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A Summer to Remember: 1914, 1944 and ‘all that’

On 11, Aug 2014 | No Comments | In | By Voices

A Summer to Remember: 1914, 1944 and ‘all that’

Dr Sam Edwards, Manchester Metropolitan University

The commemorative events of August 2014 have at last initiated the long-anticipated season of remembrance connected to centennial of the First World War. The build-up of the preceding few months has finally given way to ceremony and solemn contemplation as Heads of State gather to lay wreaths of remembrance at sacred sites of memory: in Mons, at the Menin Gate, on the Marne. Seen from another perspective, however, the ceremonies taking place this August are not just a ‘beginning’; they also provide the closing parenthesis to a summer of memory which began on 6 June with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings of 1944.

These connections between 1914 and 1944, between the Great War and the Great Crusade, are not a recent innovation. The coincidence of history which placed them two months apart, and which also provided a pleasing symmetry of symbolism by the presence of a ‘4’ in the year of their occurrence, has ensured that these two landmarks of the twentieth century have often been joined in memory and remembrance.

In the years after the end of the Second World War, for example, links between 1914 and 1944 emerged on the very landscape of Normandy: the monuments built in memory of the British and Commonwealth fallen were explicitly shaped by the culture of commemoration bequeathed by the Great War. The organisation charged with building British war cemeteries – the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission – was itself a product of the earlier conflict, and its commemorative vision still owed much to these origins. Thus, in Normandy, just like on the banks of the Somme, the Commission’s cemeteries replicated the form and pattern of an imagined and idyllic ‘English’ garden, whilst the design of the headstone provided for each and every fallen soldier (where there was a body to bury) was of precisely the same design as those erected across Flanders and France in the 1920s.

The war memorial that stands just across the road from the Commission’s Bayeux cemetery is suggestive of another way in which 1914 and 1944 often have been joined in British memory. Completed in 1952, and designed to invoke the long history of connections between England and Normandy, the legend inscribed on the top of the memorial declares “We who were conquered by William have liberated the fatherland of the Conqueror.” This attempt to mark the D-Day landings as indicative of almost a thousand years of cross-Channel connections also is asserted by the D-Day tapestry funded by Lord Dulverton of Batsford in the late 1960s. Originally intended for display at the Imperial War Museum in London (itself, like the IWGC, a product of the First World War), this tapestry now resides at the D-Day museum in Portsmouth. With twine and thread, the narrative offered is clear: 1066, 1914, and 1944 are all joined by Anglo-French contact and, in the twentieth century, common purpose. Little wonder that in the 1960s some British Europhiles would seek to celebrate D-Day as a symbol of Britain’s long-standing commitment to Europe, a commitment likewise demonstrated by the landing of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1914 as well as by Britain’s post-1945 engagement with a growing European commercial union.

Kilometre marker of the Voie de la Liberté, Normandy [Courtesy of Sam Edwards]Joining commemorations of 1914 and 1944 like this is by no means unique to the British. In France, efforts to link the two moments were similarly apparent by the early 1950s and became increasingly popular in the 1960s, the era of President Charles De Gaulle. For De Gaulle, who landed in Normandy shortly after D-Day, fusing commemorations of 1944 and 1914 provided the perfect means to counter ‘passive’ images of French liberation with more ‘active’ images of military power and heroic defence. Thus, in 1964, De Gaulle tasked the French veterans’ ministry with designing and delivering a programme of commemorative events explicitly joining the summer of 1914 to the summer of 1944.

Activities in the 1970s demonstrated another way in which commemorations of 1914 and 1944 often have existed in reciprocal exchange. To be sure, of the two events the latter has often tended to call forth more celebratory images and ideas, at least in Britain and the United States. In Normandy, after all, June 1944 saw the Western Allies begin their campaign to secure that so noble of goals: the destruction of Nazi tyranny. August 1914, in contrast, is often remembered as marking the end of an Edwardian dream; peace and prosperity give way to murder and mayhem. Yet despite these clear differences, the 1970s nonetheless saw the often solemn and sombre qualities of 1914 commemorations influence activities connected to the Normandy landings. This was most apparent in the film about the landings produced by the Imperial War Museum in 1975.

Film Still from 'Overlord', 1975 [Imperial War Museum]Titled Overlord, this film centres upon the enlistment and training of Pvt. Thomas Beddows, a young, lower middle-class Englishman conscripted into the army sometime in 1943-44. We see Pvt. Beddows’ introduction to military life, his training for war, his mistakes and minor misdemeanors, his yearning for female companionship. But we do not see a hero convinced of the righteousness of his cause. Indeed, throughout Pvt. Beddows seems rather fatalistic, innocent, confused, and uncertain. The sombre tone of the film is also accentuated by a musical score that remains decidedly melancholic, especially when it is used to accompany frequent documentary images of the death and destruction wrought by the war. And the film does not follow Beddows from the beaches of Normandy to the bocage of the interior. Instead, our protagonist is killed in a landing craft just as he is nearing the Norman coast. With his death, the film ends. The very final scene is not of liberated Paris, nor of conquered Berlin; the final scene is of a ruined, crumbling, derelict castle somewhere in the British uplands. In the background, orchestral strings play a mournful musical eulogy.

In tone and tenor, this film was certainly shaped by the challenges and concerns of the moment: economic depression, unemployment, social unrest. It is also suggestive of public perceptions of war, now dominated by fears that any future global conflict would result in nuclear holocaust. But, in terms of plot and character, the film also betrays the influence of contemporary First World War commemorations. This was the age in which veterans of the Great War began to pass on; this was the age in which popular views of the fallen of 1914-18 were increasingly shaped by the images offered by such films as Oh What a Lovely War! (1969) and by histories like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961). Indeed, remove the details of place and time and one could easily have Private Thomas Beddows enlist in the BEF of 1914 before being killed at Mons that August.

Yet if the commemorative merging of 1914 and 1944 has been underway for quite some time, what does this summer of memory reveal about how we in Britain choose to remember these two great interventions into the politics of Europe? Most apparent over the past two months has been the presence of two subtle subtexts to the commemorative events in Normandy and those now taking place in northern France. In Normandy, for instance, and in contrast to several previous anniversaries, British press and politicians gave considerable time and space to celebrating the D-Day landings as being representative of a deeply rooted commitment to the Continent rather than as just marking the closeness of the transatlantic bond. Such an emphasis should be seen in the context of the recent Anglo-American military withdrawal from Iraq as well as a lack of ‘synergy’ between the Democratic presidency of Barack Obama and the coalition cabinet of David Cameron; the present lacks the right circumstances for a more stridently ‘Anglo-American’ reading of the landings (as was the case in both 1984 and 2004). Equally important, we might see in the attention given to celebrations of Anglo-French comradeship this June an attempt to pave the way for later British efforts to influence the elections for the European presidency.

The events and ceremonies of August 2014 bear similar influences, but also apparent are some restrained attempts – just a month before a landmark referendum on Scottish Independence – to mark the outbreak of the Great War as demonstrating that a ‘united’ Britain was, and is, a global power for good. Thus, in the same week that Alastair Darling and Alex Salmond engaged in televised debate on the future of the Union, we have images of Commonwealth Heads of State gathering in Glasgow Cathedral to remember the dead; we have the Queen sitting in solemn contemplation at Crathie Kirk Church in Aberdeenshire; we have a troop of re-enactors – dressed as Gordon Highlanders – marching at Bovingdon Tank Museum in Dorset; we have pipes and drums parading through the streets of Folkstone, ‘gateway’ to the trenches.

Scottish troops served with distinction in the BEF of 1914, and almost 150,000 were killed in the battles that followed. So much of Scottish national identity is fused to military service and sacrifice (as the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle both declare), and so much of this service has occurred under the auspices of a ‘United’ Kingdom and on behalf of the ‘British’ Empire. Even now, Scotland provides approximately 10% of the army’s manpower (whilst making up 8% of the national population). Historically, these troops have been particularly significant to the combat orientated elements of the army, especially infantry, cavalry and armour, whilst Scottish shipyards continue to build the warships of the Royal Navy (as the recent naming ceremony of the new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, attests). As Scottish nationalists launch the final drive in their campaign for Independence amidst the heady atmosphere of the First World War centennial commemorations we might well see the events of 1914 become a battlefield of memory as the ‘no’ and ‘yes’ campaigns contest the meaning and value of Scottish military service in the past and present.

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