Mark Riley Cardwell reports on the Leicester Exchanges live debate, which took place at Sixty One Whitehall, London, on Wednesday 19 November 2014. The topic under discussion was the forgotten legacies of the First World War.
Our understanding of the First World War is often limited to “stereotypes” about the Western Front and ignores the global scale of the conflict, experts argued at a Leicester Exchanges live debate on February 20.
The Great War…Lest We Forget?, a debate chaired by the University of Leicester’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Robert Burgess, featured a panel of historians and media experts who agreed that the 100th anniversary of the war offers an unprecedented opportunity to broaden popular conceptions about the conflict.
They said that our “Anglocentric” focus on the muddy battlefields of the Western Front should be widened to include the many struggles which occurred around the world – which they believe have often been neglected in British teaching, literature and media.
Speaking at the event at Sixty One Whitehall, London, Paul Lay, editor of History Today magazine, said that our view of the First World War has become restricted to images of British troops fighting in the trenches.
“We have to get out of the Western Front mentality. We need to look at what was happening in the Slavic world, in Russia – we need to take a global view of it,” said the editor, who is also a Senior Research Fellow in Early Modern British History at the University of Buckingham.
Mr Lay said there is a danger that people tend to focus on issues around the Western Front because they are looking for lessons about the relevance of the First World War to modern day Britain. He believes this approach is a red herring.
“We have become rather obsessed by The Western Front, because we have become obsessed by ourselves,” he said. “If we are thinking about relevance of the war to the present day, we are thinking about us and not those living in 1914. If we want to study the war, we have to get over this.
“This was a time when the majority of people in the UK lived in poverty. This is an entirely different world, and unless we start by trying to understand that, there are no lessons we can learn.”
He pointed to a recent piece in History Today on Brazil’s contribution to the First World War as one of the many global aspects of the war which has not received the attention it deserves among the UK public.
“I do feel quite optimistic that we are emerging out from the common stereotypes, like Oh! What A Lovely War,” he added. “This centenary is an opportunity to broaden our knowledge of the First World War.”
Also speaking at the event was Adrian Van Klaveren, the BBC’s controller for all First World War centenary coverage and the former controller of BBC Radio 5 Live. He said that the BBC’s schedule of programmes around the 100th anniversary aims to get away from the familiar narratives and myths which have built up around the war.
From the 1950s and 1960s onwards, he argued, teaching about the First World War became focused on a particular kind of perspective, partly as a result of the legacy of the Second World War. It is through this same narrative that most view the war today, he said.
“The 1950s and 1960s was the time when the war poets came to the fore in teaching, as well as Oh! What a Lovely War,” he said. “This was when this narrative became stuck as a way of thinking about the war.
“That is the way that we have come to be fixated with the trenches and the mud. It is really important that that’s there, but we have lost so much else. There are so many other stories.”
The journalist pointed to a recent report by the British Council, which showed that most people in the UK don’t realise that the war was fought beyond the Western Front. He said the BBC’s centenary coverage would try to tackle this issue by highlighting the vast number of countries involved around the world.
He said the BBC plans to show programmes on India, the contributions of commonwealth countries as a whole and a World at War series, which will look at the huge range of countries affected by the conflict.
“We want to help people understand this really was a global war – the coverage aims to make that widely understood. This is one of the reasons why this centenary matters so much,” he said.
“It’s very hard to make sense of anything happening today without understanding what happened during the First World War and what happened afterwards.”
“The challenge that we in the media have to accept is that we want to help people understand things better. We hope these programmes may help people make up their minds about current policy questions with a more informed mind than they would have before.”
The need to broaden public perception of the scope of the war was a view shared by Dr Sally Horrocks, a Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester’s School of History, who acts as senior academic advisor to the British Library’s Oral History of British Science project.
Dr Horrocks, who is currently working with BBC local radio stations in the East Midlands on their coverage of the centenary of the First World War, said: “My impression from speaking to undergraduates is that a lot of people have been taught the war through the war poets.
“We have an Anglocentric impression of the war. If the centenary does help to broaden out our impression, that’s a good thing.”
She said the focus on the Western Front ignores the fact that many people in multicultural Britain will have a completely different connection with the war from that of the war poets.
She also said there are other lessons that can be learned from the war in relation to the present day besides the familiar issues around Europe.
“We don’t tend to think of the First World War as a capitalist war and a confrontation over resources – but maybe we should be looking at what the war shows about the current conflict in Syria.”
Dr Horrocks also said the war had a profound effect on the role of science and technology in the UK. But the scientific advances which were put to use during the war – often to horrific effect – also had a big impact on the public perception of science, she argued.
“Quite a lot of people would argue that in the run up to the war, there was a very positive view of science – and afterwards it could never keep that image,” she said. “In particular, poison gas was important in doing that.
“But there were also new advancements in the role of science in the modern state. It brought about a big increase in state investment in science.”
She said one of the positive legacies of the First World War was a much more efficient use of science in the Second World War. Structures were put in place to keep scientists away from the front line, as their work was recognised as valuable to the state.
The war also brought about huge changes for the role of women in British society, she said – particularly with the introduction of approximately two million women into the workforce.
“During the war, there were a lot of benefits to the broadening of women’s roles. Before the war, there was still a strong anti-suffrage movement, but the huge contribution of women to the war meant that the anti-suffrage movement just disappeared.”
The panel all agreed that the war saw a huge surge in donations from members of the public and private companies, who put forward money and supplies to help support the troops.
Chairing the panel, Professor Burgess said the University of Leicester was itself established as a result of the donations given by many in Leicester and Leicestershire, who wanted to create a University to commemorate those who had given their lives in the war.
“The University of Leicester was specifically created as a living memorial to those that died in the Great War,” he said. “It was the hope of those who gave donations that the next generation would have educational opportunities that were not available to their parents. The University is itself a legacy of the Great War.”
He added that Sixty One Whitehall – the old Whitehall Palace – was an ideal venue for the debate, as it is located just minutes from the Cenotaph, and its magnificent library holds an extensive collection of books on the First World War.
The event drew a 100-strong audience at the venue, with incisive questions from historians, ex-soldiers, battlefield guides, journalists and academics.
An even larger number of contributors from around the world engaged with the debate online. Historian and broadcaster Matthew Ward curated the online debate via the Twitter hashtag #LExGreatWar, and relayed questions to the panel from Twitter users as far afield as India and the USA.