Mobilising the past for today’s politics

Paul O’Leary reflects on how anniversaries are being used to promote British integration and disintegration in 2014

It is important to remember that the First World War was controversial and contested from the outset. It was never an unproblematic ritual of national sacrifice and unity, as the official version of history increasingly would have us believe. Opposition thrived (and was suppressed) in some places and among some groups during the war.

The anti-war activities of socialists like Keir Hardie and T. E. Nicholas in Merthyr Tydfil are well known, as are the activities of other pacifists who formed a small minority of the population. On the Home Front civil liberties were undermined by the Defence of the Realm Act, which was used to suppress free speech and to control the behaviour of many individuals who had no connection with anti-war activities. All this is part of the experience of the war but how do we accommodate this in a narrative of heroism?

Moreover, such cultural and political fracture lines have become explicit in recent decades because devolution has given them institutional expression. Recently in Northern Ireland there have been bitter divisions over interpretations of ‘the Troubles’. The likelihood of these oppositions being resolved by the time of the war commemorations is vanishingly small. In particular, community divisions will be amplified by the centenary of events in 1916.

That year is central to the foundation myths of both the Irish Republic and the Northern Irish state through two separate narratives of ‘blood sacrifice’. While republicans trace their modern martyrdom to the Easter Rising, Unionists commemorate their blood sacrifice through the horrific losses of the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Somme. Then and now, Unionists have seen this ‘sacrifice’ as a guarantor of commitment to the Union.

The commemorations in Scotland face their own political challenges. In May 2013 Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond struck a distinctive note when he announced the Scottish Government’s programme of commemorations in terms that depicted the war as a tragedy never to be repeated:

“The Great War commemorations are in no sense a celebration of the centenary of this devastating conflict. They are a commemoration, which will give the whole of the country the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the First World War had on Scotland … By reflecting on these devastating events, and the consequences they had for communities the length and breadth of Scotland, we will help people of all ages in this country understand more about the futility of war and strengthen our resolve to never let a tragedy like the Great War happen again.”

A community engagement project at Edinburgh University is called simply ‘Scotland’s War’. But which ‘Scotland’ will it commemorate? While the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 2014 will be commemorated by nationalists as a key episode in Scotland’s history of self-determination, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will follow hard on its heels, on 4 August. That will be commemorated as a ritual of common British sacrifice, including Scotland’s part in the conflict.

The juxtaposition of these events with the Scottish independence referendum the following month is one of the clearest indications of the cultural and political cross-currents that will be swirling around this summer. History will be mobilised as a powerful cultural resource for purposes of British national integration and disintegration within a matter of weeks.

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. Writing in The Spectator last year Alex Massie attacked backbench SNP MSPs for their attitude to the commemorations:

“I confess the connection between commemorating the First World War and voting intentions in next September’s referendum is not clear to me. Then again, I also see no link between the referendum and next year’s commemoration of the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. Neither seems likely to sway or otherwise influence how you will or should vote. That was then; this is now.”

There is no simple correlation between commemoration and voting, yet this belief in the dissociation of past and present seems optimistic.

In Wales the picture is subtly different. Unlike Northern Ireland and Scotland, interpretations of the war do not map onto obvious partisan political traditions. Here the accent in official commemoration is on education, the restoration of war memorials and the creation of digital resources. Organisations like the branches of the National Museum plan a four-year programme of commemorations. Meanwhile, the National Library’s innovative project for the digitization of historical sources relating to the war opens up the possibility of more democratic public engagement with the past (

The emphasis on community activities has the potential to bring into focus local considerations rather than dwelling on matters of politics and national identity. It might also have the effect of appearing to de-politicise the commemoration by individualising it at the expense of the wider context.

A Heritage Lottery-funded project, Brecon Remembers, aims to create a short history of each person named on the town’s memorial and their role and involvement in the war. Whether such projects will make it easier for people to grapple with the varied experiences of their ancestors in relation to the power politics of 1914-18 remains to be seen.

How will descendants of a combatant relate their acts of commemoration to those of the descendants of a pacifist? Only a developed sense of the wider historical context can provide the basis for a resolution of that difficulty.

As these examples show, commemoration is as much about a complex present that resists neat and tidy unity as it is about the past. History is never over, finished and consigned to a secure box which we open from time to time and look at through sepia-tinted spectacles. History is how we place order on past events and interpret them for the present so that we are able to understand our own world better. How we do this in relation to the centenary of the First World War will reveal a great deal about who we think we are today and who we want to be in the future.

• Paul O’Leary teaches History at Aberystwyth University and is author of an online digital exhibition on ‘The Great War and the Valleys’ in collaboration with the National Library of Wales. His latest book is Claiming the Streets: Processions and Urban Culture in South Wales, c.1830-1880 (University of Wales Press, 2012)

12 thoughts on “Mobilising the past for today’s politics

  1. Several of my relatives were killed in the 1St and 2nd World Wars.I my father’s first cousin was killed in North Africa.He came from Aberystwyth.Another Cyril Thomas Morris Davies from Llanychaiarn also near Aberystwyth gave his life for our country on 1 July 1916. the first day of the battle of the Somme.
    Each year I pray for my cousins,their immediate family who had to bear the burden of their loss and I pray that my own descendents and their friends may never again have to pay the same price for our freedom.
    That is what the anniversaries of the wars mean to me. ~Too much to be bothered with your Aberystwyth
    lecturer’s petty politics.

  2. In both your pieces about the remembrance of war you usefully direct our attention to the values our society adopts or ignores. It is these values that any society draws on in the design and placement of memorials which externalise attitudes, beliefs and feelings. What is not memorialized is as significant as what does get cast in bronze or erected in stone. For example, one seldom sees the victims of war portrayed in memorials and depictions of ‘the enemy’ are often problematic. Memorials to peace-makers, pacifists, female combatants and conscientious objectors are rare. Efforts to depict what it is that is being upheld or defended by the act of war are also contentious.
    I strongly recommend ‘The Language of War Monuments’, by Cardiff University’s Gill Abousnnouga and David Machin, Bloomsbury 2013 which offers fascinating accounts of the processes by which certain major memorials came into being in Wales for both world wars and subsequent conflicts. There is also an eye-opening account of recent war memorials and the their iconography.
    I’m also interested in work like Dr Bella Dicks’s of Cardiff University on how monuments and statues are ‘read’ in public spaces and on the links between the heritage business and memorialisation.
    The best war memorials, I believe, come from a dialogue about the conflict that occasions them but this kind of exchange is, of course, peculiarly difficult to achieve in the aftermath of a costly struggle. What sometimes results is superficial, ill-informed and partial.
    I was struck by this phrase of Gwyneth Lewis’s in reference to her words for the millennium stadium,’ the general creative vision by which people and societies form their aspirations’. Some people would deny there is such a general creative vision but I am sure it exists and that it is linked to the work done by the imagination. This general creative vision is at work in how we relate to and design war memorials because it springs from what we believe about war and what we imagine is possible to think about war.

  3. It is impossible to tell the bereaved that their loved ones died in vain or in pursuit of a rotten cause. It is perhaps cruel even to try. Yet sometimes it is the horrible truth. British arms achieved no good that was not massively outweighed by the evil we caused in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those young people were sacrificed in futility. The First World War was launched by people unaware of what it’s nature would be. With hindsight, nothing was achieved that justified the cost and indeed another war followed after 20 years. But that was not obvious at the time. Lloyd George, a radical who opposed the Boer War, was converted by the German invasion of neutral Belgium and atrocities committed there by its troops. No doubt his Welsh heart responded to the crisis of a small country at the mercy of larger neighbours. Sometimes men are trapped by circumstances and there is no obvious right course.

  4. Although it gets little attention, there is also a strong right-of-centre critique of British participation in the Great War: we had no direct strategic interest in reruns of the Franco-Prussian and Balkan Wars, and the human and financial costs of our involvement contributed substantially to the premature end of the British Empire. That school of thought also has contemporary resonances in a reluctance to stay out of fights that are not our own in Syria and the Ukraine.

    Yet what Sir Max Hastings called the ‘Blackadder School,’ who view the Great War solely from the perspective of modern prejudices, also miss the point. Although it may be fashionable to sneer at the simple-minded patriotism of the millions who volunteered to fight, there was a nobility in their self-sacrifice, even in a questionable cause, that is entirely absent among the scoffers.

    Peter Hugh Charles Davies is right: the correct way to commemorate the Great War is not with triumphalism, or by rewriting history to suit any political agenda, but with humble prayer for those who did their duty as they saw it and their families, and gratitude that most of us have never had to experience war for ourselves.

  5. Thanks, Angela, for a thoughtful response. The values underlying how we memorialise war – sometimes the same war – vary from time to time and from place to place. My father, who served in the RAF during the Second World War, took me as a child to the annual service at the war memorial in Mountain Ash where he could take part in an affirmation of what he had fought for and to remember his contemporaries. I’ve attended some services in recent years in other places and they have felt indefinably different. Commemoration has changed during my lifetime.
    My maternal grandfather volunteered to fight in the First World War and was gassed, subsequently taken POW and worked in German coalmines. I think of that often and wonder how the politicians’ use of the First World War would be seen by him and his contemporaries.
    This year the commemoration of WW1 will not be ‘petty politics’, as Peter Davies describes it, but rather big and expensive politics with a lot of public money being poured in. How we reconcile the very personal acts of commemoration both he and I engage in with the forthcoming commemoration (some have described it as a celebration) is something worth discussing, painful though it may be.

  6. JWR: I agree with the thrust of your comment except for the throw-away remark about the “premature” end of the British empire. India got its freedom in 1947 and Ghana, the first of the African colonies in 1962, I believe.What was premature? We shed needless blood trying to hang on in Aden, Cyprus and Kenya. If we had agreed in 1945 on a ten year progression to independence for everyone it would have been better than hanging on as long as our strength permitted and then scuttling, sometimes leaving disorder behind. It is a sad truth about people (not just the British) that they never relinquish power when they have control and can achieve an orderly succession but they always wait until their going is inevitable and then it cannot be managed.

  7. The only material thing left of my paternal grandfather’s life is a postcard he sent from Tourcoing in Flanders in December 1918 to my then five-year-old father. He survived the war, with a cavalry regiment but whether his health and peace of mind did, I don’t know.
    There are different types of ‘war’ and there can’t be a one-size-fits-all reaction to them but we must interrogate our responses if we are to be a civilized society.
    And I apologise for my ‘bloop’ in attributing words to the stadium which should have gone to the Millennium Centre. Sorry.

  8. Mr Tredwyn, as noted on another thread, there is a difference between ‘independence’ and freedom. Did the independence of India increase the practical freedoms of most Indians? The chaos of the immediate post-Independence period was hardly liberation for those who suffered as a result of it.

    We may be in agreement on one point: the precipitate way in which the Empire was wound up did no one any good. Plans for the gradual development of the Empire into a confederation of independent states were suggested earlier, but the political will was lacking after the Great War and by the end of the Second War it was too late. It is not quite true to say that Britain waited until the very last moment, but the final retreat, taking less than a generation, was hasty, unplanned, undignified, and disastrous for all concerned. It was disastrous for Britain because our economy was still geared to having an Imperial market. It was disastrous for the world because it left a vacuum that was filled, most unhappily, by totalitarian Marxists and naive Americans. It was disastrous for most of the new countries because one cannot establish a sovereign democracy where a civic culture has had no time to develop. There may be a lesson there for contemporary Wales.

    Where we disagree is on the utility of applying fixed time limits to the process of gradual development.
    Recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan confirms that such fixed deadlines lead to unnecessarily prolonged periods of uncertainty and insecurity. Once a decision is made, better to act on it at once – that is one thing Mountbatten got right in India. Again, there may be a lesson there for contemporary Wales.

  9. @JWR
    “… but the final retreat,….was disastrous for the world because it left a vacuum that was filled, most unhappily, by totalitarian Marxists …. It was disastrous for most of the new countries because one cannot establish a sovereign democracy where a civic culture has had no time to develop”

    Surely it was the preceding years (centuries in many cases) of exploitation, discrimination and colonial rule that were more significant in producing any “totalitarian Marxists” and” undeveloped civic culture” rather than the actual speed of any pullout by the empire.

  10. CapM, with due respect, you focus exclusively on the negative side of the Empire and ignore the positive. Without denying that there was a negative side, it should in fairness be judged relative to (1) the positive work that was also done, (2) what preceded it in most places, (3) the likely alternatives on offer at the time, and (4) what succeeded it in most places. A more detailed discussion is possible but it occurs that we are already going off-topic on a thread dedicated primarily to the commemoration of the War Dead.

  11. @JWR
    You brought the British Empire into the thread and it is relevant to WWI. Troops were brought in from across the Empire to fight in the trenches many from countries where they had no say in the government of that country. So far the commemorations of WWI appear to be ignoring the tens of thousands that died who came from the towns and villages across Africa, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.

    And with due respect my previous contribution, for what it is worth, was simply to point out that your opinion on the ills of colonial pullout post WWII being due to the speed of withdrawal ignored the consequences of the many decades even centuries of colonial rule that preceded it.

  12. CapM, sorry but the comment about the impact of the Great War on the Empire was, as R Tredwyn observed, in the nature of a passing remark. It was not intended to initiate a wider debate on the very interesting, but much bigger, question of whether the consequences of Imperial rule were positive, negative, or something of both. Such a debate – together with the even wider debate on why perceptions of Empire still matter in contemporary Welsh politics – would require a separate thread at the very least Do you know anyone who might be willing to write an article to initiate such a debate?

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