‘The Great War’ Study Day

Lifelong Learning will be holding a one-day cultural event on Saturday 8 November 2014 consisting of a series of short talks led by experts from the university. This thought-provoking and inspiring conference will offer the opportunity to learn and engage in discussion about the Great War and the commemoration of conflict more generally.

Commemorating conflict

Commemorating conflict

In the lead up to the event John McAleer, a lecturer in History, reflects on the role of commemoration as a response to war and conflict.

Commemorating Conflict
On 21 November 1759, William Pitt, the Prime Minister, stood up in the House of Commons and declared that a public monument would be erected to the leader of the British troops at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Major-General James Wolfe. Pitt’s announcement took nobody by surprise. It came on the day after Wolfe’s funeral procession in Greenwich and only a few weeks after news of the British victory over the French at Quebec had reached London. Wolfe’s death, at the moment of a victory that essentially secured the sprawling landmass of North America for Britain (albeit only for a generation), guaranteed him lasting fame. The monument proposed by Pitt was eventually unveiled in Westminster Abbey in 1772 at a cost of £3000. Its sculptor, Joseph Wilton, depicted the dying Wolfe supported by two soldiers in uniform as he gazes upwards to the figure of Victory, bearing a laurel wreath and a palm branch. It is a personal monument, dedicated to an individual, the hero of a war from which Britain emerged as a global superpower. But for contemporaries, the monument – and the commemoration of Wolfe more generally – served to channel ideas and ideals of heroism, sacrifice and victory, crystallising nebulous notions of national identity in the process. As Horace Walpole observed, it was at Wolfe’s death that his fame truly began.

The Seven Years War, in which Wolfe fought and died, has often been called the first truly global war. But the commemoration of the Great War – the First World War – contrasts significantly with what came before. Instead of statues of dying generals, we find monuments like the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval by Sir Edwin Lutyens, or the Menin Gate by Reginald Blomfield at Ieper/Ypres. Wilton’s heroic vision contrasts markedly with these architectural forms. Lutyens’s work may have echoes of the triumphal arch of antiquity but its spare architectural beauty – standing sentinel above the killing fields of the Somme – acts as a stark testament to the countless thousands who have no grave, no final resting place.

In the decades after 1918, it was the ‘war memorial’ – a sculptural or architectural feature that commemorated not a victory or a victorious commander but human sacrifice – that defined efforts to commemorate the conflict. The truly horrifying statistics of the war, with its millions of casualties, suggest why this might be so. Writing in a Berlin newspaper in 1928, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig offered an interpretation of such memorials. They were, he wrote:

offered not to victory but to the dead – the victims – without any distinction, to the fallen Australians, English, Hindus, and Mohammedans who are immortalised to the same degree, and in the same chambers, in the same stone, by virtue of the same death. Here there is no image of the King, no mention of victories, no genuflection to generals of genius, no prattle about Archdukes and Princes: only a laconic, noble inscription – Pro Rege Pro Patria.

All of these monuments, erected in response to the great conflicts of their day, tell us as much, if not more, about the societies they come from as the conflicts themselves. In 1769, on the tenth anniversary of the battle at Quebec, Captain John Knox, an officer who had served there, published his memoirs. For Knox and his readers, there was no question about the importance of the taking of the city. Yet Knox was writing as much for future generations as he was for his contemporaries:

The end proposed, at least professedly, by all publications, is instruction, or entertainment. That I have the prospect of affording either, by a recital of facts, so recent as to be universally known, may possibly be a question with many. But the answer is ready. Though the facts, here recited, are known now, how long will that knowledge continue, if they are trusted meerly [sic] to memory?

Knox recognized that ‘meer’ memory is indeed slippery – a dynamic, active force that shapes the past but that is itself shaped by historical circumstances that change and respond to the specific political and social exigencies of the moment. And nowhere is this more true than in the way people and countries remember past conflicts.

How and why have wars been represented and remembered over the years? What role do specific anniversaries play? In what ways do commemorations shape our individual and collective responses to war and conflict in general? These are just some of the questions that we will be exploring in a study day to be held at the university on Saturday 8 November. We will consider specific national contexts and the various media that have been enlisted to help in this work of commemoration: from images and objects to poetry and music. Although a major focus of the day will be the First World War, we will also draw on other examples to place this conflict in broader historical contexts. And there will also be an opportunity for participants to have a guided tour of the special exhibition in the Hartley Library.

You can find out more information about the study day here: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/lifelonglearning/news/events/2014/11/08_the_great_war.page

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