Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’: Some Reflections


The recently released film ‘1917’, directed by Sir Sam Mendes, has attracted a wealth of public, media and industry critical acclaim, both across the UK and internationally. As someone interested in cultural representations and portrayals of the conflict, I was excited to see how this re-imagining of the First World War might go some way to retaining, maybe even reviving some of the widespread popular interest in the conflict garnered over the period of its recent centenary commemorations.

‘1917’ Promotional Poster. © Universal Pictures.

I saw the film at my local cinema, an 8pm post-work Friday packed house. Audience buzz suggested high levels of expectation at the promise of an enticing evening’s entertainment. Sadly it is hard to avoid film trailers and online commentary these days, so the unavoidable advertising promotion I encountered at Waterloo station, alongside numerous discussion pieces, tweets and newspaper reviews, meant my expectations were two-fold; firstly that the film had a ‘Saving Private Ryan’-style (surprisingly simple) connotation of two youthful-looking soldiers needing to deliver a crucial message in order to prevent a doomed attack, facing nigh-on impossible odds in a high-stakes race against time set within a brutally harrowing theatre of conflict. Secondly the film utilised the novel concept of a single continuous camera shot throughout its entirety. This process of long takes and editing at a bare minimum would deliver an illusion of one continuous movement, as a way of telling the leading pair’s gripping story. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, the title of another famous post-war play by R.C. Sherriff – most recently portrayed as a 2018 filmed production – ‘Journey’s End’ could hardly be a more apt description of the final sense of release at seeing the film’s credits roll.

The spectacle, tension and drama conveyed by these two filmic frameworks makes for a very watchable, even bewildering viewer experience. Its visceral, immersive and sensory nature works especially well in cinema format. One striking thing is that the film quickly goes against the notion of static trench warfare, by taking the two principal characters, Blake and Schofield, out into and through the iconic space of ‘No Man’s Land’, then German trenches and beyond. Though I gather some viewers have encountered forms of motion sickness, the fast-pace panning of the camera does give a constant sense of movement, spatial progress in always moving forward – at times perhaps a tad contrived, but an empathetic, effective device for delivering a story filled with physicality, action and chase sequences. The real-time effect plays out proceedings as a metaphorical step-by-step journey of peril, one that the viewer can never leave, so must endure alongside the characters. Endless exteriors, bright vistas and open spaces grant a contrasting claustrophobia to the confined trench networks, and various indoor or underground locations (the subterranean tunnel scenes evoke the intensity of Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 novel Birdsong). Set-pieces dotted through-out also prove impressive visual spectacles, particularly the cinematography, choreography, production, lighting, and a host of other technical aspects I’m under-qualified to muse on. One couldn’t help but notice the incredible sense of realism within this recreated environment – as historian Chris Kempshall has observed, First World War virtual reality as depicted in creations such as ‘Battlefield 1’, are now important influences in how we visualise the spaces of the conflict (as well as being functional tools for learning). The cinematic viewer experience felt very much like a first-person game environment, a brief moment in time hurtling through these eerie environments.

Ironically it is this factor of high-calibre stylistic recreation that brought my thoughts to my doctorate research conducted at the Imperial War Museum (IWM). The IWM played a role as a repository for some of the film’s source material and inspiration, as various recent in-house promotional videos have shown. During the build up to the film’s release, there was also a wave of discontent amongst some First World War historians about a remark made by the film’s writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns; ‘I couldn’t research online: I had to go the Imperial War Museum and to France, and find books out of print for decades’ (tweet by Dr Kyle Falcon, 5th January 2020). The revelation prompted a lot of ensuing threads and conversations in historical circles – namely around the apparent neglect of new research and written material generated by the conflict’s centenary, but further extending out into discussions around authenticity and accuracy, using archival sources online, the role of historians within the film industry and so forth. Airing the merits or otherwise of these fall beyond the scope of this piece, but one IWM influence that felt overly apparent to me (especially during the film’s initial phase) was in comparing the film as a cinematic walkthrough of the IWM’s 1990 ‘Trench Experience’. Here we have a similar, very literal progression through the experience of the Western Front, with heightened sensory encounters of sound, sight and touch drawing visitors into aspects of its multifarious horrors, gore and brutality. Of course, those who passed through this low-lit walk-through space were detached, knowing that this was a fake recreation – but perhaps also allowing their imaginations to conjure up mental recreations amidst the fixed plastic mannequins and growling rumble of artillery fire. And whilst the recreated trench display had significantly less budget or contemporary technology to draw upon, the parallel between these two portrayals is the persistent public desire to know and understand what the War ‘must have been like’. Along with the partnering ‘Blitz Experience’, this IWM installation proved one of the most popular and memorable for its visitors – revealing the willingness of audiences, both of thirty years ago and now, to immerse themselves in iconic, precise yet somehow surreal recreations of the past.

IWM 1990 Trench Experience (IWM/90/49). © IWM

What ‘1917’ also does is to build upon the technical skill, craftsmanship and wizardry of Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ film, released in the autumn of 2018. It was a portrayal of the conflict that did much to colourise, and moreover individualise or humanise, how we understand the First World War post its centenary. As audiences, we remain profoundly moved in and affected by watching powerful accounts and versions of historical events, sitting as they do as contradictions in their incredible familiarity and ultimate unknowability. Thus the orchestrated sequences of feature films place us as viewers in the position of these soldiers, discovering and briefly inhabiting (almost theatrical) sets of trenches, mud, blood and corpses, as events progress through the horrors of violence, carnage and destruction of the War years. Whilst there are passing reference to the more common First World War clichés of futility and ‘Lions led by Donkeys’, the emphasis of ‘1917’ is much more on the haunting nature of quite literally fighting through this landscape, and subsequently on the concept of (albeit naïve) duty and devotion, as opposed to outright disillusionment. That said, evocative tracking shots through trench lines filled with static soldiers induces ideas of Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film ‘Paths of Glory’, prompting typical war film motifs around fear, trauma, and dark humour. One of ‘1917’s’ contemporary tributes – the desperately tense tracking sequence of one of the main characters running across waves of attacking soldiers going over the top, amidst heavy explosions of shellfire – is both thrilling and terrifying to watch.

‘1917’ should ultimately be judged – and recommended – as a piece of high-quality entertainment. The fact that most of the iconic big-screen portrayals of the First World War (namely ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, 1930) date from the immediate post-war period, speaks volumes about the challenges of conveying or recreating the brutally raw intensity of what soldiers experienced and endured on its battlefields. Though unlikely to satisfy historical purists, ‘1917’ nevertheless portrays the First World War in a vividly powerful way, so warrants consideration within the context of Britain’s recent cultural memory of the conflict. On the one hand, the film has come at an opportune time for a country that dedicated so much local, regional and national effort to its recent commemoration. But equally, one year on from all that focus on remembrance – with new ideas of aestheticised artistic installations, local history projects and creative commemoration – what the broader British public now wishes to take in is a more graphic, gritty and contemporary portrayal that shows to remind us about what we already knew about the conflict (with a nod to the role played by troops from across the British Empire). Online reviews are already pitching the idea of viewing the film as an act of witnessing, which as Ross Wilson has previously argued, instigates continued appreciation of sacrifice, heroism and remembrance (on an individual and national level). The ‘Reflections on the Centenary’ project team will publish on the meaning and significance of some of these notions around the conflict’s centenary commemorations, in our final project report due at the end of this year.

From One ‘Reflections’ to Another: New Zealand

By Catriona Pennell

Between 22 and 23 November 2018, the conference Reflections on the Commemoration of World War One  took place at Tūranga (Central Library) in Christchurch, New Zealand organised by Canterbury 100, a collaborative project co-ordinated by the region’s major cultural and heritage institutions, telling the stories and experiences of Canterbury people during the First World War. Much like our own ‘Reflections’ project, the conference committee understood 2018 – the end of the centenary of the war – as a timely opportunity to consider the ways in which the conflict has been commemorated within galleries, libraries, archives and museums around New Zealand and the world.

The conference was headlined by three excellent keynote papers offering perspectives from Australia, Canada and India. Dr Tim Cook (Canadian War Museum) opened the conference in a paper that explored Canadian soldiers’ wartime culture, formed in spaces of violence, and the way it transformed into a veterans’ culture forging, in the post-war period, different strands of memory and meaning from that of others who had not served in uniform. Professor Santanu Das (University of Oxford) considered one of the most important legacies of the centennial commemorations – the greater recognition of the contribution of non-white colonial troops – and the processes of double sanitisation that have unfolded as a result: the erasure of the ignominies of race and colonialism as well as the cleansing brutality and violence of combat. Professor Joy Damousi (University of Melbourne) considered how, in the 21stcentury, remembering violence of the First World War has increasingly focused on three sites: blood, bodies and bones. New forms of commemoration – such as the reinternment, in 2010, of 250 Australian soldiers killed during the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916, have concentrated exclusively on the body involving new technologies such as DNA testing and retrieval and exhumation of bones. These ‘modern’ acts of commemoration are highly contested but have received overwhelming support from the families and descendants of those exhumed providing them with a full reburial and ceremony.

The conference was open to museum professionals, historians, librarians, academics, students, film makers, artists, writers, researchers, and government sector contributors and was the ideal opportunity to share some of the initial research findings from our own ‘Reflections’ project and place them within a broader context of Antipodean commemorative activity. My paper outlined three predominant strands evident in the UK centenary activities we have been exploring at both national and community level: the mobilisation of the familial and local; the centrality of death, loss and tragedy; and the diversification of narratives and perspectives beyond Anglocentric experiences and military dead. I concluded by reflecting on the way centenary commemorations have unfolded, in the words of David Harvey and James Wallis (2018), ‘amid an era of existential crises – both for European identity and for the United Kingdom and its constituent parts’. While on the surface, politicians have attempted to utilise the centenary as a moment of national ‘coming together’, an examination of grassroots heritage projects reveals a resistance to being conscripted into a ‘one-size-fits all’ vision of British identity. The fracture lines of modern British politics and society are present within these heritage projects highlighting the complex and entangled memories and histories of the citizens and nations of the UK and its former empire.

These themes resonated throughout the papers I heard over the course of the two days. Sebastiaan Vandenbogaerde (Ghent University) reflected on the political tensions, instrumentalization of and struggle for memory inherent within Belgium’s engagement with the centenary commemorations. It was Belgian’s regional governments in Flanders, Brussels Region and Wallonia who led the commemoration plan deciding on their own priority areas and seizing the moment to profile themselves in an international forum. Hanna Smyth (University of Oxford) discussed the challenges and lessons learned from her own community-based centenary research project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, ‘Global War Graves Leicester’, including negotiating and integrating local and transnational perspectives; public engagement with diverse communities; the relationship between the dead, identity and commemoration; and the potential of material culture as a focal point for centenary public engagement. In a panel on ‘Legacies’ Simon Moody (Air Force Museum of New Zealand), Katie Pickles (University of Canterbury) and Sarafina Pagnotta (Carleton University, Ottawa) explored what narratives of the war – whether of other fronts, non-combatants, or material culture – have been lost and to what degree the centenary has provided an opportunity to shine a light on them again. A special panel was convened to reflect on one of New Zealand’s major centenary outputs – Weta Workshop and Te Papa’s exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of our War’– and exposed the differing perspectives between academics, curators and the exhibition’s Historical Director on issues such as the relationship between commercial design and heritage; affective engagement and critical reflection; and centenary initiatives and state structures of memory and identity in Australia and New Zealand.

It was a thoroughly stimulating two days that has given me plenty of food for thought as our ‘Reflections’ team move into the final stages of data gathering over the spring of 2019. Much like our initial findings in the UK context, the programme of papers highlighted how old and new narratives of the war have been presented in exhibitions, public programmes and research throughout 2014 to 2018. Most relevant to our own ‘Reflections’ project was the fact that many of these interpretations have been the result of collaborations that have joined repositories with academia, other institutions and the community.

At the Centenary’s Close: Some Reflections

By lucy noakes

On Sunday 11 November 2018, Britain and other nations marked the passing of 100 years since the Armistice that bought to an end over four years of fighting in 1918. In London, the now traditional Ceremony of Remembrance at the Cenotaph, held on the Sunday closest to the 11 November since 1945, took place in the morning, this year incorporating a ‘people’s procession’, which saw 10,000 civilians who had applied to a public ballot in order to participate, follow the traditional military parade past the Cenotaph. Those marching, many of whom carried wreaths which they laid at the Cenotaph, were motivated by a desire to mark individual stories and individual losses: the man marching in memory of his grandfather and his grandparent’s baby son, who died from whooping cough the same day that has grandfather died in a military hospital in France; the woman marching in memory of her Great Great Uncle who was killed by a stray bullet, aged 21, close to Jerusalem; and the woman who was there to remember John Parr, the 17 year-old boy from North London who, having lied about his age to join up, was to become the first British soldier to die in the war. The participants thus both represented a desire to continue the emotional link with the past that has been seen in so many of the centenary events, and acted to make loss, and its impact on those who have been bereaved by wars, even more visible than usual at this, centenary, Ceremony of Remembrance.

Loss, and in particular the figure of the sacrificial combatant, killed in an industrial war that was beyond the imagining of most people in 1914, has been at the heart of much of the commemorative activity of the past four years in Britain. The major public arts projects organised by 14-18 Now have all acted, in different ways, to commemorate the dead, rather than the war – and have all been extremely popular with the public. Tom Piper and Paul Cummins’ Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red attracted over five million visitors in the four months that it was displayed at the Tower of London, with many more visiting the installation as it has toured the country since. Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here caught the public imagination when it marked the dead of the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 through the appearance of volunteers in public sites, dressed in the uniform of trench soldiers and representing some of the dead of 1916, while Beyond the Deepening Shadow (Piper and Calix) and Pages of the Sea (Boyle) marked the end of the Centenary by remembering more of the dead.

This focus on loss was not unexpected: the cultural memory of the war, as Dan Todman has shown, has focused on the dead, and the belief that they were needlessly sacrificed by uncaring and out of touch generals and politicians since at least the 1960s. Academic work of the past decades, the best of which showed the nuances and complexities of the conflict, made little impact on a memory of the war as uniquely horrible and uniquely futile.

In January 2014 the then Education Minister Michael Gove argued that the coming centenary was an opportunity to demolish what he termed ‘the Blackadder myth’ of the war, identifying the popular BBC sitcom of 1989 Blackadder Goes Forth as a key propagator of ‘left wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders’. For Gove, to criticise British military and political leadership in 1914 was to diminish the sacrifice of those who died ‘in a just war’ against German aggression. Attempting to reclaim the war for the right, Gove argued that the Centenary should be at least as much about celebrating victory as it was about commemorating loss.

Looking back over the past four years, it seems that the narrative of loss and sacrifice has been strengthened, rather than diminished by the war. Many of the events and commemorative projects must have been the stuff of Michael Gove’s nightmares. The Heritage Lottery Fund, which by October 2018 had awarded over £95 million to a range of local history and heritage projects exploring the impact of the war, funded community projects such as The Orange Lilies, run by Strike A Light Community Arts in Brighton, which sought to explore the impact of the Battle of Boar’s Head on the city, supporting volunteer researchers who discovered the lives of men who were killed in the Battle, and recorded and commemorated them on a website and through local history events. Similarly the town of Whitstable in Kent remembered its military dead through the Think of Me project run by the Horsebridge Arts Centre. Heart-breaking letters from the bereaved have been digitised in the HLF supported Dear Mrs Pennyman project and up and down the country volunteers worked to research the lives of those named on their local war memorial.

The war was remembered, overwhelmingly, at the local level. While it is the large-scale public events that have caught the media’s attention, thousands of local, community based projects, have explored different aspect of the war. Although the war has almost moved out of living memory, its memory remains very much alive in many places. One of these is the Outer Hebrides, particularly the islands of Lewis and Harris,

In January 1919 HMY Iolaire sank at the entrance to Stornoway harbour, after hitting rocks. It was bringing men home to islands at the war’s end, and of the 285 men on board, 205 were drowned, within sight of home. This tragedy has a continued emotional resonance in the Hebrides, particularly on Lewis, where most of the dead came from. It overshadows other wartime losses in the Islands – 1000 men from Lewis, from a population of about 30,000, had been killed – and is remembered in families and by individuals, as well as at a wider, community level. As a participant in a workshop on the Iolaire co-organised by Reflections put it when explaining why so many people still feel an emotional connection to the war, ‘it’s not the facts. It’s the people and the stories’.

Again and again, it has been the people and the stories that have been at the heart of centenary events and projects over the past four years. Projects such as those outlined here, that explore and commemorate loss, and others, that focus, for example, on the experiences of Muslim soldiers, on the Women’s Institute, and on Belgian refugees all drew on the power of personal narratives, and on the desire of people today to understand the war through empathetic research into the lives of those who experienced it. Driven by a range of forces, including the growth of family history research, an awareness of the impact of contemporary wars on societies and individuals, and the ongoing strength of the cultural memory of the war, the centenary has been marked by a fascination with ‘the people and stories’ of the war, and a deeply felt sympathy for their experiences. Michael Gove may not be happy, but sympathetic research, and the development of empathy for others through this historical research, are no bad things. We do not have to choose between a wider historical understanding of the war, much of which has been driven and uncovered over the past four years by community projects, and an empathy with those who had their lives torn apart by conflict. It is not a zero sum game. We can, and should, aim to incorporate both in our understanding of the Great War.

Photo: Wilfred Owen’s portrait at Folkestone as part of ‘Pages of the Sea’ commemoration, 11 November 2018
Credit: Helen Brooks, Gateways to the FWW/University of Kent

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


Have you and your community experienced the centenary of the First World War? This may be as a project leader, a volunteer, or simply as a member of the public observing/visiting a centenary related performance, exhibition, or installation. These might be major national projects like the Tower of London poppies, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, or local level initiatives like the HLF-funded Broadland during the First World War. We would really like to hear your thoughts on your experiences. Please use the comments box below to record your own ‘reflections’ on the centenary of the First World War. Thank you!