The uses of memory

Thanks to Alex for his well aimed kick at my backside– I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time online due to quantity of other outputs at the moment, but I have developed a nasty tendency to post overly long comments on other people’s blogs.

By way of an indication of some of what I’m up to, here is the draft of the final paragraphs of my chapter on ‘British popular culture and the First World War’ for the collection of essays arising out of the SFWWS conference in Dublin last year. Comments – overly long or otherwise, welcomed – but remember it’s in draft, it needs some tidying, and it’s at the end.

The endurance of certain popular myths and the popularity of activities connected to the First World War suggest that they fulfil some social and cultural function. Inevitably discussion of such topics is tentative, since such functions are seldom articulated. What might we suggest is the utility of the war for modern Britons?

One use relates to interpretation. Particularly since the Second World War, a significant function of the First World War in British popular culture has been as a symbol for all that is negative about conflict and its aftermath. More generally, the 1914-18 war seems to embody a host of tensions inherent in the modern world – between technology and humanity, between state and individual, and between tradition and progress. Since these tensions have not disappeared with the advent of the twentieth century, the war retains its value as an explanatory example. As we have noted above, however, reference to the First World War seems less automatic as we grow further away from it. The topic of the war has to be raised in its own right before it is applied as an example. We might suggest that the utility of these myths has less to do with creating new models through which to interpret the world than with the maintenance of existing paradigms.

A second use of the First World War relates to identity. It is tempting to see the celebration of the imagined past as a result of anxieties about identity in the present. In the case of Britain in particular, recent concern over the decline or confusion of national identity may be seen to have encouraged the discussion of a shared national past of which war is a principal element. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has supported the foundation of a National Veterans Day on 27 June each year. The provision of National Lottery Funding has enabled a number of schemes to encourage survivors of the Second World War to interact with schoolchildren and to return to the battlefields. Although, inevitably, the concentration here is on veterans of the later war, Brown has also been keen to include celebration of those who fought from 1914-1918, as examples of qualities he believes enshrined in national identity. Brown has defined veterans as: ‘British people who give of themselves, whose qualities of character are the shining threads in the fabric of our society. Everyday they should be remembered in every part of our land, a legion of courage who fought for our country, who teach us through their heroism, courage and sacrifice the freedoms we enjoy today.’ Again, the survival of an inter-war rhetoric which validates and explains wartime service and death in terms of heroism and sacrifice is apparent.

The notion that the experience of war could be mobilised to bolster a faltering British national identity is an interesting one. Given current debates about multiculturalism, there is currently a strong institutional awareness of the need to broaden the terms in which the First World War is represented. It is certainly possible to suggest means by which museums could present and discuss the involvement of the former Empire in terms which might better engage British West Indian and British Asian visitors. It is also clear that such developments might raise uncomfortable issues about coercion, manipulation and exploitation, the handling of which would be extremely politically sensitive. What is not apparent is how, given the current tropes of representation, the First World War might be used to include more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. It may be that Britain needs to adopt a version of the war based much more around mutual suffering and reconciliation – similar to that adopted by France and Germany around Verdun – rather than its present staunchly isolationist interpretation.

It is worth noting, however, how frequently the preservation of the national past is a factor cited by participants in modern remembrance activities. The responsibility taken on by the re-enactor Neil McGurk is one that many others would recognise: to ensure that modern Britons remember the war and that it is not forgotten. Taken alongside the ‘revisionist’ view of 1918 as a British victory, this might be taken as evidence of a conservative concern to celebrate a nationhood threatened by the dislocations of the modern world. Another interpretation, however, might see this in more individual terms. Given the rapid changes undergone by British society in the twentieth century and the uncertainty of the future, it is perhaps natural that many seek both a foundation and an explanation by retelling the history of their own families. Equally, once this process is begun, the upheavals of the last hundred years make that history much more likely to be varied and interesting.

If identity is often a factor, it might be interpreted more effectively in terms of individual self-definition rather than national heritage. Discussing and deciding the events and meaning of the First World War, in terms of both historical fact and broader concepts, has become for most Britons a matter of leisure choice rather than a burning personal issue whose resolution becomes all encompassing. Modern Britons are First World War obsessives in the same way that they might be caravanners, golfers or knitters. This does not mean that passions are necessarily less strongly felt, but in most cases that is surely the case. We might draw a comparison between different generations’ involvement with the campaign for pardons for executed soldiers. For the surviving children of those shot at dawn, pardons are a matter of righting an injustice which they personally experienced – whatever the rights and wrongs of the cases themselves, the treatment of at least some widows and children was deeply unfair. But for more recent descendants, the suspicion has to be that any actual harm or shame is more imagined than experienced. On the contrary, so widely accepted is the belief that all these poor men were shell shocked heroes shot after inadequate trials that having such a relative is a matter for sympathy and minor celebrity. Taking on the identity of a campaigning relative is then a matter of choice rather than a matter of life and death.

This example leads us on to consider the effect of generational change more generally. It is noticeable how many of those currently involved in remembrance work are the children and grandchildren of those who fought in the war, with the latter particularly active because of their comparative youth. Many of these Britons retain a personal memory, however vague, of those who experienced the war at first hand. It is a matter of speculation whether once this link has been lost subsequent generations will continue their emotional attachment. It could be argued that although the great grandchildren of the war have lost that personal connection, the sheer quantity of remembrance now occurring will ensure that they keep up an interest. As they too reach middle age – which, for a variety of reasons does seem to encourage the consideration of the familial past – they will continue the British fascination with the First World War. It seems likely that the functional needs described above will continue into the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, there is another, later war, the remembrance of which could fulfil many of the same needs. If it is that personal connection which is important, it seems far more likely that this generation will follow its parents’ example and seek to rediscover their own grandparents’ world. Given the level of government support, the availability of many of the same resources – some in much better condition – and the increasingly rapid passing of the Second World War generation, it is possible that this later war will become an even more popular site for imaginative tourism than it is at present.

At least for the immediate future, however, the presence of the First World War in British popular culture seems secure. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that the myths associated with the war will now shift, the increased visibility of ‘revisionist’ history notwithstanding. At the end of The Great War: Myth and Memory it was suggested that the reasons for its enduring power might be more prosaic than sometimes assumed. The combination of mass involvement, consumer society and bureaucratic necessity had left a residue of artefacts which encouraged continued emotional engagement. I would now go further. The distinctive combination of the society and culture which fought the First World War with the technological developments of the twenty first century will extend its historical shelf-life beyond that of many of its predecessors. To the photographic plate, the filing cabinet and the loft, those key enablers of ‘modern memory’, we should add the computer terminal and the website. It is these which will dominate the popular memory of the war in 2014-18

[1] Remarks by the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the Imperial War Museum, 22 June 2006,


3 Responses to The uses of memory

  1. Chris Williams says:

    Interesting, Dan. I think that your view of the future of remembrance has a lot to recommend it – and I feel pretty inhibited about criticising it in any way. There’s one thing, though, that stood out:

    “Taken alongside the ‘revisionist’ view of 1918 as a British victory, this might be taken as evidence of a conservative concern to celebrate a nationhood threatened by the dislocations of the modern world”

    Is the view of 1918 as British victory really necessarily conservative? It seems to me that it’s confusion of means and ends. The issue of whether or not WW1 was just war or an imperialist war need not be tied up with the issue of whether or not the BEF were good at it. I’ve just discovered that this conflation is present on the left – see this article in the current London Socialist Historians newsletter:

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks Chris. I think you’re right that my point there needs clarification. Something that’s interesting about ‘revisionism’ – particularly the revisionists identified in Neil Faulkner’s article – is how few of them (us? – I seem to have become one) would describe themselves as of the Right. The only one for who that can really be said is Niall Ferguson, and he is probably the least revisionist of all in terms of his interpretation of the performance of the BEF.
    On the other hand, that’s definitely how this revisionism can be used – and I think that some of us have been guilty of over-emphasising British performance in an effort to get the point across. That statistic which is regularly trooped out about the British capturing proportionately more prisoners and guns than the French and Americans during the 100 days is striking but completely obscures the Entente effort at the end of the war. Militarily, I’ve yet to see it alongside an assessment of who and where the BRitish were fighting.
    As I point out earlier in the chapter, I actually think that the First World War is very seldom used as an isolated reference point in contemporary international political discourse – I can’t buy Faulkner’s idea that this fits into ‘New Imperialism’. In fact, I’d say that a better understanding of the use of force and the implications of war is a much more powerful argument against the Neo-Cons than anything drawn from an equally suspect ideological base.
    For myself, I’d think of myself as on the liberal side of libertarianism, and in terms of patriotism I’d see myself as closer to George Orwell than to Winston Churchill. All war is bad war, and I can’t see the British empire as an institution which should have been perpetuated indefinitely, but I do think that the militarist-aggressive bit of Germany probably did need stopping in 1914.

  3. trenchfever says:

    Subtle edit to improve clarity after readers’ comments – ta, Jack and Jenny.

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