restricted access Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain by Ross J. Wilson. Farnham, Surrey (review)
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Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain. By Ross J. Wilson. Farnham, Surrey, United Kingdom: Ashgate, 2013. 256 pages. Softbound, $54.95.

In his book, Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain, Ross J. Wilson of the University of Chichester provides a well-researched and well-written examination [End Page 435] of how the cultural memory and heritage of the Great War are "utilized and altered" across Britain "to inform, illustrate and contest issues of politics, culture, and identity" (22). While this work is not specifically an examination of oral history from World War I, it does illustrate how words and poetry from the soldiers, postwar remembrances, and physical memorials from the First World War have informed more current language, and how the memory of the war has entered the cultural identity of Britain. For example, rather than providing an in-depth analysis of what the soldiers said about their experience during the war, Wilson examines how language, names, and images from the war are used to shape discourse in modern Britain. Accepting some visualizations of the past while rejecting others, Wilson successfully illustrates how the cultural memory of the war changes over time.

Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain is logically organized, with chapters on language of the war, descriptive imagery, perspective (either as a participant or as a witness), myths of the war, and museums, memorials, and memory. Throughout the chapters, Wilson demonstrates how the current cultural memory of the war has changed through the decades, from the period of the Great War to today. Whether he is illustrating how the language from the war, such as "over the top," or "in the trenches," is informing modern discourse, or how poppies and cemeteries have become some of the most powerful images of the war, Wilson contextualizes his examples into the modern era. Frequently, his point of comparison is within the realm of current British politics, which is interesting but potentially of limited value for readers outside of England.

In his chapter "The Soldier in the Trenches," he narrows his focus to examine modern efforts to pardon the over three hundred soldiers who were executed for offenses committed during the war. While their story certainly deserves to be covered, is the plight of those three hundred emblematic of the over five million British soldiers who served in Flanders and France alone? Understandably, their story is relevant within England and Ireland today, but there may be other stories from the front lines that could also represent the story of the soldier in the trenches.

Wilson's section "The View from the Trenches" offers a prime opportunity to introduce oral history accounts from veterans of the war. In fact, he starts by mentioning the plethora of memoirs and other primary sources published since the conclusion of the war. After touching on the possibility of introducing the soldier's view into his work, he reverts to discussing the traditional war poets and the "truth" of the war that their portrayal of victimization presents. While his discussion of the war poets is important, tying their images of the war into the modern political discussion, it will leave the oral historian wanting to hear more from the voices of the past. Still, Wilson does what he set out to do, illustrating how the Great War is part of the modern British cultural memory. [End Page 436]

Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain effectively addresses how the legacy of the Great War is "mobilized by individuals, communities, and groups across Britain to pass comment on the present, to validate ideas in the present and to activate identity in the present" (187). He proves his thesis by using modern references to World War I, predominately from newspaper and journal articles and political discourse, and his analysis is thorough and insightful. In some instances, he focuses too narrowly on a specific event or group, such as the Christmas Truce or the soldiers executed for offenses at the front. Admittedly, his narrow focus may be indicative of the idiosyncrasies of cultural memory which can limit the view of the war. While Wilson's work is well written...