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.
This year is one of commemorations, significant anniversaries and celebrations. Many people will have celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday but last month it was the monarch who was leading the birthday celebrations for another long-lived institution – the Royal Artillery which marked its 300th anniversary on 26 May with a royal visit, parade and displays at Larkhill.
A rather more sombre commemoration this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – a battle that dominates Britain’s collective memory of the First World War in the same way the Battle of Verdun occupies French history or Gallipoli tends to define Australian and New Zealand participation in the Great War. All these landmark events have come together as I work my way through a single archive – a treasure-trove of sketchbooks, diaries, letters and photographs that belonged to Hetman Jack Parham.
Jack Parham was born on 27 July, 1895 at Norrington near Alvediston in Wiltshire. He was raised on the family farm, educated at Sherborne School, and pursued a long and successful career in the Army. He retired a Major General and went to live in Suffolk – at Hintlesham near Ipswich – where he died in 1974. He lived the Royal Artillery’s Latin motto – Ubique – Everywhere.
I never knew the man. I was eight when he died and it would be another 22 years before I found myself living and working in Ipswich and sailing the River Orwell just as Jack, a keen sailor, had done.
But that is the beauty of archives – I have been able to get to know something of Jack’s remarkable story. This collection of drawings, photos and letters has taken me on an amazing journey through the early years of manned flight and Jack’s passion for aeroplanes; transported me to the battlefields of the First World War; and given me a brief insight into the thoughts of a senior military commander on D-Day 1944.
That journey began 13 months ago with a single sketchbook that had been identified by a researcher back in 2013/14 among a whole host of First World War resources. When I joined the History Centre in May 2015 I embarked on a number of centenary projects and was directed to the ‘Parham sketchbook’ from 1915-17 as a great resource. And what a resource.
Young people involved in the Dancing Back to 1914 project visited the History Centre to gain an understanding of Wiltshire 100 years ago. They were captivated by the detailed sketches that somehow closed the yawning chasm of the century separating them from the young men and women who experienced the Great War.
I was just as fascinated. Each sketch had been annotated at the time of drawing, while further notes were added (by Jack) at a later date to clarify a location or situation. I wanted to know more and periodically have been able to dip back into the Parham archive. Opening up each box has offered up something new and amazing.
This month we celebrated the end of a wonderful project that involved young people from across the county combining heritage and dance to learn about and commemorate the First World War.
The History Centre was proud to have been part of the Dancing Back to 1914 project which was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The project saw youngsters from Tidworth, Salisbury and Bradford on Avon learn about the 1914-18 war through dance and engage with their local heritage. The groups visited the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and also made trips to local museums and to London to see the play Warhorse.
Another group of youngsters from Malmesbury School also took part in the project by visiting the History Centre where they looked at archive material showing what life was like for those who lived through the war, including children. The students also gained an insight into the work of the History Centre with a behind-the-scenes tour. You can read about their visit here: http://www.gazetteandherald.co.uk/news/13882591.Pupils_dance_back_in_time_to_WW1/
Each visit to the History Centre was tailored to the groups’ needs so they saw archives that were relevant to their geographical area.
The Tidworth group were fascinated by the maps which showed how quickly the military town had grown in the run up to 1914 and during the war.
All the students really engaged with the letters, sketch books and diaries that we were able to produce as these were very personal and recognisable – although youngsters today text and email they appreciated reading the letters and diaries that soldiers and nurses had written. Also popular were the photograph albums and sketch books.
Having learnt about the history of the First World War, including the types of dance and fashions of the day, each group created their own response to what they had discovered. The Salisbury group – which included students from St Joseph’s, St Edmund’s and South Wilts Grammar schools – performed at the city’s Christmas Market in Guildhall Square with a dance that was based on the letters they had read at the History Centre.
All those who took part came together for a grand finale at County Hall, Trowbridge on 3rd March. The event, formally opened by council leader Jane Scott, included tea and cake, with the audience mingling with the dancers.
Since I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in November 2015, the main project I have been working on has been Wiltshire at War: Community Stories. I would like to let you know what the project has achieved so far, what we would still like to do, and how you can get involved.
What is Wiltshire at War: Community Stories? Wiltshire at War: Community Stories aims to bring people together from across Wiltshire to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
What has been achieved so far? During 2014, enthusiastic people from museums and heritage organisations were trained to carry out oral history interviews and community engagement sessions relating to gathering stories about the First World War. Throughout 2014 and 2015 (and now into 2016) research has been carried out by museums, history societies, and individuals from all over Wiltshire who have donated the stories to the Wiltshire at War project. In January 2015 the Wiltshire at War website went live. Do visit the website and explore this growing archive of stories.
The Call to Arms, the first of the five exhibitions, launched in February 2015 and is currently on display in the Springfield Campus Library, Corsham, until 3 March 2016. The theme focuses on the soldiers called up to fight, and the preparations for war in Wiltshire. The second exhibition, Wiltshire Does Its Bit, launched in September 2015, and is currently on display at Chippenham Museum, until 27 February 2016. The theme focuses on the contributions of ordinary people to the war effort at home in Wiltshire. Both these exhibitions are currently touring Wiltshire, and are available to hire, free of charge.
There are four identical schools’ exhibitions that have launched, are touring, and can be booked free of charge. They come with a handling kit to bring the exhibition to life, and complimentary teaching resources for key stages 1-3 are available on the website. There were library talks in 2015 from the likes of Stewart Binns and Elizabeth Speller, in Corsham, Salisbury, Warminster, and Mere, and they have been accompanied by a comprehensive book display.