What did you do?


It’s one of the best known propaganda poster images of the Great War, one of the most powerful and emotional, and surely also one of the most often copied and parodied. A little girl in a blue dress sits on her father’s knee, looking at a picture book. On the floor at their feet, her younger brother is playing with his toy soldiers. The father looks left into the middle distance with a haunted expression, as his daughter asks him, “Daddy, what did youdo in the Great War?”

This War Office poster dates from the first year of the First World War, before the beginning of general conscription, when the British Army was still entirely a volunteer army. It aimed to move the fathers of Britain to ‘do their duty’ and enlist, so that they would not need to be ashamed when their children, in years to come, asked them whether they had done their bit for King and Country. The desire to provide for their dependents, at a time when provision for the families of wartime casualties was far from generous, was a huge disincentive to married men volunteering, and this poster sought to apply emotional pressure on them to do so. It’s not clear how many men responded as a result of this pressure, but it clearly made a mark. The fact that it’s so well remembered is evidence of that.

It has been all too easy for later generations to smile at the gullibility of those who were emotionally bullied into volunteering, or to condemn the military leaders who were prepared to send men to their deaths, or to spill oceans of ink in arguments over the causes of the War, who was to blame, and the alleged mistakes that were made. One major achievement of the way this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the War has been observed, is that it has balanced respect for those who were prepared to lay down their lives, with a sense of the horror of war, and the need to work tirelessly for peace.

But that old poster retains its poignancy after a hundred years. That little girl is still asking me — asking all of us — “What did you do, after the Great War, to ensure that what people called ‘the war to end all wars’ might somehow, sometime, be seen as a contribution to the ending of war for ever?” This may seem like a foolish question, as we look back over the century that has passed since then and count the number of wars that have taken place. Many commentators have said that there has not been a single year in all that time when there has not been a war somewhere in the world. Many of these wars have involved the Allied powers, though often at a distance, so that George Orwell’s chilling 1984 vision of a world constantly at war somewhere else seems eerily prophetic.

When we stand at the War Memorial this Remembrance Sunday, to remember the 12 men of Marston who died in the 1914-18 War, and the millions of others they represent, we will be invited to join in an Act of Commitment, with the words,

Let us pledge ourselves anew to the service of God and our fellow men and women; that we may help, encourage and comfort others, and support those working for the relief of the needy and for the peace and welfare of the nations.

Then we all respond,
Lord God our Father, we pledge ourselves to serve you and all humankind, in the cause of peace, for the relief of want and suffering, and for the praise of your name. Guide us by your Spirit; give us wisdom; give us courage; give us hope; and keep us faithful now and always. Amen.

God knows, with all the news we see day by day of wars, genocides and epidemics, the need to commit ourselves to the work of peace is greater than ever. Please join us on this Remembrance Sunday, and make this commitment your own.

Tony Price