It is obvious to just about all that Britain’s WW1 centenary events, lead by the Imperial War Museum, should not be celebratory or jingoistic in nature. But, the ‘Commemoration Vs. Celebration’ semantic argument is superficial. An unanalytical commemoration is a celebration, albeit, perhaps, a sombre one.
The key question about the WW1 centenary events this year and onwards is whether they are analytical and educative. In order to be this, they should re-examine the facts, search for new evidence, test the theories and offer new perspectives – in a way that engages the public.
To this end, IWM have setup a number of online digital projects designed to pool information about events across the world (www.1914.org), as well as the pictures, videos and stories of the war belonging to the public (www.livesofthefirstworldwar.org and the flickr page, Faces of the First World War).
IWM have selected a large committee of academics, chaired by Professor Richard Grayson of Goldsmith’s, University of London, to advise them on these digital projects. Professor Grayson sees this an opportunity for everyone to gain: “I hope that this will be an opportunity for academic expertise to have an impact on the public. It is certainly an opportunity for academic historians to learn from the vast amount of expertise to be found among those working on First World War projects inspired by local or family interests.”
IWM’s advisory group is selected only from Britain and Ireland, missing out on crucial perspectives from across the globe. Professor Grayson replied to my concern:
“(E)xpertise on a number of aspects of the war in the wider world is represented on the group perhaps more than obviously apparent at first glance. Though consisting of academics based in two countries, the UK and the Republic of Ireland, all of us who teach on WWI would have significant engagement with material relevant to the countries you mention, as well as many others besides. We are not only knowledgeable on our own primary areas of interests, simply because it is not possible to be a WWI historian now without possessing a very broad knowledge of the issues involved.”
Without doubting the broad knowledge of the selected academics, Professor Grayson himself argued in a Guardian article that views on history are necessary subjective: “…there are many approaches to history.” The approach to WW1 outside of our borders, especially in former colonies or former enemies, will thus be somewhat different – and, therefore, necessary to a full understanding.
Nonetheless, IWM’s inclusion of academics with specialism and local experience of the Republic of Ireland is certainly positive for a wider understanding of the war. Professor Grayson discussed in the Guardian, “the recent upsurge of interest in the role of Irish nationalists in the British army in the first world war has radically revised a dominant narrative that focused on unionist sacrifice on the Somme in 1916. Over the past two decades many historians have shown that nationalists were also there.”
Dr Santanu Das, reader at Kings College, London is a rare member of IWM’s advisory group raised and educated outside of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. In this short lecture produced for the ‘Word War 1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings’ project, an online open resource lead by the University of Oxford and funded by academic digital technologies organisation, Jisc, he looks at the role of the Indian Sepoy in World War 1. He discusses, amongst other things, how their experiences and views have often been overlooked due to the lack of written records – and how, in this absence, prejudice was often used to define them.
In this lecture, Dr Catriona Pennell, another member of the IWM advisory panel and Lecturer in History at University of Exeter, questions the media depictions of the mass of the British public being blindly eager to fight at the outbreak. Whilst the evidence shows that there was a huge surge in volunteering to the army, the numbers show peaks and troughs that respond to the apparent threat that was perceived through media and government reports.
It is analytical, critical work like that presented in Dr Pennell and Dr Das’ lectures and other such material from the University of Oxford’s online centenary project that should be included in the WW1 centenary events – and such inclusion or otherwise will define whether the commemoration is meaningful or not.
Dr Catriona Pennell, Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, exposes the reaction to be much more complex than traditional images have led us to believe..
Dr Santanu Das, reader at Kings College London, considers the global and colonial dimensions of the conflict and asks how the War continues to resonate for diaspora communities in Europe and America.