Beginning on 4 August, 2014, Britain, along with many other countries in the world, will commemorate the First World War Centenary. National commemoration services will happen in the UK and in Mons, Belgium, school children will be taken to the Battlefields of northern France and Belgium. Heritage Lottery Fund money is available for communities to plan their own commemorations, the AHRC is funding regional co-ordinating centres to make academic expertise available to community projects, and £10 million will be made available for a cultural programme of art, music and drama. 
The focus is very much on young people, as if, by some miracle, getting them to recall and remember the sacrifices of the youthful generation of the First World War, we will form them into citizens better able to deal with the world now. They will become patriotic, community-minded members of a society that seems to mourn the passing of these qualities without really knowing how to resurrect them. It’s quite a lot of pressure and draws much of its rhetoric from the mud, blood, poppies and poets version of the First World War.
This version, where everyone died, and died because of the incompetence of their generals, has been the standard popular narrative of the First World War for a long time. The imagery of desperate poets, poppies, brave ‘Tommies’ and lives irreparably damaged endures with little attempt, in the public domain, to address it in a critical way. The many ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ style programmes tracing celebrities’ ancestors, almost invariably end up in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, with the present-day celebrity hovering tearfully over a white headstone.
This narrative of the War is true, there’s no doubt about it – it was a war of tremendous national and personal sacrifice, that for some was pointless and futile. It did destroy the futures of many, both those who died and those who were never the same again. We are right to commemorate that loss and to remember that generation; those that died in the First World War and those that lived through it and went on to be involved in a world that became unrecognisable from the one they had left behind.
But there are other versions of the truth about the First World War. It was a military victory and story of national survival against all the odds. As well as toil, sacrifice and heroism, there was triumph and pride; friendship and enjoyment; ordinary people getting by the best they could in extraordinary circumstances. These ideas, and others are explored by Dan Todman, historian at Queen Mary, University of London, who writes of a war that was popularly supported, despite the sacrifice it entailed, and of the blanket sanctification of veterans who were, after all, drawn from all walks of life.
History isn’t black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. Whilst the centenary commemorations of 2014-18 are important to remember a remarkable generation and the sacrifices they made, it seems a missed opportunity if it isn’t used to reassess the public view of the First World War and to use academic research to inform public understanding of the reasons behind the conflict. We do those who were involved 100 years ago a disservice if we romanticise the past for our own means. What we should really be remembering is 100 years on, as far as is possible, is the war that actually was the First World War, rather than a version of it that is safe, comfortable and self-serving.
Image: Armistice celebrations in Winchester ©IWM
 For more on how ‘government is working closely with a range of partners to lead the nation in acts of commemoration’ see: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/about-the-first-world-war-centenary