How a tragic conflict can empower individuals to delve deeper
One rewarding aspect of working in the Education Enhancement Team is learning about new, relatively small-scale research projects and exploring meaningful ways to place it on a public platform so that others can gain from it. Some individuals, particularly those without any formal training in leading research, find it a surprise to hear that their personal pursuit could really help to extend public and academic knowledge. Most recently, this situation happened at an Age Exchange/Europeana 1914-1918 collection day whereby contributors were excited to share their family war histories, but also when in discussion with attendees at the Kate Tiller lecture this week on ‘Remembrance and Community: War Memorials and Local History’ (held at the Oxford History Faculty and organised by the Historical Association). Notably, I got into conversation with a woman who explained how she had decided to research into the background of the war memorial at the St Giles Church, Oxford city centre. She was fascinated by the 18 names listed: ‘why had they been selected?’ ‘what connected them?’ and ‘what tragic circumstances led to their sad end?’
Similar questions were posed by Kate Tiller in the lecture itself as she discussed her illuminating research on local war memorials, adopting a social historical perspective. She explained how the decision not to bring the vast numbers of dead back to the UK meant grieving families were stripped of the social convention of having a grave to visit, to reflect beside and adorn with flowers. Remembrance, in relation to the commonwealth war graves at least, became somewhat organised in large scale grave yards with rules governing the design of the stones. 1. All stones should display individual names, 2. men and women should be treated equally, buried side by side to who they fought with, 3. permanent stone graves should be used and 4. all faiths should be respected. Yet, communities across the country were left with the highly difficult predicament of realising that they needed to commemorate their human losses but not necessarily knowing the most sensitive, respectful and agreed way to do so. . Local committees were formed and sometimes highly contentious debates ensued. In particular, the question of whether to adopt a practical, positive, forward-looking approach (e.g. to build a new hospital ward or school) or a traditional line of action (i.e. a conventional stone memorial) is evident in many local archive records. Though the final outcome was inevitably influenced by budget, which differed tremendously from place to place. To learn more, see Kate Tiller’s new book: http://oxfordshirehistory.modhist.ox.ac.uk/Remembrance_A5_flier.pdf
Strikingly, the day after this lecture, a man contacted our team and referred to how a post on the Continuations and Beginnings blog powerfully resonated with his own personal research he was conducting into his great grandfather’s experiences of fighting in the conflict. Sadly, his great grandfather had been killed at the Battle of Mons in August 1914, however, he felt compelled to learn more and pay respect to what he had encountered all those years before. And- it was at this point that I realised that although the First World War was responsible for great suffering and tragedy, what it has done, is encourage many members of the public (or ‘citizen historians’) to delve deeper. The tall, possibly looming war memorial (not all- I hasten to add) that always occupied a space in the community is now a site of intricately fascinating research. It has energised some to trace back their family history and continue the memories. Now in the advent of community collection days, this knowledge can be more easily shared with others globally than before. Thus, it may have happened one hundred years ago but the impact of the First World War lives on, sometimes in the most positive and extraordinary ways.