You may easily have missed a news story that received relatively little media attention as Britain and the world celebrated the beginning of 2014.
The Royal Mint have revealed the design of a special £2 coin to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war. It is described as a “commemorative” coin, but it does not commemorate the millions of people who died. Instead, the coin’s design glorifies war and celebrates a leading warmonger.
The coin features a picture of Horatio Kitchener, a general and peer who was made Secretary for War when the war broke out. The coin includes the words “Your country needs you”, famously printed on recruiting posters next to the image of Kitchener pointing outwards at whoever happened to be passing.
I’ve nothing against a coin to mark this important anniversary. Indeed, I think it’s appropriate that we mark it. Like many others, I will be mourning the millions of lives wasted and asking what we can learn from this futile war. I appreciate that not everyone shares this view, just as not everyone shares the pro-war views of David Cameron and others. However, nearly everyone in the UK would surely agree that it is right to mourn and commemorate the dead. Why can this not be the coin’s focus?
Let’s be honest about Kitchener. His supposedly heroic war record includes his command of the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre. In 1898, Kithchener’s troops, armed with machine guns, killed around 10,800 Sudanese people armed mostly with swords and spears. At least another 16,000 Sudanese were wounded. In contrast, 48 British troops were killed in this “battle”.
At the outbreak of world war one in 1914, the prime minister Herbert Asquith appointed Kitchener as Secretary for War despite his lack of political experience. Asquith recognised that Kitchener was a popular “hero” figure who could help the recruitment effort.
As the prime minister’s wife Margot Asquith put it, Kitchener was “more of a great poster than a great man”. Amongst his other actions, he urged the cabinet to make things very hard for conscientious objectors and suggested that they were simply trying to avoid danger (hardly the case for the objectors who spent years in prison and those who were sentenced to death, even though the sentences were commuted).
I don’t know how the Royal Mint reached this appalling decision. I hope there is still time for them to replace the coin with one that is truly commemorative. Even if there is not, they can certainly refrain from putting into a circulation something that so casually glorifies war and champions a warmonger.