As we begin our First World War centenary coverage, Professor Alison Fell, who heads the University of Leeds’s Legacies of War project, looks at the impact the conflict had.
AS the last survivors have died out, it is true that our understanding of the First World War is probably more influenced these days by films, books and television programmes than it is by historical documents housed in museums and archives, or by family stories.
Fictional representations of the war like those seen in Downton Abbey, Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh! What a Lovely War are of course not wholly inaccurate or deliberate distortions of the past. But they inevitably only tell a partial story. Popular period dramas tend to avoid some of the more unpalatable aspects of life during the war – widespread industrial unrest, for example, or anti-Jewish riots such as those that took place among gangs of young men in Leeds in June 1917, or the high rates of venereal disease among soldiers, which led to the licensing of French brothels (with blue lights for officers and red lights for other ranks).
We are used to seeing the First World War through the eyes of sensitive, poetry-writing officers, plucky Tommies, or middle-class VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses proving that women could ‘do their bit’.
Characters tend to begin with naïve enthusiasm and shift to an attitude of traumatised horror. Some men and women did experience the war like this, and wrote vivid and moving memoirs that are still popular today.
But in reality there was huge variation in people’s war experiences. For some, the war was an unspeakable and traumatic time of hardship, loss and suffering that forever haunted them, while for others it was a time of exhilarating camaraderie, when people pulled together and when what they did as individuals seemed to count on a national scale.
Undeniably, the losses in the war were catastrophic: for loved ones, for their wider communities and for their nations. About 12 per cent of the men mobilised in Britain died – about 700,000 in total.
Other nations lost even more men: 1.3 million from France and more than two million from the Russian and German empires. Unlike other wars, in which the dead were buried anonymously in mass graves, memorials and cemeteries that we can visit today give us some sense of the scale of the losses.
Nobody can fail to be moved by scanning long lists of names carved in stone, by reading obituaries in local newspapers, or sympathy letters kept in archives like the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds.
One of the Legacies of War projects is working with the Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery group, which is discovering fascinating stories that lie behind some of the war graves.
In addition to the millions who died, many more came home seriously wounded, often limiting their ability to work and indelibly marking their lives forever. While the majority of casualties were military, especially in Britain, it was also a conflict that blurred the boundaries between the front line and the home front.
Bombing raids claimed the lives of women and children. Being at home didn’t necessarily keep you safe, especially if you happened to live near a war zone.
In the village of Bully-les-Mines in Northern France, only a few miles from British shores, a long list of civilian victims of the war – both men and women – is engraved alongside the military deaths.
In other nations, thousands died of famine or disease epidemics; in the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey), you were twice as likely to die as a civilian than as a soldier. The First World War, like all wars, uprooted people, and not just for military service. Industrial cities such as Leeds were the beating hearts of the British war industry, producing the many tons of equipment, uniforms and armaments needed to keep an army fighting. Thousands of workers came to the city to work on these production lines: Barnbow munitions factory employed 12,000 workers at one point, most were women and girls. In other countries civilians were forced to flee in the face of invading armies. In the early years of the war, the devastating effects of warfare on civilian populations were visible for the British population – embodied in the Belgian refugees arriving in their midst as they fled their war-torn country.
After the war working life also changed. Women were largely made redundant when the men came back, and some faced financial hardship. But others made the most of their new skills, choosing to leave the drudgery of domestic service in favour of new jobs offering better conditions.
It is right that the centenary period will be a time to remember those who died, and the devastation and suffering that the First World War – like all wars – left in its wake. But the anniversary is also a valuable opportunity for exploring the different ways in which people’s everyday lives were touched by the war. It helped bring about developments in technology, industry, medicine, science, art and culture.
Rather than recycling myths and stereotypes, trying to understand the war in all its variation and complexity is a better way of paying tribute to the men, women and children who lived through it, or who died because of it.
Did anyone in your family fight in the First World War? Get in touch with your stories. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org