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'Stress and the Strain': Personal Memories, National Narratives, and the First World War

09/01/2014 11:49 GMT | Updated 10/03/2014 09:59 GMT

My granddad died a year ago. We've been clearing out his papers.

Like so many men of his generation (he was born in 1921), his early adult life was cut around the events of the Second World War. And, like many of his generation, his was not the first experience of war-service in the family. Amongst the papers he left, we also came across documents and letters about his own father's service in what became the First World War.

Kenneth Keay--my Great Grandfather--was born in Lancashire in 1892, and was twenty-two when war broke out. From his Army Book we can see that he served in the Scottish Rifles, and received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in November 1915 (later promoted to lieutenant in July 1917). He served in France between 20 May and 22 July 1916, and from 19 January to 7 May 1917; the gap explained by a note that he was wounded on 19 July 1916. In early 1918 he successfully trained as a pilot, joining the brand new Royal Air Force in July (though, in his son's words, he never actually got a plane off the ground...).

With the centenary of the start of the First World War approaching--the first major anniversary without any surviving veterans--, space is beginning to open up to debate how to commemorate 1914-18. That we should 'remember them' is axiomatic in the UK (although not, until a month or so ago, in Germany, for example), but what exactly we are 'remembering' is contested. The government has been accused by some of peddling 'the old Lie' and glorifying war; others, like me in this sentence, slip quickly into the lexicon of the war poets to signal images of irreconcilable horror on the Western Front. And new fights start when historians and politicians bring binaries into something that is perhaps more complex than ever.

Looking at the government's explicit focus on some of what are generally seen as the most tragic and senseless events of the War (e.g. The Somme, Gallipoli...), I'm not sure that it can be accused of particularly glorifying the conflict; but such is the mistrust of authority in relation to warfare (at the beginning and end of the twentieth century, if not in the middle), that it's easy for some to assume they must be.

In fact, the government's advisory board contained as many novelists as historians, and it is the former whose views still shape the way we think of the War. For my generation, it was Blackadder Goes Forth (the War as no more than a 'gargantuan effort by Field Marshal Haig to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin') and Regeneration; for earlier generations Oh, What a Lovely War!, or the authors of the late 1920s 'War Books Boom' (Sassoon, Blunden etc.). The slipperiness of such cultural responses is exemplified by Oh, What a Lovely War!: the stridently anti-war musical whose audiences of veterans refused to subscribe to its creators' intentions, and instead often experienced a celebratory evening of comradely nostalgia.

So some of the centenary bodies find themselves in a curious firing line, criticized by revisionist historians for not celebrating the victories of the war enough. Debate surfaced last year about whether there should also be acknowledgment of the lesser-known (because 'successful'?) Battle of Amiens, a crucial Allied advance that helped lead to eventual victory.

Factually sound as some of the revisionist historians' claims might be, their arguments can still lack emotional nuance. They point to a disproportionate emphasis on those who were killed, given that 88% of the British military survived the War; but that's still three-quarters of a million people dead...and in any case, do we need to think more about what exactly survival meant? Perhaps it was a necessary, even a moral, war; but it doesn't mean there wasn't a price to pay.

Nobody wants to disrespect the dead; but now that everyone directly involved is indeed dead, I think we best serve their memories by acknowledging the different ways that the War was actually experienced, including on the individual level, across the belligerent countries. So: 'lions led by donkeys'...maybe. But lions with names, whose individual experiences we can share and understand in all their complexities; not an unthinking pride led unquestioningly to what some now confidently declare a uniformly futile death. In the words of the soldiers' song, 'we're here because we're here because we're here because we're here'...but the different responses to, and indeed evasions from, soldiers' experiences 'over there' are worth saving. And it's worth also working out what exactly this all added up to in a spirit of detachment and intellectual openness. It may not be betraying memories to ask what it actually meant.

The British Library has been working to support commemoration of the First World War that tries to extend perspectives. We're looking across the whole of Europe, and beyond, through our work on an EU-funded project called Europeana 1914-1918 to digitize millions of images relating to the War from collections in eight different European countries, which will launch in Berlin at the end of January. It includes British Library material relating to the experiences of troops from India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And we've also helped a Europeana-led scheme to bring value to individual's war stories by allowing families to upload scanned documents from their own relatives--such as my Great Granddad-- to an online database.

Looking back at my Great-Granddad's letters, it's his gentle humour that resonates across the century. He seems to have been a performer: not only organizing lectures and entertainments for the battalion ('it is practically YMCA work and I enjoy it immensely'), but also reciting what he billed in a letter to his sister as 'ruthless rhymes on everyone...from C.O. downward'. In another letter, he slyly records Private Jones 'looking very well-fed' whilst denying all knowledge of the local farmer's missing pig. Is this an all-too perfectly rehearsed anecdote?

Other letters are more circumspect, including one written directly after his return from the front line in spring 1917 (probably an attack as part of the Battle of Arras). For all that he has an eye for the absurd ('tasting black bread' left in an abandoned German dug-out), he doesn't deny 'the stress and the strain'; and his relief (surprise?) at being 'quite unhurt' overflows from the text. Later in the same letter, he hints at conditions in the trenches when he apologizes for asking for 'a towel and some trench powder'. The reserve ('I am so sorry to bother you...') is painful.

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Of course, just because you're in the army, it doesn't mean you're always thinking about war. My great-Granddad's thoughts seem to have mostly revolved around an often-quoted 'M.A.' (Mary Anderson). Contemplating the need to 'get the unanimous consent and approval of the home circle' before he proposes to Mary, he begs his sister in one letter sent from France in March 1917: 'ask Mother what is the best way of popping the question!'

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His mother's advice must have done the trick. He married Mary in 1920. They had three sons. And, aged 87, he died in 1979.