We’ve struck gold this week: a guest blog by our Local Studies Librarian, Dave Walker, with some personal- and local- reflections of WWI.
Like many of the people who work in libraries, archives and museums I’ve spent time this year getting ready for the commemoration of the start of the First World War, looking through archive material, going to meetings and workshops, working on exhibitions and events and answering the first flurry of enquiries on the subject. I’ve never experienced any preparation for a centenary like it. Raising awareness of a profoundly significant historical event and getting people interested in history is never a bad thing. But the First World War is not like other historical events. It’s definitely not like the Second World War.
World War 2 was an unambiguous struggle against evil. We may have had some allies we felt dubious about afterwards, and we may feel regret about some of the methods and weapons used by the Allies but it was a necessary war. That seems to be the general consensus. And I know it from my own family. Both my father and my mother were in the armed forces and believed in the cause for which they were fighting.
But World War 1 is less clear cut. We fought an aggressor who was determined on the domination of Europe (and elsewhere). But the origins of the war are caught up in diplomatic machinations and expediency. And there are many areas of disagreement about the conduct of the war. Were our troops “lions led by donkeys” as Allan Clarke famously put it? Or were the allied commanders as competent as could have been expected given that the technology of warfare was changing so rapidly? Was the Great War a just war against an enemy of civilisation? Or simply the result of one gang of would be imperialists attempting unsuccessfully to supplant another? It wasn’t as it turned out “the war to end wars”. But was it just an accidental outbreak of unjustifiable blood-letting?
It’s harder when the event being remembered is reaching the point of being almost past living memory. As far as my own family is concerned there are a few photos of men in uniform seen in old photo albums and I know about my great uncle John James Williamson who died towards the end of the war too late to travel home on compassionate leave when his mother died. (His brother George made it home and survived the war.)
When it comes to what is being commemorated we can agree that it was the courage and sacrifice of ordinary men and women that we want to remember and the details of ordinary lives. The historians and politicians can argue over the rest.
There is no doubt about the suffering and trauma which ended the long Edwardian summer and propelled us into the 20th century. But if it feels disheartening to contemplate pain, misery and injustice we can remember that this is history. We have the whole span of the war to examine, which is why I have chosen these pictures.
This was the Peace Parade of 1919. Men and women who served in the armed forces or in auxiliary forces are seen marching down Sloane Street (just a part of the whole route) to commemorate the end of the war.
We’re rightly avoiding the word celebration this year. But I think it is right to say that these men and women were celebrating one thing – their own survival. They marched in front of cheering crowds to celebrate the peace, proud of what they had done but glad it was finished.
Home at last. War is over.
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