice by the BBC to lead this years coverage of The Great War, with documentaries that could be aired at any time, and do nothing to genuinely commemorate those who lost their lives.

Photograph by Calum McMillan

The argument is made by Hastings that the First World War was worth it, it was necessary.  If what its left us with are historians baiting each other for the sake of  a purely academic debate, or openly indulging their own views on highly polished BBC documentaries then perhaps it wasn’t as necessary as Hastings thinks.

If this is the case then the only people who need pity are ourselves. Because even after such terrible lessons, we haven’t learned the value of life one hundred years on.

Follow Calum on Twitter: @CalumMcMillan2

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