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Reflections on the Centenary: An Important Moment for Education and the Memory of the First World War

Written by Natasha Silk.

As the Centenary of the First World War ends, it is time to reflect on the conflict as a whole and consider how the commemorations have unfolded. We are likely to see a raft of new literature in the coming months discussing the impact of the Centenary on British collective memory of the war. It is undeniable that the events of the last four and a half years have influenced the way we, as a society, view the war. Some have argued that we have allowed the story of the dead to overwhelm the way we have approached the Centenary. Certainly, the commemorations and remembrance services for the dead have been centre stage. However, many have used this opportunity as a platform to educate the wider public about the war, including more marginalized areas. It seems that these two aspects of the Centenary commemorations have gone hand in hand. This post considers how education and remembrance have worked together to create the Centenary’s own legacy.

The commemorations of 2014-2018 have captured the public’s imagination, with events having taken place in Britain and across the Western Front. Art and commemoration services for the major offensives, the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele, have dominated the discourse. The Centenary got off to an evocative start, particularly the poppy installation at the Tower of London which attracted thousands of visitors. They close their four years of remembrance with the lighting of thousands of torches, every evening promised to be no less moving. The poppies are now on their final poignant installation at the Imperial War Museum. Shrouds of the Somme provided, and continues to provide, another emotional representation of the cost of war. These efforts that have directly recreated the numbers of dead have gone a long way to help old and new generations to tangibly comprehend the scale and cost of the war. Finally, Peter Jackson’s remastering of the footage of the war, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)represents the pinnacle of attempts to bring the war to life once again. These commemorative features of the Centenary were also designed to educate and tell their own stories about the war. Although they focus upon visual representations of the fallen, the need to understand the consequences the war had on British society has been a prominent feature of remembrance since 1918. It is only right that this should have been front and centre of the last four and a half years.

However, beyond this and on a smaller scale, the Centenary has brought a unique opportunity to undertake educational projects. In 2017, I took part in ‘Unlocking Ypres’, a project organised by Gateways to the First World War in partnership with St George’s Church, Ypres. A group of postgraduate students the University of Kent conducted walking tours around Ypres and educated visitors about the history of the church. St George’s Church was built in 1929 as a war memorial, everything in the church was donated in the memory of a soldier or regiment and plaques were installed around the church with their own dedications. The church became a living memorial with plaques continually added. The purpose of our time there was to educate visitors about the history of Ypres during the interwar period, a history which been marginalised by the collective focus on the years of fighting. Many tours to the old Ypres salient take in the important sites of this area, particularly Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate, again in an attempt to convey just how devastating the conflict was. However, Ypres has its own significant post-war history with St George’s forming the centre of an ex-pat British community for soldiers who had married local women, as well as the gardeners of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Ypres had to be rebuilt from the rubble, with some in Britain (most notably Winston Churchill), arguing for the preservation of the city as a memorial to war, as it immediately became a place for pilgrimage and tourism. Civilians made the journey to visit the fallen or gaze upon the sites of war before they were removed forever from the landscape. However, the town was rebuilt exactly as it had been before the global conflagration and flourished on the new battlefield tourist trade that flooded to the area. Although this began to wane in the 1930s, the large numbers of visitors the Western Front throughout the Centenary have mirrored what occurred in the aftermath of the war. Many still visit for tourism, however, some visitors undertake their own pilgrimages to remember fallen ancestors.

Our group of tour guides returned to Ypres for Passchendaele 100 from July to August 2017. This was when the dual purpose of the Centenary could be seen to work in tandem. Whilst a significant commemoration, the Passchendaele Memorial Museum also used this as a moment to educate visitors, with educational stalls provided by Gateways to the First World War, the Western Front Association, Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the National Army Museum, amongst others, in the grounds of the museum. In Ypres, we returned to run tours but also welcome the descendants who attended the principle Menin Gate Ceremony. In this case, commemoration and education worked alongside each other to remember the fallen and explore the history of the war.

As there was a life and a history after the end of the war, so there will be after Armistice Day 2018. However, it is only with the passing time that we will truly see the legacy of the Centenary come to fruition. Many of those who have been involved with events connected to remembering the war are perhaps suffering from ‘Centenary fatigue’, and as we now move towards the big anniversaries of the Second World War it remains to be seen if broader interest in the First World War will retain such cultural capital. 2018 has certainly been the quietest in terms of commemorative events; the year of ‘victory’ is dissonant to the solemn tone the rest of Centenary has struck. Over the next few months, the enquiries into whether the Centenary has been a ‘success’ will begin. The Gateways to the First World War centre will be running an event to launch Chris Kempshall’s book, British, French and American Relations on the Western Front, 1914-1918, on 28 November 2018. The event, Centenary Reflections in the Entente Alliance, will explore many of the themes present here. What is certain is that the Centenary has added a new layer to the public memory of the war, but the opportunity has been seized to bring marginalised aspects of the war into the public eye.

Natasha Silk is a PhD Candidate at the University of Kent researching the First World War soldier’s experience of death and mourning on the Western Front.

Image Credit: CC by Natasha Silk/Twitter

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