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.



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!