The British establishment, like much of the country, has seemed quite confused about how to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.
I’m pleased to say that William Windsor last week spoke of the “power of reconciliation” to an audience that included the presidents of Germany and Austria. He unfortunately undermined his own words by saying, “We salute those who died to give us our freedom”. Freedom in Britain was suppressed, not enhanced, as a result of the first world war.
David Cameron speaks of honouring the dead while continuing to trade arms around the world and pouring billions into nuclear weapons. Many people turned off their lights for an hour at 10pm on 4th August. I respect that many of them were truly honouring the millions killed in war, but I did not join in with this is activity, backed as it was a by a hypocritical pro-war establishment.
So I have some suggestions for better ways of honouring the victims of World War One. Some may appeal to you more than others and I appreciate that many of them are focused on the UK. However, I hope they help. Please feel free to suggest others!
1. To remember the thousands of WW1 soldiers who were under 18 (the youngest known to have died was 14), sign this petition against the recruitment of under-18s in to the UK army. The UK is the only country in Europe to recruit 16-year-olds into its armed forces. Although they are not sent to the front line before turning 18, they are committed to staying in the army until they are 22, bound by an agreement they made before becoming legal adults.
2. Wear a white poppy, to remember the victims of all wars – people of all nationalities, including both civilians and soldiers.
3. Honour those who resisted the power of the arms trade, which fuelled WW1 (the Austrian fleet was supplied by Vickers, a British arms company whose shareholders included the UK’s Under-Secretary for War, and which is now part of BAE Systems). Sign an email to the Foreign Secretary calling for an end to UK’s arms exports to Israel.
4. Remember the conscientious objectors imprisoned and sometimes tortured for refusing to fight. You can send a message of support to one or more of the many conscientious objectors in prison around the world today. War Resisters International keep a database of Prisoners for Peace.
5. Honour the victims of war by working to prevent future wars. Join Action AWE in taking nonviolent action at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire in the run-up to the general election.
6. Learn about those who said “no” to the war by reading the White Feather Diaries, an online storytelling project about the lives and struggles of five Quakers during WW1 (I must declare an interest here, as I’ve been involved in editing it).
7. Help to prevent war by understanding its causes. Read about the role of the arms trade in WW1. You can invite a speaker on the issue to your church, mosque, synagogue, school, university, union branch or other group.
8. Honour those who were pressurised into joining up by resisting attempts to militarise young people today. You can support the Military Out of Schools campaign, run by Forces Watch.
9. If you’re a school student, teacher, parent/carer – or know someone who is – suggest the use of Quaker resources for schools on conscientious objectors in WW1, ensuring a different side of the story gets heard and that the complexity of WW1 is respected.
10. Pray for all those affected by war today.