Intruding memories

Still trying to find the time to update the page format to suit IE users, or to take the next step of actually running the site for myself. In the meantime, a quick post on a subject which has been running round my head for a bit.
Historians of the 'cultural memory' of the First World War have tended to assume that during the Second World War, Britons forgot about the previous conflict because they had something more immediately important on their minds. In fact, of course, 1939-45 was a massive spur to memory, but paper rationing, a desire for distraction from war and fear of bombing all reduced the occurrence of publications and public ceremonies connected to 1914-18. I've suggested elsewhere that one feature of the early days of the Home Guard in 1940 was its function as a remembering club for veterans of the earlier conflict. I've also made use of the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which uses the character created by David Low, but celebrates his participation in the First World War.
I’ve recently been re-viewing a couple of other Second World War movies, and I think that I actually could have made far more use of this idea of the First World War creeping through than I actually did. Mention of the war functioned, I think, both as a historical locator and as a positive reference to national identity and ultimate victory. The Carol Reed film The Way Ahead (1944) has two references. Early on, Lieutenant Jim Perry (David Niven) is seen before the war as a Territorial Army soldier being taught via diagram, about the Lewis Gun. The instructor declares that it did him fine in 1918, and when the unit finally gets one (at some unspecified point in the future) he’s sure that it will do them fine as well. Here, then, is humour, but also a reminder of past war experience. Later on (in a scene which I am going to use to teach about regimental identity and small group identity) Perry shames his men, who’ve let him down on exercise, by talking to them about the battle honours of their regiment, The Duke of Glendon’s Light Infantry – including Mons and Ypres.
Even better, in the 1942 Albert Cavalcanti film Went the Day Well, the evil German officer Ortier and the treacherous English fifth columnist Oliver Wileford discuss how to control the villagers of Bramley Green – the hamlet they have taken over. They do so directly beneath the plaque on the church wall which commemorates the glorious dead of 1914-18. To me – but possibly only to me, as a First World War obsessive – this seems a subversion of their conversation, with Cavalcanti providing a historical reminder that Britons have been victorious in hard struggles against the Germans before.
What matters for my larger argument here is that mention of the First World War in the 1940s did not have to take place in a negative context. It could be used to reinforce positive ideas about what it meant to be British and unity. This isn’t to say that it was only after this point that popular memories changed. Rather, from the war until a much later point, a number of different, ambiguous versions existed, which did not coalesce into a single dominant version until the 1970s.


2 Responses to Intruding memories

  1. George Simmers says:

    Have you thought about the WW1/WW2 interplay in other popular media than film?
    I’m thinking of the Bud Flanagan song which goes something like: “If a white-haired lady says How’s your father, she’ll be Mademoiselle from Armentieres.” I’ll bet there were others with a similar theme.

  2. Dan says:

    Indeed. Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, ‘This is Worth Fighting For’ (don’t know date, but early WW2, I think) contains the line: ‘Didn’t my folks before me/Fight for this land before I was born’.
    Carroll Gibbons, ‘Mr Brown of London Town’: ‘He’d got his wife, he’d got his kids, and things were right as rain/Until the Godforsaken Hun got busy once again…’

    And I think there’s probably something very interesting to be done on the local war memorials as sites for rituals during the Second World War.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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

%d bloggers like this: