Remembrance: the War Dead

This Thursday, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the second of three about commemoration and remembrance.

Anthony King (sociologist at Exeter University, not the politics professor Anthony King) appeared on Thinking Allowed in June talking about changes in the way that the war dead of the ‘Afghan War’ (i.e. Op Herrick, the British mission in Afghanistan since 2001) are presented to the public in contrast to earlier wars.  This was based on his research for an article of his (pdf).

The article is interesting, looking at how soldiers are presented as human beings (and family members), as heroes, and as professionals doing their jobs.  It was based on (a fairly small number of) the websites that the MoD puts online whenever a British serviceman or servicewoman is killed.  Among the insights are comments that I definitely agree with about the public display of intimate relations and personal life that has changed in the last 50 years (since the Korean War, which he talks about) or 90 years (since the Great War, which I know about).  Where I question his findings is about the level of attention given to dead soldiers, sailors and airmen, and their treatment as individuals.  He rightly comments that the way that the state presents the war dead has changed substantially, but I think he downplays or ignores very important aspects of the history of commemoration.

First, the rate of casualties is very low by the standards of the ‘big wars’ of the past.  Really, Herrick is not a big war other than in cost and, importantly, public attention.  342 service personnel have died on active service in Afghanistan since 2001, that is roughly three per month – since the deployment to Helmand the number is 329 and the rate is 6.5 per month. In the Falklands, 258 died in three months, in Korea 1,109 died in three years (37 per month, although actually most were in 1950-51).  In the First World War, 582 servicemen from the British Empire died every day! This is a major part of the reason that the dead of those earlier wars (and especially the Great War) were not given the national and personal treatment that modern war dead are – there would have been nothing else in the newspapers! Added to which, the internet provides an unprecedented arena for the public display of commemoration and appreciation of the war dead, one in which people can take in as much or as little as they wish, without the information crowding out other news.

Second, the dead of the Great War were treated as individuals with personalities in the public notification of their deaths. It is true that national notification came only in lists of casualties (he talks specifically about lists of Korean War casualties), but this was not the only medium for them to be displayed. I have written before about the fallacy that British casualty figures were withheld from the public. The prime medium for this was the local press – local communities were much more important to life in 1918 than in 2008. As well as published casualty figures and ‘war shrines’, there were various ways in which the war dead (and, indeed, other casualties) were reported in local newspapers: King talks about the use of photos and personal details on the MoD page (his examples include the pages for Michael Smith and ‘Tony’ Downes). The passages from comrades and superiors are very similar to those written to families in 1914-18, many of which were reproduced in the local press. Photographs and personal details were also published  locally  during the Great War (see examples on this website). Although often the reports were short (as quoted on this web page) some were longer (see A.B. Machray on this page) . There were also attempts to make a permanent record: local, like the “King’s Book of York Fallen Heroes” at York Minster, with information about 1441 men associated with the town and photos of all but 19 ; and national, such as Du Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour (see an example entry).

The prevalence of local notification and dissemination of information about war casualties shows how important these men’s identities were to those who mourned them and in their local communities.  Rather than presenting the way that men are remembered on the MoD website now as especially novel, I would say that they reflect three main changes: 1, the much lower number and rate of British war deaths in Afghanistan compared to other wars; 2, the increasing importance of individuals and their lives (and deaths) in modern Britain; 3, the increased levels of intimacy in what can be (and is) told in the press; and 4, a change from local identification with the war dead to a national one. Where in 1916, one might read of a the death of a man who went to the local school or worked for a local business, now one reads of people who have similar tastes, interests and concerns to civilians of the same generation, another way of identifying with the dead and bringing their loss home to civilians.  It is important to be aware of the costs of war, both in general terms and in the personal losses suffered by all sides (one change has been increased, but obviously not equal, attention paid to civilian war deaths in war zones).  In terms of the local war dead they did this in the First World War through local newspapers, we do it now nationally through the internet.

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