Dr Lucy Noakes, Reader of History at the University of Brighton and Co-Investigator with Gateways to the First World War writes an interesting Blog regarding the Centenary of WW1.

Gateways is one of five AHRC National Engagement Centres funded by the AHRC in conjunction with the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In 2014, at the start of a programme of First World War centenary commemorative activities in Britain, the Gateways to the First World War team, working with the four other AHRC Engagement Centres, commissioned a Directive on responses to, and the cultural memory of, the war from the social survey organization, Mass Observation. The Directive proved extremely popular, with 200 people writing about their engagement with commemorative activities, the impact of the war on their own families, their historical knowledge and cultural memory of the war years and its lasting legacies for contemporary Britain. In this blog post, I want to consider some of these responses, and what they mean for the way that the war is viewed in Britain today. First though, I will outline the Mass Observation project of which this Directive is a part.

The poet Charles Madge, the anthropologist Tom Harrisson and the documentarist Humphrey Jennings established Mass Observation (MO) in 1937 as a means of constructing ‘an anthropology of ourselves’. In this first incarnation MO drew on a range of research methodologies: as well as advertising for a ‘national panel’ of writers who would respond to regular, open ended questionnaires or ‘Directives’ and submit regular diaries, they recruited a team of ‘Observers’ who would observe the British public in the manner of ethnographic anthropologists, interacting with the society they were studying whilst making careful notes on behavior and beliefs. In addition they used more traditional methods of data collection such as interviews to build a picture of British life and popular views that more quantitative surveys struggled to access. As Britain entered the Second World War the unique ability of MO to access this material was recognised by the Ministry of Information, which employed MO to collect information on ‘morale’. Following the war, and the rise of consumerism, MO gradually shifted to become a more traditional market research organization, collecting and analysing data on consumption habits for advertising agencies and their clients.

MO was relaunched by the University of Sussex as an active project in 1981, when a new panel of respondents was recruited to write on a range of different topics, varying from responses to the Falklands/Malvinas War (1982) to the Miner’s Strike (1984), holidays, personal hygiene, wedding presents and genealogy. This material, together with documents collected between 1937 and 1955 is housed at The Keep, the new archive housing historical documents from Brighton and Hove and East Sussex. The two sets of material provide the researcher with an unrivalled insight into the personal lives and views of the British people which, although they make no claim to representativeness (being composed as they are of a self-selecting group of people who are largely older, more female, more white and more Southern than the population as a whole) nonetheless give us a rich source for the voices, views and life experiences of a range of people who otherwise often remain unrepresented on the public stage.

So, what do the responses to the Directive indicate about the British people’s understanding of the First World War at its centenary, and their relationship to commemorative events? The first activity that we asked the respondents to do was to quickly note down ten words or phrases that they associated with the war. With the exception of a small number of people, one of whom refused to do this as he considered it ‘a pointless exercise’, the majority of the responses indicate the strength of the cultural memory of the war as a futile tragedy, marked by sacrifice and pointless suffering. The words that conjured up the war for a 55 year old woman – Death, blood, mud, futility, young men, uniforms, nurse, bandages, gas, trenches – were strikingly similar to those given by a 70 year old man: mass slaughter, mud, trenches, horses, the cenotaph, Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth, war poets. These are remarkably analogous to those that the second year students at the University of Brighton who take the course on ‘Europe at War, 1914-18’ list when asked to perform the same exercise at the start of the academic year. The cultural memory of the war, described by Dan Todman as being almost entirely negative, remains a powerful descriptor of the war amongst both MO respondents and University students.

However, despite the frequent references to Blackadder Goes Forth, and to the war poets, War Horse and Birdsong amongst the respondents, this memory is not simply or simplistically drawn from popular culture. Instead, many of those who chose to write on the topic for MO movingly described the impact and multiple legacies of the war for their own families. Family history seems to be emerging as one of the key ways in which people are engaging with the centenary of the war. This should not be surprising: the popularity of genealogy, enabled by websites such as and demonstrated through the success of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC One, has been evident for several years. Several respondents enthusiastically explained how they had researched their ancestor’s experiences, and some were editing diaries and letters for publication, or writing articles for local newspapers. Others described pictures of male veterans that sat proudly on their mantelpiece, and the meaning of these photos for their families, one 49 year old man explaining that his Grandfather’s photo, and the knowledge that he was gassed and taken prisoner, meant he collected money for the British Legion and watched the Cenotaph ceremony on television each year. For these respondents, the experiences of their ancestors were directly shaping their actions in the present.

Other respondents touchingly described the more immediate impact on their families: a 90 year old woman opened her response with a simple sentence – ‘my father’s sadness’ – whilst another recounted her mother’s struggles after her first husband died, leaving her a widow with a small child. Several recalled unmarried aunts, neighbours and teachers, whose lovers and fiancées had died in the war, and 53 year old woman reflected on the returned men, explaining that her grandfather returned from the war ‘a totally different person’ as ‘he suffered from shell shock and was broken’.

By this point I would expect many academic historians to be shaking their heads and muttering darkly about ‘the Blackadder effect’ lambasted by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2014 when he complained that the war was a ‘just war’ mistakenly perceived as a ‘misbegotten shambles’. Revisionist histories of the war years, led by but not confined to military historians, have rightly and sometimes provocatively reminded us that more survived the war than died, that the war had some positive and long lasting social and political impacts, and that British military strategists did have some good ideas, and were not all ‘donkeys’ leading ‘lions’. However, to oppose these histories to the enduring cultural memory of the war, and to somehow see each as lessened by the presence of the other is, I would argue, to miss the point about cultural memory. The memory of the war is not a zero sum game, and one does not have to cleave to one position or the other. Instead, the war can be understood as both an eventual military success for Britain (albeit one with a far higher attrition rate than would be acceptable today), a long-term political disaster for Europe, and as a tragedy for many thousands of individual households. The continued emotional resonance of the war for many of the MO respondents, often articulated through a consideration of the impact of the war on their families, demonstrates that historians who seek to dispel this ‘myth’ through academic analysis and argument are unlikely to succeed. Instead, academics and members of the public engaged in commemorative activity, whether it be responding to MO Directives or participating in some of the HLF activities supported by Gateways and the other Engagement Centres, need to be in dialogue with one another, and historians need to pay careful attention to the enduring legacy of the war in many families. Historians would do well to remember that the memory of the war articulated in Blackadder Goes Forth has survived in large part because of its continued resonance and meaning for many of those whose families were profoundly shaped by the war years.

The papers of the Mass-Observation Project are available for research at The Keep, Brighton. Record information for The First World War Directive sponsored by the AHRC engagement centres can be found here.

(With thanks to the Gateways Centre for providing this post).


Mass Observation Watermans exhibition, 1987
Image: Mass Observation Watermans Exhibition, 1987

The Dominion Geordies – An AHRC Living Legacies Supported Project

Poster depicts rate of interest repaid to lenders – It was the 3rd and final peace loan. With thanks to the Australian War Memorial.

In this Guest Blog, Dr James McConnel from Northumbria University talks about the emigrant ‘Geordies’ .

Much has recently been written about the ‘myths’ associated with the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign of 1915–16 in relation to their importance for Australian and New Zealand perceptions of the war and, in particular, the conflict’s role in shaping national identity. But one myth that persists in is that of the ethnic homogeneity of the armies involved. After all, the ‘Turks’ were an assemblage of Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Germans, and Turkish soldiers, the ‘French’ forces included North Africans and Senegalese troops, while the ‘British’ included English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish units. And yet, the same heterogeneity was also true of the Anzacs.

That non-Australian accents are conspicuously absent among the Australian characters in Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli (and the growing number of film and TV representations of the campaign) is indicative of this particular myth. In fairness, there has been some scholarly recognition of the presence of Irish and other European immigrants in the Australian Imperial Force, but the presence in the Australian army of significant numbers of British and more specifically English-born men has received much less attention. As the scholar Kent Fedorowich has noted, this is not unique to Australia, as ‘historians have ignored … the experience of thousands of British-born migrants who … enlisted in their respective dominion forces and served overseas’ during the First World War. Nonetheless, in the case of Australia, it arguably reflects the role of Gallipoli in the post-war construction of Anzac heroism.

Studio Portrait of Private Kirkpatrick
Portrait of Private Kirkpatrick. With acknowledgment to Australian War Memorial.

Indicative of this de-anglicising phenomenon are the fortunes of one of the most famous Anzacs of all: John (Jack) Simpson Kirkpatrick. As a result of his exploits at Gallipoli ferrying wounded comrades to safety on a donkey, Kirkpatrick posthumously became the embodiment of Australian ‘mateship’ and ‘larikinism’. That this ‘true Anzac’ was originally from North Shields in the North-East of England and had only been in Australia a matter of years before he enlisted was not always apparent in the ways that he was remembered there. Instead, he was assimilated into a post-war construction of heroic Australian masculinity. And yet, for all his notoriety, Kirkpatrick was far from unique, as there would have been plenty of Australian (and New Zealand) soldiers with British, and particularly English, accents among his comrades at Gallipoli, as well as among the Australian and New Zealand units who later served with such distinction in France.

Private Kirkpatrick helping an unnamed wounded soldier, who is seated on Murphy the Donkey. With acknowledgement to the Australian War Memorial.

Australia (unlike Canada) did not distinguish between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales when recording the origins of its British recruits during the war. As a result, it is difficult to be precise about the English component in the AIF. Analysis of Australian attestation papers for the period up to June 1915 by Robson suggests that the British-born made up ‘nearly one in four of all recruits’. Approximately 27 per cent of the first AIF contingent (totalling 20,626) were British born, with estimates varying between 18 and 22.5 for the war as a whole. By comparison, Winegard claims that of the 8,417 men of the first contingent of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 25.6 percent had been born in the UK, while figures for later in the war (1916–18) indicate that English-born enlistees accounted for 14 percent of recruits. Among these thousands of men and women were a sizeable number who – like Kirkpatrick – hailed from the North-East of England.

Preliminary analysis of the data generated by the ‘Dominion Geordies’ project (supported by the AHRC-funded Living Legacies First World War Engagement Centre based at Queen’s University Belfast) suggests that a little over 7,000 men and women from the old counties of Durham and Northumberland served with the land forces of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada between 1914 and 1918. Of these, about 40 percent served with the Australian and New Zealand armies during the First World War (the bulk serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force). Having established this, the project’s next phase is to understand this phenomenon within the context of the much larger story of ‘Geordie’ migration that long pre-dated 1914, since these men and women were members of what has recently been termed the ‘English Diaspora’. Often seen as ‘invisible migrants’, English emigrants were part of a significant outflow that was facilitated by faster steam boats, railways, and telecommunications: in 1913 alone 389,394 people left Britain, a large number of them being English people who travelled to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As such, the ‘Dominion Geordies’ project seeks to locate wartime service in relation to the pre-war migration experiences of emigrant North-Easterners and – crucially – their later post-war journeying.

By using the term ‘Geordie’, we are aware that the name is often used to describe the people of Newcastle and Tyneside, but it has been used by scholars to describe the people of the wider North-East region and it was used more broadly in the early twentieth century in the British and empire press to include Durham and Northumberland. In seeking to find volunteers across the world who will help the project to research the lives of these soldiers, we’re using the term because it’s internationally recognisable.

The project is partnering with the path breaking HLF-funded Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project (NWW1), a community initiative that is researching the war dead of the modern borough of North Tyneside and building on the success of an earlier HLF-funded project on Tynemouth. This type of community-university collaboration is at the heart of the Living Legacies First World War Engagement Centre’s mission. NWW1’s experience in mobilising community volunteers, and its expertise in designing and developing databases, has proved vital during the early stages of the Dominion Geordies project. The project launched its global appeal for ‘citizen historians’ in January 2016 and has already secured much favourable coverage from the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian media. This, in turn, has led to offers of help from dozens of volunteers from all three former Dominions, who will use the online resources created by the project to help them undertake research. This research will eventually populate the freely-accessible database and provide material for a short documentary film and a number of scholarly articles looking at the service of emigrant ‘Geordies’ in the context of migratory patterns before and after the First World War.

John Kirkpatrick, stood on Wharf with two mates, believed to be at Bunbury, WA c 1912. With thanks to Australian War Memorial.

Caring for Casualties – Medical Services in WW1

Canterbury Cathedral Lodge hosts a free study day exploring the history of medical services during WW1.

Speakers include Professor Alison Fell (University of Leeds) and Dr Julie Anderson (University of Kent) and the event will include a presentation from a First World War centenary project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Booking required here



20th March 1918 – The Thievpal Memorial

This date is known as the day before the German Army launched Operation Michael against the British Army Front in the sector of the ‘Somme’.

The Thievpal Memorial has the names of 72,194 officers & men of the UK and South African Forces; those who died in the Somme before 20/03/18 and who have no known grave.



Battle of Verdun Anniversary – 21st February 2016

There were two huge battles in 1916 on the Western front.  Verdun and the Somme.  The Battle of Verdun commenced on 21st February 1916 with a German offensive against the French.  It lasted ten months.

France found themselves compressed at Verdun and British troops had to do the major push at the Somme.

Douaumont Ossuary & Cemetery remembering French soldiers killed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 - With thanks to Centenary News
Douaumont Ossuary & Cemetery remembering French soldiers killed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 – With thanks to Centenary News

Verdun and the Somme are closely connected because the British found themselves under pressure to bring the Somme offensive to July 1st.  In addition Germany also had to send troops from Verdun to the Somme to bolster positions there.

What are your thoughts on these events?  Do you have any knowledge, comments or research to add?

Edie’s Wartime Diaries – Nursing on the Front Line


In 2015 Prof Alison Fell (University of Leeds) embarked on a new AHRC-funded research project, supported by the Gateways to the First World War engagement hub at the University of Kent focusing on Sister Edie Appleton’s war diaries. Alongside Prof Christine Hallett (University of Manchester), Alison is helping to develop a new play based on the diaries. The collaboration is with Sara Robinson – a freelance theatre producer, Project Director of Somme 100 and Edie’s great-great-niece.

Edie’s diaries, extracts from which are available online  are a wonderfully evocative record of the trials, as well as the occasional pleasures, of nursing at the front. Here’s one of her vivid depictions of wounded and traumatized soldiers in General Hospital No 1 at Étretat, a seaside town 20 miles north of Le Havre, in September 1916:

September 11th. “We had a convoy of 399 in … only 70 wounded. Far the most of the sick were suffering badly from shell shock. It is sad to see them, they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates… who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of it. One fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers, and he had to push past men with their arms blown off or wounded. He had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs.”

As a trained nurse rather than a volunteer VAD nurse, Edie  had medical skills, and had developed the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with the physical and emotional suffering of her patients. She rarely lets slip any moments of despair, although it’s clear she was under enormous pressure. She had a lively sense of humour, and included some wonderful sketches. A key theme is her love of swimming, which provided some relief from the intensity of her nursing work.

The challenge the project addresses is how to turn Edie’s diaries into theatre that can engage a wide audience. The creative team meet regularly with Alison and Christine, and consult a range of primary sources,  in order to develop an innovative production. The play will highlight the highs and lows of her nursing, showing in particular the importance of comradeship between the nurses as they treated the First World War combatants.

(Kindly submitted by Prof Alison Fell)

On this day in 1856

The Victoria Cross (VC) was introduced.

Read about the story of Post Office Worker Alfred Knight who received the VC – presented to him by King George V.

There are also details regarding the role of the Post Office and Post Office Rifles Regiment.

Know someone who served? Or were you served by someone who saw service? Please add a comment.






Researching the First World War

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