The Processes of Remembering the First World War

During the First World War centenary years, Ashgate’s blog will play host to a series of blog entries – contributed by Ashgate authors – that reflect upon the Great War’s impact upon history and culture over the last one hundred years, and explore issues raised by the latest research in war studies.

ross j wilsonThis first entry is contributed by Ross J. Wilson, author of Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain (2013).

With the advent of the hundredth anniversaries of the First World War, questions have been raised as to the ways in which the conflict is remembered in Britain. Over the last few decades, concerns have been expressed that media representations of the ‘mud and blood’ of the Western Front have dominated popular understandings of the war.

However, rather than assume the public passively consume film and television, perhaps it would be better to ask why particular ideas of the conflict persist? What do these visions of the past do for those who honour them today?

To answer this issue, the ‘meanings’ of the war of 1914-1918 within contemporary society across Britain can be examined. These meanings can be identified through the manner in which the conflict is still used as a mode of conveying ideas and values.

For example, expressions associated with the war, such as ‘over the top’, ‘in the trenches’ or ‘no man’s land’, punctuate everyday language, not just as a means of vivid illustration, but to communicate ideas about responsibility, blame and collective identity.

For example, dissenting groups might describe themselves as ‘in the trenches’ over government reforms or ‘in no man’s land’ after the withdrawal of funding. These concepts are employed purposefully to highlight neglect or to assign blame.

These terms are used in a wide variety of contexts in political, media and public discourse, to describe a range of issues, as the First World War is employed as a means of understanding contemporary society.

Similarly, the suffering of the troops on the battlefields has become a feature of modern British identity politics, as communities associate themselves with the trauma of the war. To state a connection to this sense of victimhood provides a point of identification.

In this sense, to bear witness to the victims of the past provides contemporary individuals with a means to highlight current fears and anxieties. Whilst most frequently associated with the memorialisation of the Ulster Volunteers in Northern Ireland, this is not a unique phenomenon.

Distinctive narratives of suffering and victimhood in the war have been utilised by Scottish, Welsh and northern English communities in recent years, as well as political groups of all persuasions, to assert their rights and interests.

The critique of the ‘popular memory’ of the First World War in Britain is an act which obscures the complex processes of remembering that occurs within groups, communities and individuals.

The First World War is a symbolic resource enabling current generations across Britain to ‘return to the trenches’, not as the result of a vapid viewing of Blackadder Goes Forth, but as a means to shape contemporary ideas, debates and identities.

Cultural Heritage of the Great War in BritainCultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain, published in the series Heritage, Culture and Identity, addresses how the war maintains a place and value within British society through the usage of phrases, references, metaphors and imagery within popular media, heritage and political discourse. Wilson explores why wider popular debate within historiography, literature, art, television and film draws upon a war fought nearly a century ago to express ideas about identity, place and politics.

Ross J. Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Modern History and Public Heritage at the University of Chichester.

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