OFF THE RECORD
Alan Crosby reflects on how the First World War changed our ancestors’ lives, and the enduring legacy of their sacrifice
How WW1 memorials helped heal the nation’s pain
They fought up to the last minute, but as the guns on the Western Front fell silent at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the world breathed far more than a sigh of relief. There were celebrations across Europe, North America, Australasia and the Empire, and lamentations for those who had fallen – a time for sad reflection, as well as joyful release.
In this country, much had changed. We had experienced our first military action on the Home Front for 250 years, with the shelling of the east coast by German warships, the Zeppelin raids and, latterly, air raids from German bombers… a harbinger of what came a quarter of a century later.
Our heavy industries had worked flat out for the war effort, leaving them overstretched, worn out, and needing costly upgrades and modernisation. Our railway system was similarly weary, and desperately in need of a thorough overhaul. During the war the internal combustion engine had come of age and was now an integral part of the nation’s transport, with many implications for the future.
‘Memorialisation was a way of achieving closure’
Socially, the war had been transformative. Women played a vital role doing jobs that had previously been reserved for men, from cleaning railway engines and driving trams, to manual labour in factories and engineering works. Would they go back to their pre-war passive roles, or did this foreshadow an employment revolution? And would that revolution be linked with the fact that many women now had the vote, and could begin to influence politics?
There was a powerful sense of purpose and determination for the future. We and our allies had fought the bloodiest war in western history. More than 700,000 British soldiers had died. The question asked by quite a few people was: “What was all the sacrifice actually for?” Yes, the Kaiser had been defeated, but surely there was more to it than that? We could plan for a better world, a fairer and more ALAN CROSBY lives in Lancashire and is the editor of The Local Historian prosperous future for our returning heroes. This was encapsulated in the slogan coined at the end of 1918, when Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised a concerted effort to build large numbers of highquality houses that would be “homes fit for heroes”.
But there were many problems to overcome. In the countryside, numerous great families had suffered the loss of the heir to the estate, which meant not only a highly uncertain inheritance but also crippling death duties. From farms and fields the labourers had gone to the Front, and many did not return. Rural society had undergone traumatic change, and the old ways would not necessarily continue.
In the short term, there was the horror of the Spanish flu pandemic, which globally killed more people than the war. For months the country was in crisis, and bereaved families saw further tragedy.
And that reminds us of another powerful force at the end of 1918, one which had been growing during the war and was now a fierce resolve – the dead must be commemorated. In every community plans were drawn up for the erection of memorials, either as cenotaphs and monuments, or as public amenities such as parks and village halls. During the next five or six years memorialisation (as the historians term it) was a way of achieving public and private closure, after some of the darkest days in our history.
The legacy is one that we all share – those familiar stones, carved with the names of so many young men, are a feature of every village and town. A century on, the First World War has passed from living memory. There is nobody alive who clearly recalls it, and precious few who lived during it, but the memorials, and the jerky black-and-white films, harrowing photographs, haunting poetry and paintings, and names and dates on family trees, guarantee that it will never be forgotten.