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Commemorations WW1 Uncategorized

How do Germany and Britain remember the First World War, and can the differences explain Brexit?

In this latest guest Blog, Dr Ingrid Sharp of the University of Leeds writes about Germany & Britain, how they remember WW1, and voting.

Ingrid is one of the researchers funded by AHRC with expertise on the First World War and its commemoration. A list is held on the AHRC Website of these academics who are happy to be contacted about their research. Many of these are also heavily involved in the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres.

voting-30403_1280European commentators are baffled by the British decision to leave the EU following the referendum on 23rd June, in which over 17 million Britons voted to leave the EU despite the uncertainty of any measurable gains and the strong likelihood of substantial losses. Can a look at history, and the way we choose to remember it, help to explain why?

One area where history plays an enormous role is in determining the relationships between nations, especially Britain and Germany post 1945 – the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Holocaust have cast huge shadows on the diplomatic landscape, which deepen whenever we have a significant anniversary of these events. The way we mark these anniversaries often says more about our current political concerns than it reveals about our understanding of history, and can contribute to international relations in both positive and negative ways.

Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Holocaust Memorial – Berlin

Different approaches

The different ways in which Germany and the UK are approaching the centenary of the First World War 2014-2018 at an official level offer an interesting perspective on how the nations see their place in Europe and reflect very different attitudes to the European Union.  The EU is seen by the current UK government and many of the population as a purely economic project, as opposed to Germany’s view of it as a lasting symbol of post-war reconciliation.

Can we draw parallels between centenary attitudes to WW1 and the discussions around the UK’s continued membership of the EU?

In the UK, WWI is culturally very much alive, and our emotional attachment is sustained by the annual commemorations and the 2-minute silence observed at 11.00 on Remembrance Sunday in November.  Our commemorations emphasise the military aspects, prioritise the stories of combat soldiers and honour the memory of our nation’s military dead. The red poppy is a powerful symbol of commemoration that highlights the heroic patriotic sacrifice made by young men in times of war – and that tends to make it harder to challenge the cause for which that sacrifice was made. The red poppy also reinforces the UK’s tendency to commemorate rather narrowly along national lines. This was shown in 2014 by the massively popular installation Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red by artists Paul Cumming and Tom Piper, which featured  888,246 red ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, each of which stood for one British soldier who died in the war, including Colonial and commonwealth troops. This was a purely British commemoration, looking back to our Colonial past rather than reflecting our European present.

The Tower of London with the evolving art installation 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red'. The major art installation named “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” consists of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British fatality during World War I and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. POA(Phot) Mez Merrill, © Crown copyright
The Tower of London with the evolving art installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. The major art installation named “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” consists of 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British fatality during World War I and created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. POA(Phot) Mez Merrill, © Crown copyright

The EU as a symbol of peace in Europe

In contrast, Germany’s commemorations are rooted in its European identity. We can see an attempt to integrate the story of WWI into the history of the European Union as a powerful symbol and tool of peace in 20th century.  The narrative goes like this: the war led to the removal of the old regime and, with the founding of the Weimar Republic, the introduction of democracy in Germany. This has eventually led to the founding of a strong democracy in a Germany deeply embedded into the EU, a Germany able and willing to set national interests aside in the cause of peace.

Notre Dame de Lorette-Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory). Attribution: Daniel VILLAFRUELA
Notre Dame de Lorette-Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory).  Attribution: Daniel VILLAFRUELA

An example of this international focus is the 370 meter wide elliptical Ring of Memory, opened in 2014, which commemorates 580,000 dead of several nations in the Lens area of Northern France that was subject to fighting, shelling and occupation.  The names of the fallen are listed alphabetically and no mention is made of their nationality.  The idea behind this monument is that the war was a shared catastrophe that has left a shared legacy of European co-operation that will prevent future wars tearing us apart. German commemorative events stress the importance of creating a European memory culture that transcends national memory, seeking to create a common historical narrative that has the effect of binding the nations more closely together and recognising their common interests.

In contrast, Britain’s approach to the Centenary is inward-looking, focussing in its commemoration mainly on the heroism of British sacrifices, seeking to find something uniquely British in our past to shore up our fractured national identity.  This is mirrored in our attitude to the European Union. During the referendum, on both sides of the campaign, the arguments were based on British self-interest – would we be better off in or out of the European Union?  – and not at all on the question of what our membership could contribute to the stability, mutual support and ultimately to the preservation of peace in Europe.

Field of Poppies
Field of Poppies
Categories
Commemorations WW1 Uncategorized

Halt! Who goes there?

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 4180) A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches - Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916. Copyright: © IWM.© IWM (Q 4180) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205073475
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 4180) A sentry of the 10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders at the junction of two trenches – Gourlay Trench and Gordon Alley. Martinpuich, 28 August 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205073475

In this guest blog, Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson of Liverpool John Moores University talks about Sentries and their roles during WW1.

Mike is one of the researchers funded by the AHRC with expertise on the First World War and its commemoration. A list is held on the AHRC Website of these academics who are happy to be contacted about their research. Many of these are also heavily involved in the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres.

Britain experienced an epidemic of spy fever during the early years of the war.[i] It must have felt like the invasion and spy fiction that had gripped Edwardian readers before the war was becoming a reality. A young woman sketching the landscape was viewed with suspicion. Why record the contours of the Mersey now of all times? That information could be used by a German saboteur. As it turned out, Gladys Dalby New was released when the sketch was deemed far too inaccurate to be any use.[ii] Others, however, were less fortunate.

Gladys Dalby New (centre) flax picking in Somerset in 1918. Photograph with kind permission and courtesy of Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.
Gladys Dalby New (centre) flax picking in Somerset in 1918. Photograph with kind permission and courtesy of Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.

Walkers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time put themselves in danger. Sentries across the country were responsible for guarding places and routes and, unlike the many other Britons who were keeping an eye out for suspicious activity, they were armed and prepared to shoot. Indeed, as a captain explained at an inquest into the killing of a deaf man by a sentry who had acted after his command was ignored stated: if a sentry did not shoot and something happened as a result then he would be executed.[iii] The following examples from the north-west of England illustrate how a man who ignored a sentry’s challenge became an early casualty of the war and how another sentry put his own life on the line while defending a railway. The ‘Sentry V. Spy duel’, as the Manchester Courier described an incident in Dover, brought the war to the home front before the bombs from zeppelins or shells from the ships took their toll on the civilian population.[iv]

One of the earliest fatalities was a 62 year-old peddler, William Robert Dawson, from Morecambe. He was shot at Dunning’s Bridge, Maghull on 11 August 1914 as he made his way to Liverpool. [v] It was around midnight when the sentry asked him to stop three times but received no response. Then Dawson was asked to put up his hands. At the inquest three days after the episode, Dawson was said to have replied ‘To ­­—- with you and hands up’ before being shot. Despite being treated at a nearby Epileptic Home, Dawson died.

Dunning's Bridge, Maghull
Dunning’s Bridge, Maghull with gracious thanks to Brian Elsey, publisher of Leeds Liverpool Canal http://www.leedsliverpoolcanal.co.uk/

Like the soldier who shot Dawson, Private J. Steele of the 3rd Kings Liverpool Regiment was protecting a communication route, though in his case it was a railway rather than a bridge over a canal.

Fornby Power House 1936c - With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society
Fornby Power House 1936c – With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society

Steele had been stationed by the power station of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company in Formby on Saturday 21 November 1914.[vi] Just before midnight a man was spotted in the vicinity of the power station.

Formby Power House 1983c - With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society
Formby Power House 1983c – With gracious thanks to Formby Civic Society

Steele challenged him and the suspect fled. The area was searched but the trespasser was nowhere to be seen. Later he reappeared and on being challenged a second time fled once more. Steele fired and missed. His target returned fire with a revolver and hit Steele, severing the radial and ulner arteries in his wrist. Again, the suspected saboteur escaped, probably making use of the many nearby sand dunes.

THE GERMAN ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 88103) German troops in well constructed trench position on the Western Front. Note an alarm gong by the sentry in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205331659
THE GERMAN ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 88103) German troops in well constructed trench position on the Western Front. Note an alarm gong by the sentry in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205331659

[i]  D. French, ‘Spy Fever in Britain, 1900-1915’, Historical Journal, 21:2 (1978), pp. 355-370.

[ii] Liddle Collection (Leeds University Library)/WW1/DF/095.

[iii] Manchester Evening News, 18 September 1914.

[iv]  Manchester Courier, 2 October 1914.

[v] Liverpool Courier, 18 August 1914.

[vi] Liverpool Echo, 23 November 1914.