In our latest post, Michael Noble from the University of Nottingham’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Hidden Histories Engagement Centre discusses taking WW1 history to the public.
One of the joys of working for an Engagement Centre comes from the opportunity to meet and work with interested and committed people around the country. Over the course of the centenary, I have worked, talked and collaborated with hundreds of people, of all ages, who have a keen interest in the First World War and who have used their knowledge and enthusiasm to make the commemorations a success.
But what about those people who have little or no interest in the war? Those whose knowledge extends simply to the popular images of the conflict, the trenches, the truce, the Somme, the poppy. We would be neglectful as an Engagement Centre if we didn’t make efforts to reach these people, the ones that don’t necessarily meet us half-way.
In this piece, Dr Helen B. McCartney reflects on her involvement in the BBC World War One at Home project and the broadcasting, public engagement and learning opportunities that came from it.
The BBC World War One at Home project began with an ambitious aim – to produce over 1400 local stories that illustrated the diversity of experience on the British home front during the First World War. The BBC English Regions and Nations were tasked with each providing 100 stories that had a strong sense of locality, and explained how different individuals and places influenced and were affected by the British war effort from 1914.
The project was a collaborative initiative between the BBC, the Imperial War Museums, and researchers funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Supporting World War One at Home is one of the key ways in which the AHRC is marking the centenary of the First World War. Through funding researchers to work with broadcasters, they aimed to facilitate the input of new historical ideas and broader national and international contexts into the project.
As one of the researchers on the project, working alongside Professor Ian Beckett and the broadcast journalists of BBC South, I want to offer a few reflections on what academics were able to contribute and what I, in particular, have taken away from the experience.
It is important to remember that this was an experimental project. Collaboration between AHRC academic researchers and broadcasters had not previously been attempted on this scale and this necessarily meant that roles had to be defined and refined as the project took shape. A key player in this was our broadcast controller, Joanne Babbage, who expertly managed the interface between the journalists researching the stories and academics providing advice.
There is also the journalistic imperative to find the unique, out-of–the ordinary stories that engage audiences. These stories were crucial to the project, but so were the stories that looked at everyday life and experience. For example, we were able to cover not only the experience of conscientious objectors but also the experience of the many men who faced military service tribunals seeking exemption from military service for more mundane but no less fascinating reasons.
Finally, I was impressed with the way in which the journalists with whom I worked were prepared to discuss and amend parts of their programming to accommodate alternative views or tighten up terminology. The fact that there was room for ongoing discussion before the final production of the stories was a very positive part of the relationship and added greater depth and complexity to some of the stories presented.
The overall result has been, I hope, a rich variety of stories that reflect the experience of different regions and nations with different characteristics, different economic outlooks and different populations with different skills. The United Kingdom in 1914 was decentralized, both administratively and culturally. Most people lived their entire lives at the local level with their expectations and connections tied to their local communities and the project admirably reflects these realities. It does more than this, however. One of its real strengths is the way in which the stories have been archived both by locality and by theme. The thematic approach is significant because it also allows for people to engage with the stories more broadly, permitting comparison of how the war was experienced across the UK.
The other key strength of the project was that it was not simply about the production of stories but also about engaging with the public through a series of roadshows held around the country. These roadshows provided academics with an opportunity to highlight some of their own recent research to more diverse audiences than traditionally encountered. Talking to audiences in a BBC roadshow tent at Weymouth carnival was a new experience for me. It made me think carefully about what was essential to my argument as well as what might hold the attention of an audience with a wide demographic against the backdrop of potentially more interesting attractions. This was an audience that could vote with its feet.
The whole experience of working on the World War One at Home project has been incredibly valuable to my own research project that looks at the British soldier in the First World War and how different public narratives have become prominent in the UK over the last century. It has provided insight into how to engage a wide range of people from disparate backgrounds, allowed me to study the construction of narratives within a media organization, and afforded me the opportunity to influence those narratives by suggesting alternative perspectives from which to view the First World War. I hope that the collective experience of this collaborative project will be viewed as positively and will help to shape engagement between academics and the BBC in the future.
The Scottish experience of the First World War and its aftermath was different, in many ways, from that of the rest of Britain. Among other things, it was in Scotland that Britain probably came closest to having its own version of the Russian Revolution.
Billy Kenefick is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. As he points out, ‘Scotland in many ways was highly patriotic in the First World War: some 63% of eligible men in Dundee were in uniform, for example – that’s a very high proportion. And the “tank campaign” to raise money for the war effort in 1917/18, which involved battle-scarred tanks touring towns and cities to drum up sales of War Bonds and Savings Certificates, saw several Scottish cities vying to outdo each other. Dundee raised £4.5 million in one week.’
Yet several Scottish cities were also leading centres of the anti-war movement, with many of them having anti-conscription fellowships. Scottish cities also saw significant industrial and civil unrest, during and immediately after the war. The Independent Labour Party in Scotland grew from 3,000 members to 10,000 by war’s end – a rate of growth that wasn’t replicated elsewhere in Britain. And ironically perhaps it was Glasgow, seen by many as the second city of the British Empire, which became the focus of political radicalism, and effectively found itself under martial law during what became known as the Red Clydeside era.
Glasgow and the surrounding area was home to a significant amount of heavy industry, but many factory and shipyard workers lived in conditions of extreme poverty. During the war, the government introduced a number of laws that were met with hostility by the trade unions, while at the same time, living and working conditions became worse. This led to a campaign for a 40-hour week, and other improvements in working conditions.
Then on 31 January 1919, a huge rally was held in George Square in the centre of Glasgow, organised by the trade unions. The gathering turned into a riot, and the Red Flag was raised by the crowd. Barely a year after the Russian Revolution, the government in Westminster panicked: fearing a Bolshevik-style insurrection on the streets of Britain, they sent troops and tanks into the city to quell the unrest, making sure that the troops weren’t Glaswegian (the local regiment was locked inside its barracks), and that few of them were veterans of the war, lest they prove too sympathetic to the aims of the protestors.
Poetry and rare finds
Another Scottish location that is famously associated with the First World War is the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, where officers suffering from shell shock were treated with ‘talking cures’ and other newly developed therapies (enlisted men were subjected to altogether less enlightened regimes, in other locations), and where the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon first met, inspiring each other to write some of the poetry that continues to shape the view of the war that so many of us have.
Alistair McCleery is Professor of Literature and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, which now includes the old Craiglockhart buildings, as well as housing the specialist archive of materials relating to Owen, Sassoon and others – the War Poets’ Collection. The Craiglockhart site is still home to a rare form of moss, found in Northern France, which presumably arrived on soldiers’ boots.
‘With the War Poets being an important part of the school curriculum,’ says Alistair McCleery, ‘we get a lot of school groups making visits to the campus. World War One at Home has led to the creation of learning resource packs that we can give to them: it’s a lasting legacy of the project.’
And according to Alistair McCleery, the summer roadshows that have been organised as part of the World War One at Home project, including one in Dundee, have been ‘like the TV programmes Cash in the Attic, or the Antiques Roadshow.’ Among the original material that has come to light, as members of the public have brought it in, has been a concert programme from Craiglockhart during the war: the evening’s festivities described in the programme, and put on by the patients, began with the national anthems of the Allies, including Russia’s old Tsarist anthem. Another person at the roadshow came forward with rare copies of The Hydra, the magazine produced by patients at Craiglockhart, which Wilfred Owen edited, and which features the first appearance of his poetry in print.
The real Miss Jean Brodies
According to Alistair McCleery, the World War One at Home project has helped draw attention to some Scottish writers who should be better-known, including the Dundee poet Joseph Lee, and Christine Orr, whose novel, The Glorious Thing, describes ‘ordinary lives during an extraordinary time.’ But then, ‘this was an experience that engulfed everyone. The First World War wasn’t a remote conflict, like the Boer War – no-one could escape its effects.’
The Morningside area of Edinburgh, for example, used to be famous for its spinsters – real-life Miss Jean Brodies. ‘But behind the type is a sad reality – so many women were forced to turn to the teaching profession after their fiancés were killed. You need an empathetic imagination, to picture what life must have been like for them, in the Twenties. The life that was mapped out for them, all gone.’
A diaspora in reverse
Other distinctive elements of the Scottish experience of the First World War include the sense of martial tradition. ‘The kilted soldier really was the poster boy of Empire,’ says Derek Patrick, Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. The exploits of Scottish regiments in conflicts like the Peninsular, Crimea and Boer Wars, had cemented the place of the Scottish soldier in Britain’s consciousness. ‘National, religious and military traditions all came together. It says something about Scotland as a nation. Military achievements helped Scots identify with the imperial project – the Scots saw themselves as Empire-builders, and as defenders of the Empire in adversity.
There was also what amounted to a ‘diaspora in reverse’ during the First World War, with first or second-generation Scots returning from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, to fight in Europe, either with Scottish divisions, or in kilted South African or Canadian regiments.
And this story of the movement of Scottish soldiers around the world led to some interesting cases of cultural cross-over. The famous Scottish regiment the Black Watch, for example, had a long association with the Indian subcontinent, and its second and fourth battalions served with Indian divisions during the War. Several Indian regiments incorporated pipe bands and tartans, while long periods stationed in India rubbed off on Scottish soldiers, affecting their language (military slang of the period is full of words of Indian origin, including ‘pukka,’ ‘cushy’ and ‘doolally’, which blended with the Franglais slang popularised by men of the New Army) and their taste in food – curry was offered by army cooks from influence of the Indian army, and introduced more widely as a result of the War. The newspapers in Dundee, a city whose jute trade was closely linked with India, used to delight in showing photos of Scottish soldiers rubbing shoulders with troops of many different nationalities, knowing that their readers would find them interesting.
Commemoration in Scotland
The Great War Dundee Commemorative Project aims to co-ordinate a city-wide approach to the centenary commemoration of the First World War, bringing the local community together with Dundee’s museums, archives, libraries, universities, schools and businesses, through a programme of activities that encourage the broadest possible public participation and collective reminiscence. These activities include the opening of a hundred-year-old time capsule, located in Royal Mail’s Dundee East Delivery Office, which is thought to contain a large number of letters from soldiers on various First World War battle fronts, and photographs of Dundee men and women, as well as stamps and coins from the time. The aim is for events in Dundee to serve as a focus for a specifically Scottish commemoration of the war.
Scotland has a particular culture of remembrance, too. According to Billy Kenefick, that can be seen in the cathedral-like Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh: ‘there was a sense that the Cenotaph in Whitehall wasn’t good enough – there was a national desire to commemorate Scottish soldiers in their own way, to see them as fighting the war for Scotland as well as for Britain. But then, Robert the Bruce had been used on recruiting posters, while others used to say “we cannot allow the sons of the rose, the leek and the shamrock to get ahead of the sons of the thistle”.’
A number of sessions at the recent Connected Communities Festival in Cardiff reflected on the nature of community at this time of commemoration and during the First World War.
Three academic experts from Welsh universities were on hand in a special ‘Antiques Roadshow’-style event to look at First World War memorabilia brought in by members of the public. Some 40,000 Welshmen died during the War and its impact reached into every aspect of Welsh life. Its legacy lives on in countless ways and not least in the memories, objects and artefacts handed down through the generations and still treasured today. You can find out more about the roadshow in the video below, or read about the experiences of members of the public who attended on the BBC News website.
There will be a unique premiere at Tyneside cinema this July, as two short films about North East experiences of the First World War are aired.
The films were created by Newcastle and Durham University postgraduates and sixth formers from Heworth Grange and Ponteland High School. Postgraduates visited the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn to gather private diaries, letters and photographs. These personal accounts and current sixth formers’ responses to them are at the heart of both films.
These films show the war through the eyes of the generation that experienced it and explore what it means for modern students to read those experiences.
The film-showing will take place in the Roxy at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle on 28th July at 6.30pm. The event is free and all guests will receive a glass of wine on arrival. Once the films have been shown there will be a Q&A session with the filmmakers, the sixth-formers who took part and archivists from the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn. This will be chaired by the Project Co-Ordinator, Dr Katherine Cooper.
Last week saw the launch of Gateways to the First World War, one of five AHRC-funded centres designed to mark the centenary of the conflict, and to enhance public engagement with it.Gateways is based at the University of Kent and brings together a team of researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth, Brighton, Greenwich, Leeds and Queen Mary, London. The launch was part of a First World War Study day organised by the University of Kent’s German Department. The event was opened by Professor John Baldock, the University of Kent’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, who expressed the university’s pleasure in hosting the Centre and introduced an afternoon of debate and discussion on the First World War and its commemoration.
One of the highlights of the event was a panel discussion on the commemoration of the First World War chaired by the event’s organiser, Dr Deborah Holmes of the German Department, and featuring Dr Emil Brix, Austria’s Ambassador to the UK, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, the Imperial War Museum’s Director of Research, and Dominiek Dendooven of In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium. The panel led a fascinating discussion of both the problems and benefits of commemorating an event often complicated by ‘contested memories’. Dr Brix expressed his belief in the importance of European collaboration in the commemoration of the war, and Mr Dendooven discussed the ways in which the Flanders Field Museum is attempting to overcome national boundaries through exhibitions focused on individual war experiences. Dr Bardgett outlined some of the exciting centenary projects supported by the Imperial War Museum, including Lives of the First World War, the First World War Partnership, and Whose Remembrance?, the IWM’s project to investigate the role of colonial troops in the conflict. The discussion reinforced one of the key aims of the Gateways project: to encourage academics and the wider public to work together to discover connections between the local and the global during the First World War. As Gateways’ Director Professor Mark Connelly stated, the conflict was, for Kent and the South East in particular, a ‘global event with global repercussions’ which took place ‘on the doorstep’.
The panel discussion was followed by an illustrated lecture by Professor Connelly and Dr Heide Kunzelmann of the German Department, presenting photographs taken of troop mobilisation and prisoners of war in 1914 by Dr Kunzelmann’s great-grandfather, a medical officer in the Habsburg Army. Comparing these newly discovered sources to photographs taken by British officers in 1914, the pair talked about the connections between the personal and the public, and the similarities between artefacts of the First World War from different sides of the conflict. Through their discussion of the photographs – which focused on the themes of mobilization, violence, vulnerability and reconstruction – they emphasised the importance of revisiting accepted and established approaches to the conflict.
The event ended with a drinks reception and official launch of the Gateways to the First World War centre. Professor Connelly and Dr Will Butler outlined some of the centenary projects already underway, including a collaboration with Step Short of Folkestone on an app tour highlighting the town’s connections to the conflict, and guests were shown the newly-launched Gateways website. After a successful opening event, the Gateways team is now looking forward to developing its work with local groups and organisations on a range of First World War projects across the UK. The Centre aims 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. Forthcoming events include:
19th July 2014 – 25th January 2015 – ‘Lest We Forget’, an exhibition in conjunction with Portsmouth City Council
13th September 2014 – A Family History Day at Brighton Museum in conjunction with Brighton Museums and Pavilion
28th September 2014 – Gateways to the First World War Public Open Day, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
12th December 2014 – ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a one day symposium at the University of Kent