In this blog post, Dr Marcus Morris looks at his project exploring the impact of the Great War on children and young people.
In this post, Professor Mark Connelly examines how Western Front battlefields became places to visit – both for tourists and pilgrims – after the Great War.
In our latest blog Professor Mark Connelly talks about the British naval raid on Zeebrugge, which took place on 23rd April 1918, and its commemoration over time.
In this guest blog Professor Mark Connelly (University of Kent) discusses The Silent Cities, a 1929 publication by Sidney C. Hurst on the cemeteries and memorials of the Great War. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.
When I first visited the battlefields in 1986 I found that my military history interest was very quickly matched, if not surpassed, by a new obsession with the memorials and cemeteries of the Western Front. The first Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery I visited was Dud Corner at Loos, and despite seeing many photographs of those neat and tidy corners of a foreign field forever England, I was totally amazed by actually stepping into one. Just like everyone else I found the cliché was absolutely true: the peace, quiet and dignity of the place were truly remarkable. On returning home I quickly managed to find a copy of Philip Longworth’s official history of the Commission, The Unending Vigil, published to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 1967. I read it avidly and was particularly interested in the references to a book called The Silent Cities by Sidney C. Hurst published by Methuen on behalf of the Commission in 1927. Deeply curious as to its contents, I searched my local libraries with no luck and then put in an inter-library search request. In those days everything was done by filling in paper forms and acknowledgement came in the form of a prepaid postcard. After a good few weeks that postcard duly arrived and told me the book was ready for collection. Having no idea of the nature of the book other than the fact that it was obviously about the work of the IWGC, I had no insight as to what I was picking up.
Opening the book for the first time I was stunned. First, it was printed on beautiful, glossy art paper. Used to the yellowing and foxed pages of inter-war books I had purchased in my local second hand bookshop or read in the library, nothing had prepared me for opening a volume that seemed brand new. Then there was another huge shock. Rather than pages of text, which I had expected, there were photographs of cemeteries; not just a few photographs to break up and illustrate the text, but page after page of photographs. The book was a gazetteer of each and every cemetery and memorial. Under each cemetery was a short description with details about the graves they contained and map references to aid location. Suddenly I was teleported back to the world of the original visitors to the Western Front or those who longed to go, but with perhaps neither the means nor time who, instead, purchased the book as some kind of permanent souvenir of their lost loved one thus providing a fitting domestic reminder. The book was also a world of liminal spaces for many photographs showed the cemeteries incomplete or in transition. The original Graves Registration Unit crosses could be seen in some rows with others seemingly sprouting up their new crop of pristine white IWGC Portland Stone headstones. Close examination of the landscape around the cemeteries also revealed a world permanently caught in a moment of drastic transition. Look beyond the cemetery and it could have been a shot of the prairie with far, far horizons: the war had destroyed everything and so there was nothing to punctuate the background or immediate hinterland. Most of all, it was a world of saplings carefully planted by the IWGC in the cemeteries or some farmer to help define his field boundaries beyond. Mature trees seemed so rare that their total number could easily be accounted across the entire 407 pages of the book. It was impossible not to play the ‘then and now’ game as I thought about the cemeteries I had seen on my trip and compared my photographs to those contained in the book. Houses, roads, and above all, trees, had appeared in the intervening years.
The next great discovery was turning to the back of the book and seeing the index of cemeteries. Having been on the trip I had some inkling of the wondrous range of names used, starting with the severely utilitarian, through the humorous and ironic and on to the elegiac and iconic. But here was a whole new thesaurus of memory and commemoration. Cemetery names tumbled out and rapidly fused in my head a connection with Blunden’s poem, Trench Nomenclature, which I have never since escaped, particularly in that most wondrous of concoctions, ‘Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Zillebeke’. Pouring over the photographs and delighting (that may seem an odd word to use in this context, but I genuinely can’t think of another one which better describes my sensations) in the cemetery names, I saw veterans in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and doffing their caps as they visited the graves of old chums and cloche-hatted women with young children searching for solace in at least seeing daddy’s grave so nobly marked and beautifully maintained. As you’ll know if you’ve read any of my other pieces, that vision is one I have never since managed to shake off and has become an important component of my professional career.
Of course, the time came for me to return the book. I dreaded that moment, for I realised then that The Silent Cities was a book that I wanted to own. At that stage I knew absolutely nothing about the workings of the second hand book trade other than the fact that there was a good, rambling second hand bookshop in the London suburb in which I grew up. I did know that I had a rarity on my hands and I was highly unlikely to find a copy in my usual haunt. Aching with the misery that only a teenager can muster, and a teenager at the height of ‘The Smiths’ fame at that, I wondered what I could do. Looking at the library stamps in the book, I saw that no one had taken out since the late 1950s! From this fact I deduced that the library from which it originated might not be that interested in retaining it. Using what I thought to be politely cunning (or cunningly polite) skills I wrote to the library (I have a vague feeling that it was in East Sussex somewhere) and asked whether I might be allowed to buy the book from them, especially as it was clearly not the hottest volume on their shelves. Needless to say that offer was declined with equal decorum and politeness (and perhaps cunning, as well). Skip forward a few years and I was now on the mailing lists of a few second hand book dealers who sent me their quarterly catalogues. Then, one magical day, I saw the book listed in one of the catalogues. I phoned immediately terrified that it might have been snapped up by someone else, but no, I was fortunate and managed to purchase it for let us say a not inconsiderable sum for the early 1990s. Receiving the book felt like having a scoop of soil from every cemetery in Belgian and France; it felt like some holy relic was now in my possession. Something far more than a simple catalogue was now on my shelves.
You might therefore imagine the amazing frisson that overcame me, when, about a year later, I purchased a copy of a collection of R.H. Mottram’s essays titled Through the Menin Gate. Among the short stories, autobiographical sketches and snatches of journalism was a review of The Silent Cities. I made straight for the essay and felt an odd sensation as I realised that Mottram had expressed many of my own thoughts some sixty years earlier. ’The real end of the War came, so far as I am concerned,’ he wrote, ‘on the day that a volume entitled The Silent Cities, an illustrated guide to the War Cemeteries in France and Flanders, 1914-1918, was put into my hands for review. That was the end, there is no longer anything to be done.’ For me though, Silent Cities was not the end but the end of the beginning.
Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support.
In this guest post, Emma Login, a University of Birmingham PhD student who is part of the Voices of War and Peace research network, reveals the ideological wrangling behind one of Birmingham’s war memorials. This post first appeared on the Voices of War and Peace blog.
The Hall of Memory has been an integral part of the Birmingham landscape for nearly 90 years. Originally surrounded by extensive memorial gardens and accompanied by an impressive colonnade, the Hall has clearly undergone multiple revisions since its construction. Yet, these changes are small scale compared to those undertaken throughout the memorial’s planning stages, as citizens debated exactly who and what should be remembered.
Discussions regarding the most appropriate way to commemorate Birmingham’s contribution to the First World War began whilst it was still being fought. Based on commemorative responses to earlier conflicts, few believed that the remembrance of the Great War would have any form of longevity. Sir Whitworth Wallis, Director of the Municipal Art Gallery writing for the Birmingham Gazette in 1917 pessimistically predicted:
We no doubt imagine that the shining events of this war will never be forgotten and that the names of those who have fallen will never pass into oblivion- judging by the past these are vain hopes- a few of the important battles will doubtless be remembered, […] a few distinguished generals, famous deeds of a few winners of the Victoria Cross will be recalled from time to time, but the millions of the rank and file will cease to be remembered. (Birmingham Gazette 17/11/1917)
As a result of these cynical projections, initial proposals were for practical memorials and focused on the battles that were fought and the weapons used to fight them. Original suggestions included a large memorial museum to be constructed “if possible in one of the parks, preferably Cannon Hill Park, which contains the Boer War memorial” and which should be “dignified, spacious, top-lighted, […] and on one floor level so as to permit easy extension” (Report of the Honorary Director January 1919). But, these plans were not well received by the people of Birmingham. The prioritisation of the memory of the conflict above that of the dead attracted widespread criticism within the local press, and as a result the scheme was swiftly dropped (Chamberlain and Francis 1919).
Despite this, Birmingham’s War Memorial Committee remained ardent that any memorial should be of practical benefit to the people of Birmingham. Subsequent suggestions included an imposing town hall, “with seating for 3,600 people, 50% more than the existing hall.” But, this time provisions were made to include the memory of the common solider through the addition of a Hall of Memory “intended to perpetuate the memory of the heroic dead” (Brooks et al, Birmingham War Memorial Committee). Yet, continued criticisms within local newspapers of a memorial not wholly based on commemoration and the failure to raise the £300,000 necessary for both structures resulted in one final revision to the scheme.
All practical elements were dropped and it was decided that just the symbolic Hall of Memory would go ahead. Thus eventually, after months of discussions, it was the memory of the ‘millions of rank and file’ that triumphed and which continues to provide the focus of Birmingham’s wartime commemorations today.
‘Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy’ is a First World War Engagement Centre funded by the AHRC and in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University of Birmingham Centre is a joint initiative across the Midlands with Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and further afield with the University of Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University.The Engagement Centre will support a wide range of community engagement activities, connecting academic and public histories of the First World War.
14-18 NOW are asking members of the public to write a letter to an unknown soldier. In this guest post, marking the British declaration of war on 4th August 1914, Dr Jessica Meyer of the University of Leeds addresses herself to the unknown soldier in the statue at London Paddington, and to the many others who lost their lives in the conflict.
Dear Bill, or is it David?
It could be either, couldn’t it: ol’ Bill, still and stoical in his endurance of all the laughable horrors that war throws at him; young David, so beautiful in his youth and ‘all the glory of his joy’ and sacrifice. You might be either, or indeed both.
Is that too simplistic, asking you to stand for two figures emblematic in their own right? How can we ask you to embody the experiences of 5 million men, the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, those who served on the front lines and those who worked behind them, those who survived and those who didn’t? As has been pointed out to me, and as I fully acknowledge, speaking of the men of this war only in terms of unity can never be a full reflection of the huge variety of the experiences encompassed by so many men over four and more years of a world war.
And yet… And yet, after a decade and a half reading the words you wrote, in letters, in diaries, in memoirs, some intended for public consumption but most written only for the loving, private eyes of friends and family, your voice speaks to me in tones at once both varied and familiar. Each fragile sheet, telling its unique story, does so in a voice so completely of its time that I could not mistake it for anything else, that I recognise it the moment I see it, scribbled in indelible pencil, poorly typed on flimsy forms, etched in elegant ink penmanship. Its tones, by turns mundane, flippant, horror and grief struck, or simply relieved, groping for words to describe the previously indescribable or relishing the simple pleasures of life as only young men can, has invaded my own, shaping my thinking and my writing as surely as the images described have shaped my understanding of war and how it was experienced.
I do not always like you. You are, inevitably, of your time, with all the attitudes towards women, class, empire that this implies. But for every statement of belief in a eugenicist solution to a predicted post-war crisis or casual patronising of those not of your class, there have been twice as many to remind me of your common humanity, your youth, your idealism, your sensitivities to sight and smell and taste, your artistic impulses, your lust for adventure, for experience, for life. You have made me laugh and made me cry, yes, even in the public space of the archive. You have moved me beyond measure and you continue to do so.
I would like to believe that, after all this time, these 15 years in which you have become my profession as well as my obsession, that I know you. Or at least that I know you better than most. I have read the counter-examples to the clichés, can cite the exceptions to any generalisation about you or your experience, even as I try to pin you down by making generalisations of my own.
Yet that sense of knowledge is as much a myth as any, isn’t it? I can never know you any more than you would understand me and my interest in your story. You remain standing there, aloof and ultimately impenetrable, leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers.
And still I long to know. Who were you? What was it like? How did war shape you and through you the society you left behind or, for the majority of you, in which you had to carry on living? These are the questions that define me as a historian, and my search for the answers, hidden in your millions of words, in those stories that made it home to the attic and the archive, waiting to be uncovered, has helped define me as a person, too. I have been shaped and changed by all that I have read and heard, by all that I now think I know. I hope it is for the better; I believe it cannot be for the worse than I might have become in other circumstances. I may not know you, but you have made me and will continue to do so until the day I stop asking questions. And for that knowledge, for all that you have done for me and continue to do, for all the inspiration you have granted me, the tears you have provoked, the insight into men and mankind that you have provided, for all the lessons you have taught me, I thank you.
Yours, with affection and gratitude,
The AHRC’s Connected Communities Festival gets underway in Cardiff this week. Among the many community research showcases and activities, research into the First World War will be the focus for reflection and community participation.
On Tuesday 1st July in the Motorpoint Arena, there will be a World War One ‘Antiques Roadshow’ Event which invites the public to bring along their memorabilia. You can drop in from 10am until 4pm.
A screening of Whose Remembrance?, a film exploring how the peoples of the former British Empire were affected by the two World Wars, will be shown at 1.45pm on Tuesday 1st July in the Motorpoint arena. If you can’t make the screening, a stall at Motorpoint Arena on both days will showcase the findings of the film:
The former colonies were an inextricable part of the British war effort in both wars. But what do we really know of the story of military service and of the home fronts experienced in Africa, India and the Caribbean? What do the present minority communities in the UK – for whom this a part of their heritage – know of this piece of history?
Another stand in the Motorpoint arena on both days will also showcase the five new World War One Engagement Centres, with representatives from each centre keen to talk about their specific research themes and plans for the commemorations ahead. And, a session on Cultures of Commemoration will explore the role of the centres and of commemoration at this time. This session will begin at 11am on Tuesday 1st July in the Motorpoint Arena.
The Festival gives us an opportunity to explore what commemoration means for individuals, organisations and places in
Wales and across the UK. We are keen to hear what Festival participants have to say about the possibilities of academic and public research collaborations on the FWW.
To encourage discussion, the Centres will bring some recent examples of commemoration, including Joanne Sayner’s 4-minute AHRC film produced by children, ‘Why Commemorate the FWW?’; work with four regimental museums in Northern Ireland; cross-community work based in part on Cymru1914 for Wales and potentially similar work on Ireland; and a Nottingham project on green spaces.
There was a strong community focus to the launch event of the Everyday Lives in War centre last week at the University of Hertfordshire. The last – but certainly not the least – of the AHRC-funded World War One Engagement Centres to launch, the event attracted a wide range of community groups to talk about their work and their collaborations, and to find out about how they could get involved in the work of the centre.
Three-minute talks from organisations as diverse as the Herts at War project, the Luton Museum and the University of Reading’s Huntley and Palmer Archive began the day. David Souden from the Historic Palaces spoke about a project to lay red ceramic roses, one for each of the 888,000 British and Colonial soldiers killed in the First World War, in the dry moat around the Tower of London. He and Alastair Massie from the National Army Museum reminded us all of the strong national as well as local links being forged by the Engagement Centres.
A panel session followed, which examined objects and artefacts brought in by members of the public. Fascinating insights followed from members of the panel, such as Alan Wakefield from the Imperial War Museum, Dan Hill from the Herts at War project, Gareth Hughes of the Western Front Association, Mike Roper, Jim Hughes and Rachel Duffett of the Everyday Lives centre, and others. Objects discussed included a Princess Mary box – given to every soldier who fought for the British during the War, including, we heard, soldiers from the Empire – photos, medals and even fragments of a shot-down zeppelin.
The themes covered by the centre will include food and farming, conscientious objection and military tribunals, supernatural beliefs and theatre and entertainment. To emphasise the last of these themes, those attending were treated to a performance of JM Barrie’s A Well Remembered Voice of 1918.
All in all, the launch was a memorable event with a strong focus on community and public interest in the First World War commemoration, which augurs well for the coming months and years. Good luck Everyday Lives in War…
For further information, please go to the AHRC website.
What does the nature of a centenary commemoration tell us about collective memory and current social attitudes? How have commemorations changed over time? What are the most appropriate ways to handle the remembrance of traumatic or politically sensitive events?
These are just some of the questions explored by ‘The Significance of the Centenary’, an AHRC-funded research network. Find out more in a feature article just published on the AHRC website.
The network is led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the Universities of Cardiff and Sheffield, the National Library of Wales, and Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity looking after sites such as the Tower of London and Hampton Court.
The AHRC’s latest feature article marked the airing of BBC4’s documentary about the life of the Gloucestershire WW1 poet Ivor Gurney. The documentary, which you can watch on BBC iPlayer until 1am on Friday 11th April, draws on Gurney’s poetry, music and his war experiences as a Private at the front line and at home in a mental asylum.
Fittingly, Gloucester Cathedral, where Gurney was once a chorister, has unveiled a new stained-glass window marking the life of the poet. The window will be dedicated at a service this month, and the Dean of Gloucester described it as “a fitting tribute to all who served during the Great War”.
If you aren’t familiar with Gurney’s work, two short clips below from Professor Tim Kendall’s documentary “The Poet who Loved the War” give a new and unique flavour of the unflinching power of his artistic response to his war time experiences.