Debate: Is British history too fixated with the story of the world wars?
Historians Dr Nick Lloyd and Dr Tracy Borman consider the significance of the First and Second World Wars in British history and debate whether we in Britain are too fixated with the story of the world wars
Dr Nick Lloyd: “The world wars’ central place in British memory and identity is right, proper and perfectly understandable”
It has become fashionable to decry Britain’s interest in the First and Second World Wars as an unhealthy obsession – a kind of jingoistic and militaristic nostalgia for the nation’s status as a global power. But this would be a petty and uncharitable assessment of the magnitude of such events and of Britain’s pivotal role within them.
There is no doubting the central place that the world wars occupy in Britain’s national memory. Every year on 11 November, we stand silently to remember those who fell – a tradition that first began in 1919 to commemorate the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities on the western front.
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In Britain the world wars are the defining events of our modern history, as definitive as the Reformation and the Civil War were in the 16th and 17th centuries. The First and Second World Wars marked the greatest collective endeavour in Britain’s history, when almost the entire population played their part. From soldiers and sailors; airmen and air women; munitions workers and bus drivers; miners and farmers, the world wars transformed the nature of the British state and the citizen’s relationship to it.
In 1914 (as historian AJP Taylor famously wrote), “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman”. The coming of war would alter this forever, bringing with it (among other things) conscription, rationing and censorship, the Defence of the Realm Act, the mass employment of women in industry, the bombing of London, the shelling of coastal towns and the beginning of British summer time. The country would never be the same again.
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When the First World War broke out in August 1914, it marked the beginning of a new age of mass slaughter, total war and revolution that would only come to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was a war in which the industrialised societies of Europe and the United States waged an unremitting fight of such intensity and horror that it is still difficult to comprehend, even now.
For the first time, Britain raised a mass citizen army and took a major role in fighting a continental enemy… and suffered accordingly. Losses were unprecedented. Sixty thousand casualties (including almost 20,000 dead) were sustained on 1 July 1916 alone, the worst day in the history of the British Army.
More than 700,000 British people lost their lives in the war, with another 250,000 from the Dominions of the empire – a staggering total that was nearly double the fatalities inflicted by the Second World War. The losses of the First World War and the terrible conditions in the trenches have become seared in national memory as a tragic and futile waste. Indeed, it is not surprising that the current boom in family history research has been, to a considerable degree, a reflection of our collective desire to find out what role our ancestors played in this seminal catastrophe.
The Second World War has been remembered very differently. While the memory of 1914–18 is still firmly anchored in the idea of ‘lions led by donkeys’, the Second World War has become etched in our national psyche as a ‘good war’ that ended in overwhelming triumph.
In contrast to the continuing sense of confusion and tragedy that haunts our memory of the First World War, the Second World War is constructed as the story of how Britain and its empire stood up to the force of Nazi tyranny, avoided defeat, and thus saved western civilisation. This stirring narrative owes much to the influence of Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister, whose inspirational speeches (such as ‘Our Finest Hour’; ‘We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches’; and ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’) galvanised the country and became part of our national lexicon. And while some historians have tried to diminish Britain’s role in the Second World War, this should not distract us from the vital part that Britain played in keeping resistance to Nazi Germany alive between 1939 and 1941 (when the Soviet Union and Germany were allied together), and in helping to forge an alliance that would emerge victorious in 1945.
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However we might like to ignore or downplay the story of the world wars, they remain central to understanding the modern world and global affairs to this day. Indeed, most, if not all, of the defining events of the 20th century were either directly caused by, or were a consequence of, the upheavals of 1914–45. The Russian Revolution; the breakup of the Ottoman empire; US entry into global affairs; the Versailles and Sykes-Picot treaties; the Wall Street Crash and Depression; appeasement, the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust all had their origins in the world wars. As did the League of Nations and the United Nations; the mass growth of air and space power and the atomic bomb; the collapse of European empires and the beginning of the post-colonial age; the Welfare State and the Cold War.
The central place that the world wars occupy in British memory and identity is neither unhealthy nor jingoistic – it is right, proper and perfectly understandable.
Nick Lloyd is reader in military and imperial history at King’s College London. He is the author of Hundred Days: The End of the Great War (Viking, 2013).
Dr Tracy Borman: “Fixation with the world wars – significant though they were – gives a distorted view of British history”
If we, as a nation, are fixated on the two seismic military conflicts that dominated the last century, then it is to some extent understandable. Although there were hugely significant and devastating wars before – and indeed after – none have captured the imagination so much as the First and Second World Wars. These two conflicts, played out in a myriad of theatres across the globe, traumatised entire societies, triggered huge political upheaval and resulted in an unimaginable loss of life. By the time peace was declared in 1945, the world had changed almost beyond recognition – physically, politically, socially and morally.
There is also an immediacy to the world wars. Even though the veterans who march past the Cenotaph every remembrance Sunday are becoming fewer each year, their children, grandchildren and other relatives carry forward the stories of their experience. By comparison, events such as the Norman Conquest, Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe or even the industrial revolution, fascinating though they are, seem hopelessly distant.
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Little wonder that historians have been endlessly telling and retelling the story of the world wars ever since. Until recent times, the Second World War in particular dominated the national curriculum – so much so that primary and secondary age children could have been forgiven for believing that little else happened between the end of the Tudor era and modern times. The Stuart and Georgian eras were as good as airbrushed from history.
And yet, I would argue that this fixation with the world wars – enormously significant though they were – gives a distorted view of British history. The distortion is all the greater because our obsession extends to wars in general, not just the two global conflicts of the 20th century. Even though history is no longer taught as a long list of dates, 1066 (the battle of Hastings), 1415 (the battle of Agincourt), 1588 (the Spanish Armada) and 1815 (the battle of Waterloo) still resonate among large swathes of the population. They are, if you like, the punctuation marks of history.
Famous military encounters such as these certainly led to dramatic shifts in national and international relations, whether it was a change of dynasty or an uneasy peace after years of fighting. But what about the events which happened in between? For me, this is where the real history lies: in the everyday.
Although I am a Tudor specialist, I have researched and written about a broad range of periods and subjects: from the Normans and Stuarts to the Georgians and Windsors. It has always been the minutiae of the people and events I have studied that have held the greatest appeal – and significance. The devil really is in the detail.
History’s ‘hidden aspects’ can be its most revealing. For example, the seemingly irrelevant details of monarchs’ private lives can give an entirely new insight into the desires, prejudices and morality that motivated their public decisions. Take Henry VIII, for example. Upon his sex life, the future of a dynasty depended. The tragic obstetric history of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, meant that Henry had no male heir to show for more than 20 years of marriage. This made the king susceptible to the seductive charms of Anne Boleyn, sparking one of the most transformative and turbulent periods of our history, when he (and his able minister Thomas Cromwell) overturned Britain’s entire religious and political establishment in order to take Anne as his wife.
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Appreciating the longer narrative of history also helps us to understand the context for the more dramatic bursts of military conflict. The trigger for the Civil War might have been the ill-advised policies of an ineffectual monarch, but its roots can be traced to the social, economic and religious upheavals of the previous century. Likewise, William the Conqueror may have become nominal king of England after triumphing at the battle of Hastings, but it took many more years of bitter campaigning before he could finally feel secure on his throne. Even then, this ultimate victory was won as much by the gradual tide of Anglo-Norman integration and the benevolent influence of William’s wife Matilda as the flurry of military encounters.
The quieter, unsung heroes, such as Matilda of Flanders (England’s first crowned queen), will only enjoy their place in the sun if we accept that the broader, more detailed sweep of history is just as fascinating, if not more so, than the great military conflicts of our past. Wars may be the punctuation marks of history, but in my view the long sentences in between make for far more enlightening reading.
Dr Tracy Borman is a historian, author and joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She will be speaking about the men who helped to shape the life of England’s famous Tudor monarch Henry VIII at BBC History Magazine's 2019 History Weekend in Winchester on Saturday 2 November – click here to find out more and to buy tickets.
Tracy will also be appearing at our History Weekend in Chester on Friday 25 October, taking us into the turbulent world of the early Stuart court. Find out more about her talk 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot: The Rise of the Stuarts' here.
This article was first published by History Extra in 2016