Originally posted on the VAHS blog 29 April 2013
How do we remember the First World War? And what do historians make of how we remember it? Both of these things have been constantly renegotiated over that past century since the lamps went out across Europe, and they show no signs of slowing down as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of war. While pioneering works by Samuel Hynes and Daniel Todman have ensured that the afterlife of the conflict has been given its rightful place in its history, we should be aware that we are at the beginning of a major chapter in that story of how we remember what was supposed to be the ‘last war’.
Some challenges to our collective memory have been contentious. While the Blackadder portrayal perhaps tells us more about how we have tried to come to terms with the war more than the war itself, a more positive rewriting of the ‘donkeys led by lions’ account has the danger of downplaying the sheer scale of sacrifice. Others have been more universally accepted, such as the recognition the war was much more than a European affair. Our April feature piece presented some current research being undertaken by one of our Canadian colleagues, taking a transnational view of the YMCA’s war work.
This also fits with another shift in the history of the First World War, one readers of this blog are sure to welcome. This is the increasing recognition of charity work within the wider war effort. Peter Grant’s doctoral research on ‘non-uniformed voluntary action’ in Britain has drawn attention to ‘the greatest act of volunteering ever witnessed in this country’; seen in ‘the voluntary effort at home, especially to support the men at the front, in health and sickness, but also to aid numerous other charitable causes’.
Meanwhile, ongoing doctoral projects by Jon Weier and Leanne Green (whose recent VAHS seminar podcast you can listen to above) remind us that this is also part of how we see Britain’s international role. Both as part of transnational networks and with an imperial and humanitarian view of its place in the world. Indeed, the continuity of this view as expressed in the humanitarian appeals for European refugee work at the outbreak of war and after it suggest this may have survived the shock of the war better than we might imagine.
We are not the first to talk about this. In the 1960s Arthur Marwick wrote that the First World War provided the ‘last great flowering of grand-scale private charity’ and in the 1990s Gerard DeGroot incorporated charitable work into his narrative of Blighty during the war, while a decade ago Adrian Gregory used the Military Service Tribunals to show that civil society is not always benevolent. But there is still much more to say.