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The Great War has entered collective memory in this country not ...
on 2 January 2015
In my view 'History' begins first not with the events of their creation but the interpretation of those events. The popular mythology or collective memory of the event then goes on to shape the present and the future. This book is of particular interest to historians because it mainly looks at how the collective memory has been shaped and shifted over time in various countries. Influenced by poets, contemporary events, political ambitions and historians. Then the impact of monuments, graves and ceremony. Finally through television and the emerging impact of the internet. The Great War has entered collective memory in this country not as a single narrative but a shifting one. Viewed very differently in the inter war years for example, before there was any such thing as an inter-war period. It is fascinating to see this analysed [and see the differences between the main combatant countries collective memory] in such a masterly way by David Arnold, who hands it down to his people like Moses. Arrogant scholarship perhaps but nevertheless he has the badge to do so. It also strikes many chords with my journey into WW1 from A level history [AJP Taylor] through various authors covered by Arnold which ended with Holmes, Sheffield and Niall Ferguson. So I have journeyed much the same path as Arnold and realised that ‘remembrance’ based on individual loss and tragic waste are not what it was all about. There is a lot of myth hanging around.
I have a house which sits in the rear areas for the BEF and forward of the valley’s end, lie the garden crematories and Lutyens monument to the missing on the Somme at Thiepval. Walking around these areas I have come to feel that real meaning and understanding why 2.5 million of my fellow citizens voluntarily chose to fight in 4 year war which offered nothing in material gain to them was important and demands my attention. I am convinced they did this because they choose to prevent something they felt was preventable and undesirable. They [and I mean the common British people and its Commonwealth] never mutinied in the face of the setbacks and conditions, either at the battle or home fronts – other than Ireland perhaps and then not universally across that island. Instead they endured a struggle to support & master the technical aspects of warfare which had eliminated positional movement and committed themselves to Total War on an unprecedented scale. Finally in 1918 they mastered the battlefield and it was this Army [the largest ever put together and deployed by the British] that then rolled forwarded and convinced the opponent’s generals that continuation of the war was impossible [which was the correct analysis, the German’s were strategically bankrupt by October 2014 and technically bankrupt by August 1918]. I salute the Tommie’s and the technical management that allowed this to happen. But more importantly the British people had pursued a common aim based on broad shared values, both of which were honest and well meaning. I see nothing pointless in their sacrifices and hardships and actually have come to think their aims were laudable and; in any event their choices were limited.
What is less satisfactory, is what the British have done with their efforts. Remembering them would please ‘them’ but not remembering what ‘they’ fought and work for and supported, would not. This is an important work which attempts to challenge the deficiency in the current collective memory and perhaps allows us to take the values of those people [all of them on every war front and that includes the Home Front] and use them to better purpose now and in the future. Would those British people regard the EU as nothing other than a miracle? Anything which prevents the causes for war on this scale and avoids the miscalculations of late summer 1914 is a price I feel they might say was worth paying.