Tristram Hunt: We must strike solemn tone to mark centenary of catastrophe
IN Shelton Cemetery, a towering stone cross commemorates the most cataclysmic event in modern world history.
The inscription reads: "The honoured memory of 380 sailors and soldiers who gave their lives for their country in the Great War 1914-1918, 119 of whom lie in this cemetery, 92 in Hartshill cemetery, 61 in Longton Cemetery, 57 in Burslem Cemetery, 26 in Tunstall Cemetery, 20 in Fenton Cemetery and 12 in Smallthorne Cemetery, all in the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Their name liveth for evermore'.
Such monuments can be found across Western Europe.
Sixteen million people died in the First World War, including one million Britons.
This Sunday between 11am & 4pm with FREE admission at the Moat House Hotel Festival Park we will be exhibiting with some special show offers, the weather forecast isn't good but our deals are
Terms: Visit us or pick up a voucher at the show to be eligible
Contact: 01782 342609
Valid until: Sunday, June 23 2013
This November, as for every other, we must make time to ensure that those last words inscribed on the Shelton memorial ring true.
However, this year there is a special urgency to our remembrances.
The centenary of the onset of war – 28 July 2014 – looms large and earlier this month David Cameron unveiled a four-year £50 million programme to create a 'truly national commemoration'.
Events will be funded to mark the anniversary of the major battles, such as the Somme and the Marne. Every school will send two children to visit the battlefields.
The Imperial War Museum in London will be overhauled.
And there will also be thousands of grants made so that the memorials and plaques that adorn our public spaces, as in Shelton, do not fall into disrepair.
Other funding bodies are rolling out their own programmes.
The Heritage Lottery Foundation has announced its intention to see that 'every community has access to funding to mark the First World War centenaries 'as they wish'.
We already have some excellent heritage projects in the area that commemorate the First World War, such as the Training For The Trenches project at Cannock Chase, which preserves a camp that could have prepared upwards of 500,000 men bound for the Western Front.
Yet it is important that we begin a conversation now about how else, as a city, we should mark this significant occasion.
Important too, is that we remember the real First World War.
Respect for the awesome sacrifice of an entire generation is paramount.
But the tone should be of solemn remembrance – there is little to celebrate in what can only be described as a human catastrophe.
The war poet Siegfried Sassoon threw his Military Cross in the River Mersey and had an anti-war poem read out in Parliament.
Harry Patch, the last British survivor of the war, who died in 2009 aged 111, described it as 'nothing better than legalised mass murder'.
The war also wreaked enormous change on the shape of society.
It marked an important step in the liberation of women, who gained the vote in 1918, and transformed British politics as a growing working class consciousness saw the growth of the trade unions and the Labour Party.
The national commemoration should examine this wider historical context and not restrict itself to the grand geo-politics.
Of course, the commemorations will have particular poignancy in Staffordshire.
On Friday we heard that the Ministry of Defence had succumbed to the great campaign, run by The Sentinel and people of Stoke-on-Trent, to save the name of the Staffords in the reformed Mercian Regiment.
The Staffords took part in many of the major actions of the war, including battles at Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme, Ypres and Amiens.
Most famously of all, both the North and South Staffords led the assault at the Battle of San Quentin, where, on September 19, 1918, the British Army finally penetrated the Hindenberg Line, the Germans' great defensive barrier.
As a journalist from The Observer wrote: "The Midlands boot-makers, miners, lace-workers, potters, who had never pretended in their lives to heroism or poetry, or the traditions of a crack regiment went at the canal at San Quentin with mats, rafts, lifebelts, wading, swimming, floating, they crossed the water and stormed over the astonished enemy and clean through the Hindenburg defences. Their day's work was the immortal epic of the ordinary man."
Remembrance Day is not exclusively about the First World War. It is about all wars past and present, obviously the Second World War, but the Korean War, the Falklands, the Gulf wars and Afghanistan too.
Every year we have the chance to honour all those who put their lives on the line in service of their country.
But, in 2014, it will be about the First World War and we should start now to think about how the Potteries should commemorate that seismic event in our city's history.