Remembering the First World War at a Local Level

At the meeting of the Local History Group on 23 October 2014, Dr Dan Todman talked about the concept of remembrance and the way local communities have remembered World War I for 100 years. Dan is a senior lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of The Great War: Myth and Memory . Meeting report by Andrew Roberts. One of a number of pages about Trumpington and World War I .

Dan Todman opened his talk by explaining that he had been involved in many activities concerning the centenary of World War I, including the development of BBC resources and the new galleries at the Imperial War Museum. He was interested in different ways of remembering the War, particularly within a local community. He posed a series of questions: what we mean by ‘remember’, what is being done to recognised the centenary, what is the point of remembering, what are the difficulties in remembering and what are the advantages of remembering locally?

One hundred years after the start of the War, there are no combatants still alive but there are some people who can remember the later years of the War. We may know of – or ourselves remember – people who did remember the War. So, remembering is a social practice.

World War I is being recognised by a four year programme of ‘national acts of remembrance’ from 2014 to 2018, including the start of the War on 4 August 1914, decisive battles such as the Somme in 1916 and the end of the War on 11 November 1918. As part of the programme, the Imperial War Museum is undergoing a major refit; visits are being arranged by secondary school students to the Western Front; lottery grants are available; and there are cultural events. There are separate projects in each of the four home countries. The BBC has commissioned an extensive range of national and local programmes. Local projects include restoring war memorials.

In October 2012, David Cameron described the programme as ‘a truly national commemoration’. Research by the British Future thinktank suggested that the majority of people agreed that we must remember the 16 million who died in the War; that the centenary is an important reminder that we are in the debt of those who died; and that it is important to recognise the contribution of Empire and Commonwealth soldiers. However, the idea of remembering is not uncontroversial, with groups such as ‘No Glory in War’ arguing that the War was unnecessary and individuals including Max Hastings criticising the programme for failing to stress that we won the War. British Future found less consensus that the theme of the commemoration should be that it was a ‘just war’.

Dan asked us to talk about why we should remember the War and what we should remember. Responses included:

• to learn and adapt our future actions;
• to recognise the effort of the local community;
• to remember the experiences of parents and pass these on to future generations;
• to make sure it does not happen again;
• to recognise the impact of the War on social issues such as the class system and the position of women in society;
• to remember the impact of the war on the way of life, including rural life;
• to recognise that a knowledge of the war can lead to a personal involvement in the peace movement;
• to give thanks to people who made a sacrifice for us;
• to learn from history.

Dan went on to stress that there are some issues that we might find difficult to remember, such as the effect of the Easter Rising in 1916. How will the Russians remember the War? What about its effect on the Empire, where involvement in the War was often a matter of compulsion? And what about the majority of the population who were not soldiers and yet were also affected by the War? What about the soldiers who survived, many of whom were not at the Front?

He referred to the rhetoric of remembrance. The concept of ‘sacrifice’ was common at the time but what would those who died make of the current world? How did society change to respond to the expectations of returning soldiers? What about the impact on the working class, with wages increasing and infant mortality rates falling during the War.

Dan asked why and how we should remember. He argued that the best way to remember is to question remembrance and what it is about. He said it was important to remember locally. Society had operated at a local level, as in the case of recruitment and exemption tribunals. The local level is understandable when compared with the national level where numbers are so large.

The local level means looking at individuals and families and appreciating the complexity of lives. Dan gave examples from one street in London, Lower Marsh, Waterloo, where 28 servicemen had lived, 8 of whom died in the War. There are 21 surviving records for these servicemen which reveal complex stories, including military service and family history information. One soldier had been only 5’1½” tall and 34” girth; another had been living in South Africa and had paid for his family to travel to Britain so that he could join up; another had joined up, deserted 5 days later, then joined up again and served throughout the War. These individual stories help us understand more about the past.

Ideas raised in the closing discussion included:

• comment: was the War the start of the machine era? response: this was not a war about heroic soldiering but about machines;
• comment: interested in the emotional impact of the war on people surrounding those in the services; response: there were many people who could remember the impact of the War on the family and themselves, including those whose lives improved;
• comment: lived through World War II as a child, when parents talked about the impact on them of World War I; response: commemoration gives the opportunity to pass ideas on to the next generation;
• comment: are we in danger of overlooking the long-term impact of World War I, including World War II and the Cold War; response: not sure about causation, World War II was due to subsequent decisions;
• comment: but the War set the seed for the League of Nations;
• comment: the state of Germany after the War did help bring Hitler to power;
• comment: individual soldiers talked about the impact of the War on their friends, rather than about principles;
• comment: the commemorative plaque in the Village Hall was produced in response to an earlier memorial in the church which has fewer names; there was pressure from local families for other names to be added;
• comment: was there a period of reflection after the War which made it easier to remember those who had died; response: people were talking about the War throughout the 1920s, with memorials being erected by public subscription; the bereaved exerted a powerful presence, particularly parents; memorials enabled a community to focus on one day.

In conclusion, we thanked Dan Todman for a very stimulating and timely session.

Dr Dan Todman at the Local History Group meeting, 23 October 2014.
Dr Dan Todman at the Local History Group meeting, 23 October 2014.

Dr Dan Todman at the Local History Group meeting, 23 October 2014.