By Louis Mignot:
War as a phenomenon hangs in the public consciousness, something that has become all the more apparent as we approached the centenary commemoration of the First World War. All wars are characterised by violence and loss of life, but the First World War has come to represent the experience of soldiers worldwide. This is evinced in the poppy; the flower that grew in Flanders has now come to symbolise remembrance for soldiers who have fought in all wars. It is significant, however, that the public do not seem to commemorate conflicts from before the First World War to the same extent. For example, the Napoleonic Wars – the original ‘Great War’ – have, apart from ongoing academic interest, faded from public consciousness. The question should be asked; will the First World War’s impact on the public consciousness fade in the face of later conflicts?
‘The Great War’
There can be no doubt that the First World War was horrific, bloody and, indeed, global in its profound impact on society. With approximately nine million deaths spread across all sides throughout the four-year conflict, there is an obvious, direct and indirect, impact on the population to this day. Many families will have distant relatives who fought, or indeed died, in the First World War. Yet, the number of deaths cannot be the only causal factor behind the conflict’s continued vivid remembrance. The Napoleonic wars were, whilst longer, exceedingly costly in terms of lives. For instance, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, marking the end of the Napoleonic Wars proper (the bi-centenary passing in 2012), was exceedingly bloody; of the 422,000 soldiers that marched into Russia, only 10,000 returned.[i] This is a staggering loss, taking place over a very short time period: six months of combat against a spectral Russian enemy and the deadly Russian winter. The bi-centenary of the 1812 campaign was marked by receptions at the Russian Embassy to mark the ‘Patriotic War’ and by a series of scholarly articles, amongst other things. Now, whilst this is a commemoration, there is far less profundity. This is by no means unjustified: the First World War is, in chronological terms, much closer to the modern day and was, arguably, the start of a new phase of warfare; the industrial war.
The chronology of the conflict must be a factor contributing to the level of its commemoration. Yet, there is more to it than simple timing. If this were the case, then the Second World War would surely supersede it in terms of commemoration. The fact that the First World War is seen as a turning point in history, coming near the start of the 20th Century, involving millions of combatants and using new, increasingly brutal and efficient weapons marks it out in the consciousness of many people to this day. This is perfectly demonstrated by the Poppy Campaign; the campaign aims to raise money for serving soldiers, but its iconography is rooted in the First World War; this conflict has been held up as the epitome of war’s impact on society, making it the perfect symbol for an appeal for serving soldiers.
Will this trend continue?
Whilst there have been numerous conflicts since the First World War, only the Second World War seems to have gained similar levels of commemoration. There seems to be an implied ‘ranking’ of conflicts in the public consciousness; the title ‘world war’ sets up the First and Second World Wars on a par – they come to be seen as the epitome of what negative impacts war can have, and therefore something to avoid. Despite this, the Second World War has not superseded the First in terms of its impact in the public consciousness; people view the Second World War as almost a bi-product of the First. That is, students at GCSE level in the UK learn of the Treaty of Versailles, how Germany was humbled and, indeed, humiliated by its terms, leading to economic decline and the rise of Adolf Hitler. As a result, the First World War retains its mantle as the ‘first’ of the industrial, ‘new’ wars; it remains one of the turning points in history. Whilst the Second World War has its own horrors and is rightly remembered for the fight to stop them, this trend will likely continue.
Some may argue that as the last combatants of the First World War have passed on, the war will lose its continuing significance and commemoration. Yet, the First World War is rooted in our architecture; the cenotaph, the memorials at Thiepval (amongst others), school children take sobering tours of the battlefields, and learn of the horrors of the war. Moreover, films and television shows continue to be made about the conflict; classics such as ‘Paths of Glory’ and ‘Blackadder’ followed by more recent productions like ‘Joyeux Noelle’ and ‘Our World War’ keep this conflict in our minds, albeit in a simplified and somewhat detached form. As the centenary approaches, new articles will be written, new television programmes will be produced, all adding to the existing work on the subject, inciting new debate – most recently over the pre-existing view that the generals were to blame for the losses of the war. As a result, the First World War will, for a significant time to come, be remembered with the same levels of profundity as current commemorations. Whilst wars of the previous centuries may have lost some of their lingering impact, none of them rival the First World War for its continued effect on everyday life. As is clear from the centenary commemoration of the First World War, the conflict retains its profound impact on the national consciousness, and, even after those who experienced it first-hand pass on, the experience of the war will remain in the public consciousness.
Louis Mignot is a second year undergraduate student at King’s College London reading War Studies and History. You can follow Louis Mignot on Twitter @LouisMignot.
[i] Frank McLynn, Napoleon, a Biography, (London: Pimlico, 1998), p. 375.