IWM Q 31229

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. [1]

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.[2]

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.

Amy Ryall is the External Engagements Project Officer at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. She runs a Public Engagement blog and you can also find her on twitter @amy_ryall.

Image: Armistice celebrations in Winchester ©IWM

[1] For more on how ‘government is working closely with a range of partners to lead the nation in acts of commemoration’ see:

Tags : commemorationFirst World War CentenaryFirst World War commemorationheritagepublic historyuses of historyWorld War I centenary
Amy Ryall

The author Amy Ryall

1 Comment

  1. Excellent post! Cynics amongst us might suggest that having an informed discussion, and attempt to think about the messiness and complexity of an event like this, is not as attractive to the powers that be as a mildly nationalistic, flag waving telethon! If they’re really lucky they might even get on the news courtesy of a film crew following them round as they tut and exhale theatrically, furrowing their brows in order to demonstrate their grasp of the sheer bloody sadness of it all.

    Unfortunately Mr Gove’s plans for history in schools seem to be very much along these lines. In his ideal classroom, I can almost hear his awful drone, pompously lecturing about ‘sacrifice’ and trotting out a beyond traditional narrative, regularly pausing to allow himself a second to digest the enormity of his own correctness, grasp of content and personal place in this incredible story of British endeavour through the past 1500 years, that has led to this moment: Him, standing recounting that story to the next generation of trueborn Englishmen.

    As a side issue, I always find the differing public memory of WW1 and 2 interesting. WW1 heroic but futile (lions and donkeys etc.), WW2 heroic but necessary and the moment where Britain ‘stood alone’ and triumphed. Both obscure a lot, particularly the Churchill, Dunkirk and D-Day narrative of WW2. I’d guess the obvioous reason for the difference is that of Hitler replacing Wilhelm, and WW2 being a struggle against Nazism rather than war in the traditional sense. Also the Holocaust lends a heroic element – Britain fought to save the Jews etc.

    Yet none of that allows for the wealth of influential public opinion in 30s Britain that Hitler was preferable to Bolshevism, nor that British borders were pretty much closed to Jewish adults. Consider the deportation of the Jews from the Channel Islands (as opposed to the Freemasons, who indigenous island authorities protected), and also documents that show the British actively avoided being seen to fight WW2 on behalf of the Jews caught up in German persecution, due to popular antisemitic sentiment in areas of the UK.

    I’m not arguing that it wasn’t a good thing that the Allies won WW2, just that the complex, muddy, sometimes murky ‘reality’ is more interesting and useful than the myth.

    Apologies on the rambling length of this – perhaps a case of typing before thinking! Thanks again for the original post.

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