Wilf Stevenson on the importance of commemoration in understanding our past, present and future
The First World War was a conflict that touched every family, affected every community and fundamentally altered our country’s place in the world. It took the lives of 16 million soldiers and civilians across the globe, including 900,000 servicemen from Britain and the Commonwealth.
It is exactly because no part of our society was left unaltered that the range of commemorative acts and practices in which we engage are as extensive as they are. Whether the construction of a war memorial and the services that then take place at them, the creation of a piece of artwork or the writing of a poem and the exhibitions which illuminate them, or the study of memory itself and the impact that this has on our shared national consciousness.
We have begun to see the Great War as more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought, and recognise the profound impact it had on the political, social and cultural aspects of Britain.
On Monday evening, the House of Lords will debate how to best commemorate the centenary of The Battle of the Somme – for many people, the symbol of the horrors of warfare. The British Army suffered 420,000 casualties, including 57,470 on the first day – the 1st July. A special national commemorative event will take place this year at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Thiepval Memorial in northern France, along with a wide programme of commemorations across Britain, organised by supporting organisations, associations and groups.
As well as honouring the sacrifice of those who died, commemorations will also extends to our understanding of the impact these battles had on our national outlook.
Take democracy as an example. When war broke out in 1914, most working men but not a single woman had the vote. By 1918, 8.4 million women would be enfranchised when Parliament passed the Representation of Peoples Act. And the franchise widened steadily from there.
The First World War also changed role of the state, with the government having to take unparalleled action on food, rents and wages. This links to one of the central arguments in our politics today about how markets, rules and the State should best work for citizens.
The war also brought many changes in the lives of British women. It is often represented as having had a wholly positive impact, opening up new opportunities in the world of work and enlightening the contributions they made to society. (This in turn, strengthened the case for the right to vote.) In July 1914, a mere 2,000 were employed in government dockyards, factories and arsenals in July 1914; by November 1918, the figure had risen to 247,000. And the rise overall for women formally in the workforce by the end of the war was over one million.
But as we dig deeper into their lives, we recognise of course that the reality was more complex. Not all of the opportunities provided to women were positive or long lasting. Women's wages for example, routinely portrayed in the war-time press as ‘high’, remained significantly lower than those of their male counterparts. A battle that continues to this day.
Such complexity can be found in every component of the First World Warm but it is through commemoration that we understand it more completely. Indeed, since the passing in 2012 of Florence Green, Britain’s last surviving veteran of the war, we have an increased duty to understand our past as fully as possible. Each act of commemoration and each practice is a prism through which this can be achieved.
Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50
Published 13th March 2016