What Have We Learned So Far?

As part of a recent Imperial War Museum event for the First World War Commemorations Partnership Group, Norman Drummond, Chair of the Scottish Commemorations Panel, delivered the speech ‘What have we learned so far?':

When in October 2012 The Prime Minister announced the Centenary Commemorations of World War 1 he used the word ‘celebration’ once and has no doubt been regretting it ever since! Yet he and his advisers were in one sense ahead of the game for no one, even at that stage, could have confidently predicted the surge of interest, still ongoing and rising, across the United Kingdom and not least here in Scotland.

The Scottish Commemorations Panel formed up early in 2013 and it has since been my privilege to chair that Advisory Panel, as well as representing Scotland on the UK World War 1 Advisory Group from whose latest meeting yesterday in London I have just returned.

And so this morning I am very happy on behalf of both those advisory groups to address the challenge which has been set for all your speakers in this welcome and timely IWM Conference.

‘What have we learned so far?’  3 things in particular…

Firstly “still waters run deep” – the level and depth and amount of commemorative activity has been quite remarkable and whilst the Panel and the Advisory Group have no directive nor financial powers it has been a privilege to advise, suggest and connect wherever and whenever possible.

An impressive feature has been the almost ‘single interest’ commitment to one particular person or battle or injustice or sacrifice which can however come across as if nothing else happened or was happening in the sweep of the War in various theatres and not least here at Home where the impacts were huge and are still being felt to this day.

So the Panel’s responsibility has been to keep the commemorations broad yet specific – all the while in recognition that ‘still waters do run very deep’.

Those ‘still waters’ highlight a second learning that “you cannot do everything”! – within this commemorative period (which in Scotland’s case lasts for 5 years including the tragic loss of HMY Iolaire on 1 January 1919 and then of course the impacts and consequences of the Treaty of Versailles) we are reminded that this is a marathon we are running and not a sprint.  In the timely words of Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs “it is not so much a matter of what we do but how we do it” in terms of appropriate tone and content for now and so for future generations.

And this brings us to our third, and for this morning, final realisation if not injunction which stems from the earliest intentions if not conditions of the Scottish Commemorations Panel, to concentrate on 3 things – Education, Genealogy and Legacy, which have morphed into our Scottish Commemorations Panel welcome and highly regarded strapline of “What do we learn from all this?”

As a student and avid admirer and follower of the late Nelson Mandela’s style of leadership I recall how often he said “verlede is verby, the past is the past, look to the future now.”

And that is our 3rd phrase which I bring to this Conference on behalf of the Scottish Commemorations Panel and the UK Advisory Group:

Firstly, ‘still waters run deep’
Secondly ‘you can’t do everything’
and Thirdly ‘look to the future now’

How will all this look in 25 or 50 years’ time?  What will your children and mine, your grandchildren and mine, say when they look back and reflect on our work?

Of all the many commemorative events which it has been my privilege to attend or to help organise since January 2013, one event stands out in particular – an unlikely one because it took place in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin where the Irish Government had agreed to the strategic placing of a Commonwealth War Graves Cross of Sacrifice, whose shadows in the sunlight rather remarkably at various times in the day significantly touch the graves of O’Connell, Parwell, Collins and de Valera.

The Dedication Ceremony on 31 July last year was attended by the Duke of Kent on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and by President Michael D Higgins, with whose timeless and truly memorable words I close my remarks this morning:

“Finally, let me say how the welcome and significant progress of our understanding, in Ireland, of the period of the First World War has also given us a deeper empathy with the British people, for whom WWI, its experience and its recall form such an important element of their identity and mythology. It is an honour to host a monument to that memory.

Just as the generation that produced WWI soldiers, had to leave behind the idiom of the 19th century – that language used for over a century to celebrate the idea and the hubris of progress – we today are invited to leave behind some of the terms and concepts of the 20th century, such as its grammar of binary divisions between “the enemy” and “us”.

The time has come for an ethics of narrative hospitality to replace our past “entrenchments” – that awful word bequeathed to us by an era scarred, not just by the consequences of war itself, but by the effect of the very idea of War, of the possibility of total war, on subsequent generations.”

And turning to the Duke of Kent he said: “I want to thank you, Sir, for your presence and for your words of recognition for the Irish men and women who were killed during the First World War.

The ability to share sombre and profound national memories is an important statement and act of friendship and respect. As friends we, Irish and British, share this moment of remembrance; and in mutual sympathy we dedicate this monument to the memory of all those who lost their lives during the too long, dreadful years of 1914 to 1918.
Let us now, together, cultivate memory as a tool for the living and as a sure base for the future – memory employed in the task of building peace.”

And so let us now here today from this conference “cultivate memory as a tool for the living and as a sure basis for the future – memory employed in the task of building peace.”