Some thoughts on the 90th anniversary of the Somme

A bit of me had thought that with the publication of The Great War: Myth and Memory (still on special offer at Amazon: get yours now!), I would leave the First World War behind for a while and concentrate on a new project on its successor. But that is not to be, for two reasons. First, all that effort I put into doing people favours and trying to publicise my work before the book came out is finally paying off. So I keep getting invited to contribute/give papers/pontificate about the memory of the First World War. This is gratifying but potentially frustrating when one kind of wants to move on (as a colleague said to me, the feeling is rather like being invited to a great party with the spouse you’ve just divorced). Second, the damn war just keeps cropping up, and I can’t leave it alone. To continue the metaphor, perhaps the First World War isn’t the spouse I’ve divorced, but the high school girlfriend I just can’t stop thinking about (note that this is a metaphor, rather than me confessing to an obsession).

Recently, I’ve been involved in the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Somme in a number of ways: helping with the creation of a museum exhibition, writing online, and a public lecture. In terms of economising my effort, I’ve also decided to write a paper on the subject. I have to confess I was rather surprised at the scale of publicity the commemoration attracted this year (90th not being a particularly significant anniversary traditionally). Examining the anniversary will be a means of testing out many of the ideas about the future memory of the war I put forward in the book. I also now, I hope, have the contacts to be able to investigate the ‘functional’ aspect of remembrance in more detail (for example, why did media organisations pick up on the event, what role did individual commemorative actors play, what were the financial and political motivations?). I’m also keen to explore the role of new media: first because having been told that the BBC History Wars section gets anywhere upwards of a million hits a week, I’ve realised that this is the future, and second because I’m intrigued to see how museums are balancing online and physical exhibitions. The IWM, apparently, put together its art exhibition on the Somme in some haste after it was pointed out that it might be embarassing if visitors asking what they were doing for the anniversary were told to go home and turn on their computers.

The first thing to do is to set the boundaries of the study. I want to focus on commemoration as represented in Britain and on the dynamics of remembrance. So although this will touch on what happened in France and how far public ideas of military history are changing (or not) this won’t be primary lines of investigation. The next is to gather as much information as possible at the moment, something which some of my First World War colleagues have also been doing. Some of this is online (and I’ll detail it in a future post), but it also involved watching a lot of tv and buying abuot two hundred weight of newspapers over the weekend. Then I need to set up interviews and discussions with as many of those involved in commemoration as I can.

Partly because I think it’s good practice, and partly because I’d like to try something new, I’m going to try to blog as much of the creation of this paper as I can.

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3 Responses to Some thoughts on the 90th anniversary of the Somme

  1. Esther says:

    /watches intently.

    Interesting stuff Dan – keen to see what happens.

  2. Chris Williams says:

    Mmm . . . you beauty. Keep it up. I’d love more historians to spend more time on researching exactly what Jo Public knows about Topic X, and where they learned it from. Have you thought about going for one of those AHRC Knowledge Transfer fellowships on this?

  3. […] I did promise I’d keep blogging my progress on my paper on the 90th anniversary of the Somme. Well, progress is slow, but I have picked up on a couple of things. First is this English Heritage recreation, which I sadly don’t now have time to go and see. Damn. The other was a very useful visit to see the Head Historian at the Imperial War Museum, Nigel Steel. I haven’t had a chance to ask Nigel whether I can put elements of our conversation (all uncontroversial) online, so I’ll just relate for the moment that he thought that there had been a large amount of press coverage of the anniversary, gave me a lot of press cuttings and a couple of useful pointers. I’m currently working on getting some more information from other institutions, including the BBC and the NAM. […]

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