Conference Report: Commemorating the Centenary of the First World War

DR AIMÉE FOX-GODDEN & DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

This post reflects upon an event held on January 12th in the River Room at King’s College London. The symposium featured contributions from Prof Jay Winter, Dr Helen McCartney, Prof Annika Mombauer, Hanna Smyth, Dr Jenny Macleod, Dr Heather Jones, and Dr Catriona Pennell. Recordings of all of the days proceedings are available online and can be found by clicking on the name of the individual participant.

How the conflict which subsequently became known as the First World War ought to be interpreted, understood, and given meaning became a hotly contest topic almost immediately after the outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914. Debates over what the War meant displayed, and continue to display, a multiplicity of interpretations, attitudes, and agendas – which often reveal far more about those who formed them than the events they aim to discuss. The centenary of the conflict – and the accompanying raft of commemorative activities and spike in public interest – has presented a unique set of challenges to historians, but also a valuable opportunity to reflect upon the relationship between their craft and broader society. This event, held at King’s College London on January 12th, brought together scholars from a range of backgrounds to discuss the varying national approaches to the centenary, and what these might tell us about how the First World War is perceived and understood in the twenty first century.

 (Contested) Identities of Remembrance

What is the future of identities in the process of commemoration? Jay Winter’s provocation proved a key theme that ran through the event’s proceedings. With the aftermath of Brexit and the increasingly pluralised nature of identities in the modern age, participants were invited to consider how these identities might become contested and fluid, rather than temporally fixed. Vladimir Putin’s use of the ‘sacred memory’ of the First World War as a way of rehabilitating the Russian Empire and providing a ‘militarist narrative for popular consumption’ is just one example of the slippery way in which identities can be mobilised for political gain. Other speakers tapped into this pervasive theme. Hanna Smyth touched on these contested identities when speaking about the work of the Vimy Foundation. For Canada, national and imperial identities of remembrance were not binary. The idea of a Canadian national identity can be broken down further: how does Newfoundland – a separate dominion during the war, but now part of Canada – remember the First World War? What about the Quebecois? What about those from the First Nations? These contested identities are further compounded by the problematic narrative of ‘brave soldiers’ who died for freedom – a narrative that is by no means unique to Canada. In the case of Ireland, the tense, often divisive, nature of identities of remembrance has supposedly been tackled head on during the centenary commemorations. Catriona Pennell spoke of the ‘de-orangification’ of the First World War narrative, and the move towards equality of sacrifice in Ireland’s commemoration. As historians, we need to be mindful of the inherent complexity associated with the construction and presentation of national identities; the centenary has certainly reminded us of this.

Silences of commemoration

Despite the high level of commemorative activity across many of the main belligerents, there remain obvious silences of commemoration. Refugees and the reconfiguration of imperialism offer just two, broad examples. While attempts have been made to uncover and reintegrate the story of the Canadian First Nations, and Indigenous Australians into national commemorative narratives, there is still a continuing problem of visibility. Heather Jones spoke of the removal and muting of the ‘national’ narrative from France’s commemorative activity. While the international and the European has been a key focus of France’s commemoration, the continuing trauma of the nation’s colonial legacy and the often white, male face of commemoration has – unwittingly or not – proved another means of silencing complicated aspects of France’s past. From a British perspective, the focus on 1 July 1916 as a key focal point in the Somme commemoration is just one of the silences apparent in British commemorations. Cherry picking certain operations or campaigns, for commemoration, particularly those dominated by the army, is problematic. We are faced with similar problems when looking at the contributions of the army’s sister services. The British war in the air has been sidelined. In spite of its ubiquity, it will be commemorated in April 1918, aligning with the birth of the RAF. The war at sea has been both marginalised and militarised, overlooking the important contributions made by the Merchant Navy to the war effort. In many respects, commemoration activity in Britain runs the risk of distorting our own popular perceptions of the conflict, particularly in terms of who fought and their relative contribution. What happens then when we widen our view to look beyond the national to the international? What implications does this cleft between historical reality and remembrance have both during and beyond the centenary?

The Historian and the Centenary & Democratisation of commemoration

The complex relationship between historical accuracy and commemorative activity, and thus between the historian and the centenary, was also evident in the participants discussion of the democratization evident in the activities undertaken since 2014. Quite naturally the speakers welcomed initiatives intended to encourage broader participation in the centenary and engagement with the First World War. Schemes such as the ‘We’re here because we’re here’ and the poppy display at the Tower of London attracted widespread public interest, however questions remain over the extent to which they prompted people to reflect upon the conflict and its meaning. Helen McCartney highlighted how programmes such as Letter to an Unknown Soldier produced a degree of engagement with the historical detail that suggests a greater level of engagement with the record than critics might fear, however there is good reason to doubt the extent to which the centenary has genuinely changed the well-established narratives about the War evident prior to 2014. As Annika Mombauer highlighted in relation to Germany, even scholarship that penetrates into the popular domain – as Chris Clarke’s Sleepwalkers has done – tends to be simplified to the point of gross reductionism in popular debates, which are as much about the realities of the present as they are about the lost world of the past.

This all begs the question – what is the role of the historian during the centenary? Hanna Smyth observed that there is an implicit tension in those studying commemorative practice and centenary being involved in shaping its conduct. What effect does this have on the scholarship of those involved? And, in turn, ought the academic study of commemorative practice to play a role shaping how we commemorate? If the centenary is as much about the future as the past, what claim can historians make to inform a debate about events yet to pass?

Power & modern agendas – government, organizations, & the centenary

Ultimately, how we commemorate the First World War will always be determined by the needs of the moment. The iconic image of François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl standing hand in hand in the pouring rain before the memorial at Verdun is one of the most powerful encapsulations of European Unity and of a future devoid of conflict on the continent. Moments such as these are as much about power and political narrative as they are about historical accuracy, yet by attempting to mobilize the past for the needs of the present they also speak to the never ending debate as to what history is, and ought to be ‘for’. Indeed, the laudable inclusion of German and French representatives – alongside the British, Irish, and Commonwealth forces – at the centenary service for the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval – mirrored the move towards increasingly transnational, inclusive approaches within the discipline of history itself.

***

The timing of the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union – coming as it did days before the July 1st service – underlined how far we still are from a common narrative or understanding of the conflict. The War was mobilized in support of both the leave and remain arguments, often with precious little care for historical realities. Historians have no claim over this process, but do have an obligation to engage with it and to work against the crude instrumentalisation of the past for the needs of the political moment. This process is ongoing, and will be the subject of further discussion by the First World War Research Group as we approach the culmination of the centenary cycle in 2018-19.

Image: Poppies At The Tower Of London 23-8-2014 via Flickr.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s