This morning, I received an email from a polite and friendly public relations manager at the Royal Mint. This follows my petition calling on the Mint to withdraw a £2 commemorative coin featuring Horatio Kitchener and his recruitment slogan “Your country needs you”. Last night, the petition – asking for the coin to be replaced with one that commemorates the millions who died in the first world war – passed 20,000 signatures.
The email consisted largely of a copy of the statement that the Royal Mint is giving to journalists who contact them about the coin and the petition. The Mint also pointed out to me that, “There seems to be some confusion about the new design being the only one to commemorate the anniversary of the first world war but this is not the case. It is part of a series of designs which will be released, encompassing a number of different high profile individuals and events from the wartime period.”
In reply, I said that I was aware of this but I acknowledged that I had not mentioned it much. The implication of the Mint’s response is that future coins will focus explicitly on commemoration of the dead. Whatever the choice of coins to mark other aspects of the first world war in the next few years, it will not make the Kitchener coin acceptable. To me, there are two reasons for this.
Firstly, because the first of a series sets the tone of a series. The very first coin to commemorate the first world war, as much as the very last, should focus on remembrance of the dead.
Secondly, and more importantly, because there is no context in which it is appropriate to produce a coin featuring a warmonger with the blood of millions on his hands. Kitchener’s atrocities prior to world war one are important. He commanded the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre in Sudan in 1898. He later expanded the network of concentration camps for Boer civilians in South Africa, in which many died due to the appallingly unhealthy conditions.
In the light of all this, the coin would be bad enough if it simply featured a picture of Kitchener. But it goes beyond this, picturing his image as it appeared on recruitment posters, along with the slogan that accompanied it. This poster pressurised millions of young men to fight and kill other young men with whom they had far more in common than they did with Kitchener. Although the official age for going to the front was 19, many were allowed to join up much younger than this. The youngest person known to have died fighting for the British army in the first world war was 14.
It is not enough simply to argue that the coin depicts an important image from world war one. There are some events and images that we choose not to depict because we know that they give the wrong idea about what we are remembering. No commemoration of those who died in the appalling terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre would be likely to feature a picture of Osama Bin Laden.
Whenever we create a symbol, we make a choice. In choosing how to symbolise an event, issue or idea, we give an impression of how we understand it. How we understand the past affects how we act in the present and the future. British people’s minds are fresh from Tony Blair’s deceptions over Iraq, which may help to explain why thousands of people are angry about this coin. It is especially relevant at a time when generals and certain politicians are resisting even minor cuts to military spending while public services are slashed.
There are many suggestions about what images might be more appropriate for coins that mark the anniversary of world war one. A petition calling for a coin with Edith Cavell has also been very successful, passing 20,000 signatures. Other suggestions that I like include Harry Patch, Wilfred Owen and images of graves or of people marching to the front.
I hope that some of these images will appear on coins and that our campaigning will influence the Royal Mint’s choices of the rest of their series of coins commemorating the war. I hope l that some at least will emphasise remembrance of all who died and suffered. None of these choices can make the Kitchener coin acceptable or remove the reasons for calling for its withdrawal.
I am not asking for coins that simply reflect my own view of the war. I am a Christian pacifist, but many of the petition’s signatories have very different views. Judging from their comments, they include people who believe world war one was justified but that it should not be glorified; others are pacifists while some oppose world war one but not all wars. Many comments say something along the lines of “This coin is an insult to my granddad.” It seems there are many relatives of first world war soldiers who find this coin deeply offensive.
What all these people agree on is that commemorating the dead should be the main purpose of a coin marking the outbreak of the first world war. Without this purpose, the coin does more to serve Kitchener’s successors – people such as Tony Blair, David Cameron and Michael Gove – than to honour the history of the British people and the world around them.
To sign the petition, please visit bit.ly/KitchenerCoin.