I spent a couple of days last week at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, where I’d been invited to speak to the personnel of 38 (Irish) Brigade about the history and memory of the First World War. It was an odd but fascinating trip. There was a time in my life when a British army base in Northern Ireland was the last place on earth I would have expected to find myself, but today it seems like a natural enough destination for someone interested in the complexities of the British commemoration of war. The barracks must have been a real hive of activity during the Troubles when there were over 22,000 British soldiers stationed in the region, but it’s a remarkably quiet place now, with an atmosphere that feels either peaceful or foreboding depending on the hour of the day. It was named after the village in the Somme Valley through which the 36th (Ulster) Division advanced and suffered terrible losses on 1st July 1916. For many in the Unionist community, the blood sacrifice of Ulster soldiers on that day purchased the right of the six counties to remain within the United Kingdom, and the memory of the battle is still extremely resonant in Northern Ireland. An elegant granite memorial in the grounds of the barracks commemorates ‘the splendid action fought by the 36th Division’ on the Somme, and servicemen and women stationed there have always venerated those who died in France.
A small museum in Lisburn town, just a short drive from the barracks, tells the story of the area during and after the Great War. It also features a refreshingly objective and engaging exhibition on the impact of the Reformation in Ireland. The advent of evangelical Protestantism in Europe cast a very long shadow in places like Lisburn and historical episodes of ideological violence and sectarianism are still very publicly remembered in the town. One of the panels in the museum gives visitors a fairly unvarnished account of the killing of Detective Inspector Oswald Swanzy of the Royal Irish Constabulary in August 1920. Swanzy had been implicated in the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain, the Republican Lord Mayor of Cork, and was shot dead by IRA gunmen in Market Square. His death provoked an outburst of violence against local Catholics, many of whom were forced to leave Lisburn forever. Swanzy was buried in Dublin, but a brass plaque in the Anglican cathedral across the road honours his memory and that ‘of all his gallant comrades who gave their lives in the unfaltering discharge of their duty’. Just outside the entrance to the museum, a memorial to the Ulster Defence Regiment acts as a very stark reminder of the violence and division of the much more recent past. The memorial was erected just six years ago and takes the form of two larger-than-life statues of a male and female soldier. The UDR recruited locally and was composed almost exclusively of men and women from the Unionist community. Despite a vetting process, the regiment was infiltrated by Loyalist paramilitaries and was viewed with suspicion and distrust by nationalists. There should be little doubt, however, that the UDR, whose headquarters used to be at Thiepval Barracks, suffered a great deal during the conflict. Almost 200 members of the regiment, including four servicewomen (or Greenfinches), were killed between 1970 and 1992.
Lisburn is a pleasant market town with an interesting and complex heritage, by no means all of which is bleak and divisive. I found its people warm and friendly, and the officers and men of 38 Brigade couldn’t have been more welcoming to me. But territorial understandings of the past have divided communities there for four hundred years and history hangs quite heavy in the air. The poppy, it need hardly be said, is not worn lightly in this part of the world and remembrance is still loaded with the weight of historical injury. Commemoration of the two world wars is always political in Northern Ireland and can still be very divisive. And yet people in the North, and indeed across the border in the Republic, have shown a great willingness in recent years to revisit and re-imagine their history. Cross-community and cross-border acts of commemoration are reasonably common today, and public gestures that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago are made every year. It’s not enough, of course, and we’d be naïve indeed if we thought that perfect harmony could prevail in a region in which so many were killed within living memory. The devolved government at Stormont has ceased to function, and the now likely return of a hard-border with the Republic threatens to jeopardise years of bridge-building and diplomacy. But the conflict in Northern Ireland has forced people in both communities, and on both sides of the border, to try to adopt a more complex and inclusive view of their history. And the tone in which people talk about the past tends to be much less rancorous than it used to be.
Back in Britain, the challenges of commemoration seem less visceral and certainly less fraught with the potential for violence than in Northern Ireland. But in cultural terms, the way British people remember the dead of the world wars is a more important issue than we perhaps realise. And it definitely seems to be changing. When I returned to London, I was struck by the bitter tone of much of the media commentary on remembrance in general and the poppy in particular. Statements about the importance of supporting the armed forces past and present on the one hand and denunciations of ‘poppy fascism’ on the other are nothing new, but the public conversation about commemoration seems more antagonistic now than ever. A nasty undercurrent of righteousness has crept into the online commentary on remembrance and the act of wearing the poppy now seems to be dividing people along political lines. Those who wear the symbol ‘don’t want to be told’ that they shouldn’t wear it, and those who choose not to wear it ‘don’t want to be told’ that they should. The reality, of course, is that no one is really telling anyone else what to do, but the ubiquity of the poppy and the transformation of a solemn moment of reflection into a ‘remembrance season’ understandably makes some people uneasy. The frankly absurd spectacle of a muppet wearing a poppy, as the Cookie Monster did on the One Show last year, rightly led to mockery and derision, and some bizarre cases of poppy proliferation have been highlighted on social media over the last few weeks. The poppy ‘onesies’ sold on the Royal British Legion website strike me as particularly weird and incongruous. When the poppy is everywhere, the act of wearing it inevitably becomes less meaningful and less dignified. The constant call to remember doesn’t really seem to make people more conscious of the past, but it does increasingly seem to wind them up in the present. I may be wrong, but commemoration seems to have become more about performance and making a statement than it used to be. It’s as if we’re less interested in remembering and more concerned with pinning our colours to the mast in an increasingly polarised political and culture and landscape.
And that’s a shame. I grew up in a country that was fundamentally transformed by the First World War but where there was no popular or political interest in remembering the conflict. People were constantly, obsessively aware of the past, but their understanding of it was selective and they didn’t really ‘come together’ to remember anything. Those who wore poppies did so discreetly, behind the closed doors of Protestant churches and schools. So when I first started coming to Britain – about fifteen years ago now – I was quite struck by what appeared to be a genuinely unifying national force. The annual wearing of the poppy seemed to transcend political, cultural, regional and racial divisions. As such, it seemed like a truly ‘British’ custom. I don’t wear a poppy myself and I remain ambivalent about the real meaning of the symbol, but I have been impressed, as an outsider, by the dignity, and the genuine unity, with which the British have traditionally remembered their dead. I realise now that many people probably always felt alienated in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, and also that the wearing of the poppy became much more of a public obligation after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the great majority of people who wear the poppy do so because they want to express solidarity both with their ancestors and with the servicemen and women of today. They certainly shouldn’t be condemned for this. But nor should those who don’t feel comfortable wearing the poppy, for whatever reason. The stakes are perhaps higher in Northern Ireland, but commemoration of the past has clearly become quite a contentious issue in Britain too. Remembrance doesn’t have to be divisive, but if we treat it as a parade or a civic duty, it most certainly will be.
Edward Madigan is Lecturer in Public History and First World War Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London
As I watched an episode of Question Time on the BBC last week (26 October 2017), the uncanny and disconcerting frisson between past and present was too pressing to ignore. Members of the audience were demanding a response to the question of how the British state ought to handle the problem of IS fighters returning to the UK from the Middle East. The issue was raised in the light of a government minister suggesting that such people should be killed without hesitation. The audience and panel responses were split between those who simply agreed with the draconian policy of state sanctioned murder, and those who defended the British tradition of the rule of law, human rights, and trial by due process. The latter, more restrained position was countered by demands for a reinvigoration of treason legislation to deal with those militants who were also British citizens. One panellist pointed out that the British state had just as much responsibility for garnering intelligence from returning combatants, as for ensuring that no further threats to security, anywhere in the world, were imminent. The programme, which aired less than ten days before 5 November, and thus came to viewers in the same week as BBC’s Gunpowder and various documentaries about the Elizabethan deep state, resonated profoundly with me as an early modern historian.
The language of fanaticism, holy violence and conspiracy, used to demand a more reactionary security policy today, has echoed down the centuries from its birth in the post-Reformation wars of religion. Historical accounts of antichristian plots against the British Isles, whether from Spanish Jesuits, or in contemporary times from IS ‘death cults’ use the same narratives to justify extraordinary punishments as a response to alien threats. Whether hanging, drawing and quartering Roman Catholic priests for their illegal allegiance to a foreign Papacy, or unleashing American drones on brainwashed fanatics in Raqqa, the legitimations for the mobilisation of state violence against these perceived enemies within does not seem to have changed much over the centuries, although technology has made the ethics of usage more complicated. Killing those who are convinced they have a religious duty to kill others, whether they pose a direct danger or not, is regarded somehow as a sensible, efficient and morally acceptable policy in the name of ‘security’. This approach fails, however, to understand the motivations and psychological motors of such dissidence.
Commemorations of past events in which the perceived enemies of the state were put to death can potentially fan the flames of hatred embedded deep in modern memory. Of course, this unthinking mobilisation of historical memory ignores the nuance of the debates undertaken in the past. Many 17th century minds came to believe that persecution of tender conscience, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant or sectarian, was a troubling and dangerous policy. Indulgence would make peaceable citizens out of those tolerated, whereas persecution and penal laws would breed hostility and perhaps eventually destructive resistance. Tolerance, forbearance and freedom, some believed, would bring economic advantage and a deeper respect for order. The outcomes of such a policy of state indulgence might enable a more profound collective understanding of how subscription to varieties of religious truth could combine to produce a communal and cosmopolitan culture. The potential result would be the emergence of a civil religion for the 21st century, which recognised and even celebrated religious difference rather than stigmatising and penalising that natural human diversity. But where do we start to achieve this sort of historical reflection on contemporary problems?
Some years ago, not long after the London bombings, I was invited to comment on the persisting commemorative moment of bonfire night, having just been involved in the publication of a collection of essays on the subject. The substance of the article is reproduced below, with some expansion and reflections upon more recent representations of the persecution Roman Catholic communities faced in the early modern British Isles. We’ve been treated to a spate of historical and drama documentaries on the period of late, most notably BBC’s Gunpowder, which has attracted mixed responses from historians, but also productions such as Elizabeth I Secret agents (Monday 23 October 2017, 9.00pm-10.00pm, BBC TWO), which explored the Queen and her spymaster servant William Cecil’s attempts to prevent acts of conspiracy and terror.
In broad terms, my Guardian comment, received positive responses, including a supportive message from a young Muslim woman who felt it had offered a useful perspective for the contemporary experience of oppression suffered by stigmatised and innocent communities after acts of atrocity and terror. Yet the piece also elicited a number of highly aggressive and critical replies from individuals in Spain and the US condemning my sympathetic support for the experience of Roman Catholics in British culture: ‘Was I in favour of the inquisition?’, or a Francoist?, were questions posed by the anonymous posters. Such readers seem to have been clearly incapable of distinguishing between historical analysis and personal and contemporary commitments. The wilful misunderstanding of both the historical tradition, and my perspective, was striking indeed, but it confirmed my belief that the contemporary world is only too ready to make political capital out of miss-readings of the past. Commemoration is always a political act, especially when condoned by the establishment. Bonfire night festivities are not simply an excuse for setting off fireworks, bobbing apples, or burning garden refuse (often at the cost of killing hibernating tortoises and hedgehogs): they also marginalise those who are not invited, or are excluded by their own religious or philosophical commitments. The commonplace comment that most people have no idea of the historical origins and tradition is not a good enough excuse to ignore those potential resonances in others’ minds.
The recent drama documentaries will conjure up those dormant historical memories for many who watch them. Indeed, there has been condemnation for their representations of violent executions and torture, and formal complaints have been directed to the BBC. Yet one only needs to spend a little time in the seventeenth century to understand that corporal and capital punishment was routine, and indeed in some cases a festive moment for communities, reinforcing their collective identities against the imminent threats of invasion and tyranny.
The suffering of the victims of the July bombings and more recent atrocities in Manchester, London and elsewhere poses an historical question of how such events might be commemorated in an appropriate way in decades to come. Given the British predilection for bonfires, one can imagine that commemoration might be folded into the Guy Fawkes moment, with the burning of effigies of the bombers, identified by backpacks, or, even more unfortunately, representations of stereotypical bearded Islamists. Such commemorative displays would draw a line between one part of the community and the stigmatised minority. Thankfully, given the attempts to build bridges within communities in Manchester and London, we might have a reasonable optimism that no such bonfires will be kindled, although the rising influence of post-Brexit culture of open bigotry and racism could potentially feed a poison into public events. Although bonfires have been a persistent feature of our culture every November since 1605, and with new commercial developments the possibility of it being adapted to new circumstances remains on the cards.
Despite the popular view that bonfire night is a harmless, festive occasion, it is in fact a despicable relic of a culture that commended, in the name of Christian duty, the persecution of religious minorities, the burning of witches and the ritual desecration of suicides. A supposed celebration of the immolation of an individual became a political device exploited by successive governments in the name of national security.
The tenacity of the ritual in the 21st century is for many (even today) a residual act of anti-Catholic hatred, which reveals the Protestant foundations of modern political culture in the UK. The 1701 Act of Settlement established the British constitutional monarchy as a Protestant regime. William III, as the decorations on Hampton Court display, was a Protestant Hercules cleansing the British state of the filth of popery. The fact that the Williamite invasion was timed to coincide with Bonfire night was no accident. Protestant communities in Northern Ireland have reinvented historical memory, with the marching season and the communal activities that recall the defiance of the Apprentice Boys at the Siege of Derry. Few among the broader public on the “mainland” would acknowledge that, from the perspective of theRoman Catholic minority in England, bonfire night may have had as much oppressive force as the militaristic marching of the Orange Order. We might be invited to remember, remember – but, it seems, not too much.
Guy Fawkes’ night is a celebration of torture and execution. It might also be remembered that Roman Catholic communities, both in Ireland and in Britain, have borne the brunt of paramilitary and judicial punishment, just as Muslim communities are being subjected to abuse and hate crimes today. By placing the memory of such atrocity at the forefront of our mind’s eye, it may be possible to recognise that Fawkes’ end is a strange act to remember. In our pluralist age, we are encouraged to exercise tolerance for other faiths, but there are moments when the bare bones of earlier ages puncture the fabric of modernity. There are also lessons to be learnt about the effectiveness of a policy of persecution and oppression. The ‘Troubles’ were fed by these historical moments, and the fears generated by the Irish Rebellion of 1641. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (published first in 1570, but frequently reprinted into the nineteenth century) provide images of Papist atrocity to reinforce commonplace antipathy to the Roman antichrist.
Bonfire night is, to many, a prompt to memories of persecution, punishment and martyrdom. As good citizens merrily set fire to effigies of Guido Fawkes, they might usefully pause to consider the suffering that Catholic communities in England, Scotland and Ireland experienced over the past four centuries. English Protestant society was until fairly recently a persecuting culture. In the name of defending Protestant liberties, the freedoms of Catholic minorities were sacrificed. Sound familiar? Just substitute “democratic” for “Protestant” and “Muslim” for “Catholic”.
Recently, watching footage of the bonfire societies in Lewes on 5 November – masked figures marching in procession, carrying burning crosses – a black US based visitor remarked how uncomfortable it made him feel; was this the Ku Klux Klan in Sussex? It’s a difficult point, but one that every minority ought to ask itself: how long does it take before such rituals are safely emptied of their significance? As recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere in the US confirm, these symbols, rituals and public expressions still carry hateful contemporary meaning. While some may claim that 400 years is long enough for the brutal meaning of bonfire night to become a harmless bit of fun; but will the burning crosses or burning victims ever lose their cultural virulence? It’s difficult to approve of a world in which so much pain and injustice could be forgotten.
Justin Champion is Emeritus Professor of early modern ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Memorials and the process of memorialisation have been the subject of intense public and academic debate in recent years. In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign sought to remove statues of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town and Oriel College, Oxford. More recently, controversies surrounding confederate memorials in America have reminded us of the highly charged and intense debates that public statues can elicit. These events underline the public resonance and contested nature of both memorialisation and historical memory. On the one hand, memorials form part of the historical record and are physical reminders of the people and values past societies held dear. On the other, the values and people represented is fixed at the point of construction. If contemporary audiences no longer feel reverence for what or who is being commemorated, they might question the validity of such memorials, and call for either their reinterpretation or complete removal. The removal of public statues can make the historian uneasy and raises issues surrounding the cleansing of the public record. Faced with this prospect, the preference seems to lean towards the reinterpretation of memorials instead of their complete destruction. However, memorials remain an important part of our commemorative culture.
Magna Carta, a document sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215 at the behest of his revolting Barons, was designed to avert civil war. In its time, it was a complete failure and it was annulled almost as soon as it had been sealed. The text of the charter, however, endured, and its sealing continues to resonate in British society and culture to this day. But the legacy of Magna Carta has been protean and characterised by its capacity to lend authority to wildly differing worldviews. It was, for example, cited in justification for the causes of both radical reformers such as Francis Burdett and John Wilkes, and to parliamentarians. Attempting to explain the charter’s very broad appeal in 1965, J.C. Holt summarised its legacy as the ‘history of an argument’. Given the complex nature of Magna Carta’s legacy, the process of memorialisation has been almost inevitably difficult because of the numerous ways in which the charter has been interpreted over the past eight centuries. The complexity of the document has by no means prevented its memorialisation, however, and in 2015 two installations were unveiled in the fields at Runnymede, close to where we believe the charter was originally sealed. Each sought to physically represent and engage with the charter and its broader legacy. The result was the unveiling of two very contrasting installations.
The first memorial, supported by Runnymede Borough Council, took the form of a statue of Queen Elizabeth II. The four-metre tall statue, situated on the curved bank of the River Thames looking towards Windsor, was the gift of a newly formed charity, Runnymede Magna Carta Legacy. As early as 2010 the Council had been vocal supporters of the anniversary and had actively pushed for the construction of a Magna Carta interpretation centre at Runnymede. But by the summer of 2014, following two failed Heritage Lottery Fund applications, the Council was at risk of not making any meaningful contribution to the anniversary celebrations. It was at this stage that the Council was approached by RMCL about the prospect of the gift – the statue of the Queen. The offer was greeted with a mixed response by the borough councillors, and some were quite critical. Much of the criticism of the offer centred on one key issue: the suitability of a statue of the current monarch to commemorate a document many believe was deeply anti-monarchical. Despite these protestations, RMCL continued to develop their proposals. By March 2015 no clear decision had been made and it was decided that the plans would be put to a public consultation. The public response to the consultation was limited, with less than 55 respondents in total. However, the majority of those that replied indicated that they were against the erection of the statue. The council ignored their objections, pointing to the insignificant number of respondents as justification.
On the morning of the 14th June, 2015, in front of a small gathering of invited guests, including the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, and local MP, Philip Hammond, the completed memorial was unveiled. For many members of the public the Statue of the Queen remained divisive and historically incongruous. Those most opposed to the project felt that it was completely inappropriate, and decried it as a desecration of democracy. However, the memorial also had its supporters, who stressed that the statue was not a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II. Instead, they suggest that it deliberately contrasted the absolute monarchy upon whom the charter was imposed to the modern constitutional monarchy of today.
The memorial itself does not offer much in the way of interpretative explanation. The little description that does exist echoes and reinforces the view that the sealing of the charter was the first moment on a centuries-long journey toward the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Inscribed in the stone pathway that connects the river to the statue is a ‘democracy timeline’ that highlights significant evolutionary milestones from Britain’s democratic heritage. These democratic moments sit alongside a role of monarchs and rulers which is intended to provide political and historical context for the gradual evolution of democracy. As a method of engaging and educating the public about Magna Carta and its legacy, the success of the memorial is questionable. The memorial is quite traditional in the sense that it clearly embodies and represents a specific view of the charter – one that might to some seem historically incongruous for many and those that visit the statue learn little about Magna Carta’s history or the nuances that shape its legacy.
The second memorial or public artwork, was unveiled by HRH the Duke of Cambridge on Monday 15th June 2015. Its interpretative and creative approach to the charter and its legacy could not have been further removed from that of the Queen’s statue. Created by the internationally acclaimed artist and sculptor Hew Locke, The Jurors was commissioned and financed – at great public cost – by Surrey County Council, which had invited artists to tender for the commission. Locke was notified of his success in the summer of 2014; he had under a year to complete the project and so needed to work quickly. His pitch drew from Clause 39 (trial by peers) of the 1215 charter and featured 12 bronze chairs, representing the demotic concept of the jury. The fronts and backs of the chairs became his canvas and he used these to depict moments from across history. His artwork incorporates symbols and imagery that represent the law and explores the struggle for freedom alongside the evolution of human and environmental rights.
Locke was presented with the challenge of selecting the 24 scenes to depict on the chairs, a task he apparently found extremely difficult. Partly, this was a result of his passion for history; indeed, he has said that if he had not been an artist he would have been a historian. This passion fuelled a detailed level of research not normally undertaken for his art, in an effort to present the most nuanced interpretation of the subject matter. He also hoped the sculpted chairs would encourage those who visited them to question accepted societal norms. Some scenes, such as Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, came to him quicker than others, and he recalls that representing women’s rights approprirately was difficult; as a man he wanted to avoid being cliché or making an overt feminist statement.
The twelve chairs appear unassuming as they stand facing each other at Runnymede. When empty, their presence effortlessly reminds the public of the events of 1215 without compromising the beauty of the memorial’s surroundings. As the artwork’s dedicated website explains:
The chairs seem to be awaiting a gathering, discussion or debate of some kind: an open invitation from the artist for the audience to sit, to reflect and, to discuss together the implications of the histories and issues depicted.
The Jurors has received much critical acclaim for the thought-provoking way the subject has been approached and carefully framed. The scenes depicted are both universal and multi-cultural, ranging from the Confucian Principles of the Han Dynasty of 206 BCE to Tim Berners Lee and his call for a digital Magna Carta in 2014. The completed installation engenders a sense of multi-cultural inclusivity that the Queen statue does not, a fact that separates The Jurors with other more traditional memorials. Its multi-culturalism did not happen by chance. Instead it came about because of Locke’s vision for the project and the sensitivity to which he approached his research.
However, set within the context of recent public discourse on memorials, the underlying creative principles of The Jurors offer new methods of memorialisation for the 21st century. Firstly, Locke did not want his artwork to be merely, as he termed it, ‘a collection of heroes’ and he intentionally included figures and moments in history that would stimulate public debate and divide opinion. The figures and values represented on the artwork are neither glorified nor celebrated but simply left there for public reflection and consideration. By adopting this approach, the problem of remembering past heroes, such as Cecil Rhodes, is somewhat negated. Secondly, Locke maintains that his artwork is only truly complete once people are sitting on the chairs, discussing and debating the issues and histories depicted. The purpose of his artwork then is to encourage public debate and reflection rather than present its audience with a specific, non-negotiable, interpretation.
Unsurprisingly, both installations will have their supporters and critics, and as such they reflect the contested nature of history and memorialisation. However, as questions concerning the nature and purpose of memorialisation continue to dominate public and academic discourse, one feels that Locke’s innovative artwork provides a method of remembrance that will be of more use to an increasingly historically aware and critical public. In comparison to the statue of the Queen, the conversations which The Jurors inspires are much less restricted, open to the evolution of public values and conversations across time, whilst remaining multi-culturally inclusive.
Steven Franklin is a doctoral student and teaching fellow at the Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis explores the evolving historical interpretations, commemorations, and public understandings of Magna Carta in the modern period. Steven will be giving an IHR Public History seminar on the theme of this blog-post at Senate House on Wednesday 25 October. All are welcome to attend.
Historians often have understandably mixed feelings about historical drama on television. On the one hand, it’s great to see wider public attention drawn to aspects of the past about which we are intimately familiar. On the other, however, it can be hard to watch complex historical phenomena simplified, sensationalised or air-brushed in the name of entertainment. And yet an engaging period drama can shed valuable light on fascinating but hitherto obscure fragments of history and enrich public knowledge of the past for a bigger, more diverse audience than that commanded by most popular or academic historians. The depiction of IRA gun-running during the Irish War of Independence in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders provides a good case in point.
In April 1920 James Delaney, an Irish immigrant living and working in London, observed nightly protests outside Wormwood Scrubs prison in support of a hunger-strike by republican prisoners, one of whom, Tom Treacy, was from Delaney’s home county of Kilkenny. During the protests there were a number of clashes between between local IRA members and ‘rowdies’ who tried to disrupt the rosaries recited each night by female republicans. Delaney, a tailor’s cutter, resolved to become involved and, after the strike ended, visited Tom Treacy, who was recovering in a hospital in Highgate. Delaney had served in the British Army during the Great War and now offered his services to the IRA. Treacy suggested that if he provided funding, Delaney might be able to procure arms and have them sent to Kilkenny (local republican units, frustrated by a lack of arms, often utilised their own resources rather than those of IRA Headquarters). Delaney then approached two former London policemen, Lynch and Cooley, (both Irishmen) who had been dismissed as a result of the recent police strikes. They agreed to put him in touch with a London Irishman named Conroy, a bookmaker with criminal connections. Conroy introduced Delaney to two men, Ginger Barnett (described by Delaney as a ‘Jewman’) and a mixed-race gang leader known as ‘Darby the Coon’.
Using £100 supplied by Treacy, Delaney began purchasing weapons through these criminal contacts. Every week he bought handguns from sailors (paying usually between £2-£4) who stayed at lodging houses in Petticoat Lane (where Barnett was based), Limehouse Causeway, Pennyfields (the Chinese Quarter) or the ‘negro lodging houses’ in Cable Street in the East End. He was usually accompanied by either Darby or Barnett when he visited the lodging houses. Delaney himself operated from a boarding house near Victoria Station but never brought weapons there. Instead he handed them over to another Kilkenny emigrant named Annie O’Gorman who he would meet at Marble Arch. At her residence they would wrap the guns in tailor’s wadding and post them to a fake address at Kilkenny’s town hall where the town clerk knew to bring these parcels to a local republican. This scheme worked until November 1920, when in the course of a plan to buy a large amount of weapons, Delaney was betrayed to the police. Though questioned at Scotland Yard, the police failed to find any incriminating evidence and Delaney was released and returned to Ireland, managing to bring three revolvers on his person.
Here we have at a micro-level an illustration of how sections of the IRA sought to arm themselves using their personal contacts among the Irish diaspora. We also have interaction between an emigrant radicalised by clashes in his adopted city, brought into contact with disgruntled former employees of the Crown, themselves radicalised by post-war unrest. The would-be republican gunrunner was in turn introduced to an underworld with an immigrant and multi-ethnic dimension in a city at the heart of a global empire. And Delaney’s story was by no means unique. In the same period Irish revolutionaries in Britain also dealt with gangs such as the Sabinis in north London and others like them in Birmingham. They also made contact with the disaffected migrants from Britain’s imperial possessions. Irish revolutionaries’ pursuit of a steady supply of arms would bring them not only to Boston and New York but also to Gabriel D’Annunzio’s Adriatic state at Fiume and the giant arms bazaar that was post-Versailles Germany. Politically promiscuous, they would scheme with Italian fascists and German communists, Freikorps freebooters and Russian Bolsheviks. Indeed, IRA operatives established front shipping companies to transport arms from ports such as Hamburg to Ireland and substantial amounts of their cash would go missing on the continent. Recriminations about who was responsible for the failure of certain operations would last for decades. Among those attempting to purchase material in Germany during 1921 were Roddy Connolly, son of the executed 1916 leader James, who had recently been to Moscow and met Lenin; Robert Briscoe, a Jewish Dubliner who would later help arm Zionists in Palestine; and Charles McGuinness, a sailor and adventurer who would side with Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Many of their escapades read like plotlines from the BBC’s hugely popular Peaky Blinders.
The first series of that show revolved around an attempt by Birmingham gangsters, the Shelby family (the ‘Peaky Blinders’ of the title), composed largely of veterans of the Great War, to successfully offload a large consignment of arms. Unfortunately for the Shelbys the IRA, communists and the British security services were all equally invested in locating these weapons. It’s probably fair to say the success of that show lies less in its depiction of the politics of post-war Britain than in its stylised violence, explicit sex, deliberately anachronistic Nick Cave soundtrack and excellent performances from Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy, Sophie Rundle and Paddy Considine among others. The haircuts and clothes worn by the male characters also correspond neatly with aspects of ‘hipster’ fashion (even inspiring a line by former Kerry GAA star turned designer Paul Galvin). Subsequent series have introduced Italian and Jewish mobsters, the Bolsheviks, White Russian émigrés and right-wing employers organizations, all against a backdrop of industrial unrest and contemporary political change.
Again, Historians can often be quite precious about how ‘their’ subject is presented on screen. But though Peaky Blinders makes little claim to historical accuracy (the original Peaky Blinders gang for instance, operated during the late 19th century not after the Great War) its depiction of a post-war world turned upside is strikingly similar to the evidence contained in IRA pension statements dealing with gunrunning (a storyline which also featured in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire). Indeed, it might be the case that ensuring audiences are entertained makes Peaky Blinders more believable than shows that see themselves as self-consciously based on historical truths.
In 2016 Rebellion was marketed as Irish broadcaster RTE’s flagship contribution to the Centenary year of the Easter Rising. Indeed, for the 50th anniversary in 1966 the station’s drama Insurrection had been an original and innovative production. Unfortunately, Rebellion, a substantial budget notwithstanding, was anything but. Despite being based on a wide reading of the sources concerning Ireland in the pre-Rising era it fell flat as a drama. While it was laudable that women were central to the story, the attempt to address almost every aspect of contemporary Irish opinion was laboured. The depiction of Padraig Pearse was very clichéd and owed much to the psychological critiques of the man that were in vogue thirty years ago. The contrast between the Volunteers (Catholic nationalists reciting the Rosary) and the Citizen Army (quoting Lenin) was also hackneyed. Finally, the streets of Dublin depicted in the TV show seemed devoid of people and little of the sense of drama mentioned in numerous contemporary accounts of the Rising was conveyed. While some critics saw the series as implicitly anti-republican, the greatest problem with it was that it was just not entertaining. Rebellion looks set to return, however, this time looking at the War of Independence. Its writers might take a leaf from Peaky Blinders and not take themselves so seriously (the emergence of Frances as an assassin in the final episode of the last series might suggest they realise that); they might also attempt to convey how people caught up in extraordinary times can be inspired to act by a variety of motives, some of them quite contradictory. Most of all, they need to entertain.
It’s that time of year in Northern Ireland. Early July. Those weeks during which one section of society visibly and noisily gears up for the Twelfth of July celebrations, while another resigns itself to the disruption caused by local band parades or the mass parades of ‘the Twelfth’. A third group, mainly the professional middle classes, pack their cars and suitcases and quietly slip off to the continent.
It’s a time when the past seems all too raucously present, when the events of centuries ago once more occupy the streets and public places of cities, towns, and even the smallest villages across Northern Ireland as the triumph of the forces of William of Orange over those of James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 is represented on decorative arches, on the banners of Orange lodges and on Lambeg drums, matching those images more permanently displayed in the murals adorning gable walls.
In many ways the Battle of the Boyne was just one battle (albeit a significant one) in a much more complex war, a battle that just happened to have been fought on Irish soil and which galvanised the enmity between Irish Catholics, who fought with James, and Irish Protestants, who fought on William’s side. It was a war about the rule and religious status of England, Scotland and Ireland where William, a Dutch Protestant, had recently deposed the Catholic James II (his uncle) over the fear that James was trying to establish a Catholic dynasty in the three kingdoms. It was also a war on a European scale, a war about power and the rule of church and state. James was backed by the Catholic King Louis XIV of France, then one of Europe’s superpowers, while the Protestant William, somewhat ironically, had the support of Pope Alexander VIII, part of a ‘Grand Alliance’ trying to curtail Louis XIV’s expansion in Europe. Even in an Irish context it was not as simple as is generally represented; as Bill Roulston has pointed out, the establishment of Protestant supremacy in Ireland left Presbyterians as well as Catholics out in the cold. In Northern Ireland today, however, the narrative is generally kept very simple indeed.
It is, of course, in this very over-simplification of the past that its symbolic capital lies. Moments, events and characters from history are appropriated and depicted in monochromatic tones in order to reinforce identity, to denote community and belonging for those on the inside, or the ‘otherness’ of those on the outside, to legitimise a particular present view of society, culture, and politics. William was the defender of Irish Protestantism against the machinations of Catholic King James, and his victory at the Boyne the decisive moment in establishing the Protestant faith in Ireland. It is no surprise, then, that the memory of King Billy and the strength of the Orange Order today are greatest in areas in which Protestants feel at their most vulnerable, among marginalised urban working-class males and remote rural areas close to the border with the Irish Republic.
Of course the Battle of the Boyne is not the only historical moment to be simplified and appropriated for present purposes or political ends. Other key episodes frequently portrayed in loyalist areas of Belfast include the First World War, and the Battle of the Somme in particular, the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, along with scenes from era when Belfast was an industrial powerhouse and a city at the heart of the Empire, all of which reinforce a sense of Northern Ireland’s British identity. In nationalist parts of Belfast, by contrast, the Great Famine of 1845-49 features on several gable walls. Sidestepping the tortuous historiographic debates over causation, impact, and the role of ideology, they simply present the Famine, as An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, ‘Ireland’s genocide by the English’. Presented thus, the Famine speaks of the oppression under which the Irish have suffered at the hands of the English, a theme that continues to resonate strongly. Another event that is frequently depicted in nationalist murals is the Easter Rising of 1916, an event that is significant not only in marking the birth of independent Ireland, but in representing a tradition of militant republicanism. As with the Twelfth, Easter 1916 is celebrated by annual marches and parades. So these representations of history are by no means unique to one community or the other. Rather they represent common ways of using representations of the past in public spaces, even if the narratives of that past are in some cases mutually exclusive.
Neither are they static. It would be inaccurate to see these representations of key historic moments and personalities as remaining constant in terms of their significance or meaning to the communities or identities they represent. As new, more emotive or less remote, historical moments begin to resonate with the people of the city, they can supplant traditional images. Among loyalist communities, for example, representations of King Billy have largely given way to representations of the Somme, or the First World War more generally. Despite the fact that Irishmen and women of all persuasions fought and died, the war long been associated with the unionist and loyalist community. While murals of King Billy have often been allowed to fade or have been painted over, new and often quite sophisticated representations of key moments in the Great War are being created, or old ones refreshed. Images associated with the ‘war to end all wars’ are even beginning to replace those of William III on Orange banners. Likewise in republican parts of Belfast, murals representing the Republican Hunger Strikers of the 1980s are now more common than images of the Famine. They tend to be very complex, in some cases accompanied with religious imagery or placed in a shrine-like setting. In Derry, murals depicting the events of Bloody Sunday provide a powerful statement of identity and outlook, a message about the ways in which the Troubles are remembered and how this impacts on attitudes to developments in Northern Ireland in the present.
These images of historical events are, therefore, a constant and visible reminder of contested senses of the past, ones that represent and reinforce a very divided present. This contested view of the past poses a major challenge for public historians. How do academics and professionals whose job it is to represent such contested historical narratives to public audiences, whether in museums, at heritage sites, or through various forms of media, negotiate the deeply divisive nature of Ireland’s history, and, in particular, of Northern Ireland’s recent past? It certainly presents some interesting case studies for the budding public historian, something we’re encouraging our Public History students at Queen’s University Belfast to explore. How do you represent the past to the general public when the prevailing historical narratives of that public are deeply contested. Students are encouraged to think about how as public historians we can negotiate these divisions over interpretation. It has been interesting, for example, to hear their responses to the way in which the Northern Ireland conflict has been ‘officially’ represented through the Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum. As part of National Museums of Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum has a mission to represent the entire community in an inclusive and balanced manner, something that has had a significant impact on the institution’s depiction of something that is both deeply divisive and at the same has touched so many people’s lives in painful ways. The general conclusion is that, by trying to avoid alienating one side or the other, the museum has ended up with a very sterile form of history, one from which the emotions have been carefully extracted. This is something the the museum is now trying to address, working with communities to develop a new, more reflective and meaningful representation of the thirty years of conflict. One way to address the history of the ‘Troubles’ without dwelling on the violence is to explore the social and cultural context within which the conflict occurred. To this end, some of our students have recently worked with the museum on a major photographic exhibition ‘Conflicting Images: Photography during the Northern Irish Troubles’. Featuring over 140 images by international and local photographers, it examines the role photography played during ‘The Troubles’. The photographs that have been selected present a shared vision of the past, serving as a means to explore the experiences of ordinary people, of whatever background, during this time.
Our students also visit Derry/Londonderry (the divided past evident even in the disputed name of the city) in order to explore a very different way in which the past is interpreted and represented, this time by and for a particular community. The Museum of Free Derry is a particularly interesting example of a museum which is free from the constraints of official status. Situated in the Bogside, on the exact spot on which British troops opened fire and shot 28 unarmed civilians of Bloody Sunday, this community-run museum represents the events of that day in a raw and unfiltered way. The museum effectively uses video footage, audio recordings, images and artefacts in a dark, claustrophobic room, creating for the visitor an almost immersive experience of the chaos and violence of the day.
This is followed by a visit to the museum of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, where a very different narrative of the city’s story is told. Using artefacts, banners, images, and a narrated video the museum tells the story of how, during the siege of Derry which preceded William’s victory over James, a band of loyal apprentice boys closed the city’s gates on King James. It tells the story of the city holding out against James’ army, but also examines the role the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant fraternal society, have played in the city up to the present day. Both the Museum of Free Derry and the Apprentice Boys’ Museum have recently renovated or rebuilt their premises with the aid of equitable government funding for both organisations.
From the highly regulated, controlled, and balanced context of the Ulster Museum, through community-run institutions where the historical narrative is controlled and presented by one particular group or the other, students are then encouraged to consider the totally unregulated form of public history represented in the murals of Derry and Belfast. All of this gives plenty of food for thought about issues of ownership and interpretation of public memory and history, and the challenges of representing troubled pasts to public audiences. In an environment in which contested interpretations of the past feeds the divisions of the present that is a challenge indeed.
As we go through the week of the Twelfth, Northern Ireland’s devolved government once more finds itself in a state of crisis. With the Executive suspended due to the political fall-out over the flawed and exploited Renewable Heating Scheme and the main parties failing to reach agreement that will restore powers, the threat of Direct Rule is very real. Funding to essential services is being held up and, ironically, an important proposal for a consultation process over how to deal with legacy issues is left to languish in the political vacuum. The ostensible sticking point in negotiations between the two main parties appears to be legislation around the Irish language, while legacy issues also play a big part. Both parties, each of which represents the more extreme ends of the political spectrum, continue to draw on representations of the past to legitimise their stance. In Northern Ireland there is no doubt that representation of the past in public, by the public, or for the public, remains deeply problematic.
Olwen Purdue is an urban historian and lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast where she will be directing the university’s new Centre for Public History, which will be launched this autumn. QUB will also be launching an MA in Public History in September 2018.
When I was admitted as a member of Lincoln’s Inn in 2003, it didn’t occur to me that I could have been refused entry merely because I am a woman. Yet this is what happened to any woman who applied to join the Inns of Court or the Law Society before 23 December 1919, when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act received Royal Assent. This ground-breaking piece of legislation removed any legal barrier to women, including married women, working as lawyers on the grounds of their sex.
The approaching centenary of the passing of the 1919 Act is an opportune moment to look back and consider how much has been achieved by women in the legal profession over the past one hundred years. I am therefore delighted to announce a new exhibition, Celebrating the Centenary of Women Lawyers, which will be on show at The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn in collaboration with the First 100 Years project and Royal Holloway, University of London. The exhibition will place the emergence of Britain’s first female barristers and solicitors in the broader context of the women’s movement and the opening of higher education to women in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Rather fittingly, Royal Holloway was established following the merger, in 1985, of two pioneering women’s colleges: Bedford College and Royal Holloway College. When it opened in 1849, Bedford College was the first institution in Great Britain to offer higher education to women, and Royal Holloway has its own proud history of producing pioneering female practitioners across a range of professions. Come along to the exhibition and find out who among the first women lawyers had links to Royal Holloway and the University of London. Among the women who will be profiled are Bertha Cave who, when her application to Gray’s Inn was refused, sought (unsuccessfully) to appeal that decision; and Gwyneth Bebb, whose application to be admitted to the Law Society ended up in the Court of Appeal. ‘In point of intelligence and education and competency’, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that Miss Bebb was ‘probably, far better than’ many male candidates but, because she was a woman, in 1913 she could not be admitted to the Law Society.
Today, one third of all practising barristers and approximately half of all practising solicitors are women. More than half of British judges aged under 40 are female and over the course of the last five years more women than men have been admitted to the profession. This represents a remarkable female presence in the legal field, considering that 100 years ago women were barred from the profession altogether. Inequalities, of course, remain but by taking the opportunity afforded by the forthcoming centenary to consider what has been achieved in the last 100 years, we can hope to look forward to greater equality in the century to come.
The exhibition will be launched on Wednesday, 19 July 2017 and all are welcome to join us for a drinks reception in the Old Hall Crypt at Lincoln’s Inn anytime from 6.00-8.00 pm. There will be informal talks at 6:30 and 7:30 pm.
Tickets are free but to join us for what promises to be an interesting and engaging evening celebrating the history of women in law please register at:
From 20 July 2017, this free exhibition will be on display on the east side of the hoardings around the Great Hall, Lincoln’s Inn and you are invited to view the exhibition and explore this hidden heart of legal London.
Katie Broomfield is a postgraduate student on the MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London. This exhibition will form the final project for her MA. You can contact Katie for further information via @KRBroomfield on Twitter.
First 100 Years is a ground-breaking history project, supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, charting the journey of women in law since 1919. Work is currently underway to produce a digital museum made up of 100 video stories that tell the story of women in law. To find out more and to donate to the project please click here.
History matters. Our histories warn us, inform us, and inspire us. More than that, they help us know ourselves, and shape what we believe we know about each other. As I was getting ready to go to the first protest outside the newly-unveiled Ripper Museum in Shadwell, I started looking for a quote which could express what I was struggling to say. The quote I found was from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent TED Talk about the ‘single story’ of Africa:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
The infamous Whitechapel Murders have long overshadowed the many stories we could tell about east London, and the obsession with ‘Jack’ means that the story most people associate with the area is one of violence against women and failed justice. Yet if our single story is about the brutal, unsolved murders of five working class women, how does that shape the way people see us? How does it shape the way we see ourselves?
The Ripper Museum has offered plenty of reasons to be angry: not least the mythologising of a misogynist serial killer, and the insult of swapping a museum presented to the local community and council as about women’s lives for a tourist attraction about their violent deaths – complete with a mannequin of one of his victim’s corpses, ‘Ripper’ cupcakes, and an audio loop of women’s screams.
The museum is, however, just the latest and most egregious example of London’s Ripper tourist trade (although the London Dungeon seems to be challenging them for the crown). And yet contrary to the narrative presented by many of the institutions and individuals involved in this ‘trade’, violence against women hasn’t gone the way of gaslights and top hats. It is incredibly common and frequently lethal, and Ripper tourism helps to trivialise it. The story is told again and again with no reference to the wider context of violence against women – especially violence against women sex workers – and usually in an insensitive, sensational, titillating way.
The protest at the Ripper Museum in 2015 wasn’t the first such protest by a long stretch. One of the local historians who has inspired me most, my co-author Rosemary Taylor, recalled a women’s march that took place 25 odd years ago in protest at the Ten Bells pub which had essentially reinvented itself as a Ripper theme pub, with t-shirts for sale behind the bar. More recently, the Women’s Library (when it was based in Aldgate) and the LIFT campaign both ran Alternative Ripper Tours which told the stories of the women who were murdered – their lives, their communities – and put up temporary plaques to honour them. Protests have also been staged online, including one by the Everyday Whorephobia blogging collective, which ran an online campaign condemning Ripper tourism in 2013.
Feminism is cool now?
One of the things that has set the ‘museum’ on Cable Street apart, attracting criticism from so many sources, is their baffling attempt to pass off the attraction as a genuine celebration of women’s history – even after the logo of a top-hatted man standing in a pool of blood was revealed, and the contents of the museum exposed. It was a bizarre strategy, which they thankfully now seem to have abandoned. It was particularly eerie for us to see the language we were using to describe our fledgling East End Women’s Museum co-opted for their press releases. Indeed, it’s interesting that the Ripper Museum’s owners felt that a museum of women’s history would be more likely to receive interest and support than a museum about Jack the Ripper, a longstanding staple of London tourism. On the one hand this is a testament to the strength of the current resurgence of feminist activism, and to decades of work by pioneering women’s historians. On the other, it reveals the extent to which a particular aspect of feminism has become depoliticised and absorbed into the mainstream. Perhaps the Ripper Museum is an extreme example of ‘femvertising‘. Much has been written about the oil industry’s support for museums, and the ‘halo effect’ they hope to glean from sponsoring exhibitions – could it be that the Ripper tourist industry was seeking out the same respectability?
At primary and secondary school level the history curriculum is not particularly concerned with women’s experiences. A recent survey by Girlguiding UK revealed that over half of girls aged 11-21 say that the role women have played in history is not represented as much as the role of men. In higher education women’s history is typically something to be sought out proactively, as an ‘added extra’ or specialism. Yet the problem is by no means confined to our classrooms; women are underrepresented on a local and national level in public history, in museum collections, archives, and academia. Just 2.7% of UK public statues feature historical women who weren’t royalty, with only one statue of a named black woman in the entire country. Just 13% of English Heritage blue plaques in London honour women and only four of the 50 bestselling history books in 2015 were written by women. Unsurprisingly, where women do appear they tend to be those with the most privilege, with women at the intersections of oppression rendered almost invisible. The histories of women of colour, women with disabilities, lesbian and bi women, trans women, and working class women have not only been pushed to the margins but right off the page.
History for resistance
Why does this matter? Unsurprisingly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it better than I can, in the same TED Talk:
Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
Marginalised histories can be powerful tools to dismantle stereotypes and counter myths, to challenge assertions that ‘this is how it’s always been’. Sometimes a story can get through where an argument can’t. Uncovering hidden histories can also play a part in consciousness-raising. Recognising shared experiences across decades, even centuries, help to make the deep roots of inequality and structures of power visible. It means something to discover that your struggle is not only individual but shared, not accidental but systemic. That’s not to suggest that there is a single shared female experience or history, but simply that there are many common threads. Besides, examining the differences between women’s experiences is as illuminating as looking for similarities. We mustn’t simply replace Top Ten Kings and Generals with the Ten Best Ladies, but rather widen the lens, enlarge the story, and examine the power structures which cut across women’s history too.
Something else women’s history can offer us today is inspiration. Studiessuggest that women and girls respond better to role models who are also women and girls, and there is something especially magic about a local hero. (I’m writing this in a cafe in Stratford less than 100m from a statue of my most local hero, Joan Littlewood.)
The East End Women’s Museum
While we hope that the lessons we learn through the East End Women’s Museum may be useful to women’s history projects elsewhere, our focus is firmly on east London. Although we do use a deliberately loose and ahistorical definition of the area, rather like John Strype in 1720 when he described the district as “that part beyond the Tower”.
We’ve been very lucky to have had such a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm for our project, but there are some challenges ahead. One of the most pressing is lack of funds. We’ve reached a point where we can’t expand the project until we have funding to cover things like volunteer expenses, travel, and printing costs. Aside from practical challenges, there are other issues to contend with: for example, as our profile grows we are encountering more criticism and hostility. We’re more often reminded that some people feel very threatened by the idea of throwing a spotlight on women’s history, as if by including more stories about women everyone will suddenly forget about Henry VIII, Newton, and Brunel. While it’s frustrating and sometimes unpleasant, the backlash tells us that we’re on the right track.
What we hope to achieve and how
Our goal is to research, record, and represent women’s histories from across east London, and in doing so celebrate a shared local history, challenge gender stereotypes, and offer inspiration. We want to create opportunities for women and girls to gain the skills and confidence to tell their own stories.
Our hope is that we can build a long lasting resource for historians, schools, curators, and community groups. We know that many museums have slender resources and little support to diversify their collections, especially as past decisions about what is ‘important’ influence what is available to us today. We want to partner with more fantastic archives, collections, and community heritage projects and work together to get the girls to the front. We’re drawing on approaches including oral history, family history, social history and narrative history. Our ultimate aim is to co-create the content of the museum with groups from across east London, and to make it as accessible as possible, collecting and sharing stories in public spaces – parks, streets, schools, pubs, places of worship – as well as in our own museum space and online.
We’ve already started doing a lot of this, thanks to the support of some fantastic partners and volunteers. Over last year we’ve helped to develop two joint exhibitions – with Eastside Community Heritage and the East End Women’s Collective – and begun working on a third with Hackney Museum. We’ve also staged a sell out history event for local feminist activists, organised a pilot schools workshop with 70 year seven students in Hackney, and launched a research project that explores the history of women and East End markets with University College London and King’s College London. This year our main focus is putting some firm foundations in place while we continue to listen and learn about what would make the best possible museum for the women and girls we aim to serve.
An East End mystery
Returning to the idea of the ‘single story’ of east London, I often hear that what makes the myth of Jack the Ripper so irresistible is the element of mystery. I don’t doubt that’s the case. But here’s another mystery for you: why aren’t the other stories better known? Who does it serve to sideline women’s voices and experiences? Or to present working class people as powerless, to suggest trans identities are just a recent ‘trend’, to portray sex workers only as helpless victims, or to paint a picture of London in which every face is white?
Having given up Facebook just before Christmas, I’ve found myself scrolling through Twitter more than usual lately. Yesterday evening was no exception. As I scanned through my newsfeed, a story by Katie Hopkins from the Mail Online caught my eye. The headline read: “‘No Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA’. I’d Wager all 3 Unlikely to Listen to People in Need of a Job, a Shower or Both.” I could see that it related to the protests organised by Owen Jones on Monday evening, and, having attended the protest in Westminster myself, I was almost ready to use my 140 characters immediately. However, recognising this as an emotional rather than a rational response, I convinced myself that it would be better to read the full article first. I didn’t want to write anything that might later prove false. The opening sentences of the story dragged me straight down into the depths of “Katie’s world”; a world where post-truth is the real truth and her followers neither know, nor care, if she knew the real truth in the first place.
After having read the entire story I still felt angry. Without giving it too much thought, I sent the following tweet:
My error wasn’t to have tweeted abuse at Katie Hopkins – lots of people do that. My mistake was to be a teacher who had been to a protest with a banner that was made by some students. Was my tweet unprofessional? Possibly. Is it offensive? Only directly to Katie, a woman who herself never hesitates to cause offence. Does it suggest that I was brainwashing children and forcing them to manufacture propaganda to impose my views upon other people? Absolutely not in the real world. But then I wasn’t in the real world. As soon as Katie reposted my tweet, claiming that ‘[she feared] for young minds, brainwashed by liberals pushing their agenda [aged] 8?’ my Twitter account went crazy. The notifications poured in. 50 notifications. 112 notifications. The number of notifications was increasing by the minute, and all of the posts appeared to be filled with hate. I was “Jackie the brainwasher Nazi” and accused of grooming my own “Hitler Youth”. Apparently I had never been “out of an educational institution & [I was] unable to see a distinction between teacher/student”.
It was really quite overwhelming and I genuinely started to panic. But, I reasoned, the worst case scenario would see me unemployed by Monday – something that the people tweeting at or about me were not only calling for, but also providing useful links, to direct people to where exactly they should report me: the Department for Education; OfSted; and to Justine Greening on Twitter. The abuse continued to escalate. I was informed that I was in “breach of Section 407 of the Education Act”. I had “broken the law.” It also turned nastier and more threatening. I was “another idiot teacher polluting the minds of the young”. This, I was told in the same tweet, “[was] abuse as serious as sexual or physical abuse.” One man posted that he would “come and kick [me] out the classroom if [I] taught his kids” and another agreed with him. A former teacher, who identifies herself in her Twitter biography as an “Islamophobe” who believes “Islam is evil” told me that teachers like me were the reason the real teachers – like her – had retired. I was also surprised to learn that I am the reason a lady called Ana whom I’ve never met home-schools her child.
In addition to the abuse flung my way, the Twitter community began to flesh out the details of my indoctrination programme. It transpired that there was a lot more to the sentence I had tweeted than met the eye. A young lady stated that I had “abandoned the curriculum” and “brought in my own materials”. I had then used these materials to get the children to make protest banners for me. Yes, they were “Anti-Trump” posters another tweet confirmed. That was instantly retweeted. In Katie’s world it became a “fact”. Katie’s followers kept retweeting these “facts”. Before long, UKIP Party Members started to retweet the material, Suzanne Evans among them. It was a textual version of Chinese whispers, in which the “facts” now circulating about my Year 8 class and I have no basis in reality.
Twitter is not a suitable platform to engage in a meaningful debate, so I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on the best way to respond to some of the charges levelled at me. Not the personal attacks, which don’t warrant a response, but, rather, the ones in which non-teachers thought that they had the right to tell a teacher what – and how – it was acceptable to teach. Every one of the tweets that suggested that children should not be discussing President Trump’s actions could be discounted by referring to the Department for Education guidance booklet Promoting Fundamental British Values as part of SMSC in Schools. Schools, we are told should develop in students “an acceptance that other people having different faiths or beliefs to oneself (or having none) should be accepted and tolerated, and should not be the cause of prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour.” Banning people because of their nationality or religion runs completely counter to this. Should a parent ever question why their child is learning about a particular topic, then a teacher can accurately state that this is what the government prescribes.
Other tweets seemed to suggest that it was beyond the remit of a teacher to teach about topics that were either deemed to be political in nature, or might be considered as current affairs. To put it bluntly, if we were to remove topics that were political in nature, then not much of the National Curriculum for History would remain. The introduction of the National Curriculum in 1991 marked a defining moment in education across England and Wales. Each revision to the history curriculum reduced the amount of prescribed content – the ‘what to teach’ element. In its current iteration, the only mandatory topic for study in the key stage three history curriculum is the Holocaust. This means that teachers have a greater level of autonomy in selecting what content to teach their classes across the rest of the key stage. Teachers will make decisions concerning what to teach based on a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, the resources they have available, the strength of their subject knowledge and passion for individual topics, what they have taught previously and the ability of their classes.
Students typically begin their study of history at secondary school, learning about the Middle Ages. The first time that they will really encounter political ideas is when they learn about the barons confrontation with King John at Runnymede in 1215. They’ll start to develop their substantive knowledge so that when they later learn about other examples of protest they will have some knowledge to ‘think with’, which they can then transfer and apply to different contexts. Students – with guidance from their teacher – are thus equipped to draw out the similarities and differences between political struggles in different eras. For example, one of my Year 8 classes has recently looked at the question of when Britain became a democracy, and while the enquiry is mainly based on events in the nineteenth-century, they were also encouraged, and most were able, to make comparisons with the sixteenth-century. While students are able to recognise the similarities across periods and to understand political problems in different eras, I would suggest that those who posted tweets to say that politics should not be taught in the classroom shows a comprehensive failure in this respect. Is there, for example, a qualitative difference in the nature of the learning taking place when students design campaign propaganda for the contender to the throne of England after the passing of Edward the Confessor, to those completing the same activity to suggest who would make the best leader of the Conservative Party in 1979? I would suggest not, but then I doubt that anyone has ever accused a teacher of trying to brainwash a class into electing Harald Hardrada instead of William of Normandy.
We would also do well to remember that school students are perfectly capable of forming and expressing their own political viewpoints, and indeed protesting government policy. The 1985 School Student Strike, which saw students take to the streets to voice their opposition to the Conservative government’s threat to make the exploitative Youth Training Scheme compulsory, is just one historical example of valid and effective student protest.
Finally, the question of making use of current news stories in the classroom can also be justified on the following grounds: one of the most effective ways to get students engaged in a historical topic is to make the contemporary relevance of it explicit to them. Sometimes the best place to start a history lesson is in the present – with a current news story – and then ask how we got here. A few of my Year 8 students went on the women’s march on 21st January. When they came into class the next week and we were learning about the Suffragettes, it all made far more sense to them. I will make no apologies for adopting exactly the same approach over the coming weeks as I teach about the Civil Rights Movement and we ask why there are still protests demanding that we Stop Racism and confirming that Black Lives do Matter going on at the moment. Is this brainwashing or political indoctrination? No, it’s just one way of introducing a topic to students.
Jackie Teale is a secondary level history teacher and doctoral student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis is supervised by Professor Dan Stone and focuses on the ways in which press photography has shaped public responses to genocide.
There has been some considerable debate in recent days about the public purse bearing the cost of refurbishing Buckingham Palace to the tune of £369 million while the rest of the country endures austerity, the NHS budget is trimmed and the number of homeless rises. Unsurprisingly, an exploration of the historical the relationships between Crown, finance and the public purse provides us with some valuable context for this discussion.
In the past, kings and queens exercised their majesty through a conspicuous display of wealth and power. The right to rule was represented and reinforced by the sheer opulence of the monarch’s dwelling places and possessions. Magnificent courts, sumptuous homes, golden carriages, the largest jewels, the finest horses, the most splendid paintings, were not just the trappings but the foundations of regal power. Wealth was the cause rather than a symptom of power. Historically there were intellectual dimensions to this material majesty. Kings were thought to be appointed by divine right, the keystone in a natural hierarchy celebrated in a culture of deference. Simply put, the king stood just beneath god in the natural order, and this exalted position was reflected by his extravagant wealth.
The same question is more difficult to address with clarity today as debates about heritage and national identity get mixed up with constitutional issues. Whether the current monarchy is a greater asset for the nation as part of the tourist industry, or simply because defending it seems to save us the time of thinking of an alternative, is still a debatable point. For some, even raising the question implies sedition, subversion and immorality. Certainly beyond those die-hard loyalists, besotted with the ineffable mystery of the crown, and firmly wedded to principles of deference reinforced by royal hierarchy, it is difficult to contrive a robust philosophical defence of the institution today. If we pose the same question in the historical sense – what were monarchs for? – it is perhaps easier to arrive at plausible and persuasive answers.
In the past kings and queens were warriors, symbols and enactors of military might, dispensers of justice, makers of law, and, very commonly, representatives of God on earth. From its foundations in the act of William I’s conquest, through to the Imperial majesty of Victoria, the English monarchy has acted as if they were the centre of political power. Competing with the Papacy and later the Church of England, the monarchy erected a powerful jurisdictional claim to be not only the source of morality but also the arbiter of true religion. Despite two revolutions in the seventeenth century, (one, in 1649, which saw the most radical act of anti-monarchical reform in the act of decapitating Charles I; and the other in 1689, a more decorous affair, but nevertheless clear evidence that kings and queens were reliant upon a broader political constituency than simply God) claims to divine right legitimacy have still not been discarded by ardent monarchists, even though the political constitution finally abolished the notion in 1701. It is quite clear that one cannot engage with the English past without considering the nature and power of the monarchy. The powerful material remnants of the institution lie all across the land: castles, forests, parks and ancient and relatively modern placenames. The Royal imprimatur can also be found on everything from caviar to toilet paper. Almost silently these monuments, buildings and spaces plead a royalist cause.
In the past apologists for monarchy adopted a number of justifications. Many of these were based on appropriating the most effective political document of the pre-modern world – the Bible – to the case for the defence. Arguments in favour of legitimacy included radical claims for political dominion based on conquest, the Biblical figure of Nimrod being a particular favourite. Others claimed even as late as the seventeenth century that since God had given all dominion over the world to Adam, and all kings were direct descendants of the first father, so they had supreme power. Although kings might be morally bound to govern in the reasonable interests of the community, the subject had no claim against arbitrary behaviour. The difference between absolute authority and arbitrary power was quite subtle. Despite a conceptual distinction between ‘tyranny’ and monarchy, many defenders of kingship furiously underscored the principle of both passive obedience (put up with what ever happens without complaint) and non-resistance (never, even in the most extreme circumstances, even imagine raising a finger against the king). This world was shattered in 1649 with as much cultural trauma as the attack upon the Twin Towers in New York. Killing the King was understood by contemporaries as a blasphemy equivalent to the sacrifice of Christ. English republicans have struggled with this legacy ever since.
The strongest claims for the monarchy appear to be those that invoke tradition, historical continuity and the sanctity of the ancient constitution. A thousand years of regal majesty, evident in the still robust and bewitching spectacle of Royal funerals of Lady Diana and the Queen Mother, seems an almost unanswerable argument. We should remember that despite invoking the sonorous authority of tradition, the past is as much a projection of present-centred aspirations, an invented tradition, as it is a persisting truth. Put another way, celebrating the past does not necessarily mean living in it. Turning to the past may however give us something with which to compare current institutions. By asking historical questions – What did kings and queens do in the past, what was their function in the polity? How did subjects understand their duties and obligations to regal figures? Where did their authority to rule come from? – it might be possible to raise legitimate questions about the nature and function of the modern institution. However, the mere act of broaching these issues has commonly been dismissed as insolent and inappropriate mischief.
It has never been fashionable to be a republican in England, even in the heady days of the 1650s when the country was ruled by a Lord Protector in the name of the sovereignty of the people. The history of English republicanism, despite the persistent charges of conspiracy levelled against successive figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Paine, the Chartists and Willie Hamilton, has not been a lineage of subversive king-killers. In fact, the history of English republicans have traditionally been more interested in making good citizens than neutering extravagant monarchs. The persisting cultural memory of 1649, mixed in with nightmarish images of French sans-culottes, the guillotine and 1789, as well as twentieth Russian and Spanish revolutionary traditions, has always successfully tainted republicanism with regicide. This political stereotyping has its origins in an eighteenth century tabloid creation known as the ‘Calves Head Club’ – a clandestine fraternity that gathered each January 30th to celebrate the execution of Charles the Martyr, in a drunken and impious manner. The Calves Head men, almost certainly an invention of the fevered imaginations of loyal clergymen became a powerful way of neutering any public political discussion of the rights, prerogatives and power of the monarchy. Any such discussion would lead inevitably to regicidal action. The same logic still applies today in many quarters. That it does provides simple proof of the enduring centrality of the institution of monarchy in England.
English republican thinking, even in its most radical years, was very rarely regicidal. Admittedly the great apologist of the English Republic, John Milton, defended the execution of Charles I in robust and comprehensive arguments. But the intellectual origins of the majority of these arguments were not necessarily ‘republican’. A defence of popular sovereignty (that the safety and common good of the community is more important than that of the monarch), a description of both the rights and duties of resistance to illegal government, were all central components of a ‘democratic’ theory of government which we all subscribe to today. Very few people realise that the trial of Charles I was as much a religious matter as a political one. Indeed, the Old Testament was as important a document in his condemnation as the writings of republicans.
Although Kings were subject to restraint, it should be noticed that one of the major targets of this republicanism was ‘tyranny’ – corrupt courtiers, corrupt government, self interested and immoral ministers were the targets of hostility. Bad government irrespective of institutional form, was tyrannous. In other words, one did not have to live under a monarchy to experience tyranny. The same is true today when any of us can have republican values and aspirations without starting with the immediate issue of kingship. Republicanism in the British Isles since the 1650s has very often been more concerned with making good citizens than punishing wicked kings. Indeed, for many thinkers and writers, the issue of monarchy after 1689 was a side show to the bigger business of eradicating inequality, deference and oppression. The distemper of deference, and the extravagance of the costs of supporting a monarchy, were sometime perceived as contributing to a more general political oppression, but the focus of ambition was turned (and continues to turn) on providing the political institutions that cultivate an active, virtuous, tolerant and just community. The problem with monarchy was not personal, or even financial; rather, it was resisted and criticised because it was a symptom of an ancient constitution riddled with anachronistic prerogatives and privilege. Given the extraordinary year that is now slowly drawing to a close, we may do well to remember that, in this view, the Houses of Parliament are just as corrupted and ‘monarchical’ as the Royal Family.
The First World War is not quite ancient history, but it is very much part of the past. All those who fought in the war have now died and even those with hazy childhood memories of the conflict are very few in number. So the ‘war to end all wars’ is no longer part of living memory. Yet in the summer of 2014, the outbreak of this seminal clash of empires was commemorated, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, across Europe and the wider world. Since then, the centenary anniversaries of many of the major milestones of the war have been marked by national governments and local communities and received extraordinary levels of popular, political and media attention. In Britain, the well-established rituals of Remembrance Sunday and the 1st of July have been imbued with yet greater symbolic weight and the Imperial War Museum has been completely reinvigorated, its lavishly overhauled galleries now offering a flawed but highly inventive and visceral impression of the British experience of the war. We’ve also seen the staging of some truly imaginative and moving commemorative projects, including the ‘Poppies in the Tower’ installation, which has become a traveling exhibition, and the remarkable ‘we’re here because we’re here’ living memorial ‘unveiled’ to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July. Alongside these, there have been a myriad of smaller but no less affecting community projects, which have seen schoolchildren born in the new century remember the dead in the company of senior citizens whose fathers fought in the war.
As we continue to journey through this period of intense commemorative activity, it’s worth emphasising just how unprecedented all of this is. In the history of the commemoration of conflict, nothing on the scale of what we have witnessed over the past three years has ever occurred before. The very early date at which the British government announced its intention to commemorate the centenaries and the sheer amount of government money being spent on commemoration were both quite new. As early as October 2012, almost two years before the centenaries formally began, David Cameron pledged to devote at least £50 million to commemorative projects, a substantial amount of money at a time when many communities in the UK were experiencing severe economic hardship. The very fact that the outbreak of the war was commemorated by several national governments in August 2014 was a very new departure indeed. Traditionally, of course, the start of the war has not been commemorated so this was a new, and not uncontroversial, move.
But why has the British government been so determined to demonstrate its commitment to commemorating an extraordinarily violent war that took place a hundred years ago? A key reason for the political interest in centenary commemoration is the fact that remembering the First World War remains central to British identity and popular culture. Indeed, arguably no other historical event retains the same emotional resonance for the British as the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, and the commemoration of the conflict is something many British people take very seriously. This emotional attachment to the war ensures that even those who know little about what occurred between 1914 and ‘18 tend to have strong feelings about how the war should be interpreted and commemorated. We see evidence of this every year in the weeks before Remembrance Sunday, when there is always a certain amount of discussion about commemoration in the British media. There is nothing new in this, but the centenaries have really thrown both the positive and negative aspects of British commemorative culture into sharp relief.
In the year or so before the centenary commemorations ‘broke out’ in the summer of 2014, there was a particularly interesting and often heated public debate in Britain about the real meaning of the war and how it should be appropriately commemorated. The debate intensified with the publication of an article by then British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in the Daily Mail on January 2nd that year. This all seems very distant now that we remember Gove for other things, but two years ago he was a rather controversial Secretary of State for Education seeking to promote a narrowly Anglo-centric version of British history. In the article, he was scathing of what he regards as the apparently dominant left-wing version of the war which, in his view, portrays the conflict as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ and thus denigrates the ‘patriotism, honour and courage’ of those who lost their lives in the conflict. His comments quickly met with robust and highly critical responses from his Labour counterpart, Tristram Hunt, and a range of other prominent commentators, including historians Richard J. Evans and Antony Beevor. A group known as the Stop the War Coalition was particularly critical of his views on the war.
The German press also weighed in, with Die Welt printing an article with the headline ‘Britischer Minister gibt Deutschen die Kriegsschuld’ on 9 January. But Gove was also publicly defended by the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who went so far as to demand Hunt’s resignation and, in an article in The Telegraph, insisted that ‘Germany started the Great War, but the left can’t bear to say so’. So although Gove’s Daily Mail diatribe was a charmless combination of ignorance and self-righteousness, it revived a debate that reveals a great deal about British understandings of the First World War.
In very broad terms, the debate, which continues, divides those who, like Gove, regard the war as a bloody but necessary conflict in which British servicemen heroically achieved a great victory, and those for whom the war was little more than a futile exercise in mass slaughter. Most British people probably stand somewhere between these opposing views or, importantly, have no view. Yet the image of the First World War as the ultimate example of the futility of war, which was reinforced during the 50th anniversary of the conflict in the 1960s, remains very persistent in the UK. One striking feature of this emotive public discourse is that while there is a great deal of political, academic and popular disagreement on the historical interpretation of the war, everyone seems to agree that those who lost their lives between 1914 and ‘18 should be remembered with reverence and respect. So, unlike in other states that experienced the conflict, notably Germany, in Britain literally no one publicly opposes the custom of remembering the war and those who died in it. Even groups that are very critical of official, government-driven acts of commemoration, such as the Stop the War Coalition and the No Glory in War Campaign, have never, to my knowledge, gone so far as to question the wisdom or morality of commemorating dead soldiers.
As an act of community remembrance, or a simple expression of solidarity with our ancestors, the commemoration of war is not necessarily political. The millions of British people who wear poppies every year in the weeks before Remembrance Sunday are not making political statements by so doing. Nor are they retrospectively endorsing or honouring the First World War, or any war since. What they are doing – at least on the face of it – is honouring the dead. And yet the intense and generally exclusive focus on the dead is perhaps the most obviously problematic aspect of British commemorative culture. An undivided emphasis on the sacrifice of those who died as a result of military service made sense in the 1920s and ‘30s when millions of people across the globe were still suffering intense bereavement. We should also remember that, whatever we feel about the cause for which they were fighting, the dead gave everything they had; they made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ in the parlance of the times, and this alone makes them worthy of our interest. The relative youth of those who died makes their stories all the more poignant, and we are understandably moved– and disturbed – by the power of industrialised warfare to cut short so many lives. Indeed, reflecting on the fate of the dead helps us to appreciate the catastrophe of inter-state conflict.
And yet a commemorative culture that focuses exclusively on the dead arguably overlooks the vast majority of people who were affected by the war. Approximately 750,000 British and Irish servicemen died as a result of service in the First World War. But many more, in both countries, technically survived the conflict but were physically disabled or psychologically traumatised by their experiences. As soon as the wounded began returning from the fighting fronts in 1914, and for decades after the war, severely disabled veterans were a common sight on the streets of European cities. Men who were psychologically traumatised were perhaps less visible but no less numerous than the physically disabled. Allied and German soldiers were remarkably resilient and cases of shell-shock, although common, were not as widespread as we might think. But tens of thousands of soldiers from across the British Empire were traumatised to the point that they simply couldn’t function in civil society and most veterans suffered some form of psychological distress. The pain of witnessing this mental torment – and the various, sometimes violent ways in which it manifested itself – must have weighed very heavily indeed on the families of those who returned from the front, physically intact but visibly altered by what they had seen and done.
Which brings us to those who played no direct role in the fighting but were nonetheless deeply affected by the violence that raged around them. Millions of families across Europe and the wider world suffered from profound and enduring grief when their sons, husbands, brothers and friends were killed or mortally wounded in the theatres of war. Death, even the sudden death of young people, is by no means unique to war but during the First World War the pain of bereavement was often particularly traumatic. Many of those in mourning knew little of the circumstances in which their loved ones had died, and were denied the consolations of a funeral or a grave on which they could focus their feelings of loss. In a move that was unique to the British Empire, the grieving relatives of the dead that lay in identified graves were granted the right to pay for a customised epitaph. These personal inscriptions give us an extraordinary insight into the mentalities of those who neither fought nor died but on whom the violence of the war had a very direct and lasting impact. Indeed, the often moving personal messages from grief-stricken relatives remind us that every headstone we see today in a Commonwealth cemetery marks the grave of a dead serviceman, but it also represents a lost son or husband or brother and a family in mourning.
Many of us feel – on some level – that the bereaved, the disabled and the traumatised are central to the story of the Great War, and are as deserving of our attention as ‘the fallen’. And yet the popular and official language of 21st century commemoration rarely alludes to the plight of those who were left behind and there is little room for them in our official commemorative ceremonies. To its great credit, the Royal British Legion began incorporating disabled servicemen into its ad campaigns in 2013 when Lance-Corporal Cassidy Little, a Royal Marine who lost his leg while serving in Afghanistan, featured in the poppy appeal campaign that year. The sight of a soldier who had very clearly lost a limb on posters throughout the UK reminded us that war and those mutilated in combat remain a part of British life in the 21st century. Other organisations and individuals have also drawn our attention to veterans who have suffered life-changing injuries, including Prince Harry, who helped establish the Invictus Games in 2014. And yet no disabled servicemen were formally incorporated into any of the major centenary commemorative events that have thus far taken place. In a more historical but equally glaring omission, the hundreds of thousands of disabled soldiers who were demobilised during and after the First World War are simply never mentioned in the national discussion on commemoration.
Added to this rather one-dimensional retrospective understanding of wartime sacrifice is a superficial valorisation of all those who served. While it would be wrong to suggest that British commemorative culture glorifies war, it does arguably venerate dying in war to the point of glorification. The focal point of the official Remembrance Sunday ceremonies each year is Edwin Lutyens’ great Cenotaph in Whitehall, on the side of which are inscribed the words ‘The Glorious Dead’. During the war and in the decades that followed the Armistice, it was important for those in mourning to believe in the righteousness of the Allied cause. The belief that their son or husband or brother hadn’t died in vain, that the cause for which he had given his life was glorious, clearly gave comfort to many of those in mourning across the Empire. Indeed, our ancestors’ interpretation of the war as a just, necessary and even glorious conflict is quite understandable. The war was an extremely personal business for those who experienced it, either as civilians or servicemen, and they were very emotionally invested in it. That same interpretation should, however, be a lot less understandable today.
Expressing solidarity with our ancestors and empathising with their pain is perfectly human, and even healthy. For cultural historians who explore the mentalities and emotions of past generations it’s also a professional skill. But a completely uncritical retrospective understanding of soldiers who fought in this extraordinarily bloody conflict is problematic because it tends to suggest that all the morality during the First World War
was on one side. This widespread view was reflected in media commentary on the war throughout 2014, in which historians and others highlighted the German violation of Belgian neutrality and the mass killing of unarmed civilians by members of the German armed forces. Such mass killings of civilians definitely occurred during the invasion of Belgium and northern France in 1914 and in the U-boat and airship raids that began in 1915 and continued for much of the war. As uncomfortable as such historical incidents may be politically for German leaders, and indeed for ordinary German people, it is important that we become familiar with them if we want to understand the ‘total’ nature of the war. That the war was sold to and understood by the people of these islands as a righteous endeavour is key to understanding the British and Irish experience of the conflict. And German atrocities – both those that were fabricated and those that were all too real – were central to the process of cultural mobilisation across the United Kingdom in 1914 and ’15.
It is important, however, that we acknowledge that the armed forces of the Allied states were also directly involved in the taking of civilian lives between 1914 and ’18. The most obvious example of this was the Allied naval blockade of the German coast, which was orchestrated by the Royal Navy and thus very much a British enterprise. The North Sea was formally declared a ‘British military area’ in November 1914 and the blockade essentially lasted from then until German representatives signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 (fully 7 months after the Armistice). By mid-1915, German imports had fallen by 55 per cent from pre-war levels, leading to major fuel shortages but also to serious and increasing scarcity of vital foodstuffs. By 1917, disorders related to malnutrition, including scurvy, tuberculosis and dysentery, were common across Germany. Official statistics gave a figure of approximately 760,000 for those who died of malnutrition as a result of the blockade.
The blockade was certainly a factor in German capitulation in 1918 and the outcome of the First World War. It also significantly influenced the experience of the war for ordinary Germans and evidently led to the deaths of many thousands of civilian men, women and children. Yet in all the commentary on the war that has pervaded the British media since the beginning of 2014, I do not recall a single reference to the Royal Navy’s role in the taking of German lives. Nor has there been any mention of the hundreds of unarmed civilians who were killed by British servicemen – invariably veterans of the Great War – in the immediate aftermath of the war in India, Mesopotamia and Ireland.
I do not raise this issue of British complicity in the killing of civilians to in any way denigrate the conduct of British soldiers on the Western Front or at Gallipoli or elsewhere during the First World War. Many British officers and men, and indeed soldiers from all sides, served in a plainly self-sacrificing and often heroic fashion, and we are understandably impressed by their stories. But there is a persistent popular belief in the UK that the British soldiers of the Great War were victims rather than perpetrators of violence – and not both – and that they are morally beyond reproach. If we genuinely want the centenaries to become a moment in which we improve our understanding of the ‘war to end all wars’, this should ideally change.
Finally, there is a striking and increasingly jarring contrast between the great dignity and reverence with which most British people remember the war dead and the tone of the national conversation about commemoration. Over the past number of years, press commentary during ‘remembrance season’ has become ever more antagonistic and we’ve seen the emergence of the particularly unpleasant practice of calling television personalities and other public figures to account for not wearing the poppy. Jon Snow is a well-known example, but there have been others. This year, the Daily Mail has led a campaign to force the FA to go against FIFA and allow English and Scottish footballers to wear poppies emblazoned on their shirts when they play against each other on Armistice Day. ‘Poppy War’ screams the front-page headline. At the risk of stating the obvious, this press-manufactured spat over football jerseys is not a war. It is nothing remotely like a war. And using shrill, deliberately exaggerated language of this kind arguably does a great disservice to the memory of the men who fought and died on the Western Front and elsewhere. Historians still disagree about the motivations that led so many men to enlist or seek commissions in the British Army in the first year or so of the war. We can be quite sure, however, that whatever they thought they were fighting for, it wasn’t self-righteousness, invented indignation or gutter jingoism.
The British have every reason to be proud of their highly distinctive culture of commemoration. The sincerity and dignity with which most British people – irrespective of class, or status, or race – remember the dead each year is truly impressive and admirable (particularly to a foreigner). But if we genuinely believe that the dead of the First World War are worth commemorating, we should seek not simply to remember them, but to understand them. We should thus take time to reflect upon the totality of their experiences, to think of those they left behind, and to appreciate the remarkable colour and complexity of the world in which they lived and died.
Edward Madigan is Lecturer in Public History and First World War Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London