Right, away from the literature/history dichotomy that seems to have been dominating my writing here since it began, some actual WWI related thoughts. One of the problems of British history of the First World War – both that which examines the war itself and that which looks at its mythic aftermath – is that the war tends to viewed as unique.
Spurred on by the writings of John Terraine, British military historians have tried to place the Western Front in the context of other modern total wars, but often on a comparatively simple level. This usually takes the form of a statistical comparison of rates of recruitment, numbers of divisions and percentage losses. Useful to a degree (although a statistic is like a glove puppet – stick your hand far enough up its backside and it’ll say anything) – but often decontextualised.
This is much more, however, than analysts of the British mythology/cultural memory have done. Although there have been attempts to compare British remembrance with that of other participants in the First World War – see the work of Stefan Goebel and Jenny Macleod – there hasn’t so far as I know, been a proper comparison with other wars over the long term, in an effort to bring out the effects of anniversaries, generational change, cultural context and so on.
What might be our criteria for choosing other wars? Off the top of my head, some combination of:
1) scale and totality – level of popular involvement
2) media context – presence of myth-making and spreading structures
3) subsequent impact – how well have they been remembered?
4) ease of access to resources – including, for the moment, my lack of linguistic skills/background knowledge – although my French isn’t too bad, my French history is rubbish.
On these grounds, I wondered about comparisons with:
The English Civil War (huge popular involvement, very different media context)
The Napoleonic Wars (in Britain relatively much less popular involvement (depending on how we rate militia service), different media context)
The Indian Mutiny (following a suggestion from Astrid Erll) (tiny popular involvement but huge impact at the time, start of the modern media age – photographs)
The American Civil War – the most obvious source of comparison, I think
The Boer War
Second World War – obvious and probably already being written.
The idea would be to follow through the mythology of these wars in the century or so after they ended, examine how their myths developed and changed, and compare these processes to those which operated in Britain, 1918-2008ish.