In 2014, at the start of a programme of  First World War centenary commemorative activities in Britain, the Gateways to the First World War team, working with the four other AHRC Engagement Centres, commissioned a Directive on responses to, and the cultural memory of, the war from the social survey organization, Mass Observation.  The Directive proved extremely popular, with 200 people writing about their engagement with commemorative activities, the impact of the war on their own families, their historical knowledge and cultural memory of the war years and its lasting legacies for contemporary Britain.  In this blog post, I want to consider some of these responses, and what they mean for the way that the war is viewed in Britain today.  First though, I will outline the Mass Observation project of which this Directive is a part.

The poet Charles Madge, the anthropologist Tom Harrisson and the documentarist Humphrey Jennings established Mass Observation (MO) in 1937 as a means of constructing ‘an anthropology of ourselves’.  In this first incarnation MO drew on a range of research methodologies: as well as advertising for a ‘national panel’ of writers who would respond to regular, open ended questionnaires or ‘Directives’ and submit regular diaries, they recruited a team of ‘Observers’ who would observe the British public in the manner of ethnographic anthropologists, interacting with the society they were studying whilst making careful notes on behavior and beliefs.  In addition they used more traditional methods of data collection such as interviews to build a picture of British life and popular views that more quantitative surveys struggled to access.   As Britain entered the Second World War the unique ability of MO to access this material was recognised by the Ministry of Information, which employed MO to collect information on ‘morale’.  Following the war, and the rise of consumerism, MO gradually shifted to become a more traditional market research organization, collecting and analysing data on consumption habits for advertising agencies and their clients.

MO was relaunched by the University of Sussex as an active project in 1981, when a new panel of respondents was recruited to write on a range of different topics, varying from responses to the Falklands/Malvinas War (1982) to the Miner’s Strike (1984), holidays, personal hygiene, wedding presents and genealogy. This material, together with documents collected between 1937 and 1955 is housed at The Keep, the new archive housing historical documents from Brighton and Hove and East Sussex.  The two sets of material provide the researcher with an unrivalled insight into the personal lives and views of the British people which, although they make no claim to representativeness (being composed as they are of a self-selecting group of people who are largely older, more female, more white and more Southern than the population as a whole) nonetheless give us a rich source for the voices, views and life experiences of a range of people who otherwise often remain unrepresented on the public stage.

So, what do the responses to the Directive indicate about the British people’s understanding of the First World War at its centenary, and their relationship to commemorative events?  The first activity that we asked the respondents to do was to quickly note down ten words or phrases that they associated with the war.  With the exception of a small number of people, one of whom refused to do this as he considered it ‘a pointless exercise’, the majority of the responses indicate the strength of the cultural memory of the war as a futile tragedy, marked by sacrifice and pointless suffering.  The words that conjured up the war for a 55 year old woman – Death, blood, mud, futility, young men, uniforms, nurse, bandages, gas, trenches – were strikingly similar to those given by a 70 year old man: mass slaughter, mud, trenches, horses, the cenotaph, Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth, war poets.  These are remarkably analogous to those that the second year students at the University of Brighton who take the course on ‘Europe at War, 1914-18’ list when asked to perform the same exercise at the start of the academic year.  The cultural memory of the war, described by Dan Todman as being almost entirely negative, remains a powerful descriptor of the war amongst both MO respondents and University students.

However, despite the frequent references to Blackadder Goes Forth, and to the war poets, War Horse and Birdsong amongst the respondents, this memory is not simply or simplistically drawn from popular culture. Instead, many of those who chose to write on the topic for MO movingly described the impact and multiple legacies of the war for their own families.  Family history seems to be emerging as one of the key ways in which people are engaging with the centenary of the war.  This should not be surprising: the popularity of genealogy, enabled by websites such as Ancestry.com and demonstrated through the success of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC One, has been evident for several years.  Several respondents enthusiastically explained how they had researched their ancestor’s experiences, and some were editing diaries and letters for publication, or writing articles for local newspapers.  Others described pictures of male veterans that sat proudly on their mantelpiece, and the meaning of these photos for their families, one 49 year old man explaining that his Grandfather’s photo, and the knowledge that he was gassed and taken prisoner, meant he collected money for the British Legion and watched the Cenotaph ceremony on television each year.  For these respondents, the experiences of their ancestors were directly shaping their actions in the present.

Other respondents touchingly described the more immediate impact on their families: a 90 year old woman opened her response with a simple sentence – ‘my father’s sadness’ –whilst another recounted her mother’s struggles after her first husband died, leaving her a widow with a small child.  Several recalled unmarried aunts, neighbours and teachers, whose lovers and fiancées had died in the war, and 53 year old woman reflected on the returned men, explaining that her grandfather returned from the war ‘a totally different person’ as ‘he suffered from shell shock and was broken’.

By this point I would expect many academic historians to be shaking their heads and muttering darkly about ‘the Blackadder effect’ lambasted by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2014 when he complained that the war was a  ‘just war’ mistakenly perceived as a ‘misbegotten shambles’.  Revisionist histories of the war years, led by but not confined to military historians, have rightly and sometimes provocatively reminded us that more survived the war than died, that the war had some positive and long lasting social and political impacts, and that British military strategists did have some good ideas, and were not all ‘donkeys’ leading ‘lions’.  However, to oppose these histories to the enduring cultural memory of the war, and to somehow see each as lessened by the presence of the other is, I would argue, to miss the point about cultural memory.  The memory of the war is not a zero sum game, and one does not have to cleave to one position or the other.  Instead, the war can be understood as both an eventual military success for Britain (albeit one with a far higher attrition rate than would be acceptable today), a long-term political disaster for Europe, and as a tragedy for many thousands of individual households.   The continued emotional resonance of the war for many of the MO respondents, often articulated through a consideration of the impact of the war on their families, demonstrates that historians who seek to dispel this ‘myth’ through academic analysis and argument are unlikely to succeed. Instead, academics and members of the public engaged in commemorative activity, whether it be responding to MO Directives or participating in some of the HLF activities supported by Gateways and the other Engagement Centres, need to be in dialogue with one another, and historians need to pay careful attention to the enduring legacy of the war in many families. Historians would do well to remember that the memory of the war articulated in Blackadder Goes Forth has survived in large part because of its continued resonance and meaning for many of those whose families were profoundly shaped by the war years.

Dr Lucy Noakes is Reader in History at the University of Brighton and Co-Investigator with Gateways to the First World War. She is currently writing an article for the Women’s History Review on gender, generation and the Mass Observation responses to the First World War.

The papers of the Mass-Observation Project are available for research at The Keep, Brighton. Record information for The First World War Directive sponsored by the AHRC engagement centres can be found here.

Main image: Mass Observation Watermans exhibition, 1987