Capturing Commemoration: Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War, 12 October 2018

By James Wallis

The First World War centenary has seen a significant amount of commemorative and educational activity, led by local, regional and national grants. These have been enabled by a variety of different funding bodies – including the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Arts Council, and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Amongst others, these represent a number of organisations that have undertaken evaluations of their projects, as well as capturing the long term impact of centenary activities on the British public’s understanding of First World War history.

Until last week, there had not been any collaborative or shared consideration of the ways in which different evaluations have been conducted, or consideration of how their collective results might be utilized in a mutually supportive manner – so as to produce the best possible overview of centenary activity and its impact within the UK during this period.

The AHRC-funded ‘Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War: Learning and Legacies for the Future’ project started this conversation with a one day symposium event, held at the National Archives on Friday 12th October. Titled ‘Capturing Commemoration’, it brought together key organisations, all of whom are (or will be) conducting UK-based evaluative work. These included representatives from 1418 NOW, the Imperial War Museums (IWM)-led First World War Centenary Partnership Programme, Historic Royal Palaces, the AHRC, Historic England and the Department of Culture, Media & Sport.

The event programme showcased four organisation-led discussions, themed around legacy and evaluation;

  • ‘Evaluation Objectives’ – Heritage Lottery Fund.
  • ‘Target Audience’ – British Future.
  • ‘Evaluation Methods’ – AHRC First World War Engagement Centres.
  • ‘Sharing Results’ – Northern Ireland Community Relations Council/HLF.

Click here for a Wakelet collation of tweets from the day (#captureWW1).

The ‘Reflections’ Team will produce a short report of key findings and recommendations, to be made available on this website in due course.

What has additionally been evidenced during these closing phases of the centenary, especially with this week’s release of Peter Jackson’s documentary film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, is that the public appetite for the First World War manifests particularly strongly via perspectives that humanise it. The impressive restorative process of colourising original archival footage (held by IWM) has resonated with viewers, through its capability to collapse temporal distance, between then and now. Presenting the past to audiences in a new light speaks to the changing practices of commemoration developed over the last four years.


Release of new film version of Journey’s End will once again bring the centenary to public attention


The release of a new film version of Journey’s End will once again bring the events of 1914-1918 to the forefront of the British public’s attention. According to the Daily Mail, the film’s production was made possible by the efforts of Prince Andrew, who felt that the centenary of the First World War ‘should include a film’. The prince persuaded the studio Warner Bros to release the rights to the work and the film will be released in British cinemas on Friday 2nd February 2018. Warner Bros told the Daily Mail that they were ‘happy to grant the rights to make a feature film of this important play, recognising its cultural and historical significance during the 100th anniversary commemorations of World War I’. Producer de Beaujeu said the Duke had been made aware of the situation over the film rights back in 2015: ‘He understood the great significance of the film being part of the centenary events, and responded really well.’ Prince Andrew, who flew helicopters during the Falklands War, visited the set during filming ‘but declined an invitation to dress up in costume for a cameo role in the trenches.’ (Daily Mail, 26th January 2017).

Interestingly, despite over £50 million of government money being devoted to a national programme of events over the last four years, Sam Claflin, the actor playing Stanhope in this new version, told the Independent that he felt the First World War ‘is dying from the collective consciousness’ (Independent, 29th January 2018). To prepare for his role he met a number of forces veterans suffering from PTSD. Certainly, from the play’s first performances in 1929, veterans of 1914-18 queued up in their thousands to watch the performances, which were overwhelmingly well received by the men who had fought 1914-18.

Journey’s End is a quintessential text in Britain’s modern memory of the First World War. Originally written in 1928 as a play by Robert Cedric Sherriff (1896-1975), and first performed in 1929, the piece is invaluable to show how a former officer on the Western Front wanted to represent his wartime experiences and post-war opinions in dramatized form. Sherriff was grammar school educated who went on to work as an insurance clerk in London. After the outbreak of war, Sherriff served as a junior officer in the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, seeing action at the battles of Loos and Vimy, then later at Passchendaele where he was seriously injured. Sherriff’s autobiography details that, by 1919, he was on the verge of a breakdown, but like the majority of veterans he sought to settle back into civilian life. He returned to work in the insurance industry and began to write plays, his first A Hitch in the Proceedings (1921) to raise money for Kingston Rowing Club, of which he was a member.

Journey’s End was written in 1928 amid an atmosphere of high emotion, memorial building and class conflict in the wake of the General Strike. The play is set in March 1918, the time of the German Spring Offensive which resulted in serious setbacks for the Allied forces. It depicts C-company arriving to take its turn in the front-line trenches in northern France led by the war-weary Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). A German offensive is imminent, and the officers (Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham Tom Sturridge) and their cook (Toby Jones) distract themselves in their dugout with talk of food and their past lives. Stanhope, meanwhile, soaks his fear in whisky, unable to deal with his dread of the inevitable. A young new officer, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), has just arrived, fresh out of training and abuzz with the excitement of his first real posting – not least because he is to serve under Stanhope, his former school house monitor and the object of his sister’s affections. Each man is trapped, the days ticking by, the tension rising and the attack drawing ever closer. However, for audiences watching the play the ending is already known. There is no real sense of hatred towards the enemy, and the sense of ever-present death contributes to the nobility of the characters who are not portrayed as pawns of fate: they face their fate and go forward. However, for those watching the play there is an overwhelming feeling of disaster as we know about the events portrayed and of how the war eventually ends. Indeed, those looking on assume that the characters on the stage are already dead.

This is not the first cinematic treatment of Journey’s End. It was first filmed in 1930, starring Laurence Olivier who had also played Captain Stanhope in its first stage performances. This latest film version, by director Saul Gibb, was moderately well received at the London Film Festival in October 2017. The film critic Tim Robey described the film as feeling that ‘the trip back down into the Stygian depths of a dugout where six men wait out their final days’ was a victim to the play’s ‘overfamiliarity’. He felt that there was ‘something holiday-schoolwork-ish about it – very decent, not quite urgent’ but that ‘some wonderfully acted moments carry the day’. (Tim Robey, Telegraph, 17th October 2017). I certainly can’t be the only one relieved to see that Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne are refreshingly absent from the cast of this new production.

Of course, in 1975 Paul Fussell could only read the play in ironic terms because he saw everything about the war through a filter dripping in irony. But is it an anti-war film? Some think that it is, just as they debate the same question relating to the novel and film(s) All Quiet on the Western Front. Certainly, Journey’s End summarises what we now recognize as the established mythology of 1914-18; the hierarchy of the English class system, confirming stereotypical tropes of the public school, of the men in the ranks as semi-literate cannon-fodder, the burden of command, of courage, patriotism, sacrifice, the expiation of sins by heroic death. However, we don’t see a truly anti-war film about 1914-18 until the anti-war decade – the 1960s – with For King and Country (1964). I don’t think that First World War veterans regarded Journey’s End as an anti-war play, they saw it as a memorial to their generation’s sacrifice and perseverance at a time of international emergency. By watching the play, and later the film, they could sit with men who preferred only to talk to each other about their wartime experiences. Family members who could not talk to their husbands/fathers/brothers/sons may have seen the play as an attempt to understand what their loved ones could and would not ever tell them. For veterans there was simply no point trying to explain it to someone who hadn’t been there. But Sherriff was one of them: he was talking in their language.

In February 2018, however, audiences in Britain may well respond to the new Journey’s End film as they do to most things about 1914-18: it will be understood as a war memorial in cinematic form. It will not challenge what audiences already think they know about the war, of its mud, blood and futility, of innocence lost and lives destroyed. It will therefore be placed above criticism, much like the play and film War Horse several years ago. As with Paul Cummins’ art installation, the poppies at the Tower of London, those who go to screenings of Journey’s End may do so out of a sense of collective commemoration, that it is seen as an appropriate thing to do as the centenary of the First World War draws to a close. As always with Journey’s End, however, as I know from my own experience, there won’t be a dry eye in the house once the lights come up.

Sherriff wrote a number of other plays and was employed as a script writer by MGM, for whom his best-known script was The Dam Busters (1955), another commemoration of British stoicism in the face of death, which could of course be read as Journey’s End in World War Two RAF uniforms. Over the course of his writing career Sherriff received one Oscar nod and two BAFTAS. His personal papers are held in the archives of the Surrey History Centre.

Click here for more information on R.C.Sherriff.

Have you and your community experienced the centenary of the First World War?

By Lucy Noakes

Since 2014, Britain has been participating in one of the largest public history projects the country has ever seen.  As we pass Remembrance Sunday, 2017, we come another year closer to the end of the cycle of events that has marked the centenary of the First World War in Britain. The war and its aftermath have been widely remembered and commemorated across the country. Artworks such as Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each commemorating one British or colonial serviceman (or woman) killed in the war, and major museum displays, most notably the Imperial War Museum London’s re-imagined First World War galleries, have attracted many thousands of visitors.  On the 1 July 2016 more than 1400 volunteers took part in Jeremy Deller’s We’re here because we’re here, appearing in a range of locations across the UK in First World War uniform; a living reminder of the almost 20,000 men killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme one hundred years previously.  The BBC have employed panels of historians to advise on their programming through the World War One at Home project, and multiple academic conferences have brought together scholars to analyse the war, and share new perspectives.

But the war has also been remembered and commemorated at a local, community level.  Activities marking the centenary have been widespread, geographically diverse and wide ranging, both in the areas that they examine, and the means by which they have  marked the impact of war. In Portsmouth, the King’s Theatre worked with academic researchers, local schoolchildren, adult volunteers and actors to rediscover and produce ‘lost plays’ of the First World War. In Birmingham, an exhibition at Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery told the story of Muslims in the First World War, collecting together artefacts and the stories of descendants to tell this little known history. In Coventry, a football match between teams of women from the city’s munitions factories was re-enacted. In Killyleagh, Northern Ireland, communities came together to consider the impact of the war on the town through exhibitions, walking tours and a website, and in Glasgow refugees and asylum seekers explored the experiences of the thousands of Belgian refugees who made their homes in Britain during the war.  Through the Heritage Lottery Fund, over 1,800 centenary projects around the country have been supported with over £90 million worth of funding since 2010.

On 11 November 2017 the Reflections on the First World War project launched a major online survey which aims to capture for future generations both the range of projects that have been created, and their wider impact on British society in the early 21st century. Who has participated in these projects? Which groups have come together to research and create them? Have participants benefitted from their participation, for example through learning new skills, or meeting a new group of people? Has the centenary extended our knowledge of the wear, or changed the way that we think about it? If you have participated in a project, visited a museum exhibition or artwork commemorating the war, or indeed have remained untouched by any of the events taking place, the survey is your opportunity to record your experiences and views of the centenary. You will be directly contributing to a better understanding of the co-production of research for all those who wish to engage in historical commemoration in the future. To take part, please follow this link.


Reflections on the Centenary: First Workshop, University of Kent, 13 September 2017

By Lucy Noakes

As we move towards the final year of the centenary, we are beginning to look back on not only the First World War, but the ways in which the centenary of this global conflict has been marked, both in Britain and across the world.

On the 13 September 2017 Gateways to the First World War hosted the ‘Reflections on the Centenary Workshop’ at the University of Kent. The workshop was led by Dr Emma Hanna (University of Kent), Professor Lucy Noakes (University of Essex), Dr Catriona Pennell (University of Exeter) and Dr James Wallis (University of Essex). Together with Professor Lorna Hughes (University of Glasgow), they have been awarded three years of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to explore the multiple experiences, projects and legacies of the First World War Centenary.

The workshop was attended by a range of centenary project participants, together with students and historians of the First World War. In the morning we heard fascinating presentations from two projects that have received funding from the Heritage and Lottery Fund:

100 Miles for 100 Years: Kent in World War One and

Theatre of War, the King’s Theatre Heritage Project, Portsmouth.

Both projects have been supported by Gateways, and the presentations illustrated just two of the range of imaginative and informative ways in which community led projects are contributing to and shaping our knowledge of the war in Britain. Local histories, such as these, provide us with a means of linking the often individual and local experiences of the conflict with the war on a global scale. For example, the 100 Miles for 100 Years walking tour of Southborough and High Brooms highlights the tragedy that was the sinking of HMS Hythe off the coast of Gallipoli in 1915. On board were many of the men of the Third Kent Fortress Royal Engineers, formed of volunteers from the area. Of the 154 who died, 129 were from these small communities, devastated by losses on the border between Europe and Asia. The Kings Theatre meanwhile gained funding from the Arts Council to stage some of the ‘lost plays of World War One’, rediscovered by volunteers working with Gateways historian Dr Helen Brooks in the archives of the British Library, and with the support of Gateways Co-Investigator Professor Brad Beaven, and Gateways Network member Dr Melanie Bassett, both of the University of Portsmouth.

Professor Sarah Lloyd, the Principal Investigator of the Everyday Lives in War AHRC First World War Engagement Centre at the University of Hertfordshire gave the workshop’s keynote lecture, in which she discussed the relationship between the changes of the war, so often seen as a ‘watershed’ or seminal break with the past when examined on a global scale, with the continuities of daily life for many of those who lived through it. These intimate, local histories – the ‘voices less heard’ – provide both a means of complicating our understandings of the war, and act as a way for us to engage more fully with the people of the war years. Stories, she argued, help us to understand the complexities of the past.

This point certainly proved true in the reflective workshops with which we ended the day. Members of community groups came together with historians and students to discuss and reflect upon our experiences of the centenary. Amid discussion of a wide ranging and impressive series of centenary projects, two features really stood out: the empathetic connection that many felt with those who lived through the war, and the multiple meanings of the war in the early 21st century. One participant reflected on her pride at seeing the Belgian national flag fly over her local town hall to mark the refugees from that country that the town had hosted during the war, an important reminder of our shared past in the age of Brexit and anti-refugee sentiment in much of the popular press. Others discussed the ways that researching local history had helped them to more fully understand their contemporary community, and being deeply moved when they met descendants of those who had previously been a name, or a photo, in an archive.

As the day drew to a close it was clear that the experience and legacies of the centenary are numerous; shaped as much by the experience of living in the early 21st century as they are by the histories of the First World War being explored and shared. It is these experiences, and their legacies, that that Reflections on the Centenary team are keen to explore between 2017 and 2020. On November 11, 2017 we will launch an online survey asking participants to consider their both their experiences of the centenary, and their understandings of the First World War, and are also keen to interview centenary project participants alongside heritage professionals, students and educators. If you would like to know more about our project and to get involved by recording your centenary reflections, please email Lucy Noakes at