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 This provoked ripostes of outdated triumphalism whereas the purpose is to bring balance, and to improve understanding of the war as a series of historical events.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.

2 thoughts on “First World War Centenaries: Are we commemorating things the right way”

  1. Professor Philpott writes:
    ‘At the time, however, everyone was aware that the Somme had turned the course of the war, and that its result was decided.’

    Professor Philpott doesn’t say that in his personal opinion the battle of the Somme meant that the result of the war was already decided. He says that EVERYONE WAS AWARE AT THE TIME that the result of the war was already decided.

    This seems an extremely bold statement to make. Presumably Professor Philpott has overwhelming quantities of evidence to support it: memos from Ludendorff to the Kaiser telling him that the war was now lost, headlines in the British newspapers rejoicing that the war was now won etc.

  2. I was steered here by the Great War Forum. I am not an historian and was not aware of Professor Philpotts work. The impression left with me is that remembrance, while of course essentially linked to casualties, should not forget the causes of the war which pitched industrially equiped armies armies against one another with inevitable results.

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