First World War: Myth or Misbegotten Shambles?


“This official UK £2 coin remembers one of the most significant moments in British history with a design that recalls the spirit, and with hindsight, the poignancy, of the rush to enlist encouraged by Lord Kitchener. This £2 coin, a fitting tribute, is available now housed in an informative folder that brings to its iconic design to life.”

The Royal Mint’s own description of its controversial new coin to mark the anniversary year of the outbreak of  the First World War. Since Jeremy Paxman began expressing his concerns about the Prime Minister’s plans for commemorations comparable to the Diamond Jubilee, a political argument has intensified over the tone and purpose of events. Does the choice of Kitchener, rather than, say Edith Cavell, for the £2 coin count as “nostalgia”? Or, as the Royal Mint says,  a legitimate visual symbol of the war which the Mint’s committee agreed most people would recognise?

Murray Melvin in the 1963 production

Murray Melvin in the 1963 production

And a more overt battle over the representation of the war is also underway with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s assertion about “left wing academics” and satire from Oh What A Lovely War! to Blackadder Goes Forth feeding “myths” about the war “as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

All these rows were anticipated a few months ago. Original Oh What A Lovely War! cast member, Murray Melvin described the pressure from the political and military establishment on the show back in 1963 in a special programme we recorded in October about the creation of the production, on stage at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Dialogue was carefully sourced from actual quotes of generals and politicians, the new historical books such as Alan Clark’s 1961 revisionist The Donkeys, and controversial arguments were presented in the show about the vested interests of transatlantic munitions magnates and the fortunes which were made supplying weaponry to all sides.  (Interestingly this last aspect was dropped entirely from the Hollywood film version directed by Richard Attenborough). But Melvin recalls the tension back stage as they saw General Haig’s family lawyers in the audience looking for any aberrations from the script to justify legal action. Together with historian David Kynaston, theatre critic Michael Billington and RSC deputy artistic director Erica Whyman, the programme places the show in context, not only  of its relationship to WW1 in 1963, but its legacy today, as a new production prepares to open. 

Worth a listen: Oh What A Lovely War! 50 years on – Radio 3 Night Waves special programme

Oh What A Lovely War Commemoration! Original post October 2013


About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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