The Legacy of War Service; The Experiences of First World War Veterans

 

First War Memorial in Shropshire built by The National Federation of Discharged & Demobilised Sailors & Soldiers in 1920. Picture - Kind Permission of Nick Mansfield
First War Memorial in Shropshire built by The National Federation of Discharged & Demobilised Sailors & Soldiers in 1920. Picture – Kind Permission of Nick Mansfield

By Dr Nick Mansfield, Senior Research Fellow in History, UCLan, with assistance from Dr Oliver Wilkinson, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Wolverhampton

2017 will mark the centenary anniversary of the creation of the first veterans’ associations in Britain; the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers (The Association); the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (The Federation); and the Comrades of Great War (The Comrades). Their emergence in 1917 reflected radical changes, challenges and needs created by the First World War.

Branch banner of the Tooting and Balham National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors (NFDDSS), c. 1919 (People’s History Museum, Manchester)
Branch banner of the Tooting and Balham National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors (NFDDSS), c. 1919 (People’s History Museum, Manchester)

The conflict witnessed a massive increase in the size and composition of the British military and, relatedly, it created new expectations regarding state responsibilities towards those who served their country (or post-1916 those whom were compelled to serve) as well as their dependents.

In such circumstances the traditional reliance on regimental and charitable supports, such as those offered by the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association (SSAFA), proved inadequate; albeit such associations continued to do valuable work both during and after the conflict. Yet veterans now sought to mobilise and pressurize the government in response to the challenges they were facing and the rights they felt they were due. This initiated a dynamic over the next four years during which many veterans’ associations formed, most with overt political affiliations, and often existing in competition with each other.

While such organisations propelled an ex-service agenda, raising awareness of the real problems that were being faced by demobilised personnel, they resulted in friction, fractions and outright fear both within the British political establishment and within society at large. That fear reached fever-pitch during some isolated incidents of disorder, such as the destruction of Luton Town Hall during a veterans’ protest about unemployment in 1919. These occurrences seemed to confirm contemporary fears about brutalised and radicalised returning servicemen who threatened the social order. A peace of sorts was established in 1921 with the amalgamation of these associations into the deliberately non-political British Legion; although even then some former Federation and Association voices continued to murmur for more radical intervention.

A World Requiem (Art.IWM PST 13753) whole: the title and text are positioned across the whole, in blue, set against a red and white vertically striped background. image: text only. text: ROYAL ALBERT HALL Manager - HILTON CARTER, M.V.O. UNDER THE MOST GRACIOUS PATRONAGE OF THEIR MAJESTIES THE KING and QUEEN IN AID OF FIELD MARSHAL EARL HAIG'S APPEAL FOR EX-SERVICE MEN OF ALL RANKS (British Legion) Patron - H.R.H. THE PRINCE OF WALES... Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/31719
A World Requiem (Art.IWM PST 13753) Copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13753). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/31719

Yet it was the Royal British Legion (RBL) that endured as the veteran’s organisation in Britain and which has became culturally enshrined as part of the national, and local, commemorative landscape.

However, while the history of the RBL has gained attention in contemporary historiography, recently in Niall Barr’s as yet unrivalled monograph The Lion and the Poppy (2005), those of the other British veterans’ organisations have received only a smattering of scholarly attention.

Indeed, there is at present a striking dearth of material regarding the experiences and activities of ex-service personnel who were demobilised in Britain during and after the war. One-point worth highlighting here is that such veteran’s activities need to be understood as a wartime and not solely as a post-war phenomenon. Moreover, the experiences of British veterans have yet to be traced in comparative perspective with the development of veteran’s associations, and ex-service voices, on the continent. Nor should transnational comparison eclipse the need to examine regional difference, together with unifying tendencies, in veteran activities within the UK. It stands to reason, for example, that the context of demobilisation in Ireland from 1916 would present different experiences, challenges and responses than demobilisation in England. Such notions are currently understated and underexplored. Most strikingly of all is an almost total failure to recognise and research the distinct experiences of demobilised ex-servicewomen in Britain; unsurprising as it is, it is only recent scholarship that has put British women’s’ service experiences onto the historical record.

Leading Aircraftwoman Vera Blackbee of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) collects more official documents having signed on with a representative of the Ministry of Labour at the WAAF Demobilisation Centre, RAF Wythall.© IWM (D 25683)
Leading Aircraftwoman Vera Blackbee of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) collects more official documents having signed on with a representative of the Ministry of Labour at the WAAF Demobilisation Centre, RAF Wythall. © IWM (D 25683)
Demobilised men in one of the barges in Rotterdam in which they were transferred from the Rhine steamer to the one that took them to England. In this photograph the steamer is seen alongside. May 1919. © IWM (Q 7668)
THE DEMOBILISATION OF THE BRITISH ARMY, 1919-1920 (Q 7668) Demobilised men in one of the barges in Rotterdam in which they were transferred from the Rhine steamer to the one that took them to England. In this photograph the steamer is seen alongside. May 1919. Copyright: © IWM (Q 7668) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205239483

It is therefore reassuring that some of these issues were probed in January 2015 when Dr Nick Mansfield organised a symposium on ‘Ex-Servicemen After the Great War’ held in conjunction with the ‘Land Fit For Heroes’ exhibition at the People History Museum, Manchester. That event featured some of the leading scholars currently working in the field (including Dr Niall Barr, Dr John Borgonovo, Mr Paul Burnham & Dr David Swift) alongside involvement from the RBL. Yet it served only as a taster, it alerted an appetite and identified omissions in its own schedule, such as the absence of ex-servicewomen’s experiences , and provided opportunities to go much further. Now would seem to be the time to do so, not only because of the contemporary relevance of the topic, but also because new sources have come to light that offer avenues for research activities and agendas.

National War Savings Committee Poster No. 84
National War Savings Committee Poster No 84:      Up Civilians! (Art.IWM PST 7900)  Copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 7900). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/9989

These include the Minutes of the Bury St Edmunds and District Branch of The Association (B/15371), which have been recently acquired by the Suffolk Record Office . These are the only surviving branch records of the three constituent organisations of the RBL; the Association, the Federation and the Comrades. It is this paucity that has made researching early ex-service organisations so hard, with the most significant source base being local press reports of veterans’ activities. Newspaper reports are, however, problematic, as they present huge inconsistencies. The Association and the Federation were often mistaken for each other in the press, which may indicate that in some localities the two left wing organisations merged their campaigning. The Federation also published a national Newsletter, which recorded local activities. Meanwhile, the RBL retains a range of its own manuscript records. However, researchers must contact them directly, making access not as readily available as material in the public domain. This material includes some minute books of the Executive of the Federation between 1917 and 1921, as well as those of the early British Legion. There are also 233 tranches of RBL branch and district minutes cared for in local record offices. Although these also include material from Women’s’ sections, the vast majority cover later periods from the Second World War. (See http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/c?_srt=5&_q=Royal+British+Legion&_col=500&_naet=O )

 

For Progress in the Future - Save Now (Art.IWM PST 6252) whole: the image is positioned in the upper four-fifths, held within a white inset. The title is separate and located in the lower fifth, in black and in red. The text is integrated and placed in the upper two-thirds, in grey, in yellow with brown shadowing, and in black. All set against a yellow background. image: a montage of stylised images; illustrating various vegetables, as well as products ... Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/10009
For Progress in the Future – Save Now Poster issued by National Savings Committee (Art.IWM PST 6252)  Copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6252). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/10009

The newly discovered Bury St Edmunds Association minutes are the only surviving local archives relating to the early veterans’ organisations. Regretfully they only start on the branch’s formation in September 1919, making it relatively late in the Association’s history and after its radical campaigning heyday. As a result, the Bury St Edmunds Association comes over as relatively conservative; perhaps unsurprising given the background of the area  as an agricultural district and brewing town. In its first meeting, for example, it appointed a Captain R Gibbons as branch auditor, whereas on its foundation the Association refused to admit any officers as members unless they had originally served in the ranks! The Bury St Edmunds branch also accepted – by a narrow vote – a gift of £50 from Lord Invegh, the Guinness magnate, who owned a shooting estate in Suffolk. This indicates a vestige of the Association’s campaigning spirit. So too did its policy of pressing for the proposed Bury St Edmunds’ war memorial to take the form of housing for war widows and disabled veterans rather than a stone memorial. But from early 1920 its efforts appear more mundane; supporting football and cricket teams and by November 1920, establishing its own premises which, significantly, were opened by a senior army officer, General Sir Stuart Ware.  Though this association did protest against the overall reduction of war pensions in February 1921, it consistently supported the amalgamation of the three ex-service organisations into the British Legion, with the huge £1.5 million profit from the wartime United Service Fund, as an incentive offered by Prime Minister David Lloyd George. It would therefore seem that these records support a view of ex-servicemen’s’ activities which saw original militant local campaigning evolving into relatively conservative activation and approaches.

More nuance and more enquiry is now needed and it is hopeful that both established and emerging academics are turning their attention to this area. Indeed, next year a symposium will be held on 18 March 2017 at the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict at the University of Edinburgh, to explore the experiences of veterans (both men and women), and their dependents during and after the conflict, and to investigate how military service influenced their subsequent lives. This event, which can be followed at what-tommy-did-next.org.uk, has been conceived with British veterans in mind yet it seeks to include transnational perspectives. It will feature a keynote by Professor Jay Winter which seeks to explore British experiences through the prism of comparable French developments. Moreover, the event is being organised in tandem with the writing of a new book, edited by Dr David Swift and Dr Oliver Wilkinson, which will synthesize scholarship on ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen in Britain and Ireland after the First World War. The volume aims to explore some of the currently missing areas in terms of British veterans, fusing a traditional political approach (e.g. examining the how and why ex-service personnel mobilised – or were mobilised – across the political spectrum), with a cultural approach, which will include consideration of gender, disability, identity and memory as connected to the ex-service experience.

THE DEMOBILISATION OF THE BRITISH ARMY, 1919-1920 (Q 7501) Soldiers waiting on the bank of the Rhine in Köln for the steamer which is to take them to Rotterdam from where they are to go to England for demobilisation. 31st March 1919. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205239321
THE DEMOBILISATION OF THE BRITISH ARMY, 1919-1920 (Q 7501) Soldiers waiting on the bank of the Rhine in Köln for the steamer which is to take them to Rotterdam from where they are to go to England for demobilisation. 31st March 1919. Copyright: © IWM (Q 7501). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205239321

As the First World War Centenary continues many are now thinking about the post-2018 landscape and mooting the legacy of their current activities. Yet, for those men and women who served during the First World War their demobilisation did not mark the end of their experiences but simply opened a new phase. Moreover, that phase was defined by the legacies of their war experiences and existed in a political, social, economic and cultural context that was defined by the war. It is an exploration of that legacy and that context that is needed and we hope that the sources, events, publications and issues discussed here will help in that direction.

National Federation of Discharged & Demobilized Sailors & Soldiers Membership Emblem, NFDDSS, c. 1919 (Royal British Legion Collectors Club)
National Federation of Discharged & Demobilized Sailors & Soldiers Membership Emblem, NFDDSS, c. 1919 (Royal British Legion Collectors Club)

 

After the Guns Fell Silent: Researching the medical and social care provided to British disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War

In this Guest Blog, Dr Jessica Meyer, an AHRC WW1 Expert, talks Medical and Social Care provided to ex-servicemen.

AA075348 - Ministry of Pensions & National Insurance © Historic England Archive
A georgian house with cows on the front lawn probably in Herefordshire, occupied by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.  Image similar to one featured in country fair magazine, march 1955. Image AA075348 – Ministry of Pensions & National Insurance
© Historic England Archive. Used with kind permission of Historic England.

One of the most significant legacies of the First World War across Europe was the return home of a large number of men whose lives were profoundly altered by war-attributable disabilities.  In Britain, many of these men received aid and care from the State, in the form of the Ministry of Pensions, and a range of charitable institutions. Most, however, relied on their families for support, particularly their wives, mothers and other female relatives, to provide the medical and social care necessary for them to reintegrate into civil society.

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 12222)
Recruits Wanted (Art.IWM PST 12222) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30892

Such support involved both physical and emotional labour. In 1921, Cannon Nisbet C. Marris wrote to the Regional Director of the Ministry of Pensions for the Nottingham Region about his son, Oswald, an ex-serviceman who suffered from functional paralysis, required ‘constant attention and is very helpless, requiring frequently two persons to move him in bed.’ [1] This work, Cannon Marris explained, was undertaken by himself and his wife.  Three years later, Mrs. W.H. Botterill described in her application for treatment assistance how, in addition to caring for her badly shell-shocked husband, she worked outside the home to ‘keep our home going, support myself, and provide my husband’s extra expenses, laundry, postage, etc.’ Just over a month later she suffered a breakdown due to what her doctor described as ‘overwork and strain.’ [2]

Mrs. Marris and Mrs. Botterill are only two of the women who appear in series PIN 26, (which are Ministry of Pension personal award files from the First World War held at the National Archives, London).  These 22,756 files represent only 2% of the approximately 1,137,800 First World War files ever created.  Nonetheless, they provide a rich resource of material for historians of the First World War and its medical, social and cultural legacy.  A tiny fraction of the available files have been used by historians to explore the cultural history of medicine and the war [3] but, as Michael Robinson has recently pointed out [https://fournationshistory.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/the-four-nations-and-beyond-the-post-armistice-experiences-of-shell-shocked-british-army-veterans/], a great deal of work on this material remains to be done.

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5116)
New Scale of Separation Allowances (Art.IWM PST 5116)  Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28413

The Men, Women and Care project, a five-year European Research Council Starting Grant-funded project currently underway at the University of Leeds, aims to facilitate future projects through the creation of a public database of the information contained in the PIN 26 files.  This will enable scholars to identify clusters of potentially relevant material by variables such as type of disability, amount of pension or gratuity, region of residence and existence of dependents. By publishing the database in conjunction with a separate catalogue series MH 106: Admission and Discharge Registers and Medical Sheets for Personnel of Expeditionary and Imperial Forces, 1914-1919 and the release of the 1921 national census, the project will provide resources to the next generation of scholars working on the legacy of the First World War in Britain.

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 11148)
Disabled Ex-Service Men (Art.IWM PST 13806) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/31758

In the meantime, the four members of the Men, Women and Care team will be using the process of putting the database together to identify material within PIN 26 to further our own research into the ways in which care for disabled ex-servicemen shaped British society.  Our specific projects include looking at the nature and extent of family-based medical and social care, how distance from home influenced care provision, the role of stigma in care provision, and the work of religious charities in supporting disabled ex-servicemen and their families.

Through these projects we aim to recover the voices and experiences of both disabled ex-servicemen and the women who facilitated their reintegration into post-war society. Too often unrewarded for their efforts by the State and overlooked by scholarship, these women formed a vital element of the social order in the interwar years. Through the stories of women like Mrs Marris and Mrs Botterill we hope to learn more about the lives of women whose war work persisted long after the guns fell silent.

La Protection Du Reforme No2 © IWM (Art.IWM PST 11148)
La Protection du Réformé No. 2 [Protection for Category Two Invalided Soldiers] (Art.IWM PST 11148) Half-length depictions of two moustachioed, convalescent French soldiers, who face the viewer. The nearest man sits bare-headed with his hands crossed. The other soldier wears a serviceman’s kepi.  Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/22629
[1] The National Archives (TNA), PIN 26/19945, Cannon Nisbet C. Marris, Letter to Regional Director, Nottingham Region, Ministry of Pensions, 6th January, 1921.

[2] TNA, PIN 26/21239, Mrs W. H. Botterill, Application for Treatment Assistance, 5th March, 1924 ; Ella C. Flint, M.B., Report, 23rd April, 1924.

[3] See Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books, 1996); Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Belgium WW1 refugees now given final resting place

Read the post in the Northwich Guardian regarding new graves provided to two Belgian Refugees who initially were buried in unmarked graves during WW1.

War Grave, Northwich. Pictured are Alice Barstow aged 6 and Olly Robinson aged 7, from Winnington Park School
War Grave, Northwich. Pictured are Alice Barstow aged 6 and Olly Robinson aged 7, from Winnington Park School. With gracious thanks to Northwich Guardian.

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.

Remembering the Army Chaplains of the Great War

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!”

These were the words written by the Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl, a young Wesleyan Army Chaplain, to his parents on his way to the frontline in 1915.

Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl C.F. M.C. (Author's private collection)
Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl C.F. M.C.               (Author’s private collection)

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.

Sunday parade service at Bordon - Authors private collection
Sunday parade service at Bordon – Authors private collection

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.

Book Cover - The Half Shilling Curate, with kind permission of the publisher, Helion & Company
Book Cover – The Half Shilling Curate, with kind permission of the publisher, Helion & Company

More information on Army Chaplains can be gained from the Museum of Army Chaplaincy at Amport House, Amport House near Andover, Hampshire.

http://www.army.mod.uk/chaplains/23363.aspx

http://www.halfshillingcurate.com/

 

What’s in a name?

Dr Chris Kempsall from the University of Sussex and an AHRC Researcher listed on the WW1 Experts List, talks “What’s in a Name” and contacts between combatants.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 79005) British and French soldier in conversation at the entrance to a dugout at Bernafay Wood, 13 October 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205323765
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 79005) British and French soldier in conversation at the entrance to a dugout at Bernafay Wood, 13 October 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205323765

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.

THE HUNDRED DAYS OFFENSIVE, AUGUST-NOVEMBER 1918 (Q 49809) British, French, American and Australian soldier with a German prisoner reading President Wilson's message to the Kaiser at Corbie, 24 October 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205283632
THE HUNDRED DAYS OFFENSIVE, AUGUST-NOVEMBER 1918 (Q 49809) British, French, American and Australian soldier with a German prisoner reading President Wilson’s message to the Kaiser at Corbie, 24 October 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205283632

 

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.

THE PORTUGUESE ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917-1918 (Q 64443) Investiture of British and Portuguese officers in the Portuguese sector, France. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205311699
THE PORTUGUESE ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917-1918 (Q 64443) Investiture of British and Portuguese officers in the Portuguese sector, France. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205311699

The Importance of the Local in Engaging with World War One

In the latest Blog post, Dr Katherine Cooper from the School of Literature, Language & Linguistics at Newcastle University and New Generation Thinker 2016 talks about the importance of ‘the local’ and their engagement with WW1 history.

As a Geordie, I have always had a real sense of the local. Newcastle and the North East play a real part in my identity as both a British citizen and as a researcher.

For me, many of the narratives around the centenary of World War One, from BBC documentaries to memorial events can often seem very London-centric or focussed on the South-East.

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

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.

Tyne Bridge Newcastle
Tyne Bridge Newcastle

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.

Captain John Evelyn Carr (Photograph: Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)
Captain John Evelyn Carr (Photograph: Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)

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.

Even to flick through local men’s light-hearted responses to the war in the magazine of the 16th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, The Growler, which, much like its famous contemporary the Wipers Times, satirises commanding  officers and mocks those behind the lines for their ‘cushy’ safe jobs.

The Growler c. 1916 (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)
The Growler c. 1916 (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)

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.

In 2014 I won an AHRC Collaborative Skills Development Award to run a project with the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn. The project aimed to use local stories, like that of Carr, to help local school children to engage with the experiences of World War One.

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.

 

 

 

How do Germany and Britain remember the First World War, and can the differences explain Brexit?

In this latest guest Blog, Dr Ingrid Sharp of the University of Leeds writes about Germany & Britain, how they remember WW1, and voting.

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.

voting-30403_1280European 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.

Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Holocaust Memorial – Berlin

Different approaches

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 Tower of London with the evolving art installation 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red'. The major art installation named “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” consists of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British fatality during World War I and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. POA(Phot) Mez Merrill, © Crown copyright
The Tower of London with the evolving art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. The major art installation named “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” consists of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British fatality during World War I and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. POA(Phot) Mez Merrill, © Crown copyright

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.

Notre Dame de Lorette-Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory). Attribution: Daniel VILLAFRUELA
Notre Dame de Lorette-Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory).  Attribution: Daniel VILLAFRUELA

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.

Field of Poppies
Field of Poppies

Halt! Who goes there?

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 4180) A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches - Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916. Copyright: © IWM.© IWM (Q 4180) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205073475
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 4180) A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches – Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205073475

In this guest blog, Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson of Liverpool John Moores University talks about Sentries and their roles during WW1.

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.

Gladys Dalby New (centre) flax picking in Somerset in 1918. Photograph with kind permission and courtesy of Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.
Gladys Dalby New (centre) flax picking in Somerset in 1918. Photograph with kind permission and courtesy of Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.

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 Courier described 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.

Dunning's Bridge, Maghull
Dunning’s Bridge, Maghull with gracious thanks to Brian Elsey, publisher of Leeds Liverpool Canal http://www.leedsliverpoolcanal.co.uk/

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.

Fornby Power House 1936c - With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society
Fornby Power House 1936c – With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society

Steele had been stationed by the power station of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company in Formby on Saturday 21 November 1914.[vi] Just before midnight a man was spotted in the vicinity of the power station.

Formby Power House 1983c - With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society
Formby Power House 1983c – With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society

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.

THE GERMAN ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 88103) German troops in well constructed trench position on the Western Front. Note an alarm gong by the sentry in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205331659
THE GERMAN ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 88103) German troops in well constructed trench position on the Western Front. Note an alarm gong by the sentry in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205331659

[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.

[iii] Manchester Evening News, 18 September 1914.

[iv]  Manchester Courier, 2 October 1914.

[v] Liverpool Courier, 18 August 1914.

[vi] Liverpool Echo, 23 November 1914.

Revisiting war-time drama: The case of J.M. Barrie’s A Well-Remembered Voice (1918)

In this guest Blog,  Dr Andrew Maunder from the University of Hertfordshire and AHRC’s WW1 Engagement CentreEveryday Lives in War‘, talks about re-visiting War-Time Dramas and the case of J. M. Barrie.

While plays about the First World War are now a familiar presence – step forward Oh, What a Lovely War! and War Horse – the playwrights who actually wrote at the time of the conflict have yet to receive much attention. It’s not surprising. Revues and musicals such as Chu Chin Chow (1916) dominated the theatrical landscape attracting soldiers and civilians in equal measure.

Australian Service Personnel – Queuing to see a Musical. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

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 like Seven 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.

Female Hun - Courtesy of Australian War Memorial
Female Hun – Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

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 Hertfordshire https://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. 

See the play. Dates: 4 October, Twickenham Academy; 7, 8 October, OSO Arts Centre, Barnes; 17 October, Weston Auditorium, Hatfield; 29-30 October Leicester Square Theatre, London.

Séance, courtesy of Io Theatre
Séance, courtesy of Io Theatre

The First World War, 1962-69

Our latest Guest blog is by  Dr Martin Farr from Newcastle University.

victoria-palace-notice
Victoria Palace Notice, Courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13720)

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.

1962’s The Long Long Trail, by the BBC radio producer Charles Chilton, in memory of his father killed at Arras, brought together the songs of the trenches: beautiful music hall melodies dubbed with sardonic service wit.

Arras
Arras

Joan Littlewood adapted the show for a London stage recently rocked by Look 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.

BeatlesThe Beatles were only possible because they’d just avoided National Service, but within four years had donned martial uniforms and contributed to the general lampooning of military mores (How I Won the War, Carry on Up the Khyber). In 1964 A. J. P. Taylor’s English History 1914-45 and the BBC television series The Great War magnified the impact of Chiltern and Littlewood, but the war remained under-represented in cinema; contemporary movies concerning imperial conceits (The Charge of the Light Brigade) and the Second World War (The Battle of Britain) were more typical. When it was featured, it was often contextual rather than central (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago; King and Country was an exception).

Film show at Tomintoul, Scotland, 1943. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (D 22626)
Film show at Tomintoul, Scotland, 1943. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum © IWM (D 22626)

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.

Brighton West Pier - Picture courtesy of Dr Martin Farr
Brighton West Pier – Picture courtesy of Dr Martin Farr

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-22 failed 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”.

Researching the First World War

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