Never over the top — a cultural campaign against celebrating WWI

Wednesday, August 6, 2014
'We are Making a New World,' by British artist Paul Nash, 1918.

Jan Woolf is the cultural coordinator of the No Glory in War campaign, a group that seeks to counter the celebratory narrative of the British government’s commemorations of World War I. She spoke to online radical cultural Red Wedge Magaize about the campaign’s use of art and media — both past and present — to communicate its message. It is abridged from Red Wedge Magazine.

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Why was No Glory started?

The anti-war and peace movement would have commemorated the outbreak of World War I anyway in our various styles. But our governments’ style of national commemorations brought us together to form the No Glory campaign [to highlight] our position that World War I was a “species crime” waged by rulers with imperial interests, and not the interests of those who did the suffering and fighting.

No Glory is an alliance of Stop the War, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Quaker groups, parliamentarians, writers, historians and artists.

We are having extraordinary success, as we are striking a chord of knowledge and sensibility that is there. Recent attempts to justify it as a “just war”, by the government and revisionist historians, just “smells wrong”.

We are also pointing out the link between then and now, and the similarities in war making propaganda.

How does the British government’s narrative of World War I differ from the actual reality of the conflict?

I’m going to refer you to the open letter on the NoGlory.org site. Many prominent people signed it, and it has gathered thousands more signatures.

People disgusted with the way this government has appropriated World War I commemorations to celebrate the “British spirit” (whatever that may mean).

Of course, our government mourns the dead and recognises it as a horror — and I believe they feel and mean this — but the turn around from our mass national consciousness after World War I that World War I should not have happened and would have spared us the second war — to the current jingoistic celebrations of a “victory” is deliberate revisionism.

An example of the government’s work is the laying of more than 400 paving stones (or “hero stones”) in the home towns and villages where Victoria Cross recipients were born. This may sound OK, but at the time, VCs did not want to stand out from their fallen comrades and we see this current “ripping yarns” version of history to be sacrilegious.

We have to be careful here though, as many relatives of the VC are rightly proud and we do not want to upset anyone. Care and emotional intelligence is an important principle in the No Glory campaign.

Was there a conscious decision from the outset that there would be a strong cultural component to what No Glory should do?

Yes. Cultural expression was and is very important and links us with those who brought back the stories of horror through their art.

The British war poets were and are very important to us and to world literature. They made us understand what had happened physically and emotionally to millions of young men.

Their artistic achievement was in showing us just enough without making us turn away. There is only so much the human psyche can tolerate without switching off — so their language was never gratuitous or “over the top”.

There has been a recent attack on the war poets, with a revisionist historian referring to “[Siegfried] Sassoon and his kind” wallowing in self pity and spreading doom and gloom.

No Glory had a recent poetry event where we honoured “Sassoon and his kind,” with readings of the war poets by contemporary poets, who also read their own poetry.


Pete Doherty puts Siegfried Sasson's 1918 poem 'Suicide in the Trenches' to music.

It was magnificent and moving but also encouraged us to struggle against warmongering now.

This is what good art does, it tells you like it is and was, but is life affirming. I’ve concentrated on poetry, as this is No Glory’s most recent event but there were and are paintings, novels and films.

Art activities by No Glory include a poster-leaflet download put together by our artists’ group. This will be used by local groups to put details of names and numbers of men who died in their communities, and is in response to the government’s Hero Stones.

Art history generally sees World War I and the art that came out of it as a major leap for modernism. Could you describe the confluence of political and artistic developments involving artists during World War I?

A very interesting question and one fraught with contradictions. Part of the government’s commemoration is to celebrate modernism — i.e. it was all very terrible but at least it gave us modern art etc.

World War I also gave women the vote and led to various social changes, but it shouldn’t take a major trauma to achieve this.

But yes, trauma does lead to new ways of looking at the world — it has to, and artists’ sensibilities and vision was shaken up big time. The world would never be the same again.

The marvelous German school of expressionist painting partly grew out of the horrific images of George Grosz. While the Germans were painting it like it was, the British generally retreated to a form of nostalgic sentimentality, like a soothing balm.

Modernism challenged the way we looked at everything, yet art couldn’t really help nerve and body shattered soldiers returning from war who had been promised a “home fit for heroes.” Many came back to appalling poverty, watching the world build up to another war.

Our brilliant writer Johnathan Meades said recently on TV: “Necessity is the adoptive mother of invention, but war is its birth mother.” This is a true and desperate statement, and we would all wish that the marvelous art forms that sprang from modernism could have been achieved through peace and development.

World War I is often referred to as the first industrial and technological war, and due to this was certainly the most brutal up to that moment in history. You referenced earlier how a great many of these artists and poets “showed us just enough”, but do you think there was a shift in how they showed it to us that was also spurred forth by the utter senselessness of what the artists were seeing?

War as trauma shakes us up in art, science, social relationships — everything — and we have to look at life in a new way, hence modernism. We had to incorporate the new images of the machinery that made death as well as life in our aesthetic.

An artist with good understanding of psychology and his or her art won’t show us too much. It’s “less is more” if you like, but neither must we turn away. The impact made through art is in the resonance between artist and viewer.

How much do you think these writers slamming “Sassoon and his kind” are running cover for a deliberate political agenda? Do you think this reflects something about government’s bid to rehabilitate empire?

“Sassoon and his kind” was referred to by Max Hastings, a right-wing historian who has a huge World War I tome out just now. He and others that we call the revisionist historians are toeing the government’s line that — despite the suffering — World War I was justified in that we had to stand up to a bully.

That the British empire was also a bullying entity is not mentioned as part of this curious thing called “Britishness” being touted by the establishment right now. It is nonsense.

When most young people of a left bent think of art and war, there’s a good chance the first thing coming to mind is the music and aesthetics around the Vietnam War. But I’d imagine that No Glory sees there being an evolutionary through-line of sorts between the art that came from the World War I and subsequent wars?

Again, war is trauma, whether you are directly caught up in or just imagining how it is for others — this imagining, or empathy is what drives us to oppose war and is a part of our enduring humanity.

But, if you have vested interest in war, i.e. you can profit from it or want to defend or expand empire, then that humanity is overridden. The artist steps back from all this and contributes by helping people see things outside the propaganda jingo that the war makers perpetuate.

Any final thoughts?

We know, and thanks to the impact that NoGlory.com has had on our population, many others know that World War I was an international atrocity that should not have happened.

This is the predominant position in our country now, and, vitally, gives us the analysis and clarity to oppose war-mongering today as we can see the relationship between then and now.

From GLW issue 1020