On reflection… the legacy of First World War commemorations in Wiltshire
One hundred years ago people and politicians around the globe were contemplating a new world order following more than four years of war. In Britain, January 1919 and the following months were marked by strikes, civil unrest and military mutinies. The flu pandemic continued its deathly march. The month also saw the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference which lasted into the summer concluding with five treaties formally ending the war – including the Versailles Treaty signed 28 June – and the formation of the League of Nations.
As a nation we have spent the last four years commemorating the centenary of the First World War (FWW). A hundred years on from this cataclysmic event and we are living with its legacy – with regional conflicts that have their origins in the war; with advances in medicine (reconstructive surgery, improved anaesthesia); with the music, art, literature and poetry produced during and after the war; with universal suffrage; and with a landscape shaped by war.
But what of the legacy of these commemorations? What will future generations find when they delve into early 21st century archives and history books, looking for evidence of how we remembered? Without doubt they will find an amazing amount of new, high quality research that has changed our understanding of the Great War. But have the commemorations reflected this changed narrative or have they reinforced the myths and iconography associated with First World War and which are embedded in our collective memory? Some historians are asking whether the last four years have been a lost opportunity.
From a personal point of view it feels as though much of the national commemoration did focus on traditional themes and symbols such as the mud and blood of the western front, the experience of the war poets, the silhouetted soldier. There have been some stunning artistic responses to the centenary, commissioned by 14-18 Now, including Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, Danny Boyle’s Pages in the Sea and film-maker Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.
But these have also drawn criticism. 14-18 Now estimates that 35 million people engaged with their commissioned events, but historians Professors Maggie Andrews, of the University of Worcester, and Sarah Lloyd, of the University of Hertfordshire, question whether people critically engaged or merely encountered them. Were these national events, exhibitions and installations sufficiently challenging of historical myths?
There has been much work on myth-busting over the past four years but it can be tough going up against advertising executives and picture editors who are not historians. An enduring myth, reinforced by TV adverts and wrongly credited photographs, is that the Christmas Truce of 1914 happened throughout the western front and that football matches were organised between German and British troops. Neither is an accurate picture of what happened. (Check out Dan Snow’s mythbusting articles for the BBC.)
At a regional and local level, however, I feel very positive about the projects and events that have taken place. Over the last four years much of my work as an education officer has focused on researching Wiltshire’s role in the First World War and passing on that learning to others, especially primary school teachers and pupils keen to make the most of the local history study that is part of their curriculum.
Another aspect of my work has been supporting other organisations in delivering the educational side of their FWW projects. My colleagues in archives and local studies have also been busy acquiring new collections and publications that support the study of the Great War.
The number and range of FWW projects in Wiltshire has been impressive and sadly I cannot list all of them, but a good place to start is the History Centre’s own Wiltshire at War – Community Stories project.
The website and travelling exhibitions produced over the past four years have sought to unearth new stories and rediscover forgotten histories that together reveal the experiences of Wiltshire during the Great War.
The community-based nature of the project has allowed individuals as well as museums and local heritage organisations to share their stories with a much wider audience. I hope that schools – especially secondary schools – will also realise what a wonderful resource this is.
One of the first projects I was involved in when I joined the History Centre in 2015 was Dancing Back to 1914. This involved young people from across the county researching the history of their local area and presenting what they had learned through dance. The culmination of the project was a performance at County Hall in Trowbridge.
As well as groups, individuals have also contributed to new and exciting research. Actors/writers Lizzie Crarer and Phoebe Kemp, and musician Louise Jordan have each researched, written and performed shows that delve into the lives of women during the First World War.
Telling the home front story in Wiltshire has to include the county’s central role in supporting the military. Training for war and the presence of British and Dominion troops on Salisbury Plain transformed the landscape and people’s lives. One of the earliest FWW projects in Wiltshire was undertaken by the Codford Local History Society which looked at the impact of the sudden arrival of thousands of volunteer soldiers on the Wylye Valley in 1914. The history group was present at the national launch of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) First World War grant scheme Then and Now.
Funding from the HLF and Arts Council, as well as grant support from Wiltshire Council’s Area Boards, has been essential to local organisations wanting to pursue their own projects.
Some projects have been bigger than others, some were logistically difficult. The latter category included the cutting of a new chalk badge by the Fovant Badges Society; the restoration by the Sutton Mandeville Heritage Trust of the “Shiny 7th” and Royal Warwickshire’s regimental badges; and the restoration of the chalk map of Australia at Compton Chamberlayne by the Map of Australia Trust.
Throughout the four years of commemorations museums (large and small) and heritage centres across Wiltshire have held special exhibitions and events, bringing to a wider audience wonderful local collections that tell the stories of men, women and children who contributed to the war effort. They have engaged with community groups, recruited new volunteers and worked with local schools.
In 2018 all these projects were building towards the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November. New projects were begun; others drew to a close. Our own Wiltshire at War saw the launch of the fifth and final exhibition Peace and Aftermath, although the exhibitions will continue touring this year. In towns and villages across Wiltshire poppies appeared on railings and village halls, and silhouettes of soldiers stood, heads bowed, by the roadside. In Salisbury a more unusual project took shape in the form of Binding the Past to the Present through Remembrance by artist Suzie Gutteridge. Community groups and schools from across the Salisbury diocese made over 5,000 felt poppies which were then sewn onto 100 puttees – the leg bindings worn by soldiers.
This commemorative installation went on display in the Morning Chapel in Salisbury Cathedral. (You can read more about the project in Suzie’s blog for the WSHC.)
And finally we came to Armistice Day, which last year was also Remembrance Sunday. Church and civic services were held, poppies were worn and wreaths were laid. Church bells rang out as they had a hundred years ago and beacons were lit. Nationally and locally, people came together to remember.
So where do we go from here? There is much to be done to ensure that all the hard work of the past four years (and more) by local history societies, schools, community groups and individuals, is not wasted; that the new and rediscovered histories are accessible and shared. So, if you are a Wiltshire or Swindon based history society or community group which has carried out First World War research please do get think about depositing a copy of your research with us at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
Heritage Education Officer
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