- Poppies, Tommies and remembranceCommemoration is always contested
The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war was greeted with significant economic, social and political investment in Britain, at both a local and national level, and from a diverse range of groups. The BBC commissioned more than 140 programmes; community groups, local authorities and museums were awarded Heritage Lottery Fund grants to put on events and activities; the Arts and Humanities Research Council provided millions of pounds of funding to universities for community engagement and research; publishers churned out shelves of books. Government funding is currently enabling two pupils from every state secondary school in England to participate in battlefield tours of the Western Front between spring 2014 and March 2019; and individuals have been encouraged to dig out letters and photographs of family members whose lives were touched by the war.
Some might suggest that the attention this conflict has been receiving is a straightforward reflection of the scale of death and destruction that took place in what was the first large-scale industrial war. But this emotional and financial investment in first world war commemoration is more complex than this: at a time when national identity is shifting, fragile and uncertain, it is reflective of a range of intersecting institutional, financial and political motivations, on the part of organisations and individuals that are attracted to the culturally appealing ideas of nationhood that WW1 narratives offer.
The significance of both world wars to British national identity means that commemoration of WW1 is inevitably surrounded by controversy. As the centenary of the conflict approached, some historians and politicians warned against histories [End Page 104] that focused on the futility of war, whilst others were alarmed by what they saw as an inappropriate tendency towards jingoistic celebration. The commemorative output from heritage and media industries that emerged found itself walking a treacherous path - it risked being seen as glorifying war, or, in its extensive focus on the Home Front, making the horrors of war more palatable. Commemoration, of course, is always contested: there are multiple narratives of WWI, and they are shaped by the present as much as the past. The Great War, as it used to be known, was a multifaceted and varied experience for those it affected: it was a tragedy for many but a positive and life-changing opportunity for some; and occasionally - as we have seen in some of our research - it was even seen as a mere irritation.
Commemoration, memories and narratives of past wars and conflicts are utilised to construct a sense of nationhood, but the appeal of any specific version of the nation constructed in this way will not be universal: its ability to garner support is never guaranteed. Britain contains multiple, often competing, communities, with their own memories and histories. Some groups have felt marginalised or indifferent to the mainstream histories of war and conflict that have been produced over the last hundred years. Interestingly, a number of recent projects of remembrance and remembering have been uncoupled from the mainstream narratives, and have involved history from below, shaped by the powerless and not just the powerful. Thus David Olusoga’s The Forgotton Soldiers of World War One (BBC 2 August 2014), told the story of African, Indian and Asian troops who fought in WW1, and the UK Punjab Heritage Association, working with volunteers and supported by a £450,000 Heritage Lottery grant, aims to produce a history of the 130,000 Sikhs who fought in the war, ‘as well as those who were left behind’.1 The stories that emerge from such research often draw on the lives of individual soldiers and their families, placing them within existing national narratives of WWI; and in doing so they will stretch, challenge and rework these narratives.
The 2014 commemoration of the WWI Centenary in Britain built upon a longstanding cultural preoccupation, even obsession, with Remembrance, histories of the first and second world wars, and the military. In recent years this has led to a considerable increase in the visibility of remembrance on television: what the BBC now refers to its ‘Remembrance Season’ has been extended to such an extent that Andrew...