Centenary: Look to the Middle East for the legacy of World War 1


Jan Dalley, Arts editor of the Financial Times, writes about the ‘upcoming cultural programme’

Jan Dalley

Jan Dalley

Jenny Waldman, the creative producer of last year’s London 2012 festival, is to direct a four-year cultural programme (2014-18) consisting of artist-led projects that aim to “lead us to new thoughts and perspectives” on the first world war.

Jan Dalley records that nine million combatants died in the horrors of those four years and asks: “How do you commemorate that?” Then:

“That brilliant, savage picture of the “lions led by donkeys”, as the German high command was supposed to have described the British troops and their officers, began life in 1961 as a radio play called The Long, Long Trail, and was remade for the stage at Joan Littlewood’s pioneering Theatre Workshop in 1963. The star-studded Richard Attenborough film followed in 1969.

“The 50th anniversary of the start of the first world war was marked by a ferocious satire on that – and all – wars. It didn’t go down well with the authorities – in those apparently swinging Sixties there was still censorship of the London stage, and the family of Field Marshal Haig objected to the play’s transfer from its fringe venue in Stratford East to the West End. But the tide of public opinion carried it along, then on to Broadway in 1964.

“It’s not by chance that the long success of Oh! What a Lovely War coincided with the rise of protests against the Vietnam war and the passionate anti-war mood of the moment. (And revisionism about war was not the sole province of hippies and longhairs: Oh! What a Lovely War was partly based on a stinging study of the British command called The Donkeys by one Alan Clark – yes, that one, later arch-Thatcherite government minister.)”

Ms Dalley notes a different mood abroad today, “the arguments tend to be pragmatic – about cost, effectiveness, and so on – rather than moral or emotional. Drone strikes in Afghanistan have not, to my knowledge, provoked a single song or poem”, nor even – sadly – much recognition or sympathy”. She concludes:

For the perils of war go far beyond the kind of death and destruction you can see. The true dangers of war – particularly the wars we’re now engaged in – include indifference.


Peter Hirsch, from Montclair New Jersey, replies:

In “Oh! What a lovely war centenary” (Arts, August 10) Jan Dalley casts around desperately for an appropriate, relevant response to the impending centenary of the Great War to enrich those that previous anniversaries have contributed.


May I suggest that she look no further than the Middle East today in which the legacy of that awful conflict is playing out every day culturally and politically in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, just to name three chimeras created by the aftermath of 1914?


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