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Tag: Britain

Reflections on the Christmas Truce: Myth, Football and the Christmas of 1914

Written by Natasha Silk.

The Christmas Truce forms one of the central focal points for the modern memory and commemorations of the First World War. Terri Blom Crocker in her exploration of the subject, has suggested that behind this myth that all soldiers ceased hostilities in rebellion against war is actually a complicated story. She argues that through its mythology and position in modern memory it has become a reflection of modern anti-war sentiment. Within the cultural memory of this event, the idea that British and German soldiers played football up and down the frontline is the dominant narrative. As Stanley Weintraub explored in Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 (2001), there is evidence to suggest that there were a number of football matches in no man’s land between the British and the Germans, however, it was not widespread. Weintraub pointed to examples where the Germans refused to participate and the British played the matches alone. Yet, the idea that soldiers ceased hostilities and played football during the season of peace and goodwill to all men holds a certain charm for modern audiences. It allows for the myths and widespread interpretations which have existed since the war to endure. This being, that the soldiers of 1914 were just ordinary men fighting a war that they did not want, forced to fight by politicians who did not understand, or care, about the horrors of war.

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Belgian Neutrality and its Reinterpretation ahead of the First World War

Written by Mario Draper.

Léon Arendt will not be a familiar name to most readers. His role as the Political Director at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1896 to 1912 was hardly likely to make him a household name beyond Belgium’s borders. Yet, his conceptualisation of these borders and of Belgium’s wider relationship with neutrality – imposed in perpetuity by the Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia) in 1839 – marks him out as a singularly important figure in defining the strategic paradigm at the outbreak of the First World War. For here was a man who proposed the controversial view in 1911 that neutrality was but a tool of independence and not an end in itself. In other words, were neutrality to jeopardize continued independence, Belgium was within its rights to reinterpret its duties and forgo its strict adherence to the 1839 Treaty of London. 

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(Re-)Visiting Ypres

Written by Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel.

Visiting Ypres, or Ieper to use its modern name, is an amazing experience. First, there is the sheer wonder of wandering around a seemingly historic city which, on closer inspection, proves to be of very recent completion. Then, there is the impressive scale of the massive Cloth Hall, the great medieval trading market which attracted merchants from across Europe. But, that too proves to be a bit of curiosity when stared at, as the mix of very smooth, sharply cut stone merges with the pock-marked, scarred and worn pillars along the ground floor. Next to the Cloth Hall is a soaring medieval cathedral, but enter inside and it feels so new you almost expect it to squeak as it comes out of the shrink-wrap. Finally, there is the Menin Gate, a huge memorial to the British and Commonwealth missing of ‘the salient’. Tucked into the ramparts, the Menin Gate almost leaps out on the visitor walking along the street from the central square (the Grote Markt). Of course, it is the Menin Gate that provides the key to the rest of the mystery, for it commemorates the fact that this charming West Flanders city witnessed some of the most intense and prolonged fighting on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. During that fighting, Ypres was reduced to rubble and ashes only to rise again in replica form. And that is an underlying theme of our new book, Ypres: the recycling, rebuilding, reconstruction of images, stories, and histories of Ypres which stands alongside the physical construction of memorials, monuments and cemeteries in a reconstructed landscape. It is about construction and reconstruction; the encoding and reinterpreting of a major historical event within its original space, and how the battlefield of Ypres could be brought home.

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CFP: ‘Keep Smiling Through’: British Humour and the Second World War

Two-day interdisciplinary symposium – 12/13 September 2019

University of Kent

In conjunction with Special Collections and Archive, home to the British Cartoon Archive

In wartime, as circumstances become increasingly bleak with military losses and civilian deaths mounting, something very distinctive happens to humour. There is an evident demand for an opportunity to laugh: a release from the increased working hours, the separation from loved ones, the dual burdens of work and maintaining a household, the fear of sustaining battle wounds and death. Indeed, war and comedy are intimately connected. In the Second World War, variety shows which included comedy sketches and humorous songs performed for servicemen provided an essential means of respite from both the boredom and the horror of battle, while home front popular culture, in the form of radio programmes, feature films, documentary films, newsreels, cartoons and songs, parodied the conflict and were crucial morale-boosters as the war evolved into a protracted struggle. But it was more than just a coping strategy and a form of escapism; it was also a key element of ‘Britishness’. As Sonya Rose asserts, humour served to define British national character, much of which was constructed in opposition to the humourless Nazis. And of course since 1945, the Second World War has sparked the imagination of scriptwriters. Unlike the First World War, the cultural memory of the later war is replete with stories about the conflict that use humour as a device.

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Spaces, War and Heroism

Written by Ellena Matthews.

Exploring space and place is a burgeoning field of historical enquiry. Indeed, the study of space is no longer solely the interest of geographers and social scientists, its application has broadened and the ‘spatial turn’ is becoming an important line of enquiry for historians. But, as Nicola Whyte has questioned, what does space do for our understanding of the past? Indeed, utilising a spatial methodology reminds us that spaces are complex, social and temporal; that they both shape social experience and are shaped themselves by the lived experience of individuals within them. Therefore, the study of space is integral to the study of history as it enables greater analysis to be placed upon the relationship between people, places and environments.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the 2018 Guernsey Heritage Festival

Written by Richard Guille.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018) is a Studio Canal film directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), based on the award-winning 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It follows a young English writer, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), who is contacted in 1946 by Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey pig farmer (Michiel Huisman). Learning of his membership of a unique book club formed during the German occupation of Guernsey, 1940-45, Ashton visits Guernsey to discover more. In the process, she learns about the occupation and the experiences of islanders during the war, notably the tragic story of one woman, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay). Whilst the film downplays the grittier parts of the book in favour of the story’s romantic dimension, a number of controversial and marginalised aspects of Guernsey’s occupation are portrayed. This article teases out the themes presented by the film and the implications of these for public occupation memory in Guernsey. It considers the films’ promotion in Guernsey, with this years’ Guernsey Heritage Festival (30 March to 10 May 2018) focusing solely on the occupation. This latest foray into presenting the public history of Guernsey’s occupation retains a focus on well-trodden ground at the expense of marginalised areas in occupation memory depicted in the film.

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Servicemen’s Music-Making and Morale in the British Forces, 1914-18

Written by Emma Hanna.

Pianos seem to be everywhere these days. Walking through St Pancras International station, one of the upright ‘street pianos’ are invariably being put through its paces by a variety of would-be pianists, belting out music of all kinds, from a Beethoven sonata, to Simon and Garfunkel, to the Lion King. Or you get to hear someone reminiscing on their school days with a rendition of Chop Sticks. Even the singer John Legend gave the beleaguered St Pancras piano a turn after a recent journey on Eurostar.

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Preaching to the Converted?: Boys’ and Girls’ Fiction as Propaganda, 1914-18

Written by David Budgen.

Children growing up in the era of the First World War were encouraged to help with the war effort in a number of ways; between 1914 and 1918 they collected conkers and wool from hedgerows, gathered salvage, and worked in war industries and on the land.  Much of their leisure time too would also have been taken up with the war.  In particular, a wealth of fiction – novels and story papers – utilised the war as a setting.  ‘Perhaps,’ argues Niall Ferguson, ‘the grim truth about war propaganda was that it had the greatest influence on the social group which mattered least to the war effort: children’.  This influence can be seen in the aforementioned ways in which children partook in the war effort.  And yet, although children’s books were undoubtedly topical responses to relatively contemporary events, the extent to which these works functioned as propaganda is worthy of some discussion.

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Great Britain’s Danger: The Navalist Propaganda Campaign of 1888

Captain Lord Charles Beresford speaking in the Commons in 1888 (Memoirs, 1914, Volume II, p. 160)

Written by Peter Keeling.

On 10 May 1888 a notice headed ‘STRICTLY NON-POLITICAL – GREAT BRITAIN’S DANGER’ appeared in The Times. Placed there by a group of naval officers and city businessmen led by Captain Lord Charles Beresford and Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, it asked ‘Englishmen of all classes and politics’ to consider the truth of the following statements:

The Naval and coast defences are quite inadequate to the absolute requirements of the nation.

The country is to-day unprepared for war, and would risk a serious reverse were such to occur.

Our commerce would be at the mercy of an enemy in the present weak state of the Navy.

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