4 August 2014

Centenary will offer us all a chance to learn forgotten histories

View all news

Even Sir Edward Grey did not seem quite sure if he ever said his most famous words. In his memoirs, published just over a decade later, Grey wrote that ‘a friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. The former Foreign Secretary did not have a personal memory of the moment himself.

A century later, the nation is being invited to extinguish the lights at 10pm tonight, as a symbolic way to participate in the commemorations on the day that Britain declared war with Germany, writes Sunder Katwala.

There is a strong public appetite for engaging in the centenary despite quite a shaky grasp of the historical events of a century ago – or, quite possibly, precisely because of that.

People do have a very strong sense that two world wars stand apart as the most important modern historical events – in defining so much about our history, our national identities, and shaping the society that we have become.  Yet most people know considerably less about what than they would like.

The public’s first priority is to solemnly mark the scale of life lost. That almost a million British lives were lost; that there were nine million lives lost among the combatants, and millions more among civilian populations strike. At a century’s distance, the idea of reconciliation, remembering with former enemies, and marking all of the deaths, whether of friend or foe, is seen as important by almost everybody, and unites those who differ about the merits of the war.

Secondly, we expect the centenary to give us all ‘a chance to learn’ more about a history that has shaped who we are today. This was one of the major themes to emerge from British Future’s research into what people think the centenary is about – and why it matters to the Britain of 2014.

That the war’s centenary means that it has now passed from living memory gives people an additional sense of responsibility and motivation. It will now take a little bit more work to discover how your own family, the place that you live, or the country as a whole was affected. Yet a century ago is also only just tantalisingly beyond the fingertips of living memory. Nobody wants ours to be the generation, whether in our own families or at a social level, that breaks the chain of memory and knowledge. Hence the personal motivation which many described to learn about these events with their families.

We found that most people do know the 1914-18 conflict that was the first of two wars, with Germany on the other side; that it involved mud, barbed wire and trenches, and that lives were lost on an astonishing scale. Just about everything else about the first world war is minority knowledge.

Most people have a clear sense of what the second world war was about –  but struggle to separate the first world war from it.  The causes of the first world war are a more complex jigsaw. Knowing that it was sparked by the assassination of an Archduke is one thing, but how does that lead to Britain declaring war on Germany over Belgium? Most of us lack some of the key pieces – the involvement of Austria-Hungary and Serbia; or that it was the German threat to Belgium settled the question of British involvement – to complete the puzzle,  so would not yet feel able to give somebody else a potted account of the basics.

The centenary may shed more light on the first world war as a global conflict – something explored in a recent British Council report. Surprisingly, only a minority of Britons know that Australians and Canadians fought alongside British troops: the Commonwealth contribution to the war will become clearer in centenary activities over some of the key moments of the war, such as the importance of Gallipolli in the forging of Australia’s national identity.

The global aspects shed light on contemporary Britain too. The armies that fought the first world war have more in common with the Britain of 2014 than with that of 1914. But most of us don’t know this.  New polling by ICM for British Future found that only one in three people are aware of the participation of those of minority faiths, giving the centenary has an opportunity to ensure that this too should become majority knowledge.

Knowledge of the participation of solidiers from different faith backgrounds

‘Thinking about the faith background of the soldiers who fought for Britain in the First World War. For each of the faiths below, please say whether you think more than or less than 10,000 soldiers from a faith fought for Britain during the first world war’

% saying ‘did participate’

Christian: 71%
Hindu: 34%
Sikh: 34%
Jewish: 33%
Muslim: 22%
(Polling was by ICM for British Future: 2030 GB adults aged 18+ were interviewed online between 25-27 June 2014).

For minority faiths, the most popular answer was ‘don’t know’ – 45% of respondents gave that answer for Hindu, Sikh and Jewish soldiers, and 48% for Muslims. A surprisingly large minority (25%) also said don’t know for Christians, capturing a level of uncertainty about the basic contours of British society a century ago.

More people (30%) felt sure there were not more than 10,000 Muslim troops fighting in the British side in 1914 than knew that Muslim soldiers took part, while over a fifth said that Hindu, Jewish and Sikh troops were not involved.

Just 2% of people appreciated the scale of the Muslim contribution: the 400,000 soldiers of the Muslim faith made up around one third of the Indian Army. Most of those who offered an estimate thought that it would be fewer than 10,000 – underestimating the presence by a scale of 40.

The centenary should raise awareness of the role of Empire and Commonwealth troops, and the multi-faith armies which did fight a century ago. The Jewish contribution has been explored in the Jewish Museum’s King and Country exhibition. There is a major SOAS exhibition ‘Empire, Faith and War‘ on the Sikh role in the war. The Muslim contribution, least known of all, was marked at the Living Islam festival this weekend.

What is important that the multi-ethnic and multi-faith aspects of the war are not considered to be something for minority citizens, as if offering a route to the parallel participation in national centenary activities.  Rather, it is important that the Empire and Commonwealth contribution, which was undoubtedly crucial to Britain’s ability to play the part in the war that we did, should be understood as part of the shared heritage of the country that we have become, relevant to all of us, not just those from a particular minority background. The ICM poll found that 79% of the public agree that It would make an important contribution to integration and British values to teach all of our children this shared history of the first world war in our multi-ethnic classrooms today”. Only five per cent agreed with the alternative statement, “It would be a damaging mistake for integration and British values to teach a potentially divisive subject such as the first world war and the Empire in our multi-ethnic classrooms today”. That was a strong consensus on that across those from white British and ethnic minority respondents.

If the centenary can open up new stories, there are also many surprising elements of the history that we think we know about too, like the barbed wire, mud and blood of the trenches. That ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ has come under fire from some historians and politicians seems somewhat unfair to me. It is a comedy series, both funny and poignant. As television comedy goesit is pretty well informed. But it isn’t the fault of those who made it – to make us laugh and think – if people mistake its caricatures and jokes, or its broader take on the tragedy of the war, for a historical documentary.  But one way in which it has further reinforced a public perception of the experience of those who fought the war is captured in creator Richard Curtis’ comment that ‘from the very start, we agreed that it had to end badly. That it had to end in sorrow. That everyone had to die’.

It certainly does some as a considerable surprise to most people to find out that 89% of those who went to war survived it – though many more were injured. This presents a different question – how did so many survive? (the subject of one of the many excellent BBC interactive guides). This presents a different picture: how fear and valour and tragedy were mixed too with the boredom of everyday life away from the frontline.That the war had important social legacies too  is something people would like to know more about. There is a sense that the world represented in Downton Abbey began to change, but again only a shaky idea of how and when. Just 7% of people know that women first got to vote in 1918, in the first post-war election, as the franchise was extended, for example.

This thirst for greater understanding also helps to explain why there is a limited public appetite for controversy over the war.  The arguments from two different flanks – that the centenary commemorations are either too jingoistic or not nearly jingoistic enough both mistake the public mood. Research into public attitudes shows a pretty strong and settled public consensus on what the centenary should be about: that themes of valuing peace,  commemorating sacrifice and promoting reconciliation are compatible, and that the centenary offers an opportunity to learn more about the shared history of the diverse nation that we have become today.

By contrast, the idea that the commemorations are an inappropriate exercise in jingoism has a rather narrow appeal.

After all, the centrepiece of the publicly funded commemoration activities are the new first world war galleries at the Imperial War Museums. A campaign against publicly-funded museums is not the most obvious cause for the cultural left, while the many hundreds of grassroots projects will also give the British centenary a strong local presence, exploring so many different aspects of the conflict from the bottom-up, in a way unlikely to be matched on a similar scale in many other countries. Our research also showed that the idea that the main message of the centenary should be to celebrate ‘victory’ appeals to only a minority too. People are wary of political arguments when they want to come together to remember and, anyway, simply don’t yet know enough about the conflict to form a confident view of its rights and wrongs.

There is certainly an important, essential and educative place for historical controversy during this centenary – beyond the solemn commemorative events of the centenary – but there is a very limited public appetite for ‘culture wars’ over the centenary commemorations that most people will help to bring people together, both to commemorate and to learn.

The question of whether Britain should have gone to war in 1914 – which remained very much in the balance during the first hot weekend of August – is one of the great contested questions of British history.

Yet perhaps there is also a strong case that it has now become, at another level, a quite impossible question to answer.

We can certainly attempt to get inside the minds of those who made the decisions in 1914, in a world very different to our own. But to ask ‘What sort of country would Britain now be in 2014 had the two world wars not taken place?’ does not seem a question that anybody could give a sensible answer to now.

The depth of the legacies of the two world wars that were fought means that we can never now develop any adequate grasp of this counter-factual.

That is not just because of the central symbolic role of rituals of Remembrance in our national life, or how the depth of respect for those who serve in the armed forces is shared by most of those who may disagree about the political choices made either a century ago, or much more recently.

It is also that the seminal moments in British social history – the changing role of women and the extension of the suffrage after the first world war; the development of the welfare settlement after the second – arose as political and social responses to the war. The lessons and legacies of the world wars have always been contested – about war and peace, about the importance or dangers of European or global entanglements, about individual liberty and collectivism – but we would now struggle to recreate these debates without these central reference points around which they have been conducted

Perhaps, for better and for worse, we would be very different in a great many ways.  And yet, from art and culture to politics and society, it might not be a world that we could recognise as our own.

Across the next four years, this centenary offers us all the chance to pay respect the service of those who died, and to understand the value of peace. We can and should disagree about the lessons of history too – but this centenary could also shed new light on how the choices that were made did so much to shape the society that we have now become.

British Future’s latest activity on Twitter