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History, memory and identity

WilfStevenson.jpgWilf Stevenson on taking the World War I commemorations beyond the poppy fields of Flanders

As we approach the centenary commemorations, it is important to remember the First World War for more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought. The war had a profound impact on our country, and it is important to reflect upon and learn from the wider social change that occurred during this tumultuous part of our history. 

My view is that there should be no flag-waving or glorification, as well as an absolute right to remember those whose opinions did and do differ. That means no rigid government narrative. It is right for people to be given the facts, but they should be free to form their own judgments. What cannot be doubted however, is that the events of that time provide an important foundation stone for understanding the making of modern Britain. 

The British and Empire Army which fought the First World War had more in common, demographically, with the Britain of 2014 than that of 1914. This is important because it underscores some of the reasons why we now have a multi-ethnic Britain. As a narrative it does more than just explain the facts of our imperial past but speaks to the contribution of many of the ethnic groups to our country – an example of a powerful ‘shared history’ which explains why Britain functions as well as it does. And also a potentially powerful tool for reassuring those who are culturally anxious about modern Britain.

Academic historians argue about whether or not the war on the Western Front may ultimately have been lost without the contribution of the Indian Army. But these encounters changed the nature of Empire too. The war transformed national identities in the dominions in ways which continue to resonate. It began to shape, too, emerging arguments among independence movements; although it took a second world war, within a generation, to play the decisive role in dissolving the Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations. 

The First World War changed Britain forever. It took the lives of 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe, including 900,000 servicemen from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. There were 16,000 towns and villages across our country in 1914, but only 40 would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict. So nearly every community has its own story to tell. 

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to live through a conflict where so many soldiers would lose their lives each week. Or to appreciate how much of a scar was left by the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, when 20,000 men were cut down before nightfall. But if we want to commemorate the war properly – to do justice to the memory of those who lived through it – then we must also remember the heroes on the home front. 

The miners, factory and railway workers who kept our country going, those who worked the land, and those who cared for the wounded. Women took on jobs that were previously the preserve of men. An additional 800,000 in industry, a million at the Ministry of Munitions, some 400,000 in offices, and another 200,000 in different branches of government. As a result, our society became less deferential, and readier to challenge authority. And the changes meant that the extension of the franchise – fought for by the Suffragettes and Suffragists in the run up to 1914 – became irresistible. 

It is for all these reasons and more that our commemoration of the war has to go further than the poppy fields of Flanders, and to reflect that broader story.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 24th June 2014

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