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Divided Memory: Popular and Academic Perception of the Great War

Commentary, 28 June 2014
Art, Culture and Literature
The Centenary presents the opportunity to draw popular and academic assessments of the Great War closer together.

The Centenary presents the opportunity to draw popular and academic assessments of the Great War closer together.

By Alex Mayhew for

RUSI and Great War

This week marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That fateful day set in course a series of events that led – although perhaps not inevitably – to Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August. The next four years witnessed unprecedented destruction, and in the intervening period a gulf has developed between popular and scholarly interpretations of the tragedies involved. Indeed, despite historical revision, the popular impression is still one of waste and futility with few gains, even for the victors – and the debate continues to be plagued by discordant perceptions.

As the centenary commemorations get underway, it is important to ask what Britain, as a nation, wants to take from the surge in scholarship and commentary that is to come between now and 2018. For many, the answer is a concerted effort to address this imbalanced memorialisation of 1914–18 – its causes, development, impact and meaning.

Dan Todman [1] and others have identified the source of this ‘misreading’ of the First World War in literature, which, as Adrian Gregory [2] has argued, grew out of the themes and tone of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. This German novel, published in 1929, was the product of defeat but has informed later British feelings of futility, waste and incompetence despite the reality of victory. Indeed, there is a pervasive emphasis on the victors of the Great War having suffered defeat in another form. As such, much of the historiography has concentrated on qualifying this perception.

Causes of War

The causes of the war have been assessed almost to the point of saturation, and the resultant general consensus appears to be that Germany’s expansionism and Austria-Hungary’s antagonism facilitated the war.

Meanwhile, scholars such as Paddy Griffith [3] have done much to stabilise debate on the effectiveness of the military conduct of the war by highlighting that tactical and strategic evolution did occur, albeit unevenly. Similarly, the reputation of some generals – including Foch, Rawlinson and Haig – has been restored, although with qualification, and even the Somme has received a reappraisal in William Philpott’s [4] seminal work on the subject.

A Military Success?

More recently there has been an effort to show that the First World War was a military success. Peter Hart [5] and Jonathan Boff [6] have both argued persuasively that the ‘Hundred Days’ campaign of 1918 can be viewed through such a lens, representing a comprehensive victory born of the experiences of the Somme and Passchendaele. Nor is it just academics who are seeking fresh insights, as the British Army’s First World War Conference – to be hosted at RUSI later this month – demonstrates. However, while the military and academic views continue to become more nuanced, this is not reflected in popular attitudes.

The reason for this lies in the public relationship with the conflict. As Jay Winter [7] and Paul Fussell [8] have demonstrated, the Great War has become a cultural – not simply a historical – phenomenon. It might be useful to view the commemoration in the context of Pierre Nora’s lieux de memoire [9];while not a ‘place’, the war provides a conceptual space in which to invest our collective memory. This makes memorialisation an inherently emotional process that focuses on ethical and human consequences rather than the institutional and strategic developments outlined above – and which are increasingly gaining prominence within the academic sphere.


The debate and discussion, begun by Michael Gove in January [10], of how best to study 1914-18 suggest that many Britons feel that the Great War resonates with them personally and the rational reaction to any conflict of this scale is to recoil from the shared loss. The prominence of the literary interpretations of the war, especially those of the poets, in society exposes an interest in human experience, rather than revealing an unwillingness or inability to accept the historical actuality. It is therefore possible to bring the public into the folds of the scholarly debates by drawing the humanity out of an otherwise inhuman experience, focusing on how soldiers encapsulated and rationalised their service.

This is already occurring through studies of morale, for instance, within the armies of the First World War. It is through the exploration of how soldiers experienced the conflict that we might develop a clearer understanding of what it meant to be at war. Craig Gibson’s [10] recent study of British soldiers’ relationships with French civilians demonstrates the nuances that can be elicited in doing so. By revealing the extent to which men were genuinely invested in this struggle, different faces of the war will emerge, adding light and shade to what remains a black and white popular view. 

In this way, while the validity of conflict will remain divisive, a more accurate and unified appreciation, drawing together the academic and popular understandings, of the experience of war can be developed.

Alex Mayhew will be a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics from September.


[1] D. Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007).
[2] A. Gregory, A War of Peoples 1914-1919 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[3] P. Griffith, Battle Tactic of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18 (Yale: Yale University Press, 1996).
[4] W. Philpott, Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century (London: Little, Brown, 2009).
[5] P. Hart, A Very British Victory (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008).
[6] J. Boff, Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
[7] J. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
[8] P. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[9] P. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire’, Representations (No. 26, Spring 1989).
[10] C. Gibson, Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

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