One Hundred Years of Memory
2014 – 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
Why should we remember?
By the end of the First World War few people in the countries that took part remained unaffected.The war touched almost everyone’s life in some way or other.
Children grew up in the shadow of battle, their fathers absent or lost. Women became directly involved, picking up the pieces of industry and agriculture as the men went off to fight. By 1918, they too could join the army and serve their country.
‘Sometimes I don’t think about it for months on end, then I come back and dream about it all. How really extraordinary it was. I can’t quite get it out of my system. I can’t sleep sometimes. I just think about it.’
Stephen Williamson looking back at the First World War in 1985
Men enlisted, or were called up, in their millions, sent to fight in places that many had never heard of before. Life changed forever. Nothing was ever the same again.
The nature of modern warfare soon became clear. Armies were numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Modern weapons caused heavy casualties and laid waste to whole communities. Soldiers went to ground, digging trenches and dugouts that soon began to feel almost permanent.
New ways of fighting made better and more effective use of huge quantities of shells and bullets manufactured on a scale never seen before.
“I felt that I didn’t want to live, I’d no wish to live at all, because the world had come to an end, then, for me, because I’d lost all that I’d loved.”
Kitty Morter remembering the birth of her baby after her husband had died on the Somme
The power unleashed by modern war resulted in unimagined losses. Over 9 million soldiers died as a result of the fighting. Food shortages weakened the people who remained on the home fronts. Nearly 6 million civilians died from disease or starvation. Almost 1 million more were killed as a direct result of military operations. The estimate of dead resulting from the war stands at over 16 million.
And then there were the wounded. More than 21 million. Some recovered. Others were never the same again, either in body or in mind.
Millions of people across the world still feel a connection with the Great War for Civilisation. They knew the people whose lives were changed by it. They live with its unresolved political legacies. The First World War created a common sense of history that, decades later, still links people from many disparate nations.
“I am for the front on Tuesday, but if you write and say I am only seventeen it will stop me from going. Don’t forget.”
Stephen Brown to his mother, April 1915. He was killed in action at Ypres a month later.
Sometimes the First World War feels like distant history. The jumpy black and white films, the unfamiliar clothes and the horses pulling wagons, all look like something from a world long forgotten. Yet the last soldiers who fought in the war have only recently died. The war is slipping inexorably beyond the fringes of living memory and, as the Centenary of 1914–18 passes, we have to work harder to make sure we do not forget.
If we want to understand today, we need to know and remember what happened yesterday.