ISSUE 65 AUTIUMN 2012

Peace Matters Index

a bitter truth

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“I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”
Paul Nash





Given that we have no way of being sure what has been said by whom unless we were actually present we have to rely on others who we may or may not trust and on our general view of the world. To some it will come as no surprise, despite some denials, that Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, according to the Sunday Times sting, was happy smoozing with foreign arms manufacturer and offering his connections to promote their wares. That, as president of the British Legion, he said his role at the legion gave him access to important figures in defence, and described the annual Festival of Remembrance as “a tremendous networking opportunity” will not surprise us. Promoting arms manufacturers at the Festival of Remembrance may be a bit tasteless but essentially no different than at any other time. What this remark inadvertently reveals is the military/industrial/ nexus for which remembrance as promoted by the legion, whatever else it does, is an effective PR mechanism.

A few days earlier at the Imperial War Museum The Prime Minister was explaining how the government will commemorate the biggest folly of the 20th century - a war that by 1918 created close to ten million dead, over ten million casualties and casts a baleful influence on us till this day. He hoped the commemoration will “captures our national spirit in every corner of the country, something that says something about who we are as a people”. While he regards this as a personal priority (?) he seems to have a poor grip on what it was all about. “It seems inexplicable that the countries which had many things binding them together would indulge in such a never-ending slaughter, but they did.”

It is not clear why Paul Nash's painting of the Menin Road was chosen as the backdrop to the Prime ministers announcement. A more appropriated backdrop would surely have been Nash's We are Making a New World also available at the museum. In this bleak image the dark clouds are the colour of dried blood through which the sun can barely penetrate. At the time when the panting was first shown just after the war it was to a wide and receptive audience. “It is not possible,” noted a commentator at the time, “to paint truly how this war has swept man, because horror will not permit the truth to be said. It is possible to depict the devastation of Nature, partly because we cannot understand the full horror, and partly because through it we may come to a deeper realisation of what the catastrophe may mean to man.”

The Menin Road lacks the savage, protesting pessimism which turned We are Making a New World into a masterpiece of anger and despair. Perhaps, for the Prime Minister and his adviser, Ypres (the location of the Menin Road) may seem symbolically important despite its the total devastation as it is was the centre of the salient the British held throughout the war. Whatever the reasons for the choice it is unlikely that the artist's view was considered or if it was it was hoped that few would know it. Nash used his painting as a war artist to bring home the full horrors of the war. As he wrote to his wife from the front on 16 November 1917: “I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”

Tory MP Andrew Murrison who was appointed as special representative said: “We are making no judgment about fault, right to wrong, certainly no attempt to indulge in any jingoistic sentiment. The fact is that it happened. Millions of people died. Which makes one wonder what the whole enterprise is about.






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