And so the Royal Mint chooses to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War with a series of coins.
The Mint itself is coy in its choice of words: ‘a five-year commemoration of the emotive wartime journey from outbreak to armistice’.
‘GOOD-MORNING; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
– from ‘The General’ by Siegfried Sassoon.
The aphorism ‘history is written by the victor’ has the enviable clarity and cleanliness of prose that typifies the best of slogans. With it comes the implied logic of perceived truth. The conversation rarely goes further than the nodded head and hummed agreement that here, the debate ends.
Yet history, whilst it is written by the victors, is also mainly written by historians. Historians whose ability to research, write, archive, and order a given sequence of events marks them as something of an educated elite.
appointed to that position
by privilege of birth and
the principles of monarchical
primogeniture, should it be so
surprising that the institutions
awarded the duty of commemoration
choose icons and images best placed
to reflect that establishment?
That the Royal Mint Advisory Committee chose to commemorate that ’emotive wartime journey’ with the iconic image of Lord Kitchener should come as no surprise. The clue is in the name : ‘Royal’. When a head of state is appointed to that position by privilege of birth and the principles of monarchical primogeniture, should it be so surprising that the institutions awarded the duty of commemoration choose those icons and images best placed to reflect that establishment?
That citizens of the UK have expressed concern at the choice is inevitable. This is the strength of decentralised online media. Social media may be kneejerk and ill-informed on countless occasions, but as a barometer of public feeling, it has an immediacy and relevance that is not always available elsewhere.
Whilst a revisionist approach to history might apply the moniker of ‘war-criminal’ to Kitchener, (Secretary of State for War from 1914 until his death at sea off the Orkneys in May 1916) to do so would be a gleaning of facts to suit purpose. Applying post-Nuremberg, Warsaw Pact morality to the massacre of Omdurman, the concentration camps of the Boer War or the obstinate bloodbath of the Dardanelle campaign is iconoclasm for its own sake, directing a modern discontent at a figure now historically remote enough to be little more relevant than Richard III or Vlad the Imapler.
The problem isn’t Kitchener though, is it? The problem is that a populace feels itself and its values unrepresented by its iconography. In an era where the UK public defines heroism as the individual maverick sacrifice of a Manning or a Snowden, such figures as Kitchener fail to stir the warm feelings of pride and patriotism that they did in an era when the hypocrisy and avarice of the ruling classes was less easily broadcast.
‘His record in the Great War as strategist, administrator and leader, will be judged by the eyes of other generations than our own. Let us hope they will also remember the comfort his character and personality gave to his countrymen in their hours of hardest trial’
– Winston Churchill The World Crisis 1911 – 1918.
And so that day of judgment comes. The 21st century sensibility, honed by decades of state-endorsed dishonesty and media manipulation, deliberates. Primed to trust artists over historians, it is to Owen and Sassoon; to Georg Grosz and Paul Nash; to the folk wisdom of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ that it turns to for a clear view of the Great War.
The mistrust is not of Kitchener’s peaked cap and walrus moustaches – Leete’s infamous poster of the General has long been admired for its design qualities – but of the image (and all that it represents) becoming a ubiquitous and unquestioned facet of daily life in the UK, experienced by all who handle its coinage, and projecting an image of the state which modern Britons feel powerless to alter.
How does that mistrust manifest itself?
Exasperation at the rebranding of a conflict which saw the suffering and death of vast numbers of rank-and-file servicemen whilst leaving their commanding elite largely unscathed? Certainly.
Disgust at the glorification of a man whose command decisions involved the use of concentration camps? Understandably.
Concern that the jingoistic appropriation and mass distribution of iconography from a limited set of imperialistic, upper-class, triumphalist, xenophobic and deeply nostalgic parameters (see also : Keep Calm and Carry On) might just betray (or encourage) an undercurrent of reactionary right-wing attitudes amongst the population expected to use those very coins? Likely.
Anger that the callous clique of privately-educated toffs who looked upon the nation’s population as a source of cannon fodder a hundred years ago seem little different from the privately-educated toffs currently pulling the strings? Definitely.
Surprise though? Hardly.
The coinage of the United Kingdom dithers between a multitude of images to the extent that it is a challenge to find in a pocketful of change, any two coins of the same value which bear the same icon. Emblems of Tudor roses or Welsh leeks bear testament to a state which is simultaneously enthralled by its past and unable to settle on a single identifying image for a collection of nations which even now cannot agree on a collective adjective of self (United Kingdomish?).
Commemorative editions of legal tender abound, bearing a multitude of designs as confusing to the newcomer as they are exclusionary.
This is not a coinage that embraces the reality of modern Britain, but rather seeks to distance itself from the diversity and social triumph of a functioning (yes, flawed, but functioning) multiculture. If the UK’s coinage were to reflect its society in a celebratory way, the result would look much more like the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics and less like the pages of a patriotic comic book for 1920s Eton schoolboys being primed to stamp down conchies, pinkos and fuzziewuzzies.
But history is written by the victor, and until very recently, by the elite classes within that group. The Royal Mint does not seek to represent the populace or its values, but instead represents in its chosen imagery the values of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee. It is not the authenticity of the Kitchener image that is questionable – he existed, that poster existed – but its appropriateness.
The courage and idealism of millions of servicemen and women during the Great War is not in question, but nor is it represented.
Flip the coin. Perhaps the trials and triumphs of the United Kingdom’s populace are represented by what’s on the other side. Some everyman figure to embody the spirits of industry, fairness, justice, non-conformism, democracy and egalitarianism that, from Wat Tyler to the NHS, infuse the land with its dignity and flair.