OFF THE RECORD

Alan Crosby re­flects on how the First World War changed our ances­tors’ lives, and the en­dur­ing legacy of their sac­ri­fice

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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