For a Titanic-obsessed, WW1-enthusiast, you can imagine how delighted I am to find myself currently working on a World War One battleship. Not that I am doing anything nautical in my job, I should add, but the digital agency I work for happens to have its office onboard the HMS President.
Naturally, I did a bit of investigating…
This year marks the centennial of the First World War: an epic, transformative global conflict that lasted just over four years and claimed the lives of seventeen million soldiers and civilians. Today, there are no living survivors of the Great War; we must rely solely on collective memory to understand what happened amid the blood and the mud, the writing and the waiting, one hundred years ago.
There is, of course, an inherent problem with this. The British remember the war in a particular way; as, indeed, every country involved does. For us, the war was futile, horrific, catastrophic – a war of ‘lions led by donkeys’ – that stripped our country of its bravest and brightest. Interestingly, this was not the common belief in the immediate aftermath of the war; this idea only really gained traction during the economic slump of the 1920s. But despite this fact, and even in the face of a recent boom in scholarship around the First World War, there has been little impact on popular remembrance. The war is still understood in Britain as the ‘bad war’ – especially in contrast to its successor – and this over-arching narrative is emphasised and promulgated by popular culture.
I’m anticipating a fair amount of backlash here, but this is something I feel strongly about and am keen to express.
I don’t like the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert.
There, I said it.
It left me feeling deeply uncomfortable and disappointed, for three reasons.
My great grandpa, Norman George Dale, was born on 7th March 1896 to Frederick Dale, a farmer, and his wife Martha. He was one of ten children, three sisters and seven brothers and the family lived happily at Oxheys Farm in Cheshire.
When the war broke out in 1914, two brothers, Harry and Fred, stayed at home to maintain the family farm; even when conscription was introduced in 1916 they was exempt from service as a result of their occupation.
The remaining brothers Sidney, Walter (32), Albert (23), Frank (21) and Norman (18) all fought in the war. While Norman was technically too young to serve overseas – the minimum age for this being nineteen – he lied about his age so he could fight beside Frank, as the two youngest brothers were inseparable. Walter, Albert, Frank and Norman all joined the Manchester Regiment; Albert in the 22nd Battalion, Walter in the 2nd/5th and Frank and Norman in the 2nd/6th.
Norman George Dale
I was on Facebook today and came across a post from my old university college. Unbeknown to me, it turns out that New College, Oxford actually looked after convalescent servicemen and septicemia cases during the Great War. These men were sent to the college from the military hospital that had been established in the Examinations School on the High Street (where my Historian friends and I sat our dreaded Finals exams).
This is one of my favourite love letters from the First World War. Its author is one George Hayman, a private in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and he wrote it to his wife shortly before he left for France in June 1916.
The letter, as you can see, is written in the shape of a kiss and also contains drawings George made himself of his young family. In one part he writes “I only wish I could be home with you, still never mind this war will soon be over now. Then we will have a jolly good time” and he signs off “from your loving boy, George xxxx”. The innocence and obvious adoration George felt for his wife and their child is so lovely – making it all the more heartbreaking that George died in combat two months later.