The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

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Very well then, I contradict myself…

Last Friday, I went to the final showcase for the Legacies of War Leeds Stories of the Great War project.  I haven’t had a huge amount to do with this project, so it was both a surprise and a delight of an event, with results (many of them ongoing) of six exciting community projects on display.  Of the six, two stood out, the year 11 students from Roundhay School who produced two films, one silent, one a pastiche news bulletin, inspired by the history of Belgian refugees in Leeds, and Urban Sprawl theatre company, Leeds’ sole homeless theatre company, who came up with a touching, funny, vulgar music hall riff on the theme of enlistment.  All the projects were moving, informed and passionate, but these two groups stood out for their creativity and humour that, in the case of Urban Sprawl, was true enough to the spirit of the times they evoked that it had me referencing Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We.

Which brings me to another First World War event from last week, this one a launch rather than a culmination.  14-18 NOW, which launched officially on 27th March, is an Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund funded series of events, hosted by the Imperial War Museum and taking place around the country.  Projects range from a Royal de Luxe production telling the story of the Accrington Pals using giant puppets in the streets of Liverpool to 1914 told day-by-day through cartoons.

The reactions have been almost as varied as the proposed artistic outputs.  The first response on Twitter was, in general, a rather patronising, ‘These people need to learn some “real” history.’  The mainstream media tended to pick up on the project to paint warships using First World War-era ‘Dazzle’ camouflage techniques, sparking this bizarre but somehow predictable response from the Guardian.  By the weekend there were some more detailed, considered response emerging on blogs, most notably those of George Simmers and Jonathan Boff. More recently, Gary Sheffield has pitched in with this interesting discussion of why the idea of turning off lights to mark the start of the war is historically uninformed.

By rights, I should be in complete agreement with these posts, and to some extent I am, having done my fair share of fulminating about luvvies voicing ill-informed opinions about how the war should be commemorated.  I agree that Stephen Fry’s letter to an unknown soldier, as well as several of the projects on 14-18 NOW, are deeply clichéd.  And yet overall I find myself intrigued and excited by the majority of ideas on display, and particularly by the Letter to Unknown Soldier soldier project.

Part of this is due to a huge personal affection for the Charles Jagger memorial sculpture honouring the dead of the Great Western Railway on platform 1 of Paddington Station, the Unknown Soldier of the title.  Reading his letter from home, he forms the cover of my monograph on writing wartime masculinity, in stunning a photograph by my brother, photographer Sebastian Meyer. Men of War coverAnything that makes people more aware of this particular statue is liable to get my attention and my approbation.

But I also keep coming back to those amazingly creative responses to the history of the war on display last week.  The Letter to the Unknown Soldier invites similar creativity from participants.  I doubt it will come from well-known artistic or creative figures, given the evidence so far available.  But I love the idea of a busy commuter, looking for the first time at that beautiful, powerful face, being inspired to engage with the history of the First World War enough to write their own letter, an act of commemoration speaking not only to Jagger’s vision but also that of Eliot and Auden.  Or maybe it will be a local homeless person who, like the clients of Urban Sprawl, locates a sense of identity and community in this imagined figure of the past.  Yes, these will be the projection of 21st-century ideas, concerns, aspirations on to an image almost a century old.  But in looking to the wider public, there is the potential for an artistic engagement with history beyond the clichés that, so often, have dominated Britain’s commemorations. It is an artistic response, certainly, but given the richness and complexity of artistic responses across the past century, responses which have led to their own branch of academic study, this too will be ‘real’ history.

At the heart of my unease at the response to 14-18 NOW, however, is, I realise after a week of thinking about it, actually very similar to the annoyance I felt at the luvvies’ letter (see above).  I resent, deeply, being told how to commemorate the First World War, whether it is by artists or historians.  Both groups have important contributions to make to the way in which the war is remembered.  At their best, the disciplines can combine in extraordinary and unexpected ways that enlighten the past anew, as was perfectly demonstrated at the Tetley last Friday night. As a historian, not only do I think that there is potential for the continuation of artistic commemorations that have been part of British culture since the war years in the 14-18 NOW project, but I hope that, given the opportunity to contribute through active engagement rather than holding aloof or, in the worst cases, simply sneering, my discipline may enable these artistic events to have real resonance throughout the centenary.  On which note, I am off to write my own letter to the unknown soldier of platform 1.

Politicians and Generals

I have spent the weekend trying to get to grips with why I feel so uncomfortable about David Cameron’s announcement of £50 million toward the centenary commemorations of the war.  On the face of it, all his announcements are self-evidently Good Things – more money for the Imperial War Museum (still one of my favourite archives if only for the irony of reading about war under a burnished 10 Commandments in the reading room that used to be part of the hospital chapel), school visits to the battle fields, additional funding for local history groups, a focus on memory and commemoration.

So why am I not embracing this announcement wholeheartedly?  I have come to the conclusion that it is mainly due to the steering committee that was announced, filled as it is primarily with former servicemen and politicians.  Yes, Hew Strachan is an excellent representative of the community of First World War historians in Britain, and Sebastian Faulks seems a sensible choice to represent the arts, although I am sure there are plenty of others who would be just as appropriate.  But they are so far outnumbered by ex-servicemen as to raise the question of what the steering group believes these are commemorations of.  Are we going to see commemoration the war as a total war, one that influenced every facet and stratum of society, not just in terms of mourning (as is usually commented on) but also in terms of changing attitudes, new forms of work and service and technological developments?  Or are we going to have commemorations limited to the Armed Services?  How much of the focus is going to be on this particular conflict and how much on the service and sacrifice of all British (and Imperial/Commonwealth) forces since then?

My other source of unease is the fact that no reference at all was made to the work that universities around the country have been doing for several years now and will continue to do for the next six years.  Yes, many of these projects come under the aegis of the IWM’s First World War Centenary Partnership but so do many of the Heritage Lottery funded local history projects that get a name-check.  I am acutely aware that the Legacies of War project, one which is partnering similar local initiatives, has taken two years of hard work to get off the ground.  A similar amount of time has been spent at the University of Newcastle developing an international network of research into children’s experiences of war in the early twentieth century.  Birmingham and Kent are both centres of research excellence for First World War studies.  And the International Society for First World War Studies, now in its eleventh year, was founded by two academics based in Britain.  There is a wealth of passion and expertise to be tapped in our research institutions in this country, equal to that of the local history groups who will, quite rightly, be contributing so much to the commemorations, passion and expertise which Cameron, in his announcement seems to ignore.  Hopefully it can be used fully by the Centenary Partnership and those of us who make our living out studying the Great War can demonstrate the leading role that British academics have played and continue to play in the study of the First World War.

Oh, and the award for most fatuous comment must go to General Lord Dannatt, quoted in The Times as saying, ‘This needs to be the start of an education programme on the history of the events that led to the outbreak of the war, to make sure it never happens again.’  Given the number of conflicts to engulf the world since 1918, I suspect that ship has sailed.