One hundred years ago people and politicians around the globe were contemplating a new world order following more than four years of war. In Britain, January 1919 and the following months were marked by strikes, civil unrest and military mutinies. The flu pandemic continued its deathly march. The month also saw the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference which lasted into the summer concluding with five treaties formally ending the war – including the Versailles Treaty signed 28 June – and the formation of the League of Nations.
As a nation we have spent the last four years commemorating the centenary of the First World War (FWW). A hundred years on from this cataclysmic event and we are living with its legacy – with regional conflicts that have their origins in the war; with advances in medicine (reconstructive surgery, improved anaesthesia); with the music, art, literature and poetry produced during and after the war; with universal suffrage; and with a landscape shaped by war.
But what of the legacy of these commemorations? What will future generations find when they delve into early 21st century archives and history books, looking for evidence of how we remembered? Without doubt they will find an amazing amount of new, high quality research that has changed our understanding of the Great War. But have the commemorations reflected this changed narrative or have they reinforced the myths and iconography associated with First World War and which are embedded in our collective memory? Some historians are asking whether the last four years have been a lost opportunity.
From a personal point of view it feels as though much of the national commemoration did focus on traditional themes and symbols such as the mud and blood of the western front, the experience of the war poets, the silhouetted soldier. There have been some stunning artistic responses to the centenary, commissioned by 14-18 Now, including Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, Danny Boyle’s Pages in the Sea and film-maker Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.
But these have also drawn criticism. 14-18 Now estimates that 35 million people engaged with their commissioned events, but historians Professors Maggie Andrews, of the University of Worcester, and Sarah Lloyd, of the University of Hertfordshire, question whether people critically engaged or merely encountered them. Were these national events, exhibitions and installations sufficiently challenging of historical myths?
There has been much work on myth-busting over the past four years but it can be tough going up against advertising executives and picture editors who are not historians. An enduring myth, reinforced by TV adverts and wrongly credited photographs, is that the Christmas Truce of 1914 happened throughout the western front and that football matches were organised between German and British troops. Neither is an accurate picture of what happened. (Check out Dan Snow’s mythbusting articles for the BBC.)
At a regional and local level, however, I feel very positive about the projects and events that have taken place. Over the last four years much of my work as an education officer has focused on researching Wiltshire’s role in the First World War and passing on that learning to others, especially primary school teachers and pupils keen to make the most of the local history study that is part of their curriculum.
Another aspect of my work has been supporting other organisations in delivering the educational side of their FWW projects. My colleagues in archives and local studies have also been busy acquiring new collections and publications that support the study of the Great War.
The number and range of FWW projects in Wiltshire has been impressive and sadly I cannot list all of them, but a good place to start is the History Centre’s own Wiltshire at War – Community Stories project.
I just happened to be trawling through some indexes to our records when a subject caught my eye - the Great flood of Salisbury Plain down to the Wylye Valley in 1841. What particularly drew me to the reference was a note concerning a piece of doggerel about the event, which resonates with the events happening across Britain toady, particularly in Somerset.
I have always been curious about doggerel and other poetic forms as an historical record commemorating events (and people), especially disasters, such as William McGonagall’s poem on the Tay Railway Bridge disaster of 1879. But what I found was even more astonishing; forget the 8 verses by McGonagall, our document contains 51 verses, in part 1, and a further 25 in part 2, a grand total of 76 stanzas detailing an event that, according to contemporary local newspapers, lasted a mere 12 hours, though with such force and hugely disastrous consequences for the local communities. The document (WSA 1336/98) is a transcript of a letter by Ann Doughty of Hanging Langford to her mother some days after the flood with a doggerel rhyme by an unknown author.
Those who have lived in Wiltshire far longer than I will probably know about the event, but for the uninitiated here is a summary. On 16th January 1841, two days after a heavy snow storm, a rapid thaw led to a severe flash flood in the area of the Salisbury Plain drained by the River Till, down to the River Wylye. Two communities especially hard hit were Tilshead and Shrewton, where 36 houses were destroyed, 3 people drowned and more than 200 made homeless. The flood reached its peak between 8 pm and 10 pm, but by 3 am the next morning it was completely dry.