Category Archives: Engagement Centres


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.

Your Community in the First World War: A Roadshow

The five First World War engagement centres are working together this autumn to run three free and open events featuring speakers, workshops, stalls and networking opportunities.

8th September 2015 at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

9th September 2015 at the City Museum, Leeds

10th September 2015 at Newcastle University

How did the First World War affect your community? Do you know where the people named on your war memorial fought and died? What was life like for those who went away to fight? What happened to those who stayed at home? Did the First World War change things for women? Industry? Social welfare? What was its global impact and how did colonial troops experience it?

We invite you to explore your community’s connection with the First World War and meet up with others already doing so. These three events, in Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle, will bring together community groups and other organisations who are working on projects around the heritage of the First World War, or who are interested in developing such a project. There will be an opportunity to share experiences, explore possible sources of funding (especially the Heritage Lottery Fund), exchange ideas, and learn about free support and resources, including how and where you can showcase your findings online.

This roadshow is co-hosted by the five First World War engagement centres funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Each centre represents a network of academic support and has various areas of expertise regarding First World War research. You can access their support when developing you own projects.

At each event we will also be offering an opportunity to learn how to digitise, record and preserve your community’s stories and memorabilia. The availability of this opportunity will be based on demand, so if you are interested in taking part in this digitisation workshop, please register for this when booking the event. You will be asked to submit a short statement of what materials (photographs, letters, diaries etc.) you would like to have digitised and how it would benefit you and/or your community group.

Places at these events are free, but limited, so book early to ensure a place.

World War One events this June in Belfast

A number of events this June in Belfast will be encouraging the public to engage with their local WW1 history. The events are part of the nationwide Connected Communities Festival.

West Belfast WW1 Soldiers – Living Legacies Centre a digital walking tour

belfast boysThe walking tour will take place in and around the Falls Road, West Belfast, an area rich in contested cultural heritage and with strong community interest in WW1. This venue has been chosen given its immediate proximity to the areas of interest on the walking tour. The tour is built around original data gathered by Prof. Richard Grayson on the origins of the local men that served in the FWW.
This event is open to the public and is a cross-community event, we are hoping to encourage members of the Nationalist Community to participate and engage with their WW1 heritage.
20th June 2015, An Chulturlann, West Belfast, BT12 6AH

Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich website – Cultúrlann produces a vibrant Arts Programme that promotes Irish language and culture while creating an attractive meeting place for tourists and locals alike.
A review of Professor Richard Grayson’s book “Belfast Boys” can be found here.
More information on the Living Legacies project can be found on the website
The event will be using #GIStourFallsRoad


ulstermuseumNational Museum Northern Ireland – First World War tour and workshop at the Ulster Museum

This venue has been chosen given its unique collection of WW1 materials, staff expertise and knowledge. In addition NMNI is a partner of the Living Legacies Engagement Centre. The event will feature a guided tour of the Home Rule to Partition section of the Modern History Gallery and will cover events from 1912-1922. There will then be a break for refreshments and this will be followed by an interactive handling workshop involving FWW artefacts. The main benefit to the attendee is an improved understanding of the past, including a broader knowledge of the nuances and complexities of the war.

23rd June 2015, Ulster Museum, South Belfast, BT9 5AB

More information on the National Museums of Northern Ireland can be found on their website.
More information on the Reminiscence Network Northern Ireland can be found on their website.
More information on the Living Legacies project can be found on the website
The event will be using #UlsterMuseumTour
2013-10-14-insigniaArts for All – Mural exploring the years 1914-1918

This event involves both the launch of a new FWW mural and a piece of interactive drama/performance from ‘Medal in the Draw’ by Dr. Brenda Winter-Palmer – LL, QUB. The event will take place in Tigers Bay, North Belfast on the 25th June, provisionally held. Tiger’s Bay is traditionally a strongly loyalist area of Belfast with a high degree of deprivation and strong community interest. The mural reflects a range of perspectives on the war, including women’s role on the Home Front, shipyard strikes and soldiers employed to make crosses to mark the graves of the men who died. The plays script is used as a stimulus for the audience’s questions and the actors then engage with the audience in character. The venue was dictated by the mural location, which is of itself the product of one year’s community research. The event is open to the public and is a cross-community event. The event will be publicised through all partners (see links).

25th June 2015, Tigers Bay, North Belfast

More information on the Living Legacies project can be found on the website
More information on arts for all can be found on their website.
More information on ‘The Medal in the Drawer’ can be found here.
The event will be using #WW1TigersBay

Image Copyright © 2013 Extramural Activity