As the centenary of the First World War enters its final months, the imperative of remembrance has never been more urgent. It is nearly a decade since the death of Harry Patch, the last British soldier to have served on the Western Front, and soon there will be no living person with any recollection of the years 1914-1918.
Few conflicts in History have been subject to more intensive interpretative layering – the process began with the outbreak of war itself, as Foreign ministries rushed to prove their innocence and the guilt of their enemies. The battlefields of First World War historiography have been subject to waves of attack and counterattack, revision and counter-revision. While many fine syntheses have been produced, how long will these stand the test of time (and historiographical assault) given that so many key debates around cause, course and consequence remain unresolved ?
Over the last decade leading historians including Sir Christopher Clark (Sleepwalkers), Prof Margaret Macmillan (The War That Ended Peace) and Prof David Reynolds (The Long Shadow) have returned to the big questions around why this war broke out, why it ended the way it did, and how we frame it in our understanding with a century of hindsight. Television documentaries have helped to wrap military archaeology into the broader understanding of the First World War, notably Fergal Keane’s The First World War From Above (BBC 1, 2010) and Peter Barton’s The Somme, Secret Tunnel Wars (BBC Four, 2013).
One reason for this enduring fascination with the First World War can be located in the sense of national ownership of this conflict, whether in the private and familial sphere, or publicly through the annual commemoration focused on The Cenotaph, and repeated at countless local memorials. The poppy has become one of the most successfully established symbols of national remembrance.
A second reason lies in the enduring consequences of the War – to be found variously in the contested geopolitical contours of the Middle East, in the USA’s internal discourse over the nature (and dollar cost) of its global role, in the ongoing exceptionalism of Russia’s political culture, and in Britain’s own awkward sense of its relationship to its continental neighbours.
A third reason lies in the widespread instrumentalization of the First World War, whether as a ready-to-use parable of governmental and diplomatic system-failure (both in its origins and its termination), or as a crisis of European imperialism, or as an accelerator of national social and economic change, or as a catalyst for post-colonial identity. The First World War often seems to be the off-the-peg analogy of choice for many international relations scholars.
As a History teacher I have always enjoyed teaching the First World War because of the balance between the macro and the micro – the potential to shift focus from grand concepts such as the Wilsonian world view to the detail captured in a soldier’s letter to his parents. As The First World War recedes further into the past, will its historicisation in school teaching continue to respond to, and be shaped by, contested and changing national narratives of identity and sacrifice?
Over the fifteen years that I have taught this topic the high tide of satirical disdain for British generalship began to ebb, as the welcome revisionism of scholars such as Prof Gary Sheffield began to feed into the popular understanding of the war. I suspect that for many years to come the First World War will be susceptible to entanglement with contested narratives and proxy debates. On one Battlefields Trip some years ago I tried to explain to my South of England pupils the iconography of Ulster Tower on The Somme, and how this might have resonated for them far more powerfully, and in different ways, had they been visiting from a school from one or other of the two cultural and political traditions in Northern Ireland.
Given that the First World War has done much to shape the present world, the story of its origins and course should be taught and studied in schools. Admittedly, the origins can be heavy going, due to the bewildering interplay of regional ethnic politics, great power diplomacy, infra-governmental chaos, the nexus of military and industrial power, and the growing clamour of the popular press. But difficulty should not be shied away from, and indeed the very complexity of the War’s origins serves to remind us that causation is seldom a simple chain of intention, action and outcome.
The great battles of the War should be studied – including First Marne, The Somme, Verdun, Third Ypres, The Kaiser’s 1918 Offensive, and the allied victories around Amiens in the final months of the war. It is here that we can blend the general’s-eye-view of battle with the experiences of individual soldiers, caught brilliantly in volumes such as Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War (Ebury, 2002) and in a host of online collections, building on BBC Television’s ground-breaking Great War Interviews from the 1960s.
Although its intrinsic worth as a historical topic is absolutely undeniable, the First World War also has immense value in helping us to understand the relationship between the individual, the family, the locality and the broader context of historical events. The work of The National Archives, The Imperial War Museum and The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (among other bodies) enables us to locate the individual serviceman’s story within the enfolding membranes of family, town, regiment, army and national war effort. We should see these bodies as repositories of a cultural capital of equal richness to our principal national museums and galleries.
Where the First World War can exert a special power over the imagination is in its specificity of time and place. While soldiers from the combatant nations, and their colonies and dominions, gave their lives across several continents, the Western Front remains a unique locus of sacrifice, because of the sheer concentration of destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium across the years 1914-1918. So many of the political ideas and movements (cultural as well as ideological) of the twentieth century, from the laudable to the abhorrent, were conceived amid these broken landscapes.
There is, I would contend, an onus on schools to continue to emphasise the singularity of the First World War. But this cannot be done solely from resources found within the classroom. Pilgrimage is a notion that sits uneasily in a more secular age. However, there is already a century of tradition of visiting the battlefields of the First World War – it began even before the guns were silenced, and is captured perhaps most poignantly in Sir John Lavery’s 1919 painting The Cemetery, Etaples hanging in the Imperial War Museum, London. More prosaically, the Michelin Guides were updated within months of the end of the war, advising visitors to locations such as Verdun to bring a packed lunch, for want of local catering.
I first visited the Western Front early in my teaching career and it has affected me more profoundly than I could have expected. I have returned several times, and I do not think that I can stay away. Conversations with pupils in several schools over the years have led me to believe that they too have been affected. However, I believe that this response extends beyond the understandable pathos felt by young people when confronted with rows of headstones bearing the names and details of soldiers who were often not much older than themselves when their lives were lost. Exposure to these locations changes the way that we understand the human experience of war. One of the simplest but most affecting features of Tynecot Cemetery is the automatic triggering of a soldier’s name being read aloud as you walk towards the Visitors’ Centre. A similar pivoting between the bigger picture and the individual experience is done with the same powerful effect at the excellent In Flanders Fields Museum in the rebuilt Ypres Cloth Hall.
Visiting the Western Front helps us to anchor and fix our understanding of individual suffering and loss within the totality of the whole. Finding the location where a soldier from your school or home town is buried can be a moment that brings silence to a group. When one pupil’s hand goes up, others will gather at the headstone. Walking the line of an infantry advance from a start point to a small cemetery marking (as they often did) the limit of that unit’s progress, helps us civilians at least to visualise a scene of sacrifice, even though we may never recreate the emotions and thoughts in the mind of a soldier.
History is one of the Humanities, and one of its key preoccupations is the individual experience of civilisation at both its highest and lowest points. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers of all nations lying in the cemeteries of France and Belgium to honour their sacrifice. Furthermore, the young people of this country have a right to see where the soldiers from their cities, towns and villages from across the United Kingdom gave their lives in this epoch-changing clash of arms.
The monuments of the Western Front also give us important lessons about the global character of the 1914-1918 war. The cemeteries tell us a story of diversity that is recognisable in 21st century Britain and continental Europe. One need only visit the French cemeteries and memorials at Saint-Charles-Potyze (Ypres, Belgium) and Vimy Ridge (France, Pas-de-Calais) to appreciate the significance of the African contribution to the fighting on the Western Front. And, of course, the Entente imperial powers relied heavily on soldiers from many nations and religious affiliations, across the theatres of conflict.
The First World War has played a unique part in shaping Britain’s understanding of its past and present. For this reason, every secondary school pupil in Britain should visit the 1914-1918 battlefields of France and Belgium, even if only for a single day, and participate in the unique nightly Last Post service at The Menin Gate. Each pupil visit to the First World War Battlefields threads a filament of compassion and understanding between the past and present.