Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War centenary?

Top half of Savile Lumley's poster for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, 'Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?'
Top half of Savile Lumley’s poster for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’

Deep indeed is our need of round numbers. We count the past in intervals of ten, fifty or a hundred years, making sure that we are standing in the right place and composed of the right thoughts when the time comes round to commemorate the historically momentous. Anniversaries and centenaries seem always to be upon us, driven partly by a media that like always to have something celebrate (and round numbers make for an easy story), partly by a wish by some impress upon us the lessons of the past, and partly because the passing of the years means that there is ever more of the past queuing up to be remembered.

Centenaries range from the pointless (all that fuss two years ago over the Titanic centenary) to the truly significant. The centenary of the First World War is undoubtedly among the latter, and if one hundred years is a meaningless concept beyond illustrating how deeply the decimal system is embedded in our consciousness, then it is significant for being a date just beyond the point where the last First World War combatant had died (Claude Choules, who died aged 110 in 2011). The war we must all remember is now something no one living can remember. We commemorate the loss of the connection.

But how to commemorate? The centenary of Britain declaring war on Germany on August 4th was marked by services, unveilings, parades, and encouragement for everyone to switch off lights in the evening until 11pm. There were television programmes documenting these events, interspersed with interviews asking people what their thoughts were on the significance of what was taking place. But then what? We have been commemorating the centenary of the war all year, and we will continue to commemorate it for another four years. How will we maintain consistency? How will we find the stamina? How to get it right? What will we learn from it all?

Here are some of the means to commemorate the war’s centenary that are open to us.

There is nothing quite like purchasing a weighty history book for doing our bit. It seems the right thing to have at such a time, and certainly the shelves in the bookshops up and down the land are groaning with histories new and republished to provide us with that definitive idea of what happened. Amazon list 69,646 books for sale under ‘First World War’ – around 8,000 are said to be currently in print. I’m slowly reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which is an intricate read but is setting the pace for being the key book of centenary so far, and lined up on the shelves I have Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, and Jerry White’s Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War looks essential. Novels? Well I might try and finish Parade’s End. It’s defeated me so far. A tip for a book to add to your shelves? Try David Jones’ In Parenthesis, the great prose-poem of the infantryman’s experience and its mythic significance (subject of a future blog post, I think).

The BBC owns this war. It has 2,500 hours of programming planned across television and radio, as well as web platforms, with a mission to increase our understanding of the war and to seek out its stories. It is a war composed almost entirely of the experiences of individuals, reflecting the sense that such total war has to be seen from the personal perspective rather than the strategic overview. A war with no overall meaning can only be understand by how it affected people just like us. So it is that we are getting a lot of readings from diaries and actors looking sorrowfully at the camera. It’s a somewhat bludgeoning effect, all the more so with something like the BBC3 series Our World War, using head-cams and thermal imaging to impress upon a generation that doesn’t know what its bloody reality was like. It’s the video game approach – the further we move away from the past the more we need some violent stimulus to jolt our sensibilities, or so the argument seems to be.

When was the last time a popular film about the First World War filled the cinemas? Gallipoli (1981)? [Update: War Horse, of course, as someone has now reminded me] I don’t know of any major productions in the pipeline, and maybe there won’t be until 2017 the centenary of America’s entry into the war. But there will be plenty of screening of films from the war period itself, and those made in the few decades afterwards. It should be everyone’s national duty to see The Battle of the Somme (1916) (could some TV commissioner be brave and screen the film in its entirety on 1 July 2016?), and the IWM’s Collections site has 1,816 actuality films of the war to view (memo to self – another blog post). But the feature films made in the 1920s and 30s by those who lived through the war but took time to distill the memories into cinema should also be sought out. All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Parade, I Was a Spy, What Price Glory?, Wings, Journey’s End, A Farewell to Arms, La Grande Illusion: they say more about the memory of war than poor TV drama, too young to know, will ever be able to achieve.

The Imperial War Museums (note the awful plural they’ve given themselves) has opened its/their much touted First World War Galleries, having closed for a period to prepare itself/themselves for the centenary. For many this will be the shrine to visit, and I’ll get there somewhere along the line. The museum has to compete with the expectations of the televisual, video game age, marrying physical exhibits to digital narratives that again try to impress on us war’s virtual reality. Also in tune with TV (and indeed every other medium it seems) is the focus on the individual experience, making the past real because it happened to people just like us. Culture 24 has a listing of what museums across the UK are doing to mark the centenary.

I’ve never been to a First World War battlefield. It would be a rightful thing to do, and those I know who have visited them have been deeply moved. I suspect they may be a bit crowded for the next few years, and I’m ambivalent about tour guides. Perhaps things will be quieter in 2019. The key site is that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the first place for finding out about the war dead.

Every museum, library, archive, gallery or whatever is going to have its First World War exhibition. There will be no end to them, probably no counting them all. So many objects yearning to make us remember. At the British Library we have Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour (running to October this year). For something off the beaten track, I might try Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One at the Brunei Gallery, or the Cartoon Museum’s Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art. The IWM-supported is the place to find what’s going on.

First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict
First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict

Or if you can’t see the objects in their glass cases, why not experience them up close online, such as through Europeana 1914-1918 (another project the British Library is involved in), which is digitising objects from museums, libraries and families alike (they are organising family history roadshows where you can get your precious objects digitised) for sharing across the continent through the Europeana portal – itself an expression of the belief that there is a way to build a world beyond war. Linked with this is the BL’s own World War One site, with objects, articles and themes to explore. Or I must visit in full The Guardian‘s impressive First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict interactive documentary. or the BBC’s all-powerful World War One pages, aiming to be the portal through which a nation rediscovers the war’s significance.

Why not download a part of the war and take it away with you? There’s artist Jeremy Deller’s digital artwork for the Lights Out project for which you had to download the app then see four videos over 1-4 August, a brief digital candle of a life. Or for that personal experience, try out World War I Interactive, First World War: Western Front, Owen (i.e. Wilfred Owen), War Horse, and many more.

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If we feel pity, we’ll likely turn to poetry. Try out a different poet or two. Read the Italian minimalist Giuseppe Ungaretti, or Isaac Rosenberg (see his poems, digitised documents, photographs etc all at the excellent First World War Poetry Digital Archive). Here’s Rosenberg’s ‘Louse Hunting’:

Nudes – stark aglisten
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces of fiends
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire,
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat
With oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.
Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the vermin brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Dug in supreme flesh
To smutch the supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

Commemorative issues
It seems like every newspaper in the land has rediscovered its archives and produced a commemorative issue, often by reproducing what their title published back in August 1914. Some have faced a bit of a challenge because 1914 newspapers in general weren’t laid out as dynamically as we would expect of a newspaper today, though the Daily Mail‘s attempt to get round this by producing a mock-up of how a war issue would look like if they produced it today was roundly criticised. Ironically it’s likely to end up being the one genuinely collectible commemorative issue of the centenary.


Family history
There is much encouragement from schools, archives and newspaper archives for people to discover how the war affected their ancestors. It’s another element of that personalisation of the war being stressed through every medium. I find the idea behind Lives of the First World War project (‘Facebook for the Fallen’) a bit unsettling. It is inviting us to fill in details of the names of all those who contributed to the First World War to create a ‘permanent digital memorial’ – which may just be a contradiction in terms. It’s a mixture of free and subscription based, and I wonder just how many will feel compelled to add family details to the register, and what the thoughts of those fallen would have been. It is good, however, that people are finding connection through family history, which never fails to bring home the enormity as much as the banality of the past. My maternal grandfather was at Gallipoli, the Western Front and Egypt – quite a tour of duty. He didn’t speak much about it afterwards.

Projects and courses
A thousand school projects have been launched about the war, many focused on family or local figures. But we can all continue to learn. The BBC has launched a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, would you believe – there are lots of them out there), teaming up with the Open University, University of Birmingham, University of Glasgow and University of Leeds to deliver four free courses: Trauma and Memory, Aviation comes of age, Paris 1919 – a new world order, and Changing faces of heroism.

I may take someone young to go and see War Horse.

Well I can do my creative bit by giving a talk of two of the First World War and film, which I’m supposed to know something about. A couple of talks are lined up – maybe others will follow. Plenty of archive film is being featured in all these TV programmes, trailers, websites and apps, but precious little of it is being given any sort of context. It is not just background, it has meaning – meaning that becomes clearer if you know its history. Much like any other aspect of the war, of course. Perhaps that’s my answer to Savile Lumley’s poster.

Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red via @HistoricalPics
Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red via @HistoricalPics

I wore a poppy once. Not now. Better instead to go to the Tower of London and see the extraordinary outpouring, and open wound of blood-red ceramic poppies, 888,246 of them (eventually), one for every British and Commonwealth (they don’t say Empire) soldier who died. It’s an artwork by Paul Cummins, entitled Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red, and for many this will say it all. Ours is an age of extraordinary imagination.

Think of other wars
Of course we must think of the world today, and not hide from it. But we can recognise the past too.

Meet those who were there
We can still do so, through the ghostly magic of the audiovisual media. One of the best offerings from the BBC is the series of uncut interviews with those who lived through the war which were made for the 1964 series The Great War. There are thirteen of them on iPlayer, available indefinitely it seems. They are so clear, eloquent and truthful. We don’t need head-cams or thermal imaging – we just need to look into their eyes.

Is it all too much? It is for some. Simon Jenkins calls the outpouring of “Great War plays, Great War proms, Great War bake-ins, Great War gardens, even Great War Countryfile … a nightly pornography of violence”. We celebrate with abandon, yet learn little. I don’t know. We may be celebrating the centenary as much to fill the void as to commemorate the past, but no one is going to see every exhibition, read every book, or download every app. They will see what they want to see. And the lessons are clear enough for most – some elitists may shake their heads at the vulgarity and meaninglessness of it all, but the rest understand that remembrance is a lesson in itself.

What is distinctive about so many of these commemorative war events is their focus on the individual experience – their experience then, and our imaginative engagement with that experience now. It was a war fought by you or I, not by some remote army. In doing so it made war ridiculous and indefensible. It didn’t stop war, but it changed the understanding of war utterly, and that continues to have its effect on the world most of us expect to see and to live in. And because the war was fought by you or I, we became more important than the kings, politicians, ambassadors and generals whose machinations caused the war in the first place. We own the story, and every exhibition, book, programme and downloadable app is a reflection of that truth.


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5 thoughts on “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War centenary?

  1. Actually, the BBC3 programme Our World War with the head-cams and thermal imaging turned out to be very well done (part one of a series). Visceral, authentic and anachronistic at the same time, and moving.

  2. Regarding Charles Urban, if you desire information on his cameraman, John Mackenzie, just let me know. My grandfather John started out as a Victorian era Magic Lanternist, progressed to being Scotland’s first professional moviemaker (B+W silent travelogues), and then relocated to London to work as a cameraman for Charles Urban Trading Company. Urban sent him (along with a London newspaperman) for an extended trip to pre-World War I Balkans. Urban and grandfather exhibited Kinemacolor to 1,200 invitees at the Madison Square Garden in New York City. Grandfather also accompanied Urban to New Delhi for the Delhi Durban (Coronation of King George + Queen Mary) as the Emperor and Empress of India. World War I grandfather relocated to Hollywood. During WWI the new Canadian National Railway commissioned grandfather to film a travelogue of the CNR’s trains and scenery. On your Charles Urban website, you have biographies. If you would like to add Urban’s cameraman, John Mackenzie, I can forward a photograph for you to use. I have several including one taken of grandfather by the London newspaperman while they were at a train station in the Balkans (they were in the Balkans for Charles Urban).

  3. Thank you for getting touch. John Mackenzie was a great cameraman, one of Urban’s most trusted operators. I would love to know more, and will get in touch with you by email.

    1. Luke

      I am helping a Scottish friend research the life of John MacKenzie, the Inverness-born cameraman who worked with Charles Urban. Your site devoted to Charles yielded some very helpful information on John. I also noticed your blog attracted the attention of John’s grandson, George Mackenzie Junior. Would you be able to put me in touch with George…or at the very least send him my contact info…would be greatly appreciated.



      1. I will forward your details to him, and ask whether he is happy for me to pass on his email address to you.


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