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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:
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:

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

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:
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:

[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 .   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, 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.


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”.

First World War Centenaries: Are we commemorating things the right way

Douaumont Ossuary & Cemetery remembering French soldiers killed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916
Douaumont Ossuary & Cemetery remembering French soldiers killed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Photograph used with kind permission of Centenary News.

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.a soilder of thew great war

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.

home-listing-ww1leedsThere 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.

Beechey family memorial
Beechey family memorial

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.

A Global Conflict: William Barry, Australian Prisoner of War

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.

Picture Courtesy of Australian War Memorial
Infantry Men of the 5th Australian Division, with whom Barry served, moving through the mud into the forward area in France. Australian War Memorial, E00020 (Picture Courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

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.

Representing Resistance: 1916 and the Impact of Conscription

Sabine Grimshaw is an AHRC funded doctoral student at the University of Leeds and Imperial War Museums, as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme. Her research on pacifism and protest during the First World War examines how the representation of male and female war resisters changed over the course of the war as well as considering how resisters have been commemorated in the war’s fiftieth anniversary and centenary.

This year marks the centenary of the introduction of a piece of wartime legislation that had significant ramifications for the war and the British public: compulsory military service.

"This little pig stayed at home": Cartoon ridiculing the Conscientious Objector.  Courtesy of Imperial War Museum Q103334
“This little pig stayed at home”: Cartoon ridiculing the Conscientious Objector. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum Q103334

The Military Service Acts of 1916 were particularly contentious not only because they brought an end to the British voluntarist tradition but because they offered the possibility for those with a conscientious objection to the war to refuse military service. These so-called ‘Conscientious Objectors’ (COs) were often the victims of public antagonism, and their relative prominence in society refocused the way that the anti-war movement was represented both by outsiders and themselves.

Before conscription, opposition to the war was framed very much as something specific to women. Indeed, anti-war publications often suggested that working for peace through opposition to the war was a task that was not only specifically suited to women but was the duty and responsibility of women. This type of argument was often underpinned by an understanding of women as naturally pacifistic, loving and nurturing which was primarily linked to their ability to become mothers. However in the aftermath of conscription the identification of peace as a feminine issue ended and instead male COs are framed as the leaders of the movement against war. The stance taken by COs was positioned as part of a specifically English struggle for liberty and freedom of conscience.

Moreover, the representation of objectors had to respond to substantial and widespread criticism and ridicule in a way that was not necessarily true for that of anti-war women. The intensity of this derision, which often specifically targeted the masculinity of COs, and the subsequent response of the anti-war movement to this, highlight the contemporary assumption that peace and opposition to war were not the preserve of men. In order to counter attacks on their masculinity, COs and their supporters frequently mirrored many of the qualities that were associated with the volunteer soldier who, during the war, was considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity. Sacrifice, duty, and patriotism all became significant themes in the representation of COs and demonstrate how particular wartime masculine qualities directly impacted upon the self-representation of the anti-war movement.

Accordingly, the introduction of conscription can be seen as having great significance not only due to its break with English tradition and impact of the waging of war itself but also because of its considerable implications for those who opposed the war. By examining the way that representations of the anti-war movement changed during the war, we can thus see how particular developments directly impact on those who opposed the war.

For more information about the AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centres, please visit the website.




Battle of the Somme – 100 years on

During 2016, the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme is being commemorated.  The First World War Centenary partnership, of which AHRC is a member, is remembering the lives of those who lived, fought and died in WW1.  Co-ordinated by the IWM (Imperial War  Museum), events and activities  are published, and many of these are also featured on the AHRC Website.

Centenary of battle of jutland poster - Courtesy of IWMCentenary Demonstration and Anniversary of the Battle of Jutland © IWM (Art.IWM PST 11008)
Demonstration and Anniversary of the Battle of Jutland © IWM (Art.IWM PST 11008) Courtesy of IWM

During July additional Blog posts will be featured by Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA) Students from the IWM, who have been funded via the AHRC.


Battle-scars and Dragon’s Claws : The Legacy of Mametz Wood

The Mametz Dragon. Image Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford

In this guest Blog, Dr Gethin Matthews from the Department of History at the University of Swansea talks about the battle of Mametz Wood, which commenced on 7th July 1916.  Dr Matthews is principal investigator on ‘Welsh Memorials to the Great War’, a project funded by the AHRC Funded Living Legacies 1914-18 World War One Engagement Centre.   There are 5 WW1 Engagement Centres, whose focus is to provide UK-wide support for community engagement activities, commemorating WW1.

Those from outside Wales who are interested in the history of the First World War and its aftermath may be surprised to discover how one relatively minor battle on the Western Front has such resonance in certain Welsh circles. The Battle of Mametz Wood, fought from 7 to 12 July 1916, was part of the early Somme campaign. The losses, of around four thousand killed and wounded on the British side, though heart-rending are much smaller that the numbers lost on just the first day of the Battle of the Somme.


Berea Cricieth – Rhys ab Owen / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Tregarth Church – Courtesy of Meg Ryder / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Translation of text:

For the Honour and Glory of God and in sacred memory of
Lieut. H. K. Brock BA.          Neuf Berquin
Pte. J. I. B. Brock                   Ypres
Pte. W. H. Hughes                  Poperinghe
Pte. D. Jones                           Ypres
Pte. O. Jones                           Gaza
Pte. T. Jones                            Ypres
Lc. Cpl. E. Lloyd Morris        Givenchy
Pte. J. Owen                            Warnemunde
Pte. Elias Pritchard                 Bailleul
Pte. H. R. Williams                 Mametz Wood
Cpl. L. J. Williams                  Ypres
Boys of this church who fell in the War 1914-1918.
“For Freedom they lost their blood”

Its significance for Wales is that this was the first battle fought by the troops of the 38th (Welsh) Division, also known with some justification as ‘Lloyd George’s Army’. These were the men who volunteered in droves to be part of the ‘Welsh Army Corps’ that Lloyd George and his acolytes sought to raise from September 1914 onwards: men who were drawn by Lloyd George’s rhetoric about putting the first ‘Welsh army in the field’ since the days of Owain Glyndŵr. (See this blog – – for a consideration of Lloyd George’s famous speech in London’s Queen’s Hall on 19 September 1914). The ideal of the ‘Welsh Army Corps’ became the reality of the 38th (Welsh Division).


Hermon, Pembrey -Lisa Tiplady / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Capel y Cwm – Courtesy of Christian Williams / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Translation of text:
“Their graves are far from Wales”
In affectionate memory of the brave boys of this church who sacrificed their lives on the field of blood.
David Griffith Williams in “Mametz Woods” July 10th 1916.
William Ballard in “Contalmaeson”, July 20th 1916.
James Morgan in “Ypres”, August 5th 1917.
“May they not be forgotten”

Having been trained for the most part in Wales, these recruits were posted to the Western Front in late 1915 and gained experience of trench warfare in quiet sectors for some months. Six days after the opening of the Somme offensive, this division was given the task of clearing Mametz Wood, a dense wood that had been heavily fortified by the Germans who had held it for two years, and was now defended by the elite Lehr regiment of Prussian Guards.

The details of the fighting, and how the Welsh overcame the odds at a tremendous cost can be found in this article by Robin Barlow – .

However, after the mission was successfully completed, as Colin Hughes wrote in his 1982 book about the battle, ‘neither glory nor distinction was noticeably bestowed’ upon the Welsh soldiers, but they were ‘bundled unceremoniously away to a quiet sector of the front’. The official response of the upper echelons is summarized in General Haig’s comments on the action on 7 July: ‘The 38th Welsh Division … had not advanced with determination to the attack’.


Tregarth Church -Meg Ryder / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Hermon, Pembrey – Courtesy of Lisa Tiplady / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Translation of text:
In affectionate memory of the brothers who fell in the Great European War 1914-1918
Faithful members of this church
James Davies, Penstar
Wounded 22 June, he died 10 July 1916 in Rouen, France, aged 22
And Robert Jones, Myrddin Cottage, who died 10 July 1916 in Mametz Woods, France, aged 22.
Therefore be ye also ready

In contrast to the dismissive attitude of the Army’s High Command, the reaction in Wales was to laud the courage and tenacity of the Welsh troops. Newspapers printed letters carrying first-person accounts of the fighting within eight days of the action, describing in some detail the horrendous difficulties of fighting a well-armed and determined enemy in strongly defended positions. A ‘Soldier from Bargoed’ wrote to the Western Mail of how ‘The Welsh boys fought like very demons through a wood which was well-nigh impregnable’. In conclusion he declared ‘The whole of the Welsh boys, however, fought with great bravery and proved themselves to be splendid fighters’.

Even as other battles were being fought, the story of the Welsh at Mametz was being re-told and the narrative shaped into one of a remarkable success against the odds. Numerous examples of poetry (not necessarily, it has to be said, of a very high standard) can be found in both languages in various Welsh newspapers). See, for example, the verses in English by Driver W. H Davies from September 1916 – – or by Sgt J. Jarman from August 1917 – ; a Welsh-language example can be found here –  – in September 1918.

Capel y Cwm - Christian Williams / Welsh Memorials to the Great War
Capel y Cwm – Christian Williams / Welsh Memorials to the Great War

Partially, this movement to commemorate the valour of the Welsh troops at Mametz Wood was driven by the soldiers themselves. The pride in their achievements is clear in the doggerel of Sgt. Jarman (‘For the hardest task we went through that morn / That’s been done by British sons’) and Driver Davies (‘My God! What a charge we made / The observers who were behind us / Said ’twas better than being on parade’). There is an interesting report – – of Welsh soldiers serving in France chanting that it was the Welsh who cleared the Germans from Mametz Wood.

Further impetus to commemorate this as a Welsh battle came from the top. When Lloyd George visited Welsh recruits in August 1916 training in the enormous camp in Kinmel Park, near Rhyl, he inspired them with a speech which focused on the achievements of their brothers-in-arms.

Mametz Wood 1916. Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford
Mametz Wood 1916. Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford







The local newspaper [ ] reports that he declared: ‘The attack on Mametz Wood was one of the most difficult enterprises which ever fell to any division. It was left to the Welsh Division, and they swept the enemy out of it (cheers)’.

Indeed, there was a debate in some Welsh newspapers in the spring of 1918 – before the outcome of the War was decided – as to which encounter should be commemorated as ‘the’ Welsh battle of the War: the choice being Mametz Wood or Pilckem Ridge (31 July 1917). In the euphoria that greeted the ‘victory’ in 1918, there were numerous poems written about Welsh valour in the battlefield, many of which took Mametz Wood as their theme.

Mametz Dragon Silhouette. Courtesy ofAlun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford
Mametz Dragon Silhouette. Courtesy ofAlun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford

A short story about a Welsh miner at Mametz won a prize at the National Eisteddfod in 1923; one of the best memoirs by a Welsh soldier about the war is Up to Mametz, published by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith in 1931. The most famous Welsh painting of the War is The Welsh Division at the Battle of Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams.

One of the most astonishing artistic works to come out of the First World War is David Jones’ In Parenthesis – this was largely inspired by his experiences with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at Mametz (see ).

Thus it is not surprising that as interest in the First World War grew in the 1980s as the number of veterans of the conflict grew fewer, the focus on the experiences of the Welsh in this one battle became more intense. Following a campaign by the Western Front Association, a challenging and beautiful memorial was raised to the 38th Welsh Division at Mametz. Designed by sculptor/ blacksmith David Petersen, the memorial was unveiled in 1987: three documentaries were broadcast on Welsh television to accompany the event.

At a local level, the name of Mametz resonated long in various communities throughout Wales.

A ward at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary was designated the ‘Mametz Ward’. The 15th Welsh Regiment (Carmarthenshire Battalion) designated their reunion the ‘Mametz Wood dinner’. A wounded soldier in Llanrug renamed his home ‘Mametz Cottage’.

A project I am currently managing, Welsh Memorials to the Great War – – funded by Living Legacies 1914-18 –  – has uncovered further examples of how the name of Mametz remained engrained within some Welsh communities. The project has collected information on well over two hundred WW1 memorials in Wales (with hundreds more to be gathered) and one interesting aspect that comes over in many of them is the geographical range that is incorporated in the local commemorations. The men who are remembered served all over the globe: a large number of Welsh soldiers who served with Canadian or Australian units are commemorated in their home villages.

Many of the memorials to those who died state where the men met their fate, although most of the time the details are non-specific, stating simply ‘France’, ‘Gallipoli’ or ‘Mesopotamia’. However, a few are more precise. There are twelve names in the memorial at Tregarth church, Caernarfonshire. The last line carved on this memorial – ‘Tros ryddid collasant eu gwaed’ [‘For Freedom they lost their blood’] comes from the Welsh National Anthem. Four died at Ypres and one at Gaza – both names that appear with tragic regularity on several more Welsh memorials. One, Pte. H R Williams, died at Mametz Wood.


Capt. Hywel Williams -
Capt. Hywel Williams –


Other memorials in Welsh chapels have an explicit reference to Mametz Wood. Three soldiers are commemorated in the memorial at Capel y Cwm, Pentrechwyth, Swansea: one of them was David Griffith Williams, who was killed in the battle.

The memorial in Hermon chapel, Pembrey, has two names, including Robert Jones, another who was killed at Mametz Wood.

One more chapel memorial deserves particular attention – although the only photograph I have obtained of it is rather poor. The chapel, Berea, Cricieth (Caernarfonshire) closed a few years ago after its membership fell to single figures. The significance of this place of worship is that it was Lloyd George’s family’s chapel: for many years his highly respected uncle, Richard Lloyd had been its leading light. Two brothers, Hugh and Hywel Williams, who were family friends of Lloyd George’s family, died within six weeks of one another in 1916. Both had been active in the recruiting campaign, trying to persuade young Welshmen to answer the call put out by their politician friend. Captain Hywel Williams was killed at Mametz Wood.

Dr Gethin Matthews, Dept. of History, Swansea University

Mametz dragon & wood. Image Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford
Mametz dragon & wood. Image Courtesy of Alun Edwards / First World War poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford