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A year of 1914

Sorting through the first-world-war centenary celebrations

Charlie McCann | January 7th 2014

In Britain, the official £50m commemoration of the start of the first world war—which will run for four years—begins on August 4th, when a candlelit prayer service at Westminster Abbey takes place at the exact moment Britain declared war on Germany. Before that, though, there are plenty of opportunities for marking the occasion.

In "The Great War in Portraits" (National Portrait Gallery, Feb 27th-June 15th, free) a newspaper photo of Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian assassin whose shot was “heard round the world”, will be hung next to portraits of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Winston Churchill and German expressionist masterpieces by Max Beckmann and Ernst Kirchner.

In "Voices of the Great War" (London School of Economics, March 1st, free) Sebastian Faulks, author of "Birdsong", will chair a discussion between four writers—Tobias Hill, Michael Longley, Timberlake Wertenbaker and Louisa Young. The voices range from Rebecca West’s "The Return of the Soldier" and Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy—both about the aftermath of war, especially shell-shock—to war poems by Sassoon, Robert Graves and Longley himself.

The Royal Mint has produced a £2 coin of Lord Kitchener's famous recruitment poster, where the flinty-eyed war secretary, with bristly moustache and index finger pointing out to the viewer, says "Your Country Needs YOU". The coin is now available for £10.

A fictional reminder of the many nationalities involved in the war comes in "A God In Every Stone" (Bloomsbury, April 10th) by the novelist Kamila Shamsie. A soldier in the British Indian Army, returning home after losing an eye at Ypres, meets a young Englishwoman on a train to Peshawar.

Last year saw two hefty histories of the first world war: "Sleepwalkers" by Christopher Clark and "Catastrophe" by Max Hastings. Even though his book comes to a very different conclusion, Hastings described "Sleepwalkers" as "one of the most impressive and stimulating studies of the period ever published". This year sees another battle of ideas. "The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (1916-1931)" by Adam Tooze (Allen Lane, May) argues that 1916 was the year that America made its debut as a world force, and "First World War: Still No End in Sight" by Frank Furedi (Bloomsbury/Continuum, January) claims the seeds of today's culture wars can be found 100 years ago.

There's a new app too. "Timeline: World War I" presents the events of the war as a timeline, with interactive maps, original documents, capsule biographies, newsreel clips and audio commentaries by the historian and broadcaster Dan Snow. "You can zoom in to see what happened on a particular day, or zoom out to hear a summary of a whole year."

The 16th Lancers, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and the Indian cavalry regiment Skinner’s Horse will put on an historic display of uniforms, equipment, weapons and tactics at the Colchester Military Tournament (Abbey Field, July 5th-6th). A Mark IV tank will also remind visitors of the brutal mechanisation of violence, making the phrase “living history” an eerie one.

The theatre director Joan Littlewood once said "war is for clowns". Her satiric musical "Oh! What a Lovely War"—marching drills, slapstick, Frenchmen walking into battle "baa-ing like lambs to the slaughter"—returns to the Theatre Royal Stratford where she first staged it 50 years ago (Feb 1st to March 15th).

Jude Law, Antony Gormley, Brian Eno and Carol Ann Duffy have joined anti-war activists to condemn the government’s glorification of "a military disaster and a human catastrophe". On November 1st, the No Glory campaign is running a day-school in York at which speakers will "counter romantic, populist, nationalist propaganda".

The English National Ballet will fuse classical traditions with modern contemporary dance in a suite of ballets inspired by the war. Liam Scarlett, Akram Khan, and Russell Maliphant have individually choreographed new pieces for "Lest We Forget" (Barbican Centre, London, April 2nd-12th).

Children can learn about "the war to end all wars" by writing, rehearsing and performing a play about the life of a squaddie. In "Play in a Day" (Museum of Childhood, London, Feb 17th-21st, £25) the participants will experience the excitement of those first few months of war and the subsequent, sobering reality of life in the trenches. "Bring a packed lunch and dress for mess."

During the first Christmas of the war, unofficial ceasefires took place along the Western Front. Combatants exchanged gifts over enemy lines—and some played football. In honour of that brief, humanising moment, Newark Town Football Club will play an under-21s football match against German twin town Emmingden at a site near Ypres where it is thought one of the matches took place.

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