Opinion: “The First World War centenary has been a lost opportunity”

By Professor Maggie Andrews

Actors dressed as Tommies mark the centenary of the start of the battle of the Somme at Manchester Piccadilly station, July 2016. (Photo by Alamy)

This opinion column was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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The events marking the centenary of the First World War over the last four years have seen considerable financial investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) the Arts Council and the government. Numerous art works, books, films, and TV and radio programmes have been produced. In London, the Imperial War Museum revamped its First World War galleries, and – around the UK – events and exhibitions have taken place, alongside community history projects.

While some organisations were motivated by their own interests (to increase footfall, audiences, funds and profile), both individuals and communities envisaged that participation would offer a sense of engagement, integration and identity. Funding by the HLF’s ‘First World War: Then and Now’ programme offered opportunities to uncover local histories of the conflict.

Historians hoped that new research and public engagement would challenge the familiar myths and iconography that had attached themselves to the conflict. But they miscalculated the degree to which communities and nations have invested in shared myths offering a sense of identity – ones that have been handed down through family stories and remembrance activities.

The myth of the stoic young British Tommy – duped into volunteering for a futile war – gained status in the run-up to the centenary, especially in the context of more modern conflicts. The Tommy as a reticent, rather than active participant in the killing of enemy troops is central, for example, to the mythical status of the Christmas day football matches played in no man’s land, 1914. Such myths have proved enduringly popular with audiences – as the British Council and Football Association’s ‘Football Remembers’ project, not to mention the Sainsbury’s Christmas 2014 advertising campaign, have shown.

Myths are not fabrication, but they simplify, purify and silence, while smoothing over the cracks and crevices – the bumps and lumps – of the past, as they are woven into heritage attractions or film and television histories. These leisure-histories walk a tightrope between entertainment and education, consequently offering familiar versions of the past.

Ubiquitous Tommies

However, during the centenary there has been a concerted attempt to acknowledge that the First World War was a conflict that didn’t just affect young, white men on the western front. David Olusoga’s BBC Two series and book The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire (2014) examined the role of 4 million non-British, non-European professional soldiers, conscripts and mercenaries in the conflict. The Imperial War Museum’s online collection of 8 million ‘Lives of the First World War’ embraced those in paid war work on the home front (though did not include the contributions of millions of housewives). A plethora of local projects and BBC programmes sought to enlarge the iconography of the conflict from trenches, barbed wire and mud to include food queues, Zeppelin raids and factories. BBC Radio 4’s drama Home Front (2014–18) explored the domestic, personal and intimate stories of everyday life during the conflict; the BBC’s project to source 1,400 local stories was the basis for its World War One at Home broadcasts.

Yet in the vast majority of commemoration events, the western front, red poppies and Tommies have remained ubiquitous. The First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme for schoolchildren focused on the western front. Red knitted poppies have festooned towns from Chesterfield to Cheltenham, while Paul Cummins’ ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ installation filled the moat at the Tower of London with 888,246 ceramic poppies. Meanwhile, Jeremy Deller’s ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ memorial saw 1,400 volunteers in uniforms appearing everywhere from railway stations to shopping centres to mark the centenary of the start of the battle of the Somme. Whatever the artistic innovation of such projects, they were embedded in historical myths; millions of people encountered them but few were encouraged to critically engage with them.

Overall I believe that the four-year First World War centenary has been a lost opportunity, as challenging histories have been drowned out by myths and iconography that have proved every bit as tenacious as they are familiar.

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Maggie Andrews is professor of cultural history at the University of Worcester. She is historical consultant to BBC Radio 4’s drama series Home Front.