First Thoughts On The Great War

Poster advertising a war meeting at Brighton Dome (BH600824)
Poster advertising a war meeting at Brighton Dome (BH600824)

Some of the biggest public projects across Britain (and Europe) next year will be the events and exhibitions marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War. On Radio 4 the other day there was a discussion between government minister Maria Miller and respected – yet demonstrably ideologically driven – historian Max Hastings. Hastings argued that those responsible for organising commemorative events should use their platforms to actively teach that it was a “just” war; to explain the war’s (in his view) fundamental righteousness. Miller, speaking for the government I guess, took a more non-proselytising, even centrist line; defending the need for a “non-judgemental” narrative of the period.

In a short piece we were only given one side of the argument about the nature of WW1 itself, presumably because the conversation was meant to focus on whether or not official bodies should “take a view”. The greater debate is for nearer the time, I suppose.

Anyway, locally there’ll be a huge amount of activity around the First World War’s centenary, focusing on social history and including an in-depth look at The Royal Pavilion’s time as a hospital for Indian soldiers. In coming months there are two Open Days, here in Brighton, to unearth documents or family histories of the period. They’ll be advertised nearer the time but they take place on Sat 20 July, from 10am and Sat 21 September, from 1pm. People will be encouraged to show up with memorabilia, letters, photos and stories about their own family’s history of WW1. It’s a brilliant idea: I think there’s a good chance this Antiques Roadshow-style invitation can dig up new perspectives and maybe some exciting documents as well. So what’s in your attic?

Having sat in a couple of the very early meetings about Brighton’s various projects, I find myself reassured by what is planned. Seems to me there’ll be an enormous profile-raising power in simply telling these stories (showing pictures, sharing documents) rather than trying to push one overview or another onto the historical timeframe. And I’ve come out of those conversations with a good deal of faith that the teams involved are working hard in that direction, in particular focusing on the personal; the social story of what it was actually like to be there.

I’m old enough (and my Mum and Dad and their parents left it late enough having kids!) that my Grandfather on my Dad’s side did fight in the Great War, after lying about his age to get into the trenches at 15, like so many boys did. He was gassed but survived and went on to fight in WW2 as well, where he was shot. Separately to this, back in 2011 I learnt a pile more about WW1, in particular the tragedy of The Somme, while I was researching A.A. Milne for an Edinburgh Fringe show. Hardly anyone seems to know that Milne fought at The Somme and I’m still convinced that many aspects of his Winnie The Pooh stories and classic children’s poems are the product of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By the way, he did try to write some war poetry but it’s not very good. I’m also a white poppy wearer and have been challenged (occasionally aggressively) about that choice – and written about it elsewhere.

My point (sorry, got a bit convoluted there) is: our personal relationship with this period of history cannot be built from a modern ideological stance, nor one historian’s opinion about whether such incredible global pain and sacrifice was “worth it” for the greater good; it has an organic resonance that remains, built from how it affected those previous generations of our own families; which we only tended to unpack decades after the fact, yet which had invisible impacts that now stretch into their second century. It was the war we didn’t speak about afterwards. Which is why personal and family stories are the histories that will most vividly bring it back to life. We all ‘get’ family, far better than weapon statistics, geo-politics or strategy analysis. The people are the important bit, then as now.

So we can have Hastings’ debate as much as we like – and in fact I hope we it often over the coming 18 months, since the discussion itself raises sharp awareness of the global catastrophe of a huge war. But surely history must be presented in the first instance without any political agenda and without judgement.

In the next few weeks I’ll interview Community Projects Curator Kate Richardson and hopefully also get a chance to talk to Programme Curator Jody East, who is travelling to India later this year to research family connections and records. Without giving away any of their plans, or jumping the gun on official announcements of what is being put together, for me the entire process is exceptionally thoughtful and sincere.

Chris T-T, Blogger in Residence

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