In our latest Blog post, Michael Noble takes time to reflect on Collaborative Projects.
Just before Christmas, academic and community leads from the Centre for Hidden Histories’ co-production grant scheme came together to take part in a dedicated workshop to reflect on their projects, share examples of the things that they had achieved and exchange ideas for further work. Continue reading Reflections on Collaborative Projects→
In this latest Blog Post, Dr Johanne Devlin Trew, from Ulster University & the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Funded Living Legacies World War One Engagement Centre, talks all things ‘Republican Crafts’.
On Wednesday March 14, 2018, a community conference and exhibition entitled Irish Republican Prison Crafts: Making Memory and Legacy was held at Belfast’s historical Crumlin Road Gaol. It showcased the Heritage Lottery funded project of Coiste na nIarchimí [Republican ex-prisoners organisation], supported by Living Legacies, Ulster University and The Open University. The goal of the project was to create a virtual archive of conflict-related Republican prison crafts that are in the possession of prisoner families and to capture the stories surrounding these objects of memory. The project took as a model the virtual archive developed by Living Legacies to record WW1 material sourced from the general public.
In our latest Blog post, Dr Helen Brooks talks all things Theatre and WW1.
Dr Helen Brooks is Co-Investigator to Gateways to the First World War, an AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre.
Helen is Principal Investigator of the Great War Theatre project and Co-Investigator of the Performing Centenaries project. She is a senior lecturer in Drama at the University of Kent, where she also teaches on the First World War Studies MA course in the School of History.
The conflict witnessed a massive increase in the size and composition of the British military and, relatedly, it created new expectations regarding state responsibilities towards those who served their country (or post-1916 those whom were compelled to serve) as well as their dependents.
In such circumstances the traditional reliance on regimental and charitable supports, such as those offered by the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association (SSAFA), proved inadequate; albeit such associations continued to do valuable work both during and after the conflict. Yet veterans now sought to mobilise and pressurize the government in response to the challenges they were facing and the rights they felt they were due. This initiated a dynamic over the next four years during which many veterans’ associations formed, most with overt political affiliations, and often existing in competition with each other.
While such organisations propelled an ex-service agenda, raising awareness of the real problems that were being faced by demobilised personnel, they resulted in friction, fractions and outright fear both within the British political establishment and within society at large. That fear reached fever-pitch during some isolated incidents of disorder, such as the destruction of Luton Town Hall during a veterans’ protest about unemployment in 1919. These occurrences seemed to confirm contemporary fears about brutalised and radicalised returning servicemen who threatened the social order. A peace of sorts was established in 1921 with the amalgamation of these associations into the deliberately non-political British Legion; although even then some former Federation and Association voices continued to murmur for more radical intervention.
Yet it was the Royal British Legion (RBL) that endured as the veteran’s organisation in Britain and which has became culturally enshrined as part of the national, and local, commemorative landscape.
However, while the history of the RBL has gained attention in contemporary historiography, recently in Niall Barr’s as yet unrivalled monograph The Lion and the Poppy (2005), those of the other British veterans’ organisations have received only a smattering of scholarly attention.
Indeed, there is at present a striking dearth of material regarding the experiences and activities of ex-service personnel who were demobilised in Britain during and after the war. One-point worth highlighting here is that such veteran’s activities need to be understood as a wartime and not solely as a post-war phenomenon. Moreover, the experiences of British veterans have yet to be traced in comparative perspective with the development of veteran’s associations, and ex-service voices, on the continent. Nor should transnational comparison eclipse the need to examine regional difference, together with unifying tendencies, in veteran activities within the UK. It stands to reason, for example, that the context of demobilisation in Ireland from 1916 would present different experiences, challenges and responses than demobilisation in England. Such notions are currently understated and underexplored. Most strikingly of all is an almost total failure to recognise and research the distinct experiences of demobilised ex-servicewomen in Britain; unsurprising as it is, it is only recent scholarship that has put British women’s’ service experiences onto the historical record.
It is therefore reassuring that some of these issues were probed in January 2015 when Dr Nick Mansfield organised a symposium on ‘Ex-Servicemen After the Great War’ held in conjunction with the ‘Land Fit For Heroes’ exhibition at the People History Museum, Manchester. That event featured some of the leading scholars currently working in the field (including Dr Niall Barr, Dr John Borgonovo, Mr Paul Burnham & Dr David Swift) alongside involvement from the RBL. Yet it served only as a taster, it alerted an appetite and identified omissions in its own schedule, such as the absence of ex-servicewomen’s experiences , and provided opportunities to go much further. Now would seem to be the time to do so, not only because of the contemporary relevance of the topic, but also because new sources have come to light that offer avenues for research activities and agendas.
These include the Minutes of the Bury St Edmunds and District Branch of The Association (B/15371), which have been recently acquired by the Suffolk Record Office . These are the only surviving branch records of the three constituent organisations of the RBL; the Association, the Federation and the Comrades. It is this paucity that has made researching early ex-service organisations so hard, with the most significant source base being local press reports of veterans’ activities. Newspaper reports are, however, problematic, as they present huge inconsistencies. The Association and the Federation were often mistaken for each other in the press, which may indicate that in some localities the two left wing organisations merged their campaigning. The Federation also published a national Newsletter, which recorded local activities. Meanwhile, the RBL retains a range of its own manuscript records. However, researchers must contact them directly, making access not as readily available as material in the public domain. This material includes some minute books of the Executive of the Federation between 1917 and 1921, as well as those of the early British Legion. There are also 233 tranches of RBL branch and district minutes cared for in local record offices. Although these also include material from Women’s’ sections, the vast majority cover later periods from the Second World War. (See http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/c?_srt=5&_q=Royal+British+Legion&_col=500&_naet=O )
The newly discovered Bury St Edmunds Association minutes are the only surviving local archives relating to the early veterans’ organisations. Regretfully they only start on the branch’s formation in September 1919, making it relatively late in the Association’s history and after its radical campaigning heyday. As a result, the Bury St Edmunds Association comes over as relatively conservative; perhaps unsurprising given the background of the area as an agricultural district and brewing town. In its first meeting, for example, it appointed a Captain R Gibbons as branch auditor, whereas on its foundation the Association refused to admit any officers as members unless they had originally served in the ranks! The Bury St Edmunds branch also accepted – by a narrow vote – a gift of £50 from Lord Invegh, the Guinness magnate, who owned a shooting estate in Suffolk. This indicates a vestige of the Association’s campaigning spirit. So too did its policy of pressing for the proposed Bury St Edmunds’ war memorial to take the form of housing for war widows and disabled veterans rather than a stone memorial. But from early 1920 its efforts appear more mundane; supporting football and cricket teams and by November 1920, establishing its own premises which, significantly, were opened by a senior army officer, General Sir Stuart Ware. Though this association did protest against the overall reduction of war pensions in February 1921, it consistently supported the amalgamation of the three ex-service organisations into the British Legion, with the huge £1.5 million profit from the wartime United Service Fund, as an incentive offered by Prime Minister David Lloyd George. It would therefore seem that these records support a view of ex-servicemen’s’ activities which saw original militant local campaigning evolving into relatively conservative activation and approaches.
More nuance and more enquiry is now needed and it is hopeful that both established and emerging academics are turning their attention to this area. Indeed, next year a symposium will be held on 18 March 2017 at the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict at the University of Edinburgh, to explore the experiences of veterans (both men and women), and their dependents during and after the conflict, and to investigate how military service influenced their subsequent lives. This event, which can be followed at what-tommy-did-next.org.uk, has been conceived with British veterans in mind yet it seeks to include transnational perspectives. It will feature a keynote by Professor Jay Winter which seeks to explore British experiences through the prism of comparable French developments. Moreover, the event is being organised in tandem with the writing of a new book, edited by Dr David Swift and Dr Oliver Wilkinson, which will synthesize scholarship on ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen in Britain and Ireland after the First World War. The volume aims to explore some of the currently missing areas in terms of British veterans, fusing a traditional political approach (e.g. examining the how and why ex-service personnel mobilised – or were mobilised – across the political spectrum), with a cultural approach, which will include consideration of gender, disability, identity and memory as connected to the ex-service experience.
As the First World War Centenary continues many are now thinking about the post-2018 landscape and mooting the legacy of their current activities. Yet, for those men and women who served during the First World War their demobilisation did not mark the end of their experiences but simply opened a new phase. Moreover, that phase was defined by the legacies of their war experiences and existed in a political, social, economic and cultural context that was defined by the war. It is an exploration of that legacy and that context that is needed and we hope that the sources, events, publications and issues discussed here will help in that direction.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.