Tag Archives: midlands

The Fight for the Rank and File: Birmingham’s Hall of Memory

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).

Birmingham Hall of Memory, 1931 [Library of Birmingham: WK/B11/169]
Birmingham Hall of Memory, 1931 [Library of Birmingham: WK/B11/169]
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.

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vwp-t-r1‘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.

Voices of war and peace

How does World War One connect with the lives of young people? What does it mean to young people today when we talk about the trenches or Zeppelin attacks, rationing or shellshock? What about those who came to live here as a result of conflict, both past and present? What does the commemoration of a war mean to them?

These and many others are all questions that will be explored by a new World War One Engagement Centre over the next few years. Based in Birmingham, the questions have added importance as Birmingham is a culturally diverse city and one with the youngest population in Europe.

Among the other questions the Centre will explore are questions around the legacy of the War – not only what happened between 1914 and 1918 but also the impact that the War continued to have during subsequent years, for example, by 1916 training programmes for soldiers with disabilities were being held in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter and by 1930 child guidance clinics had been set up – almost certainly the result of the emotional turmoil caused to youngsters during the War.

As well as exploring the impact of the Great War on communities in Birmingham and the Midlands, the Centre will focus on themes of national importance. These include Gender and the Home Front, led by Professor Maggie Andrews from the University of Worcester, Belief and the Great War, led by Dr Michael Snape from the University of Birmingham, and Commemoration, led by Dr Joanne Sayner also from the University of Birmingham.

Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its legacy is one of five new First World War Engagement centres set up by the AHRC to connect academic and public histories of the First World War and its legacy. A University of Birmingham-led initiative, the Centre also involves academics from Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and is based at the recently-opened Library of Birmingham. The Centre is led by Professor Ian Grosvenor, the Centre Coordinator is Dr Nicola Gauld, and there are seven Co-Investigators from the five partner institutions. In addition there are over 30 cultural partners including the Cheltenham Festivals, the BBC and YMCA England.

The Centre is formally launched in Birmingham next Friday (21st March).

For further information, please go to the centre website (opens in new window)

Nicola Gauld

voicesofwarandpeace

World War One at Home – Wednesday 26th February across the BBC

BBC News Magazine and BBC Scotland has been exploring the tale of Carl Lody, a German spy who reported on British warships in the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh. Lody, who used the alias Charles Inglis, was executed at the formidable Tower of London in 1914.

On Twitter at #ww1athome, people are sharing and posting stories like the one above. BBC Shropshire’s Genevieve Tudor posted a picture of a local women’s network who organised the collection of eggs for the frontline in Much Wenlock. Comedian Johnny Vegas joined the conversation, tweeting his approval, and suggesting that the woman on the left reminded him of his paternal grandmother.

eggsphoto

In the East Midlands, it is the history of the University of Leicester that is explored by a current medical student. Soldiers injured on the front were transported to the a hospital on the site, the former County Lunatic Asylum repurposed after the outbreak.. After the war, the University was established there as a living memorial.