The Makings of History / Commemorative Issues

The annual memorial service at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem gives one the impression that the days of the British Mandate are not over.

Once a year, the impression arises that the days of the British Mandate are not over. It happens at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem: A few dozen British soldiers stand in formation at a memorial marking the Allied victory in World War I.

The sight is colorful and quite surreal: The guests, among them the military attaches of various countries, come dressed in gaudy dress uniforms covered in kilos of victory medals, glittering in Jerusalem's morning sunlight. One man, attired in a kilt, plays the bagpipes. Prominent clergy show up dressed in festive cassocks and hoods. Prayers are recited, anthems are sung, and wreaths are laid representing not only the powers that won the war, but also those who were defeated in it, including Germany.

The British military cemetery at Mount Scopus - Yad Vashem Collection
Yad Vashem Collection

Some 2,500 of the British Empire's dead are buried there, row upon row, as if in a formation of living soldiers, beneath tombstones that differ from each other only in the names and memorial verses etched on them; several dozen of them bear Stars of David. Several of the dead were Muslims. Several of the dead are unidentified.

The 2011 ceremony was supposed to take place on November 11, starting at 11 minutes past 11 A.M. But Jerusalem being Jerusalem, the ceremony was not held on November 11, but rather on the following day, a Saturday. Evil tongues wagged that the ceremony was moved to Shabbat to avoid the need to invite representatives of the host government. Be that as it may, it did not prevent some 200 Israelis from attending; some were bused in specially, and doubtless it was to them that Her Majesty's consul was referring when he welcomed "our Jewish friends." Six years from now, the consulate will have to summon up all its diplomatic prowess to find appropriate words to mark the centenary of Allenby's army entering Jerusalem.

In recent years, there have been reports from time to time about the death of "the last veteran of World War I." Indeed, one of them, Claude Choules, died this year in Australia, at the age of 110. But according to Wikipedia, as of earlier this month, a woman named Florence Green, now nearing the age of 111, was still among the living in England; she joined the Royal Air Force in September 1918.

World War I shepherded Europe into the 20th century; with the collapse of the empires, new social, political and cultural values came into being that left their mark to this day. Some people believe that the Great War affixed itself in Britain's collective memory even more powerfully than World War II.

Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, is currently under duress to reassure a certain worried lord that his country is not neglecting preparations for the commemoration of the centenary of the war's outbreak; this is supposed to happen two years from now. Lord Faulkner, who represents the All-Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group, has warned the prime minister that more and more proposals for marking the occasion have come to his attention from various countries. There is already a committee working on the matter in Australia, and Belgium is proposing to build a memorial garden in London with soil brought over from Flanders.

Most worrying of all is that the French are investing an approximate 25 million euros in a new war museum which they are building not far from the Marne battlefields. Who knows whether this isn't really part of a plot intended to downplay the heroism of the 750,000 British soldiers who paid with their lives for victory in that war?

This brings to mind a scene from the TV series "Yes, Prime Minister," when Sir Humphrey asks the main protagonist who is Britain's main enemy, in his opinion, and the prime minister guesses: The Soviet Union? No, prime minister, Sir Humphrey corrects him: The French, naturally!

At 10 Downing Street not long ago, there was talk of the celebrations expected next summer to mark Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, which also require a great deal of preparation. And there will also be the Olympics. And no, the important commemoration of the centenary of World War I will not be neglected either by his government, Cameron promised.

Meanwhile, an ethical-historical debate is shaping up in Europe: Would it not be preferable to focus on the 100th anniversary of the war's end, instead of the 100th anniversary of its outbreak? In the European Union's ragged condition, it would seemingly be a good idea to emphasize an event signifying unity - but evidently the deeper the cracks in Europe become, the greater the patriotic longing grows for the glory of battle, sacrifice and the death of heroes.