The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

The Space Afterwards: 2014 and a Century of British Remembrance

Dan Todman
Queen Mary, University of London

August 2014 saw two important centenary anniversaries for the United Kingdom. One was of its entry into the First World War. The other was of the remembrance of that conflict: for even as it was being fought, the war was being depicted, commemorated, and consumed. Although hostilities ceased in 1918, the processes of representation and remembrance they generated persisted. Over the last twenty years, academic researchers have become increasingly interested in these cultural constructions of the war. The centenaries will be the first occasion on which they will have observed a really major anniversary from the inside. This is therefore an opportune moment to reflect on remembrance in the past and in the present, and to ask how commemorations over 2014-18 will relate to what has gone before. 

This article does that first by looking at preparations for the centenaries and some of the controversies that have arisen around them, then by placing them in historical context. I argue that although they can be located within a longer tradition of remembrance, appropriation, and contestation, the activities planned to mark the centenary demonstrate both fundamental shifts in perceptions of the past in public life and a profound rupture in individual connections to the conflict. For all that they are positioned in terms of “remembering” an event indelibly inscribed in national and familial history, in practice these preparations are defined by the extent to which the war has passed beyond the boundary of lived memory. 


In mid-2013, the UK government announced plans for “a 4-year programme of national acts of remembrance, UK-wide cultural initiatives and educational opportunities” to mark the centenary of the First World War. These commenced on 4 August 2014 with a service of commemoration for Commonwealth leaders at Glasgow cathedral (the anniversary of the start of the war neatly following one day after the closing ceremony for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games); a ceremony at St Symphorien Military Ceremony in Mons, Belgium, which contains the graves of British and German soldiers, including those of the first and last Commonwealth servicemen killed during the conflict; and an evening candlelit vigil at Westminster Abbey, with the last candle being extinguished at 11pm to coincide with the point when war was declared. This was the first of at least three national acts of remembrance that will also mark the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 2016 and the armistice on the Western Front in November 2018 (“Plans to Mark 100 Years”).

The national government’s commemorative programme also includes the opening of the Imperial War Museum’s London site after a £35 million refit; £5.3 million funding for English schools to send two children and a teacher each to visit the battlefields of the Western Front; £15 million of grants from the Heritage Lottery fund that will enable the restoration of HMS Caroline, the last surviving warship from Jutland and its permanent exhibition in Belfast, as well as supporting local commemorative projects across the UK; and a £10 million programme of cultural events directed by Jenny Waldman, the creative producer of the 2012 Olympics. After a national competition to select a design, special paving stones commissioned by the Department of Communities and Local Government are to be presented to local councils to mark the birthplace of men who won a Victoria Cross during the war (“Plans to Mark 100 Years,” “One Year to Go” ).1  

The governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland also put in place plans to mark the centenaries of the war in their nations. In Scotland, the programme of commemorative events will include the anniversaries of particularly Scottish significance, such as the train crash at Quintinshill, near Gretna, which killed 214 Scottish Territorial soldiers on 22 May 1915; the Battles of Loos and Arras, notable for their concentration of Scottish units; and the loss of HMY Iolaire, which sank off Stornaway on 1 January 1919, drowning 204 servicemen, most of them on their way home to the Isle of Lewis. The Scottish government also announced two £1 million funds to assist secondary schools to undertake battlefield visits and to support the renovation of war memorials (“WWI Commemorations in Scotland”). The Welsh government has provided funding to support the construction of a memorial to Welsh soldiers near Langemarck in Belgium, and to assist with an enormous digitisation project by the National Library of Wales, to gather together and make available archival resources relating to the country’s experience of the First World War (“First Minister Announces Support”). 

In Northern Ireland, the period 1914-18 sits within what is called the “decade of centenaries,” from the Ulster Covenant of 1912 to the Partition of 1922. The potential for the commemoration of these events to cause conflict in the present has meant that consideration of how to incorporate different narratives within respectful commemoration started earlier and is more sophisticated in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK (“Marking Anniversaries”). But partly as a result, the Northern Ireland Executive took a less prominent place than other governments, with the organisation of centenary events left to “arms-length” bodies such as Libraries and National Museums Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Assembly).

Looking beyond official activities: the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has also identified the centenaries as a period of national significance, the marking of which is central to the Corporation’s raison d’etre. As well as television, radio, and online offerings at a nationwide level (more than 130 of which were in commission by autumn 2013), each BBC region will also be producing one hundred local news stories about the war for broadcast during the first two years of the centenary (“The BBC Announces”). A year before the anniversary of the war’s beginning, Adrian Van-Klaveren, the BBC Controller appointed specifically to oversee First World War programming, was already promising “one of the most ambitious (and longest) seasons the BBC has ever offered” (Van-Klaveren).  

For organisations with a more commercial remit, that issue of timing—and the possibility of audience fatigue—was rather more important. The year 2013 saw publishers, wary of arriving too late to the feast, rushing out histories of the outbreak of war, the first year of conflict and the war as a whole.2 For those who made their living touring visitors around the Western Front, the prospect of overcrowding was both a fear and a selling point. As one company explained on its website: 

The Great War centenary commemorations will not just see a massive increase in individual battlefield visits, but organised groups: schools, historical societies and Regimental associations [sic] etc, all wishing to commemorate their own specific moment of history. Add to this number overseas visitors from the Commonwealth wishing to commemorate their own unique moments in history… one begins to understand how busy the battlefields will be, particularly on those key dates. … As a result we felt obliged to commit ourselves to publishing our tour plans as early as possible to enable customers to make their plans; for once the statement, “BOOK EARLY”, makes good sense. (“Centenary Battlefield Tours”)

The notion of locally organised commemorative activities, preferably with a strong emphasis on educating a younger generation, was central to the Westminster government’s vision of the centenary. This fitted well with a broader localist agenda espoused by the Conservative-Liberal coalition, but it could also be justified in historical terms by the regional variation in war experience, and in particular in the strongly local pattern of military recruitment. In practice, one result of relying on local initiatives is that they are not equally spread through the UK. A rough survey plotting members of the Imperial War Museum’s Centenary Partnership—an umbrella grouping to share information and resources—against regional population figures indicates a disproportionate concentration in England against the other nations, and in London against the rest of England (“First World War Centenary”). 

Although they are too numerous to catalogue in full here, it is clear that where these local commemorative projects are in place, they are often portmanteau affairs that combine individual activism, civic education, and urban regeneration. The “Herts at War” project, for example, is a mix of research, physical exhibitions, and online space that seeks to investigate and publicise the history of Hertfordshire during the First World War. It demonstrates a local drive, in a relatively prosperous area, directly stimulated by the approach of the centenary. A private group “made up largely of heritage workers, professional historians and teachers” came together initially through a shared interest in what had happened to local soldiers during the war. As they explain: “The tales of bravery and heroism which emerged, combined with the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the war, seemed to demand that the stories be told for posterity, education, awareness and as an act of remembrance” (“Our Aims”).

Accrington, Lancashire, offers a different version of local commemoration. The town is famous for the raising of a Pals battalion that lost heavily on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The Heritage Lottery Fund supported a programme in which fifteen young people studied the unit’s history, then made a short film for local screening and led workshops in nearby schools (“New First World War Programme”). But the local council also put in a bid for much more significant funding for a scheme to “revive the gateway into Accrington Town Centre,” as part of which its central square would be renamed to remember the Pals. In the words of the council chief executive: “This initiative will see the improvement of many attractive buildings along one of Accrington’s arterial routes and the development of a public realm scheme that will commemorate the Accrington Pals” (Cruces).

Folkestone, finally, provides a similar instance of the intersection between commemorating the local past and securing the resources to restore city landscapes. Folkestone was a major transit port for service personnel on their way to and from the Western Front, and the “Step Short” project based in the city aimed both to transcribe the thousands of signatures and inscriptions left in the visitors’ book by those passing through the harbour’s canteen, and to renovate the “Road of Remembrance” leading up from the docks, installing at its summit a memorial arch and a new centre for visitors to the town. As the organisers described, this was meant to provide “much more than a memorial in the traditional sense; it will be a platform for educational and heritage presentations and will be the starting point for what is intended to become an important part of our World War One centenary commemorations in the UK and abroad” (“Renovating the Road”). Although this is a subject that is beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth noting that both Folkestone and Accrington are in less economically advantaged bits of the country than Hertfordshire: it might be suggested that the more interventionist approaches adopted here by activists, funders, and local politicians are a way to co-opt the centenary into doing something that was seen as desirable in any case. 


From their outset, plans for commemorating the centenary attracted controversy. One related to the marking of a “national” anniversary at the point where the United Kingdom was itself potentially about to change shape. The commemoration of the start of Britain’s involvement in the war fells six weeks before the referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September 2014. As such, it was portrayed by some unionists as an opportunity to counter the nationalist rhetoric associated with the seven hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn (23-24 June 2014). As is known to all Scots, at the Battle of Bannockburn Scottish forces inflicted a major defeat on the English; to the celebration of this defeat—including a re-enactment and a new visitor centre—the Scottish Nationalist Party government in Edinburgh was seen to have dedicated considerable resources. As Michael Gove, the Conservative Education Secretary in the Westminster government, put it to Scottish Tories in June 2013, Scottish nationalists might think “next year will be a date of added significance because of the anniversary of Bannockburn. But next year is also the anniversary of the First World War, when English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh soldiers stood together to defend our freedom” (Gove).

That vision helps to explain not only the significant differences in the pattern of official commemoration north and south of the border, but also the different ways in which the British Prime Minister and the Scottish First Minister announced their country’s plans. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, justified the need to mark the centenary on three bases. The first was the scale of the losses from every community in the country. The second was the war’s impact on changing Britain and the world, not least in the demonstration of “resilience … courage … the values we hold dear: friendship, loyalty, what the Australians would call ‘mateship.’” The third was the emotional impact of the war, which meant that it was still “a fundamental part of our national consciousness.” For that reason, he called for: “a truly national commemoration … that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee [of 2012] … says something about who we are as a people” (Cameron). In contrast, the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, took a more downbeat tone in his announcement: 

The Great War commemorations are in no sense a celebration of the centenary of this devastating conflict. They are a commemoration, which will give the whole of the country the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the First World War had on Scotland…. By reflecting on these devastating events, and the consequences they had for communities the length and breadth of Scotland, we will help people of all ages in this country understand more about the futility of war and strengthen our resolve to never let a tragedy like the Great War happen again. (“WWI Commemorations in Scotland”)

Significantly, the differences here were about the politics of the war’s meanings as well as the politics of nationhood. From a different direction, the same suspicion that the Westminster government was planning a patriotic celebration of the war—raised by Cameron’s reference to the Jubilee—encouraged a response from a group of “writers, actors, musicians, teachers and campaigners” including well known figures such as Jude Law, Michael Morpugo, Carol Ann Duffy, and Brian Eno. Operating initially under the auspices of the Stop the War coalition (a left wing grouping formed to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), on 21 May 2013 they issued an open letter in the Guardian newspaper calling for a different form of remembrance that would mark this “military disaster” and “human catastrophe” by promoting “peace and international cooperation.” Members of the public were invited to add their signatures to the campaign online. The group subsequently transmogrified into a body calling itself “No Glory,” and continued to press for commemorations to acknowledge that, in Eno’s words, the war “was a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation” (Quinn). 

The counterpart to this accusation that official British plans were too aggressively nationalist was the charge that they were not patriotic enough. This was a line taken particularly, but not solely, by commentators on the political right. In an article of 10 June 2013 in the Daily Mail, for example, the journalist and military historian Sir Max Hastings—in a piece in no way connected to the publication of his latest book on the war—argued that “We are witnessing a depressingly familiar spectacle. Political correctness has taken hold. Those planning the commemoration feel almost embarrassed that we won the war, and are determined to say and do nothing that might upset Germany, our modern EU partner” (Hastings, “Sucking Up to the Germans”). On BBC Radio 4 the same day, neither the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, nor the Prime Minister’s envoy in charge of the centenary preparations, Dr Andrew Murrison, proved willing to respond to Hastings’s claim that, as far as Britain was concerned, this was a “just war” in which victory ought to be celebrated. Ironically, given No Glory’s belief that its version of the war was being excluded, it then turned out that the Heritage Lottery Fund had allocated money for the commemoration of conscientious objectors by the Peace Pledge Union, but not for plans by a Kent branch of the Royal British Legion to sow local verges with Flanders poppies. To those already critical of the government’s plans for being insufficiently celebratory, this seemed proof that they were being shaped by a desire to appear politically correct (Copping, “Poppy Campaign Rejected”). 

Asked to comment on the UK programme of commemorations, Murrison’s German counterpart, Andreas Meitzner, told journalists: 

For us it is about remembrance and reconciliation, and trying to learn lessons. We would love to join as many as possible. We would prefer not to have any celebrations, having lost. What unites [sic] is that we lost millions of people. We can’t tell you how you should celebrate, but our feeling is that issues about who was guilty and all that should be left more or less to historians and shouldn’t feature dominantly in politicians’ speeches. (Copping, “Germany Intervenes”)4  

In fact, the feeling that historians were not having enough of a say had helped to start the whole story in the first place. At the start of 2013, Sir Hew Strachan, the Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford and the key academic representative on the British government’s Centenary advisory board, had written an article for the Telegraph criticising official preparations. He argued that a repeated replication of the annual ceremony of remembrance at the Cenotaph would not engage the public, and made the case for attempts to instil a broader historical understanding of Britain’s experience of the conflict. Strachan specifically made the point that “It is not the job of . . . institutions or of the Government to impose interpretations on a war dogged by controversy,” but suggested that if the difficulties of remembrance were not at least acknowledged, official plans would remain “conceptually empty” (Strachan). 

This Telegraph article stimulated a Sunday Times splash based on a leaked copy of a private briefing given by Strachan to Foreign Office officials. This quoted him as saying: “For much of Europe, including Britain in 1918, Germany was a militarist and imperialist regime which had to be defeated and from that point of view the victory is a serious victory. The sense of liberation in 1918 was just as great as the sense of liberation in 1945” (qtd. in Hellen and Brooks 1). Strachan’s sophisticated point, making use of the historic present tense and emphasis on understanding how people thought about the war as it was being fought was lost: instead, this was the first instance of the argument that British plans were being shaped by the need not to offend the Germans. Subsequent coverage continued to blur the lines of change over time, notably in a Daily Mail comment piece on the furore, headlined “Why we SHOULD upset the Germans—by reminding them of their Great War atrocities” (Hardman). 

Other historians subsequently waded in to the argument. In articles for the Guardian and History Today in June and August 2013, Professor Gary Sheffield emphasised that official reluctance to confront popular misperceptions of the war’s futility (out of a desire to avoid domestic controversy rather than European offence) would perpetuate misunderstandings. Instead, “modern” scholarship had come round to “how it was perceived at the time”—“an existential struggle” that was “just as much a war of national survival for the British as the Second World War” (Sheffield, “The First World War”), and “a defensive conflict fought at huge cost against an aggressive enemy bent on achieving hegemony in Europe” (Sheffield, “The Great War”).  In response, as part of a broader piece on “the history wars,” Professor Richard Evans criticised “professional military historians” such as Strachan, Hastings, and Sheffield for insisting on the commemoration of a British victory. He argued for a broader perspective that would spread blame for the war’s outbreak and recognise that “the end of the war . . . was a victory for no one.” “The men who enlisted may have thought that they were fighting for civilisation, a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong” (Evans).

These statements demand some critical commentary. If we accept Sheffield’s argument that “futility” now dominates public representations of the conflict, we might well agree that it is important to emphasise how many people at the time, on all sides, believed that they were fighting for something, not only to rescue the men and women of 1914 from the tremendous condescension of history, but also to explain why the war lasted so long. Ambiguous though the victory was, both the way that Britain fought and its emergence on the winning side did help to shape the country’s course for much of the rest of the twentieth century. Even scholars who acknowledge these things, however, can simultaneously agree with Evans that we should now take a longer historical perspective in our own judgements about what the war achieved, and not accept too readily a set of moral equations that simplify the past. In trying to help Britons today think about why their forebears largely supported the war effort, it might be useful to draw an analogy with later attitudes to Nazism, even as to do so does not mean that the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s Germanies were the same thing.


Preparations for the centenary can be located within traditions of commemoration, commercialism, and controversy that stretch back to the war itself. Efforts to commemorate military service and loss of life began during the conflict, with street shrines marking the involvement of men from surrounding houses. The inspiration for what would later become the two minutes silence came from the wartime practice in South Africa of a daily pause to remember those absent on duty (Gregory 8-14). London’s first permanent memorial dedicated solely to the military dead was opened at Bishopsgate in late summer 1916 (Connelly, Great War 30-31). The war’s immediate aftermath saw an intense period of commemoration and memorialisation that established tropes that endure to this day. 

In a society in which almost everyone had been touched by the war, but not all to the same extent, this required the negotiation of potentially divisive questions of relative profit and loss. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus came to rest on comforting the bereaved by honouring the dead. At a national level, a framework of remembrance was quickly built around the annual anniversary of the armistice on the Western Front on 11 November, with its period of silent reflection within a ceremonial service at the Cenotaph in London. Rather to the surprise of those who had planned the Peace Day celebrations of July 1919, for which a temporary version of the Cenotaph was first erected, mourning for the dead proved a more enduring aspect of remembrance than the celebration of victory (King 141-47). 

During the inter-war years, participation in the annual silence was effectively obligatory: the weight of social expectation rendering the continuation of other activities, let alone conversation, taboo. Meanwhile, the early 1920s saw the opening of a wide array of local memorials—paid for by public subscription, organised by local worthies, and commemorating names put forward by local communities. Whilst the central state, in the form of the Imperial War Graves Commission, took charge of burying and enumerating the military dead, local memorialisation was a much more haphazard process, in which the same man might be commemorated in several places or not at all (King 20-39). 

The aftermath of the war provided rich pickings for publishers as well as monumental masons. Whereas it was once thought that it took ten years for the war to be turned into print with classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front or Goodbye to All That, it is now clear that the “war books boom” of the late 1920s and early 1930s was just an upsurge in an ongoing outpouring of fictional and factual work inspired by or chronicling the conflict, and which included local and unit histories, memoirs, plays, and novels. These were just one aspect of a wider legacy of war culture that persisted after 1918: taken together with the efforts to memorialise and commemorate the dead, they helped to make the war culturally inescapable during the decade after its conclusion. 

Although the majority of the British population consented to the exigencies of war between 1914 and 1918, that did not preclude disagreements about why and how the conflict was being waged. Those controversies continued after its conclusion: indeed, they took on new force in a world still shaken by upheaval and violence, and as hopes of reconstruction faded with the post-war slump. Widely shared narratives emerged through the process of remembrance, the key notes of which shifted over time. Wartime antagonism towards Germany and celebrations of victory were replaced, over the course of the 1920s, with an emphasis on the moral triumph of a war for civilisation and the pursuit of peace at home and abroad as the best means to redeem the lives sacrificed in war.5

Crucially, however, this was never a totalitarian project: the emergence of dominant mythologies of the war inevitably excluded other versions of the conflict, but no one set out to extinguish them. Aspects of the war that were left undiscussed—for example the experiences of men excused from conscription for reasons of domestic economy rather than conscience—did fade from view. But others—most obviously the question of British generalship—became defined by the controversies that swirled around them. As Stephen Heathorn has recently shown, this was not simply because wartime disagreements persisted, but also because they could be put to political usage in the present. To use one of Heathorn’s examples, the post-war reworking of conspiracy theories around Kitchener’s death in 1916 provided a means for contemporaries to embarrass the authorities (Heathorn 100-02). As debates around the content and message of “war books” and the response to David Lloyd George’s memoirs indicate, multiple different versions of the conflict persisted through the 1930s (Watson 185-261).6 The meanings that could be ascribed to the war were central to these differences, but in the 1930s it was still possible to overcome the dichotomy between victory and futility by emphasising that wartime sacrifices still needed to be redeemed by those who came after. 

This was an argument that, at least with regard to the Great War, lost much of its force in 1939. After the Second World War, the commemorative practices constructed during the inter-war period were adapted to include the dead of two conflicts. But whilst multiple understandings of the first war remained, it now became harder to ascribe a positive meaning to it: not only had a lasting peace not been achieved, but a new and more evil enemy had arisen from dissatisfaction with Versailles. The ubiquity and heterogeneity of representations of the Great War in the 1920s and 1930s, however, meant that it remained easily accessible as a point of reference. Particularly in those areas, such as Haig’s generalship, which were already defined by controversy, there was substantial material from which the war could be recast to fit the new social and cultural moment of the post Second World War world. 

This was strongly apparent in the run up to the fiftieth anniversaries during the 1960s, which offer a useful comparison to their successors in 2014-18. The momentum of the fiftieth anniversary was built up far more by publishers and the media than by any official body. By 1964, most of what would subsequently be seen as the key texts of the 1960s First World War boom had already been published, including Alan Clark’s The Donkeys in 1961 and A. J. P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History in 1963. The same year saw the first production of the iconic “musical entertainment” Oh! What a Lovely War, by the collective Theatre Workshop under the direction of Joan Littlewood. All repurposed the war for a contemporary audience: Clark’s book was a calculated assault on the aristocratic establishment, Taylor and Littlewood both sought to warn of the dangers of deterrence in the context of a modern nuclear war, and the latter emphasised from a radical left wing perspective the failures of the upper class.7 

As noted by John Ramsden, during 1962 and 1963 the sense of growing public interest gave wings to proposals within the BBC for a major documentary series, The Great War, which used archival footage and eye-witness testimony to tell the story of the conflict over twenty-six weekly episodes. Indeed, by the end of 1963, the series’ producer, Tony Essex, was already worried that the war was getting so much attention from other BBC news programmes that viewers would become bored with the subject before his programmes aired (Ramsden 12-13). He need not have worried: The Great War was in some ways the major commemorative event of the fiftieth anniversary, and certainly the one that reached the largest audience—with eleven million Britons watching the most popular programmes when they were re-aired on BBC1 (Todman, Great War 30). Essex was not trying to give a contemporary political message, but the emotive power of the visual material he assembled served to elicit a powerful sense of the war’s brutality and futility from his audience. By the time the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end arrived, Essex’s team had produced a new, less well-remembered series, The Lost Peace, which explored the aftermath of the war. With these series as their centrepieces, the BBC put on a wide range of programmes to mark the beginning and end of the war, including more serious productions including performances of Britten’s War Requiem and Jones’ In Parenthesis on BBC2 and the Home Service, but also lighter-hearted offerings such as “Songs and Music of the War Years” (featuring the Ambrosian Singers and the Band of the Scots Guards) on the Light Programme (Radio Times 1964 30-31; Radio Times 1968 55.). But on 11 November 1968 itself, which fell the day after Remembrance Sunday, the BBC broadcast no programme relating to the war whatsoever. 

In contrast to the soaring ambition of The Great War, official and institutional commemorations were much more limited in scope. The British government held no formal ceremony on the days the war started and ended, although a deputation from the British Legion and the British ambassador took part in a small French ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on 4 August 1964, and British troops marched in a huge parade organised in Paris on 11 November 1968 ( “British Ceremony at the Etoile”; “Allies in the Paris Parade”). It might be assumed that association with the remembrance of war was more important to General de Gaulle, the French President, than it was to Sir Alec Douglas-Home or Harold Wilson, the British Prime Ministers in 1964 and 1968 respectively. Commemorative military ceremonies organised by the British military took place on the battlefields to mark the anniversaries of the Somme and Passchendaele. They centred around religious services with honour guards of modern soldiers from regiments which had fought in the original battle, but the majority of attendees were veterans (“Battle of Passchendaele). The Royal Navy ran a similar service of commemoration for the Battle of Jutland at St Paul’s: again, most of the congregation were veterans (“Commemoration Service”). These were relatively small-scale affairs: significantly, senior ministers were not in attendance. Other institutional actors also responded in what now looks like a low-key manner. The Imperial War Museum’s recently appointed director, Noble Frankland, was initially keen to facilitate The Great War by helping the BBC locate footage, although he was later disillusioned by what he felt was poor practice in the use of film. At the Museum’s own site in London, however, the only event for the fiftieth anniversary was an exhibition of wartime photographs.8  The recently renamed Commonwealth War Graves Commission published a new official history of itself.9 At a more local level, although branches of the British Legion and other old comrades and regimental associations were active in sending veterans to former battlefields, there is very little evidence of fresh commemorative activity such as the inauguration of new memorials. 

The presence of veterans at battle commemorations was a distinctive feature of remembrance in this period. Almost all travelled under their own steam and without official financial support, with the significant exception of a large party from Northern Ireland which travelled to the commemoration of the first day of the Somme with the aid of an £11,000 grant from the Stormont government (“Pilgrimage to France”). Veterans’ voyages were often referred to as pilgrimages, and they had the same cathartic aftermath as former servicemen sought to recreate wartime camaraderie. Veterans travelling to Gallipoli unsuccessfully demanded that they should be rowed ashore on the landing beaches of 25 April 1915 (“50th Anniversary of Gallipoli”). On the Somme and at Passchendaele, the key official representative was Field Marshal Lord Alexander (a leading British general of the Second World War, former Governor General of Canada and British Minister of Defence) who had himself served as a junior officer fifty years before. Alexander was as intent as any other veteran on reviving the spirit of comradeship, and his official minders had repeatedly to extract him from estaminets in an effort to keep to their schedule (“Battle of Passchendaele”). 

By their nature, however, these somewhat boozy commemorations were also exclusive and inward looking—they were for those who had been there and who retained a positive memory of the war, not for all who had served, let alone those who came after. But what was also noteworthy was the strong sense of personal connection to the war amongst the wider public. As audience responses to The Great War indicated, the conflict was still seen as an event within living memory, and in an era when television watching involved the whole family looking at one set, the series functioned as a spur to rehearsals of relatives’ participation in the conflict. 

Given press accusations of pandering to the Germans in 2013, it is interesting to note that in the 1960s the need to avoid causing offence to a crucial Cold War ally was part of the discussion of official commemorations within Whitehall. The key worry for British civil servants was not their own government’s ceremonies, which they presumed would take the stance of mourning all the war dead equally, but rather the prospect of being coerced into a bombastic French celebration of victory over the Hun (“Committee on Special Ceremonies”). In the end, however, being absent from the French parade would have been a greater diplomatic incident than upsetting their neighbours across the Rhine. This was never, however, a matter of public debate: instead, the news stories generated by the fiftieth anniversary centred on cultural outputs rather than official commemorations, most obviously when the military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart stormed out of the production of The Great War because he thought that it was being too generous to Sir Douglas Haig (Connelly, “The Great War, Part 13”). 

This controversy, together with wider critical and audience reaction to the new “war boom,” provided evidence of the extent to which both the war’s conduct and its meaning were still the subject of debate. The balance, however, was plainly shifting towards the negative as older arguments were appropriated for the purpose of contemporary political debate. Over the following twenty-five years, as the opinions deployed in the 1960s were re-represented as facts, the acceptance of the war as an event characterised by pointlessness and stupidity became increasingly well embedded. But it was never uncontested: perhaps more striking was the fact that—not least because of their repeated re-use to bolster views about the present—arguments about the war did not move on to new ground (Heathorn 147-90).

From the end of the twentieth century, meanwhile, important changes took place in the nature of remembrance more generally. At a very general level, what has been referred to as the “memory boom” was apparent in much of Europe and America from the 1990s on. This included aspects as diverse as the expansion and professionalization of the heritage sector, the increasing emphasis on experiential learning in museums, the growth (particularly in the US and Britain) of family history as a commoditised leisure activity, and a fascination in popular culture with issues of what individuals, families, and societies remember. One explanation that has been put forward for the “memory boom” is the need to reach back in order to reassert identity in the face of the ever-quickening pace of modernity.10 Whether or not this was the case individually or internationally, it was certainly the case that from the end of the twentieth century, British governments looked to collective commemorations of the past both as a way to bolster a sense of shared national identity. Following a rather manufactured furore about the Major administration’s supposed plans to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994 with a spam fritter contest, commemoration was also something which governments felt they had to be seen to be doing appropriately and well. 

Together, these helped to ensure that the eightieth anniversaries of the First World War—in particular of its conclusion in 1998—saw another upsurge in its presence in popular culture and in commemorative activity. The same was true for the ninetieth anniversaries in 2004-2008. Significantly, this period also saw a renewed emphasis on keeping the two minutes silence at 11 o’clock on 11 November, a ritual formally abandoned when the commemoration of the two world wars was wrapped together in Remembrance Sunday after 1945 (Richardson 359-63). Since the outbreak of the post 9/11 wars, the UK has also witnessed a remarkable growth in the popularity of a new military charity, Help for Heroes—the success of which has in turn encouraged the British Legion to re-emphasise its distinctive brand as guardian of remembrance and organiser of the annual poppy appeal (Harrison 173-82). 

At the same time, Britain’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan—although controversial, even unpopular at home—helped to push the commemoration of military effort to the forefront of the news agenda. Remembering the First World War was already moving up the official calendar: in November 1998, in a deliberate demonstration of Anglo-Irish reconciliation, the Queen and the Irish President together opened the Irish Peace Tower at Messines. In July 2006, the Prince of Wales represented the UK at the decennial commemorations on the Somme. In an era of twenty-four hour news, these ceremonies, with their carefully timed schedules, stirring emotions, and poignant accounts of familial loss, received prolonged broadcast coverage. 

As the last surviving veterans of the war grew more and more frail, they remained the symbolic centre of remembrance, notably on 11 November 2008, when in a startling act of appropriation by the Ministry of Defence, decorated veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars wheeled the last three British combatants from the First World War to the Cenotaph. But as veterans grew scarce and finally died out, from the start of the twenty-first century they were largely replaced at commemorations by family historians, historical re-enactors, and tourists on the well-trodden heritage path around the cemeteries of the Western Front. 

This renewed interest provided a ready market for historians who wanted to counter myths of futility and stupidity, but they felt that they continued to struggle against the weight of public perception. As Sheffield has stated: 

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which the idea of the war being “futile” and the battles meaningless bloodbaths conducted by callous and criminally incompetent generals is (to use an appropriate word) “entrenched”. In a two-decade career as a public historian, putting forward alternative views on television, radio and in the press, I have become well aware that daring to suggest that Blackadder Goes Forth is not actually a documentary brings forth paroxysms of anger. (Sheffield, “The Great War”)

What is important here, however, is not the rights or wrongs of these arguments, but the fact that neither disputes about the war’s conduct and meaning nor the use of its memory to make a political point were new facets of remembrance in 2013. What had profoundly changed were Britain and the British themselves, and their sense of personal connection to the war. 


The changing tides of that century of commemoration and the power of the “memory boom” are important for putting in context recent research commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and the think tank British Future into public attitudes to the First World War (First World War at the Imperial War Museum; “Do Mention the War”). Despite some methodological caveats that need to be taken into account,11 both investigations suggested a similar picture: commemorative enthusiasm mixed with historical separation. 

The First World War continues to be seen as a seminal historical moment. Just over half of those interviewed by researchers working for the Imperial War Museum selected it from a list as the most important event of the twentieth century, rather behind the Second World War but ahead of every other option. Focus group participants following up the question of remembrance were strongly in favour of commemorating past conflicts. As one put it: “Because the last survivor has died, we have to find the memories from elsewhere. It’s almost our duty to do so. To keep it alive.” For another: “There are some things that ought never to be forgotten” (First World War at the Imperial War Museum 16-20).

British Future’s findings were similar. Eighty-seven per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement “Sixteen million people died in the First World War. The cost of peace and freedom is high. We must remember that and invest in peace to ensure that such wars can never recur”; 82 per cent agreed that “The centenary of the Great War is an important reminder that we are forever in the debt of those who died to protect the British way of life”; and 80 per cent agreed that “The British war effort included Empire and Commonwealth soldiers from countries including India and the West Indies, Australia and Canada. It is important for integration today that all of our children are taught about the shared history of multi-ethnic Britain” (“Do Mention the War” 22). 

If these questions tell us as much about the think-tank’s conceptualisation of the past as they do about attitudes specifically to the First World War, it is worth comparing these results to those around more controversial aspects of the war’s meaning. Only thirty-three per cent of respondents agreed that “Instead of focussing on the pity of war and the loss of life, the central theme of the First World War commemoration should be that this was a just war that was important to Britain to fight and win.” Thirty-five per cent disagreed, with the rest unwilling or unable to express an opinion. Similarly, asked whether “We should worry about the rush to commemorate the First World War as this may encourage war and nationalism, when this was a futile war of unimaginable slaughter,” only nineteen per cent agreed, as opposed to fifty-one per cent who did not. Interestingly, focus groups conducted by British Future in Glasgow registered a strong antipathy, particularly amongst men, to the idea of the centenary being deployed for political purposes on either side of the independence debate (“Do Mention the War” 23, 8-11). 

These splits in opinion were seldom based on any sense of expertise about the war. On the contrary, the Imperial War Museum’s researchers noted considerable discomfort when participants realised the subject of investigation. As one put it: “It's a long long way away. It feels like ‘old’ history like 1066 or Agincourt, as opposed to the Second World War or even Iraq War because veterans are still alive from those.” A more panicked response was: “Gosh, that’s a big subject. I wasn’t expect[ing] that. Oh crap, I don’t know. It’s very sad, but I’m panicking a bit trying to think of what to say” (First World War at the Imperial War Museum 21).

When they did think of something, it was probably “trenches,” which were mentioned by almost half of those asked about the words they associated with the conflict. Nearly a third mentioned “death” and about a fifth “futility.” These were the most popular responses. Only about one in ten mentioned misguided generals, mud, or poetry, and less than one in thirty Blackadder, which had a slightly lower recognition value than Downton Abbey (First World War at the Imperial War Museum 22-23). Contrary to the anxieties of military historians, the issue in a wider population is not that Blackadder Goes Forth dominates perspectives on the war, but that most people have no perspective on it at all. About a third of those questioned by the Imperial War Museum’s researchers had a “basic” level of knowledge, but this was summed up as: “FWW started in 1914. Britain and Germany were involved. People died. Associate words like: trenches, mud, poppies” (25-28). British Future’s survey found a similar level of awareness, concluding: “Most people do know that there was a war in 1914, and four out of five of us that Germany was an enemy then. Most can identify France and America as allies too. Almost everything else is minority knowledge” (2). Both organisations highlighted the extent of confusion between the two world wars, with the second rather overshadowing the first. As one Imperial War Museum interviewee explained: “I don’t know what, but I think of the Second World War first and then have to work back …” (21). Another articulated the same imaginative journey: “I love stories on the news about Vera Lynn, evacuees, rationing, all that fun stuff. But I don’t mean to be rude, but just I don’t want to hear more about the mud, the trenches, the barbed wire and the massive loss of life” (32). 

Significantly, only ten per cent of those who talked to the IWM referred either to a family connection to the war or claimed to have met a First World War veteran. The report’s authors noted that: 

Family history appears to be the kind of subject that many people say they are interested in, but are not actually that motivated to engage with [emphasis in original]. The most common response we encountered in interviews and focus groups was that people are interested in or fascinated by family history, but have not done it themselves. (First World War at Imperial War Museum 12)12 

The relative lack of reference to family experiences of the war probably relates to the cohort of museum visitors questioned, which by its nature tended to under-represent the very elderly, who might be presumed to have a greater sense of generational proximity to the conflict. Nonetheless, this relative lack of knowledge and motivation rather belies the emphasis, in selling the centenary, on a universal sense of familial ownership. When the BBC’s centenary controller, Adrian Van-Klaveren, explained that “Almost every family has a story about someone they know and loved who was involved or something which affected them personally, creating real emotional connections,” he might have been doing a good job of justifying the Corporation’s coverage, but he was factually incorrect. 

The absence of that sense of personal connection should not be surprising. Even if we take as read the assumption that this huge conflict did affect everyone, there are all sorts of reasons why stories of a family member’s involvement might not be passed down the generations. Given that the war has traditionally been represented in terms of men serving in the trenches and women working in munitions factories or as nurses, the majority of experiences which fell outside those boundaries are less likely to have been regarded as significant and rehearsed. Wealth and housing made a big difference about what artefacts families retained, if at all, and where they kept them. The upheaval of war created stories which families were just as likely to obscure as repeat: and nothing forgets as surely as a family taboo. One in eight of the UK population in 2012 was born overseas, and whilst most of them come from countries hardly unaffected by the war (India, Poland, Pakistan, Germany, and Ireland), their family narratives do not necessarily fit with British myths or chronologies. For those whose heritage lies elsewhere within the former British Empire, the sense that their family’s history is—consciously or otherwise—excluded from national museums can be profoundly alienating (Bardgett et al.). But above all, the generational divide from the Great War is now for many unbridgeably wide: for most Britons under forty a sense of personal connection would rely on remembering from their own childhood a grandparent recalling their parents: a memory of a memory of a memory. In practical terms, that may indeed make the war as distant as Agincourt. 

On the other hand, it is plain that for a portion of the population, the sense of personal inheritance from the First World War is so strong that it drives a desire for commemoration. The experience of the war’s legacy—even briefly—left powerful impressions. Publicising government plans, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles emphasised how much one of his own grandfathers, an injured veteran, had been affected by the conflict, and the impact this had made not only on his son, but on the one occasion in which he remembered it being discussed, his grandson as well: “I remember the roof of my mouth going dry with fear, such was the vividness of his account” (Pickles; Kennedy). This sort of direct contact is not a requirement for familial obsession: the numbers of dedicated genealogists might be small relative to the ranks of those who say they’re interested but can’t be bothered, but they are absolutely much larger than they were a half century ago, and not less determined where their connections to the war depend on archives and imagination rather than personal touch. Family history is probably the most frequently encountered “gateway drug” through which an hobbyist’s obsession with the First World War develops. On the Great War Forum, an online discussion site for those interested in the war, some of whom have more expertise than academic historians, the frequency of references to family connections—not just as topics for discussion but as definitions of online identity—is very striking. 

Bearing this in mind, we might nuance the judgement of the IWM’s researchers to present a more segmented sense of relationships to the First World War. At the start of the twenty-first century, a minority of Britons cared very deeply either about the war in general or a relative who experienced it in particular, and a minority of them were familiar with the war’s history as a result. The majority, however, did not feel an immediate sense of connection to the conflict and knew very little about it. They were nonetheless very much in favour of its commemoration. Although the language, symbols, and even the controversies of remembrance that they would employ to do so were derived directly from the framework established in the early 1920s, the war is not a part of their everyday lives in the way it was for their forebears who were then still living with its immediate consequences. A hundred years on from the conflict, the weltanschauung of today’s Britons, devoid of the great certainties of empire, class, and religion, is so different from that of their predecessors that it might seem bizarre to commemorate the “sacrifice” of men who died for a country no-one now wants to recreate. But precisely because the history of the war is effectively an unknown space, it is all the easier to fill with personal or political resonances that keep remembrance feeling relevant.   


The extent of separation between contemporary Britain and the memory of the First World War is crucial to understanding preparations for the centenary. During and immediately after the war, the meanings ascribed to it by politicians really mattered in terms of both national leadership and electoral possibility. In 2013, in contrast, no party’s political position was defined by the stance it took on the Great War. What was important was to provide a competent performance of remembrance without appearing too partisan. Although the context differed between the constituent nations of the UK according to national variations in wartime experience and post-war remembrance, the conundrum for all was effectively the same. In this light, criticisms of the Westminster government’s programme as too celebratory and not triumphal enough probably mean that it has triangulated its position effectively. 

For other national bodies such as the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, the requirement to meet expectations around the centenary is also key. But at the same time as satisfying the impassioned experts, they also have to demonstrate the validity of their investment by engaging and educating a much broader audience which lacks both knowledge about and connection to the war. Here too is a significant shift even from the 1960s, let alone from the 1920s. Ironically, the task of increasing public understanding of the conflict is actually hindered by the popularity of remembrance: partly because that excludes parts of the audience which are alienated by its association with contemporary military endeavours, partly because the language of sacrifice, poppies, and memorials gets in the way of a critical treatment of the past. 

It is at a local level that enduring connections with the war may have their greatest effect. Rather as war memorials were erected by local communities after the war, so now groups of enthusiasts, funded by the rather less direct subscription of the National Lottery, will, it is hoped, spearhead local projects to raise awareness and generate a lasting legacy from the centenary. But these are projects designed to fulfil needs in the present by reaching back to a past which has already vanished. The communities which do not receive these grants may be affected by losing the chance to help young people or to overhaul their built environment, but not by the lack of a link to a “heritage” which is already too far away to matter. 


Thanks are due to Joel Morley, Maggie Andrews and participants in the AHRC-funded network “The Significance of the Centenary” and the National Memorial Arboretum Seminar “Interpretation and Remembrance: The Challenges of the WW1 Centenary” for their comments on earlier versions, as well as to Dr. Alexandra Tompkins for her help in producing this paper. 

1 Although the DCLG’s spreadsheet of VC winners includes those born in what is now the Republic of Ireland, it is not clear whether these paving stones will also be offered to local authorities south of the Irish border. Following complaints that the scheme would only recognize soldiers born in the UK, rather than those who lived here subsequently, the Department altered the terms so that these servicemen would also be included.

2 See Clark, Hastings’s Catastrophe 1914, and Paxman.

The town of Barnsley, in Yorkshire (which boasted two Pals battalions), has already named a new civic garden and play area “Pals Square” (“Prince Edward Honours”).

4 Significantly, reported in the tabloid press as “‘Don’t Mention the War’ Meddling Germans tell us how to mark the centenary” (Edwards). 

5  See King and Reynolds. 

6  See also Egerton.

7  See Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.

8 I am grateful to James Wallis for this information.

9  See Longworth’s The Unending Vigil.

10 See Winter and Todman The Great War

11 The IWM research was carried out overwhelmingly with participants already located within a heritage setting (and hence probably disproportionately interested in the past), and was designed primarily to inform Museum staff’s own preparations to redesign its First World War provision. British Future is an organisation that believes in opening a positive debate about British identity, migration, and social opportunity: its research was conducted for it by YouGov, whose national body of respondents (though carefully calibrated to be nationally representative) is paid for participation, which may affect the depth of consideration given to questions.

12 The Prime Minister would appear to be one. His launch speech for the centenary preparations contained references to his family’s experiences of the Second World War but not to what any of them did during its predecessor. By summer 2014, he was able to point to a relative’s name on the Menin Gate in Ypres, but this soldier does not appear to have been readily to hand for his speechwriter eighteen months before.

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