Commemorating War

Unlike most weekends, which are spent ferrying the children to swimming lessons and singing classes while trying to catch up with the housework, I spent most of the past weekend at a fascinating workshop on commemorating war which brought together a number of military and naval historians to discuss ideas about the upcoming commemorations for 2014-18. (And lest you think my house is now a complete tip, my husband got on with the chores, so actually it looks somewhat cleaner than it normally does on a Monday.)

There was far too much discussed to cover in one post, so I will be coming back to what was discussed over a very intense day and a half, but one of the most interesting discussions resulted from Gary Sheffield’s talk on ‘Jay Winter and the Commemoration of the First World War.’ Following a brief survey of Jay’s work, Gary then looked at the legacy of his theories and the implications for 2014-18.

Now, a small disclaimer: Jay supervised my undergraduate thesis and my MPhil and was a huge influence on my decision to pursue an academic career. One of his influences on the study of the First World War has been a concerted effort to bring military and cultural historians of the war together in dialogue, an aim that I hope influences my work. Certainly I do strive to balance my love of social and cultural history with an awareness of the military details that shaped the trends I explore, which is why I am currently going so deeply into the history and organization of the RAMC at the moment. Gary’s main point, however, was that Jay’s idea of the memory boom helps to reemphasize victimhood as central to our understanding of the war, something that, he pointed out, has been picked up on in Cameron’s announcement of national plans for commemoration. The dates chosen are those of battles that are interpreted primarily as defeats, with no mention of the final campaign (the 100 days) which one the Allies the war, a fact which prompted a letter from the Western Front Association to the Independent. (Scroll down). In addition (a point I had not picked up on before), the school visits being funded are to soldiers’ graves, not battlefields which places the emphasis not merely on victimhood but sacrifice. Gary’s point was that children won’t actually be getting a sense of what the war was like by walking the landscape of battle but it also raises the point of whether those who survived the war are to be commemorated. Having worked extensively on the history of disability and the war, I am all too aware of how little is remembered and understood of those who returned to civil society, many wounded in body and mind, and who struggled to reintegrate. The majority succeeded, but not, I would hazard, without significant cost. Their stories are seldom told.

It was fascinating to hear a critique of the announced plans from the perspective of military history, and a reminder that military and cultural historians are often trying to tell a similar story, albeit from differing perspectives, and raise similar concerns about the way in which we remember and commemorate the war. The problems that we all, as historians, face in making these concerns public was the subject of an equally interesting presentation by the historian of the South African War, Professor Fransjohan Pretorius, who was involved with the commemorations in South Africa a decade ago. But that talk was itself rich enough that I think I had better return to it in another post.

3 thoughts on “Commemorating War

  1. Hello,
    Could you elaborate on Gary’s take on Jay’s work? Is he arguing that his work strengthened the vision of the war as victimization?
    I don’t think that would be an accurate assessment but then again, I would probably need a disclaimer of my own. What I find striking in the current historiography of the British military experience of WWI is the absence of any sustained reflection on violence, despite the attention paid to this question by cultural historians.

    • I don’t know about strengthened, more that Jay has helped to articulate the trend in the historiography of twentieth century warfare more generally. I certainly take your point about violence, but I do think there is a critique to be made of the victimization tendency. Certainly in my own work the use of shell shock as a symbol of the trauma of war (something Jay has written eloquently about) has come to dominate discussion to the extent that the medical history of the condition is often overlooked. Contemporary understandings of shell shock as temporary and curable don’t fit neatly with the symbolic reading but cannot be ignored when it comes to examining the impact of mental trauma on post-war treatment, pension policy, attitudes towards the war, etc. as historic realities.

      I think the real question that Gary was raising in his discussion was how, within the limits of public history, academic historians use the commemorations to articulate a more nuanced understanding of the war that encompass the fact of military victory as well as of violence, physical and psychological. Or, from a less strictly military perspective, how to give voice to men who, as individuals, continued to see themselves as active participants in war, not merely victims of it.

      Incidentally, on the subject of violence, one of the most fascinating images from Rob Thompson’s talk last week was a series of arial photographs of the village of Passchendaele over the course of Third Ypres. The effect of artillery fire was astounding.

  2. Pingback: A new blog, and Leeds seminars « Great War Fiction

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