Read the post in the Northwich Guardian regarding new graves provided to two Belgian Refugees who initially were buried in unmarked graves during WW1.
Thanks to a collaborative project assisted by the Centre for Hidden Histories (An AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre), permanent graves have now been provided, that are also able to list information on the boys short lives. The article contains more detailed information.
Our latest Blog by Sarah Reay takes a look at the role of Army Chaplain’s throught the story of her grandfather, Rev Herbert Butler Cowl.
In the world of academia, references to Army Chaplaincy are few, and Rev Cowl’s story sheds new light to the subject.
“Sometimes as I cross a bit of rising ground between here and Headquarters, where the country is open, and the road only lined by an endless avenue of huge polled witch-elms, I stand in the darkness; watch the probing searchlights flicker on to the clouds and hear those grim far off voices speaking death. It is a new sound; it is another world; and it calls to unprecedented scenes and experiences. God grant as we march into it all, that there may arise a man in me that is sufficient to this new occasion!”
Most of the Army Chaplains were new to such challenges – they had no experience of working with soldiers in the field of war. Herbert and the thousands who volunteered during the war to become Army Chaplains wanted to do their best and support the men under their pastoral care. It was considered to be a righteous war and the churches responded with a supply of suitable candidates! Suitability ranged from being physically fit, to the ability to preach ‘extempore’ (‘off the cuff’), an ability to ride a horse and to speak French and / or German. Herbert Cowl was one of the youngest Army Chaplains in 1914 – he had most of these qualities and he was in his late 20’s.
As we remember the Centenary of the Great War, the Army Chaplains seem to be an almost forgotten group of men who carried out a vital role during the war. Not only did they provide spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. Also, they gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcher-bearers. They worked in the Home Camps and the Garrisons too, helping to prepare men for what they had to face at the front in battle and also supporting the wounded and sick soldiers who had returned to Blighty.
No man wanted to be forgotten and left behind in the mud of Flanders. It was comforting for the soldiers to know, and be re-assured, that if the worst fate should come to them, the padre, a good man, would inter them and send them to Heaven with the full blessing of God!
After the war, there were a number of Army Chaplains, who became popular public figures, including the famous Rev. Studdert-Kennedy M.C., known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, for handing out Woodbines (cigarettes) to the troops; the Rev. ‘Tubby’ Clayton and the Rev. Neville Talbot who co-founded ‘Toc H’ Talbot House in Poperinghe, Belgium. Talbot House was styled as an “Every Man’s Club”, where men were welcome, regardless of rank, and Christianity was promoted as an alternative to the other types of recreation on offer in the town. However, there were many other Army Chaplains who carried out incredible acts of bravery, too many to detail in this blog, but they were a band of brothers who have been largely been forgotten over the last 100 years.
Throughout history, men going to war have always sought the support of the representatives of their church. However, the First World War saw an unprecedented need and demand for Army Chaplains. During the war over 3,000 Chaplains were recruited from the different religious denominations. Of these, 179 made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives for King, Country and God. We need to remember them!
The Rev. Herbert B. Cowl C.F. M.C. considered himself no hero, but this is his story – one of many stories that has never been told.
Let us hope that more stories regarding the Army Chaplains of the Great War will come into the public domain over the coming years. Their selfless courage must never be forgotten.
More information on Army Chaplains can be gained from the Museum of Army Chaplaincyat Amport House, Amport House near Andover, Hampshire.
When members of the Entente alliance met for the first time during the First World War there was often a period of intensive cultural exchange. Often the soldiers of the different combatants had previously had, at best, limited contact with the people of other nations. How they came to understand each other was a crucial part of building a functional alliance.
However, these initial contacts were often complicated by competing issues of national identity and vocabulary. What names did the soldiers of each army wish to be called by and did these preferences match the names and ideas their newfound allies already held?
As the cornerstone of the Entente alliance, the identity assumed by French soldiers was a manifestation of their own political ethos. The self-styled Poilus, or ‘hairy ones’ that composed the French army viewed themselves not just as soldiers but politicised defenders of the ideal of French republicanism. Such was the importance of their goal they believed it could not be achieved without becoming dishevelled by both dirt and hair.
For their part, the British soldiers took on the identity of Tommy Atkins, a term that had existed since at least the early 19th century. Being a ‘Tommy’ was a less political role that that of a Poilu, with the British soldiers seeming to draw strength from the inclusive nature of a term that meant common soldier.
Both the British and French soldiers recognised the preferred nature of each other’s identities and would generally adapt to referring to each other as such. However, this was not always without incident. The tendency within the British army to refer to the French as ‘Frogs’ or variations on this theme endured throughout the war, much to the annoyance of their French allies. This situation was not improved by the fact that the British appear to have passed this habit on to the arriving American soldiers in 1917 and 1918, which caused friction between these new allies.
For their part, whilst some French soldiers recognised the different nations that composed the British army and its empire but often, for convenience sake, simply used the term ‘British’ as a catch-all description. This in turn often caused irritation in some Scottish soldiers who objected to being stripped of their own national identity.
The arrival of American soldiers in the war’s latter years also brought a new plethora of potential collective names, with their own political dangers. British soldiers found that different groups of these men would answer to ‘Doughboys’, ‘Sammies’, and ‘Yankees’ but would also react angrily to being identified by the ‘wrong’ name. This was particularly notable in the way those who came from states that had once been part of the Confederacy reacted to being called ‘Yankees’ or ‘Yanks’.
Whilst these nicknames could sometimes be used out of a mocking humour, they were often motivated by a grudging form of respect based upon an understanding of each nations place in the Great Power system. Names bestowed on allies who were viewed as being notably inferior were often much more derisive. One British soldier noted that the military High Command had issued an order for British soldiers to stop referring to their Portuguese allies as ‘Pork and Beans’. An order which had little success.
Yet the narratives that I have found most interesting and most engaging in thinking about the war and my own relationship to it, have been those that I have uncovered in the archives of Newcastle and Northumberland.
My interest in this war is longstanding and I, like many others always associate it with the soldier poets, with the Cenotaph in London, with mile of graveyards in France. Even in terms of my academic work, it often it seems very far away, both historically and geographically.
It was fascinating, for me, then to find the stories of men (and women) who had grown up in the places that were familiar to me.
To imagine the nurse, who lived two streets away from my current home in Newcastle itself, who shipped out to Salonika and to read her diaries and hear of her journey, her excitement and the hardships of new wartime life.
To read about the adventures of Captain John Evelyn Carr who grew up in the same suburb as I did and who kept meticulous diaries of his service in France, collecting cuttings from newspapers, adverts and other ephemera as he travelled through France.
To examine the letters of the couple, William and Barbara, from County Durham, who wrote to each other almost every day, right through William’s training at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire. Their correspondence even includes letters from their two children to their father in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.
What made a real connection – rather than thinking of the war as something that happened to other people – was thinking of people who had walked through the same streets as me, visited Tynemouth beach or done their shopping in the market towns of Northumberland, shipping out to war and taking these memories and these places with them.
And, I think, for many people these events can seem far away in terms of both locality and time, and this can make them seem alien or even irrelevant.
Although we all know that men from all the UK and, indeed, all over the world, fought in World War One, it brings the whole experience very literally closer to home to learn of the experiences of those from, well, closer to home.
When Carr writes of his experiences on the first day of the Somme, it seems incredible that there was a man from the leafy suburb of Gosforth there at the front, on that day (and there were many more besides, and from all over the North-East, as his account testifies).
He describes helping to evacuate the wounded from the frontline describing ‘I spent I think quite the busiest day in my life, the wounded began pouring in about 11am & continued coming all day, in the 2 stations we had approximately 4000 cases, I evacuated 2 trains including 966 cases, many being terribly mutilated, the sights and agonies of the men are too awful for words.
‘It is a sight never to be forgotten seeing there splendid men lying like helpless babies, & one poor fellow died while I was putting him into the train & I had to take him back’.
Carr’s experiences certainly struck a chord with me because of this local connection and I wanted to see if this was a way of helping others to connect with or commemorate the war, particularly during these centenary years.
Working with a group of archivists, film-makers and postgraduate students, we made two films documenting the school students’ responses.
The sense of locality, of recognising the familiar names of Morpeth, Newcastle, Durham, Ponteland, Alnwick in these letters and photographs really helped these local sixth formers to relate to their experiences. The local accounts helped to bring the war home to students who were surprised to hear about the roles people from towns and villages they knew had performed during the war.
Bringing the war closer to home, in this instance, served as a really useful way of helping to promote these connections to a new generation.
Moreover, as local archives and libraries are increasingly threatened with cuts and closures, this can mark out a great way of demonstrating the value of their collections and even bringing in some much-needed financial assistance.
The local, whether in Devon or Dumfries, Dunston or Dublin, can help us all to identify with the events of the past and to connect with them more meaningfully in the present.
Ingrid is one of the researchers funded by AHRC with expertise on the First World War and its commemoration. A list is held on the AHRC Website of these academics who are happy to be contacted about their research. Many of these are also heavily involved in the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres.
European commentators are baffled by the British decision to leave the EU following the referendum on 23rd June, in which over 17 million Britons voted to leave the EU despite the uncertainty of any measurable gains and the strong likelihood of substantial losses. Can a look at history, and the way we choose to remember it, help to explain why?
One area where history plays an enormous role is in determining the relationships between nations, especially Britain and Germany post 1945 – the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Holocaust have cast huge shadows on the diplomatic landscape, which deepen whenever we have a significant anniversary of these events. The way we mark these anniversaries often says more about our current political concerns than it reveals about our understanding of history, and can contribute to international relations in both positive and negative ways.
The different ways in which Germany and the UK are approaching the centenary of the First World War 2014-2018 at an official level offer an interesting perspective on how the nations see their place in Europe and reflect very different attitudes to the European Union. The EU is seen by the current UK government and many of the population as a purely economic project, as opposed to Germany’s view of it as a lasting symbol of post-war reconciliation.
Can we draw parallels between centenary attitudes to WW1 and the discussions around the UK’s continued membership of the EU?
In the UK, WWI is culturally very much alive, and our emotional attachment is sustained by the annual commemorations and the 2-minute silence observed at 11.00 on Remembrance Sunday in November. Our commemorations emphasise the military aspects, prioritise the stories of combat soldiers and honour the memory of our nation’s military dead. The red poppy is a powerful symbol of commemoration that highlights the heroic patriotic sacrifice made by young men in times of war – and that tends to make it harder to challenge the cause for which that sacrifice was made. The red poppy also reinforces the UK’s tendency to commemorate rather narrowly along national lines. This was shown in 2014 by the massively popular installation Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red by artists Paul Cumming and Tom Piper, which featured 888,246 red ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, each of which stood for one British soldier who died in the war, including Colonial and commonwealth troops. This was a purely British commemoration, looking back to our Colonial past rather than reflecting our European present.
The EU as a symbol of peace in Europe
In contrast, Germany’s commemorations are rooted in its European identity. We can see an attempt to integrate the story of WWI into the history of the European Union as a powerful symbol and tool of peace in 20th century. The narrative goes like this: the war led to the removal of the old regime and, with the founding of the Weimar Republic, the introduction of democracy in Germany. This has eventually led to the founding of a strong democracy in a Germany deeply embedded into the EU, a Germany able and willing to set national interests aside in the cause of peace.
An example of this international focus is the 370 meter wide elliptical Ring of Memory, opened in 2014, which commemorates 580,000 dead of several nations in the Lens area of Northern France that was subject to fighting, shelling and occupation. The names of the fallen are listed alphabetically and no mention is made of their nationality. The idea behind this monument is that the war was a shared catastrophe that has left a shared legacy of European co-operation that will prevent future wars tearing us apart. German commemorative events stress the importance of creating a European memory culture that transcends national memory, seeking to create a common historical narrative that has the effect of binding the nations more closely together and recognising their common interests.
In contrast, Britain’s approach to the Centenary is inward-looking, focussing in its commemoration mainly on the heroism of British sacrifices, seeking to find something uniquely British in our past to shore up our fractured national identity. This is mirrored in our attitude to the European Union. During the referendum, on both sides of the campaign, the arguments were based on British self-interest – would we be better off in or out of the European Union? – and not at all on the question of what our membership could contribute to the stability, mutual support and ultimately to the preservation of peace in Europe.
Mike is one of the researchers funded by the AHRC with expertise on the First World War and its commemoration. A list is held on the AHRC Website of these academics who are happy to be contacted about their research. Many of these are also heavily involved in the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres.
Britain experienced an epidemic of spy fever during the early years of the war.[i] It must have felt like the invasion and spy fiction that had gripped Edwardian readers before the war was becoming a reality. A young woman sketching the landscape was viewed with suspicion. Why record the contours of the Mersey now of all times? That information could be used by a German saboteur. As it turned out, Gladys Dalby New was released when the sketch was deemed far too inaccurate to be any use.[ii] Others, however, were less fortunate.
Walkers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time put themselves in danger. Sentries across the country were responsible for guarding places and routes and, unlike the many other Britons who were keeping an eye out for suspicious activity, they were armed and prepared to shoot. Indeed, as a captain explained at an inquest into the killing of a deaf man by a sentry who had acted after his command was ignored stated: if a sentry did not shoot and something happened as a result then he would be executed.[iii] The following examples from the north-west of England illustrate how a man who ignored a sentry’s challenge became an early casualty of the war and how another sentry put his own life on the line while defending a railway. The ‘Sentry V. Spy duel’, as the Manchester Courierdescribed an incident in Dover, brought the war to the home front before the bombs from zeppelins or shells from the ships took their toll on the civilian population.[iv]
One of the earliest fatalities was a 62 year-old peddler, William Robert Dawson, from Morecambe. He was shot at Dunning’s Bridge, Maghull on 11 August 1914 as he made his way to Liverpool. [v] It was around midnight when the sentry asked him to stop three times but received no response. Then Dawson was asked to put up his hands. At the inquest three days after the episode, Dawson was said to have replied ‘To —- with you and hands up’ before being shot. Despite being treated at a nearby Epileptic Home, Dawson died.
Like the soldier who shot Dawson, Private J. Steele of the 3rd Kings Liverpool Regiment was protecting a communication route, though in his case it was a railway rather than a bridge over a canal.
Steele challenged him and the suspect fled. The area was searched but the trespasser was nowhere to be seen. Later he reappeared and on being challenged a second time fled once more. Steele fired and missed. His target returned fire with a revolver and hit Steele, severing the radial and ulner arteries in his wrist. Again, the suspected saboteur escaped, probably making use of the many nearby sand dunes.
[i] D. French, ‘Spy Fever in Britain, 1900-1915’, Historical Journal, 21:2 (1978), pp. 355-370.
[ii] Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.
There was a market for drama but there is a long-held perception that First World War drama was all about patriotic plots involving German villainy, secret dispatches and cheerful “Tommies.” After the war it very quickly became fashionable to view melodramas likeSeven Days Leave (1917) or The Female Hun (1918) as shallow and meaningless, their ‘childish antics’ as George Bernard Shaw labelled them in 1919, the work of opportunistic hacks. By the late 1920s, a play like R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End (1928) seemed more ‘real’ and less irresponsible than the plays written during the war itself, particularly in the way it conveyed what the war had been ‘like’ for those who fought, the ‘lost generation’ of young men.
One war-time playwright who was not a hack but who nonetheless tends to get overlooked was J.M Barrie (1860-1937). Once regarded as a key figure in British theatre, Barrie’s plays have all but disappeared in the eighty years since his death – the exception being the celebrity-filled productions of Peter Pan which still appear at pantomime season. As a tour of one of Barrie’s “other” plays, A Well-Remembered Voice(unseen since its premiere in 1918), gets underway in autumn 2016 it’s worth looking at this neglected writer, not least for his attempts to say something about the trauma of war and its impact on those left behind.
When war broke out in August 1914 Barrie, along with Shaw and John Galsworthy, was one of Britain’s leading “serious” dramatists. Plays such as The Admirable Crichton (1902) and What Every Woman Knows (1908) had lifted him to the top rank. Accordingly he was one of several writers recruited by the government’s War Propaganda Bureau. Others included Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, all of whom who were too old to fight but thought it their duty to write patriotically – whatever their private misgivings about the conflict or the way it was being run.
Barrie set to work dutifully. Der Tag (1915), an allegorical two-hander about a bombastic Emperor being taken to task by “the Spirit of Culture” appeared in 1915 at The Coliseum, London’s top variety theatre. It was seen by Virginia Woolf who described it as “sheer balderdash of the thinnest kind.” On the basis that war-time theatre’s role was to be escapist Barrie followed it up with a revue, Rosy Rapture (1915) for the French exotic dancer Gaby Deslys, a figure on whom he seems to have had a bit of a crush. This was a flop. He then returned to writing what critics tended to label “whimsy.” A Kiss for Cinderella, set in war-time London, premiered in 1916 and a play about second chances, Dear Brutus in 1917.
The problem for war-time dramatists like Barrie was that it was hard to depict what was really happening: how did you represent the horrors of the battlefield and the experience of combat in any meaningful way? Barrie’s solution was to turn to the “Home Front”. His most important war-time legacy is a quartet of one-act plays The New Word (1915), The Old Lady Shows her Medals (1917) and A Well-Remembered Voice (1918). All the plays are powerful miniature studies of pain, loss bereavement and loneliness. They focus on the changing relationships between those who are fighting and those who are left behind.
A Well-Remembered Voice was first produced in June 1918 in aid of a hospital for wounded soldiers in London run by Countess Pamela Lytton (a titled lady who actually did war-work rather than playing at it). The play isn’t the usual bit of fluff produced for these occasions and its subsequent neglect is odd. It’s a taut, rather moving portrayal about how to mourn the dead – a much-debated question at the time.
A Well-Remembered Voice also deals with one of the most striking developments of war-time life: the growth of spiritualism. Putting one’s trust into séances, table rapping, automatic writing, and other communications with spirits was no longer the business of eccentrics – as it had been prior to 1914. The change was summed up by a Catholic bishop, James Wedgwood, who observed in 1919 how “a very marked change had passed over the face of popular thought in relation to spiritualism and psychical research…the appeal of a son cut off in the full flush of life’s promise, speaking to his bereaved parents…is naturally great.” Denied the chance even to bury their sons (the transport of soldiers’ bodies to Britain for burial having been prohibited) people tried to re-establish contact and say “good-bye” in another way. In A Well-Remembered Voice, the appearance, after a séance, of Jack, a young soldier, seems to be Barrie suggesting that such things were possible.
For Barrie’s biographers there is, of course, another way in which A Well-Remembered Voice has been seen to be revealing. Although Barrie had no children of his own, he was a famously devoted guardian to the orphaned Llewelyn Davies brothers—George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas – models for the “lost boys” in Peter Pan. Barrie paid for their education at Eton and took them on expensive holidays. In 1914, George Llewelyn Davies (aged 21) was the only brother old enough to enlist. Barrie’s response was to worry. “I don’t have any iota of desire for you to get military glory”, he told him, “but I have the one passionate desire that we be together again once at least.” In March 1915, George was shot by a sniper. Barrie received his final letter after news of his death. In the letter George wrote that he was looking forward to coming home. While A Well-Remembered Voice recounts the experiences of soldiers in the trenches, Barrie also depicts a family’s anguish, especially that of the father, a man who, because he is a British gentleman, bottles up his anguish.
As we commemorate the Centenary of World War I, J.M. Barrie’s war-time output is worth revisiting. As a piece of war writing A Well-Remembered Voice is interesting because Barrie seems unsure whether he wants to be propagandist (i.e. the dead soldiers are happy in the afterlife) or anti-war (what a waste of young life it has been…). At the time, the play fell foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office because the returning soldier has the temerity to suggest that the Germans are actually quite like us. Soldiers from both sides were living happily in the afterlife away from the meddling politicians.
Since the 1960s it’s the testimony of poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke which has done much to stamp a particular way of thinking about the war on the modern consciousness but there should be a space for J.M. Barrie too.
The new tour of the play is being co-ordinated by the AHRC-funded Centre for Everyday Lives in War, based at the University of Hertfordshirehttps://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/ . This is one of 5 AHRC Funded World War One Engagement Centres. Such organisations support community engagement activities across the UK, and have, since 2014, provided support for local citizen groups to explore their interest and fascination with their communities relationship with WW1.
As an iconic depiction of World War One, Oh, What a Lovely War remains legendary in its stage form, but less so in its original radio and subsequent screen manifestations, both of which were able to reach a larger audience; indeed, in the case of Richard Attenborough’s 1969 war film a world one.
Joan Littlewood adapted the show for a London stage recently rocked byLook Back in Anger, and further shocked by her ensemble’s disorientatingly bitter fantasy on the war, and the asinine ruling classes of whom it was an expression. It premiered on 19 March 1963, three days before the Beatles’ first LP.
Fifty years after having led an empire into a global conflagration, Britain was a diminished international actor, and chose not to participate in the American engagement in South East Asia. Indeed, March 1968 to March 1969 was the only twelve-month period in the century when no UK service personnel were killed on active duty, and March 1968 was the month when Attenborough began principal photography on what was his first film as director, one for which his friend John Mills had acquired the rights after seeing the stage production. The recruitment of Laurence Olivier as Sir William Robertson – a tiny part, but he still won a BAFTA – ensured American money and thus the viability of the project, a historical irony that does not seem to have been commented on.
The film was a product of the 1962-4 spike of interest in the war transmogrified by the culturally effervescent London of 1966-8, where photographers, designers, and publicists from up and down the Kings Road were called into action. More so even than in the play, music and merriment were juxtaposed with misery and mutilation, and all in the vicinity of Brighton’s West Pier.
Mills appeared as the dramatic cipher, Sir Douglas Haig, contributing to a rendering – and the personification of dogmatic ‘attrition’ – that endured.
The reception of so bold a statement was predictably mixed. Some who’d also seen the play thought its simplicity lost to scale; its astringency to overproduction (“the war of a thousand stars”, Littlewood sniffed). Adapting an anti-war satire from another medium was a challenge Catch-22failed the following year, but Attenborough’s film remains a vivid historical statement of Britain in the summer of 1968, a paean against war popular with anti-Vietnam demonstrators on American campuses, and an imperishable record of what was sung when “there was a front, but damned if we knew where”.
In this Blog kindly submitted by Professor Philpott of Kings College London, he talks about the anglo-french commemorations and the Thiepval memorial. Professor Philpott is Professor of the History of Warfare and War Studies PARC Chair.
This year will see the most important centenaries of the First World War. In July, Britain will mark the opening of the Somme offensive with a monarch-led commemoration of what has become the defining memory of Britain’s war. Willing citizen volunteers were sacrificed to German machine-guns in a mismanaged attack on strong enemy defences – someone had blundered. For many that will be sufficient: the war is long past, the memory is still bitter and it should not be dwelt upon. But the very fact that one hundred years later these events still stimulate national effort and public interest shows the Great War’s historical resonance and invites us to think about what we are doing and why.
These passing centenaries give historians an opportunity to explain the war; to update its history while respecting its memory. But the war remains divisive. Historians have criticized the knee-jerk schedule of national commemorations and have pressed for the success of 1918 to be commemorated alongside the over-familiar tragedies of earlier years. This provoked ripostes of outdated triumphalism whereas the purpose is to bring balance, and to improve understanding of the war as a series of historical events. The centenaries ought to be informed by three decades of scholarship. There is no better time to set aside patriotic narratives in order to explain how and why Europe went to war against itself. We have an opportunity to relate British experience to that of the other belligerents, and to grasp the meaning and significance of the war for the generation that fought it.
There is a danger that a new round of commemorations will merely impose a modern memory on that which has flourished since the last round of significant national commemoration fifty years ago. In France, where the centenary commemorations of the Battle of Verdun are commencing, this may already be happening. In the 1980s Verdun, the scene of ten months of fighting between French and German forces, became a site of international reconciliation when West German representatives attended commemorations for the first time. It was an acknowledgement that a post-1918 spirit of community, eclipsed between 1933 and 1945, ultimately prevailed. Nowadays in united Europe the war is increasingly remembered as a shared tragedy rather than as an international rivalry. The Nord–Pas De Calais region marked the centenary in 2015 by installing a Ring of Remembrance listing the names of the fallen of all nations killed in the region at Notre Dame de Lorette, France’s second site of national commemoration. Perhaps that is a way to use commemoration to serve contemporary agendas while respecting the history of the conflict – we are friends now although we were not then.
Maybe such an approach does not suit Britain’s currently ambiguous relationship with Europe. Yet when the dignitaries gather at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on 1 July, they will (although few may appreciate it) be paying homage at the only Anglo-French memorial along the western front. France’s sacrifice on the Somme is also being commemorated, although few now remember it. It is up to historians to correct such skewed history. Britain’s disaster on 1 July can certainly be better understood as a military event when contrasted with the French army’s complete success that day. Moreover, the reverence of that opening day and for its victims obscures the real story of the Somme offensive, which may have begun terribly, but ended eight months later in weary triumph when the German army ceded the field rather than face another such battle. Some might argue that the human sacrifice, some 1.2 million men of all armies, renders such outcomes irrelevant. At the time, however, everyone was aware that the Somme had turned the course of the war, and that its result was decided. This sacrifice was worthwhile to the generation of 1916 and they did not appreciate the ‘futile slaughter’ that their descendants wrote into the historical narrative. We may no longer share their values, but that does not mean in absentia that they do not deserve to have their motives acknowledged and achievements marked alongside the customary solemnity of remembrance.
The war may now, finally, be becoming a historical event as it passes beyond living memory. Hopefully its incidents and their consequences can start to take life beside the culturally constructed memories that predetermine national commemorative agendas. No doubt, like Waterloo just passed, the Somme will still be commemorated at its bicentenary – it is one of history’s ironies that the potentially awkward centenary commemorations of that decisive battle could be cancelled since the French and German had switched allegiance and were fighting each other once again. While one does not hold out great hopes for real revision of the national memory in 2016, perhaps 2116’s commemorations will have better balance, and may mark the Somme’s end as well as its start while acknowledging the joint effort, shared suffering and universal sacrifice. It may still be too soon for historical reenactors to gather en masse to refight it, however! History does not go away, but our engagement with it can become less partisan as the generations pass.
On the anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, a guest Blog by Anna Maguire talks about the the particular experience of William Barry, an Australian Prisoner of War during the Somme.
Anna Maguire is an AHRC funded doctoral student at King’s College London and Imperial War Museums, as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme. Her research on colonial encounters during the First World War looks at how the interactions of troops from the colonies, particularly New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies, with other people and places were represented in letters, diaries, memoirs and photographs. Her focus on encounters has allowed the collections of IWM to be read in a different frame, to better understand the colonial experience of the First World War.
In the summer of 1916, as the battle of the Somme raged on, subsidiary attacks were planned by the British Army to exploit German defensive weaknesses and consolidate progress made. One such attack was at Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916, where the 5th Australian Division of the Australian Imperial Force fought alongside the 61st (2nd South Midland) Division in XI Corps. Among the Australian men was William Barry. Suffering from a bad wound in his leg, Barry was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans.
Barry suffered greatly in the various prisoner of war camps where he was held. His false teeth were taken by his captors, and eventually his leg had to be amputated because of the severity of his injury. Yet along with the shared hardships the prisoner of war camps were a place for encounter and interaction for the men brought together in captivity. Barry encountered troops from across the British and Imperial Forces. Alongside other Australians and some Irish prisoners was a Hindu called Madan Akhan, known as ‘Rajah’, who had been captured in 1914. He shared stories of how the Germans had attempted to get other Indian prisoners to turn against the British. Barry also befriended a man from Sri Lanka who had travelled to Britain to enlist:
“While at this place I palled up with a lad by the name of Ronald Ondatji, a native from Ceylon. He and other young fellows had paid their passage to England and joined a Tommy Regiment, as there were no native troops sent from Ceylon. He was a well educated lad and was a prefect in the Holy Trinity College at Kandy and above all a great sport and a cricketer, having played against the M. A. Nobles Australian Eleven, during the English tour.”
Making links with other men brought together under the banner of the British Empire at war was an unanticipated consequence of the prisoner of war camps: what were their backgrounds and experiences of colonialism? After a year and a half in captivity, Barry was released as part of the prisoner of war exchange programme and travelled back to the United Kingdom, from where he would embark on the journey home to Australia.
A ‘composite copy’ of William Barry’s vivid war diaries is held at IWM London. Alongside his prisoner of war experience are accounts of swimming with Jamaican men in the Suez Canal in 1915 and having tea with Princess Beatrice at Windsor Castle in February 1918. While his extraordinary tales of adventure seem, on the surface, full of the charms of interactions between different colonial groups, understanding the challenging wartime and imperial contexts in which these encounters occurred is central. Recovering colonial experience of the First World War by reading diaries like William Barry’s is an essential activity for remembering and grasping the extent of this global and transnational conflict.
For more information on the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres please check the website.