On 10 February, Kurt Taroff and Michelle Young from the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded “Living Legacies 1914-18” engagement centre, led a full-day workshop in the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University Belfast. Continue reading Performing Commemorations Project: Dramatic Responses to the Legacies of the First World War
In this latest Blog Post, Dr. Spencer Jones, Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces & War Studies, at the University of Wolverhampton and Co-Investigator for the Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Voices of War & Peace Engagement Centre, talks about Germany’s Spring Offensive, and why they undertook it in 1918.
In this guest Blog for Women’s History Month, Dr Julie Moore from the University of Hertfordshire and the AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centre ‘Everyday Lives in War‘, talks about the ways in which community researchers are engaging with some of the less well-known stories of women’s everyday experiences during the First World War, and calls for community researchers to put themselves on the record. Continue reading Finding the ‘women like us’ in the First World War
The Billy Youth Engagement Project ‘Sharing stories of WW1 Munition factories In North and North East London’:
Dr Sam Carroll from the Gateways to the First World War Engagement Centre talks about a case study “The Billy Youth Engagement Project” . Sam is the Commmunity Heritage Researcher for the Gateways Centre. Continue reading Sharing stories of WW1 Munition factories In North and North East London
The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools
By Michael Noble, Centre Co-ordinator for the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre for Hidden Histories. More details on these Centres can be found by looking at the AHRC’s website. Continue reading The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools
On the anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, a guest Blog by Anna Maguire talks about the the particular experience of William Barry, an Australian Prisoner of War during the Somme.
Anna Maguire is an AHRC funded doctoral student at King’s College London and Imperial War Museums, as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme. Her research on colonial encounters during the First World War looks at how the interactions of troops from the colonies, particularly New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies, with other people and places were represented in letters, diaries, memoirs and photographs. Her focus on encounters has allowed the collections of IWM to be read in a different frame, to better understand the colonial experience of the First World War.
In the summer of 1916, as the battle of the Somme raged on, subsidiary attacks were planned by the British Army to exploit German defensive weaknesses and consolidate progress made. One such attack was at Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916, where the 5th Australian Division of the Australian Imperial Force fought alongside the 61st (2nd South Midland) Division in XI Corps. Among the Australian men was William Barry. Suffering from a bad wound in his leg, Barry was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans.
Barry suffered greatly in the various prisoner of war camps where he was held. His false teeth were taken by his captors, and eventually his leg had to be amputated because of the severity of his injury. Yet along with the shared hardships the prisoner of war camps were a place for encounter and interaction for the men brought together in captivity. Barry encountered troops from across the British and Imperial Forces. Alongside other Australians and some Irish prisoners was a Hindu called Madan Akhan, known as ‘Rajah’, who had been captured in 1914. He shared stories of how the Germans had attempted to get other Indian prisoners to turn against the British. Barry also befriended a man from Sri Lanka who had travelled to Britain to enlist:
“While at this place I palled up with a lad by the name of Ronald Ondatji, a native from Ceylon. He and other young fellows had paid their passage to England and joined a Tommy Regiment, as there were no native troops sent from Ceylon. He was a well educated lad and was a prefect in the Holy Trinity College at Kandy and above all a great sport and a cricketer, having played against the M. A. Nobles Australian Eleven, during the English tour.”
Making links with other men brought together under the banner of the British Empire at war was an unanticipated consequence of the prisoner of war camps: what were their backgrounds and experiences of colonialism? After a year and a half in captivity, Barry was released as part of the prisoner of war exchange programme and travelled back to the United Kingdom, from where he would embark on the journey home to Australia.
A ‘composite copy’ of William Barry’s vivid war diaries is held at IWM London. Alongside his prisoner of war experience are accounts of swimming with Jamaican men in the Suez Canal in 1915 and having tea with Princess Beatrice at Windsor Castle in February 1918. While his extraordinary tales of adventure seem, on the surface, full of the charms of interactions between different colonial groups, understanding the challenging wartime and imperial contexts in which these encounters occurred is central. Recovering colonial experience of the First World War by reading diaries like William Barry’s is an essential activity for remembering and grasping the extent of this global and transnational conflict.
For more information on the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres please check the website.
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.
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 – http://historyclassics.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/a-welsh-army-in-the-field-lloyd-george-and-the-queens-hall-speech-of-19-september-1914/ – 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).
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 – http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/welsh-history-month-mametz-wood-2047333 .
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’.
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 – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/3580283/6/ART63/ – or by Sgt J. Jarman from August 1917 – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4094738/2/ART20/ ; a Welsh-language example can be found here – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4016702/5/ART44/ – in September 1918.
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 – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4015748/6/ART75/ – 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.
The local newspaper [ http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4243526/2/ART24/ ] 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.
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. https://museum.wales/cardiff/whatson/8949/Wars-Hell-The-Battle-of-Mametz-Wood-in-Art/
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 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/25/in-parenthesis-no-longer-who-was-the-author-of-the-greatest-poem-of-the-first-world-war ).
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 – http://war-memorials.swan.ac.uk/ – funded by Living Legacies 1914-18 – http://www.livinglegacies1914-18.ac.uk/ – 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.
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
BBC local radio stations across England and the Channel Islands will launch the final collection of stories from the landmark project World War One at Home, run in partnership with Imperial War Museums.
Over the past two years around 1400 powerful stories about people and places on the home front of Britain and Ireland during World War One have been broadcast
and all are linked to specific places across the country. The final stories will be broadcast from Saturday June 25th.
The project has uncovered surprising stories about familiar neighbourhoods where soldiers trained, the wounded were treated, women worked in factories, crucial front line supplies were produced, major scientific breakthroughs were made, prisoners of war were held and where heroes and heroines are buried.
David Holdsworth, Controller of BBC English Regions, said: “World War One at Home has been an enormously ambitious project that has really engaged our audiences on BBC Local radio over the last two years. These final broadcasts will put the spotlight on people and places around the country that had a significant role to play during the conflict. And the dedicated BBC website that features all of the stories will provide a valuable digital legacy for years to come.”
Diane Lees, Director-General of IWM, said: “The World War One at Home project has inspired countless people across the UK to engage with and uncover stories about the impact of the First World War from their own communities. It has been a fantastic partnership project between the BBC and IWM and one that has shed further light on those who lived, died and survived during the First World War and the way in which we want to remember them now.”
BBC Sussex and Surrey
In Sussex, the coastal town of Peacehaven owes its creation to the events of the First World War. With many men from the local area signing up to join the War effort, a local businessman called Charles Neville devised a plan to create a garden city by the sea where people including ex-servicemen would be able to purchase plots of land upon which they could build homes and a new life.
Actor Brian Capron tells the intriguing story of the only town in the UK to be named after peace and how the evolution of Peacehaven was far more complicated than Mr Neville had anticipated.
In September 1914 a secret propaganda bureau was set up at Wellington House in London. The bureau was run by writer Charles Masterman and was said to be so secret that most MPs were unaware it existed.
The bureau called upon writers and newspaper editors to put together material which showed Britain’s war effort in a good light and to counter enemy messages. Wellington House also printed its own material including newspapers, cartoons and books which were circulated around the world to influence neutral and enemy countries.
BBC Radio Bristol
Downend in Bristol is the home to one of only two Boy Scout War Memorials on public land in the country. It was erected in 1921 in memory of members of the 1st Downend Scout Troop who lost their lives in the Great War of 1914-18.
The first name on the memorial is Rev P G Alexander who founded the Downend Scout Group in 1909. Philip Alexander was the curate of Christchurch Downend at the start of the 20th Century and was married to the niece of legendary cricketer WG Grace. When war broke out he joined up and, in 1916, was aboard HMS Hampshire when it was sunk by a German mine near the Orkney Isles. Lord Kitchener was also on board the ship at the time and both Kitchener and Alexander lost their lives.
BBC Radio Cumbria
In the 1930s, Bramwell Evans was known to millions from his role on BBC Children’s Hour where he regaled a generation with his tales of life from a travelling family. But prior to this, Evans was a Methodist Minister in Carlisle where he reached out to a new audience of munitions workers by holding religious services with musical entertainment in a popular cinema.
Evans and the Methodists in the city identified a need for social support for munitions workers. They looked after young women away from home; found lodgings for over 1000 men, girls and married couples who came to work in Carlisle;
and established Sunday evening services in Botchergate Cinema. These services attracted good quality singers and musicians and ran regularly at various points during 1916 and 1917, welcoming people into the cinema early on cold and wet days.
BBC Newcastle look at the vital, though secret, role that Cullercoats Coastal Radio station in North Shields, played during World War One. The station intercepted radio messages sent to and from German ships and U-boats and passed them to Admiralty Headquarters in London. Although they were encrypted, a number of German codebooks had been seized during the war, allowing many messages to be interpreted.
The Station had been built in 1908 when it was used by the inventor Guglielmo Marconi to send test signals to a station in Denmark. It continued to operate as a maritime radio station after the two world wars before it was closed in 1998.
All BBC Local Radio stations across England will broadcast five World War One At Home stories from June 25th to June 29th.
All the final World War One At Home stories and many more will then be available online on a dedicated website at www.bbc.co.uk/ww1
Notes to Editors
BBC “World War One At Home” journalists have also been working with academics from universities across Britain who have been supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The AHRC funds research in the arts and humanities and helps share the findings with the wider public.
Each World War One at Home story broadcast on radio and TV over the last two years will be available to listen to online and the audience will be able to browse stories to find out how their area’s experience contrasted with those elsewhere, and discover the nationwide experience of the Home Front.
The stories will be classified by place (a BBC local area such as BBC Leeds or BBC Kent or a nation – BBC Wales, BBC Northern Ireland and BBCScotland) and by themes such as Sport, Working for the War, War in the Air.
All of the stories will be shareable via social media – #WW1AtHome
For further information contact:
Karen Williams, Publicist, BBC English Regions
email@example.com or 0771 4957087
A Blog kindly submitted by Dr Nigel Hunt, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham. Dr Hunt is a Researcher for the Centre for Hidden Histories. The Centre is a one of five World War One Engagement centres established by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) . Hidden Histories is a collaboration between the Universities of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, Oxford Brookes, Manchester Metropolitan, UCL, Goldsmiths and Derby.
Crich Stand, a lighthouse on top of a limestone cliff almost as far from the sea as you can get in the UK, is a memorial to the Mercian Regiment (prior to that the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, originally the Sherwood Foresters). It officially became the memorial after the First World War, but there is a story that in June 1856 the end of the Crimean War was celebrated by a crowd including a Crich-born Crimean War veteran, Sergeant Wetton of the 95th Derbyshire Regiment, was carried up to the top of the hill in a chair (he lost his leg at the Battle of the Alma).
There have been several Stands on the hill, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the current tower was built and dedicated to the memory of the 11,409 Sherwood Foresters who had been killed in the war. The site, nearly 1,000 feet above sea level, was chosen because it is visible from large parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
The builder was Joseph Payne. The stone used was that of the previous tower, numbered and stored. It was quite an undertaking, with the tower reaching 64 feet, and the dome on the top weighing around 40 tons. It cost £2382, raised mainly through subscription.
After the Second World War, in 1952, a service was held to dedicate the memorial to the 1,520 Sherwood Foresters who died in that war. In 1991 two plaques were added at the base of the tower dedicated to the Sherwood Foresters killed after 1945, and to the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters who died after 1970. Relatively recently, a new stone memorial has been built near the Stand with the names of those who have died in recent wars. It still has empty spaces.
Each year, on the first Sunday of July, close to the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, a pilgrimage and service of remembrance is held at the Stand, attended by veterans of the regiment and others. There are few memorials in more prominent and impressive positions.
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 Ancestry.com 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).