Inside Story

Britain’s Great War: traps of memory

The centenary of the 1914–18 war reveals Britain to be a country of permanent involution, says David Hayes

David Hayes 17 July 2014 5536 words

Damage from German Zeppelin attacks to Edwin Place in Hull. Three people were killed and several injured in this 1915 attack on the city. National Archives UK

In 1913, a promising upper-class English poet arrives with his great college friend at the latter’s family home in the semi-rural hinterland to London’s north. As the weekend visit ends, he inscribes a lyric in the day-book of his friend’s younger sister. When the poet is killed in action in 1916, the verse is published, and read as a poignant emblem of the nation’s purpose. The ostensible dedicatee becomes inadvertent keeper of his flame. A tribute by an establishment figure anchors the instant hagiography. By the early 1920s the poet is entombed in his family’s grand mansion, his reputation safe.

Four decades on, a callow bank clerk’s fortuitous encounter with the survivors of that fateful weekend nurtures his interest in the poet, who is now semi-derided where not forgotten. A loving mentor and foothold as a critic aid the young man’s path through post-1960s literary London. He embarks on a biography that herds the much-overlaid recollections of the poet’s contemporaries into a revelatory potboiler. The refittings continue in a new era of literary theory and sexual politics. The past is exhumed and reburied to the point where there is almost nothing of it left to see.

So goes Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child, both a compelling story and an intimate portrayal of English society’s changing attitudes to the past over the last century, which was published in 2011, well in advance of the four-year commemoration of the 1914–18 war now under way in Britain. But the anniversary-fest’s early stages seem if anything to accentuate the book’s elusive appeal. For one thing, the novel refracts many of the centennial’s culturally familiar themes: the Edwardian prewar idyll, the Western Front’s carnage, the doomed generation of martyr-poets (Hollinghurst’s character evokes Rupert Brooke in particular). For another, the narrative employs reticence to brilliant effect: there is, alone among the main characters, no glimpse into the inner life of the poet whose short life and long memory frame the story, and his pivotal verse is never, across the 500-page work, rendered as a whole, but only in intermittent fragments. The effect of these devices is to complexify the past, historicise the present, and defamiliarise the future. If this makes for a haunting novel, it also suggests that the commemoration of the Great War needs, above all, historical imagination.

Even for a country drenched in the politics and rituals of national remembrance, marking the war presents special, even unprecedented, challenges. The fact that this is the first landmark occasion with no surviving combatants removes the psychological security they provide. (The last British “fighting Tommy,” a machine-gunner from rural Somerset in southwest England called Harry Patch, died in 2009 at the age of 111.) Of a different order are problems of logistics and political management. How to commemorate a conflict that stretched over four years and five continents, at a time when Britain was a global power and empire, with interests, subjects, allies and enemies across the world? And what do the choices say about how the British elite now views itself and its patchwork domain?

With regard to the first question, the core decision – echoing the ANZAC Centenary Program announced in March 2011 – was to create a ceremonial plan spanning the whole period of the war. Five landmark events were chosen as a particular focus of commemoration: Gallipoli, the battles of Jutland, the Somme (both 1916) and Passchendaele (1917), and the hundred-day period leading to the armistice on 11 November 1918. The formal start is a church service in Glasgow on 4 August, both a century to the day after the war broke out and the day after the Commonwealth Games in the city ends. This very “British” occasion, six weeks before Scotland’s independence referendum on 18 September, will carry an unavoidable political charge.

The program is led by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport with support from four others (Defence, the Foreign Office, Education, and Local Government) and in collaboration with several major public institutions (the BBC, the Imperial War Museum and the British Library) as well as the War Memorials Trust and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Members of the monarchy, whose management is the responsibility of the royal household (effectively a government department, though not usually considered as such), will play a high-profile part in the ceremonial cycle. This array, even more than the initial government outlay of £50 million, suggests a major political investment.

But the limits of the commitment are also apparent, in ways that bear on the second question above. Britain’s devolved political system means that the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their respective countries’ commemorative agendas, except in areas reserved by London, such as welfare and defence. This is an expression of historical as well as modern political realities, in that the experience of war varied greatly across Britain’s nations and regions. It means that where the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s centenary operation is partnered by English Heritage and Arts Council England, their equivalents in the three other nations work with the governments there. (“English” institutions, having no designated government of their own, become by default “British,” a minor anomaly in a state composed – it can seem – of nothing but.) In this sense the central government’s commemorative project is more vestigial than it appears.

The same is true of the international face of the program, such as it is. Britain’s official horizons have shrunk even faster than the diminution of its world power would justify, making it ever harder to register the global extent of its Great War experience. The lead events will take place at home or near the landscapes of battle in France and Belgium where 65 per cent of the empire's war dead fell, long turned into sites of memory (such as Edwin Lutyens’s moving monument at Thiepval). British representatives as well as visitors find comfort, and a warm welcome from local people, in such consecrated ground. A gathering of European Union leaders at Ypres on 28 June, the day Gavrilo Princip struck in Sarajevo in 1914, was a moment of continental harmony just as Britain’s bitter disagreement with its neighbours over EU governance was coming to the boil. It’s notable here that Germany, whose own attitude to the centenary (like Russia’s) has an element of rediscovery of a neglected past, will be a partner in several of the British ceremonial events.

There is little beyond the Western Front, apart from the home front itself, to interest the British. (The Western Front is the military zone of trenches, barbed wire and communication posts from Nieuwpoort in Flanders to the Sundgau region of southern Alsace, near the Swiss border.) Their struggle against the Ottoman empire, including a costly campaign in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and the redrawing of borders in the Levant, tends to be remembered with a shiver, if at all. No interest is aroused by the sprawling raids against Germany’s African colonies where, in Togoland, Alhaji Grunshi of the West African Frontier Force fired Britain’s first shot of the war on 12 August 1914. China and Japan are a blur, the Balkans a maze. The multiethnic character of the empire’s forces is frequently noted but scarcely integrated into any larger recollection.

There is a partial exception to the story of psychic shrinkage, namely Ireland. The successful state visits of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and of Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in 2014 have created a fund of mutual goodwill, and one of the by-products has been to unlock the sense of an intertwined Great War experience. The 200,000 Irish soldiers who fought in the British army, 50,000 of whom died, are clearly at the heart of this. Currently in the early stages of its own “decade of anniversaries” to mark the tumultuous period since the Home Rule crisis of 1912, Ireland is more alive to the diplomatic and other possibilities of this renewed relationship.

The marathon projects of other leading custodians of public memory are well under way. The BBC describes “World War One on the BBC” as “the biggest and most ambitious season ever commissioned.” With more than 130 new commissions and over 2500 hours of programming over the next four years, “the season will offer a unique way to understand a war that changed our world, reflecting the centenary from every perspective; locally, nationally and internationally, and utilising the full range of the BBC’s services.”

Indeed, the BBC’s coverage both overwhelms and plays safe. This owes something to the corporation’s dominant place in Britain’s broadcasting arena, which is defined by statute and underpinned by an annual, compulsory licence fee. But the juggernaut instinct – its default setting for all major events (whether rolling political drama, sporting circus, or royal ceremonial) – also goes with the grain of technological and cultural trends that make abundance a value in its own right.

The BBC is at once a national, public, independent and quasi-official body and a global business. Many parts of its huge archive are digitised and accessible; and its numerous TV and radio channels (including specialist news, parliament and educational ones) create a voracious demand for output of all kinds. It also makes huge revenues (£156 million in 2012–13) from overseas sales and publishing by its commercial arm BBC Worldwide, and rewards its presenters with a potent aura that fuses cultural authority and marketable celebrity.

This combination of elements is driving the BBC towards redefinition. Its “royal charter” requires renewal in 2016, on terms to be negotiated with the government. The licence fee is being questioned on grounds of cost, market unfairness and practicality (as the iPlayer facility makes the BBC’s content accessible via an internet connection). As a result, arguments for reform – to make the corporation do less, better, or even to embrace a subscription model – are gaining traction. In this transitional period, the BBC’s Great War output – technically assured, information light, editorially formulaic – is also a showcase of the dramas swirling around and within it.

The war has been everywhere in 2014, often mediated by one of those celebrities. So here is the launch series Great Britain’s Great War, hosted by Jeremy Paxman, whose recent departure from BBC 2’s Newsnight after twenty-five years was a front-page story. In the four-part documentary and accompanying book he finds an expansive yet melancholy tone far from his sardonic interrogative one, finishing with a resonant judgement:

The war is the great punctuation point in modern British history, the moment when the British decided that what lay ahead would never be as grand as their past; the point at which they began to walk backwards into the future. There is a sense in which, like the desperate parents who could not believe their son was dead, the entire nation has been conducting a form of séance ever since.

Here too are rival documentaries judging Britain’s decision to fight, where the booming Tory warhorse Max Hastings, veteran of scores of Daily Mail why-oh-why excoriations (The Necessary War), is pitched against the Atlanticist–Nietzschean academic Niall Ferguson (The Pity of War). Relief is provided by a panel of historians noted more for scholarship than media strutting, among them Margaret MacMillan, Hew Strachan and Gary Sheffield. The Cambridge historian David Reynolds traces the war’s legacy, drawing on his fine book The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (which opens with the acute point that in Britain “we have lost touch with the Great War... 1914–18 has become a literary war, detached from its moorings in historical events”). David Olusoga, co-author of The Kaiser’s Holocaust, about the Namibian genocide in 1904, examines the military and ancillary role of Africans and Asians across continents. There is even a place for Gallipoli in the schedules, with a focus on Keith Murdoch’s role (and, publicists are eager to note, an interview with Rupert).

There is drama, music, art and literature galore, much of it on radio, where another rare broadening of horizons is offered: the historian Amanda Vickery’s The War That Changed the World, a collaboration between the BBC’s cruelly truncated World Service and the British Council, which portrays the war as fought and seen by each combatant nation. But it is the home and Western fronts, already familiar faces and voices, and variations of the same old stories, that get the juices flowing.

The BBC is not alone in having its Great War program shaped by technological and cultural trends, two of which – digitisation and personalisation (as it might be called) – are fusing to set off further transformations.

The digitisation of archives (such as service records), and their comparability with other data-sets (for example, on employment and migration, and even climate and mapping) opens fresh possibilities for historical research and knowledge with rare granular depth. And the great shift over recent decades towards personalisation – the economic and social-psychological change that has made the individual the key social unit – unlocks new imaginative and emotional connections with the past. This happens not least via “family history,” a huge phenomenon in Britain (as elsewhere) whose impacts are being felt across media, publishing, libraries, some areas of academic life, businesses such as tourism, and cultural production.

In addition, the idea of participation, now detached from any political moorings to become the routine currency of exchange between institutions and their visitors, can – in the context of the Great War especially – meet the widely felt longing to forge a personal relationship with that time and individual figures from it. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s enhanced online archive was launched on 7 July as a resource, above all, for family research. An arts enterprise under the rubric of 14–18 NOW, one of many funded by the national lottery, encourages people to write letters to the unknown soldier immortalised by Charles Sargeant Jagger’s sculpture at London’s Paddington station; 10,000 “posted” their thoughts in the first two weeks. Everywhere, cultural entrepreneurs – often the same people responsible for previous “shared national experiences” like the London Olympics – are customising empathetic spectacles dripping with ruthless sentimentalism.   

The primary register of most TV or radio programs and exhibitions is experience and story. In the latter, collage dominates. The British Library’s Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour looks at “how people coped with life during the war: from moments of patriotic fervour to periods of anxious inactivity, shock and despair.” At the Imperial War Museum, Lives of the First World War features “the voices, photographs, letters and mementoes of those who were there.” The Imperial War Museum, reopening on 19 July after a two-year refit, showcases both its superb art collection (including work by the war artists Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash) and the food that sustained soldiers in the trenches. Its chief historian Nigel Steel says, “We’re trying to look beyond the operational view of war, which is all about battles and strategies. We’re looking at the impact war has had on people’s lives, the social change and political fallout.”

The country’s most powerful heritage body, the National Trust – whose four million individual members make it an object of envy for the withering political parties – frames its centenary work as “commemorating the lives of those who were there on the battlefield and on the home front, and sharing their stories with you.” A high-profile scheme is the transformation of Dunham Massey, an eighteenth-century stately home near Manchester, into a simulacrum of the military hospital it became in 1914. “One hundred years later,” says the Trust, “the house has turned back the clock, using hands-on displays and actors performing scenes based on real events to really show what it was like for the patients and nurses who stayed there.”

These trends also build on the foundations of Britain’s already vast commemorative ecology, established (for the most part) in the 1920s. The village war memorials with their poignant plaques listing the names of the fallen, the local-history societies and bulletins, the school projects and (not infrequent) visits to the cemeteries – all these, as much as the annual parades, poppy-wearing and wreath-laying, are long established.

Some of these rituals have notably been growing since the early 2000s via a confluence of several factors: orchestration by government and media (alert to the comfort of largely politics-free moments of national solemnity), affinity with the compatriot squaddies amid the heat and blood of Afghanistan and Iraq, awareness (again heavily diffused by the media) of how few living veterans remain, but also no doubt millions of journeys by newly digitised citizens finding their own meaning in the Great War.

The broadcasting splurge is matched by a publishing one. The death of the book is taking its time: stalls and window displays heave with non-fiction works, novels, poetry and TV tie-ins (recipes of the era, popular songs, soldiers’ slang, football stories). Many books on the home front highlight the role of women: as factory workers, nursing auxiliaries, pacifists or super-patriots. And there is the inevitable tide of literary studies and collections of the poets Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Among scholarly works, the corker is the Australian historian Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, an immense reinterpretation of the road to war drawing on archives from across the continent, which sets the political agency of multiple actors in the context of their respective and overlapping circumstances over the crucial months. Clark’s book has been a best-seller in several countries, and along the way provoked a row in Serbia at its unforgiving criticism of Belgrade’s expansionist shadow leadership.

Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War considers the longer-term origins of the war. Other indispensable works with a multinational frame are the three-volume Cambridge History of the First World War, edited by Jay Winter, and David Stevenson’s With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. The academic overdrive continues with a host of conferences and collaborations. The transnational expertise of initiatives such as the International Encyclopedia of the First World War and Europeana 1914–1918 is welcome, as is a richness of local studies, journals and events. Everywhere, forgotten names from 1914–18 are being restored, conscientious objectors honoured, recipes discovered, artists revived, resisters celebrated, love letters published.

British scholars are well-represented in international discussion. A major conference in Sarajevo on “regional approaches and global contexts” – held before the centenary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, which collided with the nationalist recidivism that handicaps the postwar Bosnian state – is an example. The title is apposite: a world war must by definition also be framed by regional and global lenses. (Though the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–15 lead the LSE’s Heather Jones to ask whether 1914–18 was truly the “first.”)

Yet here is one of the paradoxes of modern Britain. The country’s leading historians are a cosmopolitan bunch whose reach extends to the worlds they specialise in. (Examples include Paul Preston in Spain, Mark Mazower in Greece, Michael Axworthy in Iran, Bryan Cartledge in Hungary, Mary Fulbrook in Germany, Charles Tripp in Iraq, Robert Barnett in Tibet, Norman Davies in Poland, Catherine Merridale in Russia, Andrew Nickson in Paraguay, Christopher Duggan in Italy, Alison Pargeter in Libya, Charles Townshend in Ireland.) Such depth of expertise is rare in Britain’s own media discussion of the Great War, much of which is weightless and celebrity-led.

Will this change over the next four years? The lone augury so far is not promising. This was a skirmish triggered by a Daily Mail article on 2 January 2014 written by the Conservative education minister (and former journalist) Michael Gove, whose combative intelligence, needling politesse, and genteel Scottish vowels seem to aggravate his legion of enemies as much as his driving policy agenda. (In a major reshuffle on 15 July, he was moved to a party management role, widely seen – though not by Gove himself – as a demotion.)

Gove’s foray conceded that there is “no unchallenged consensus” on the 1914–18 conflict, which is “why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance.” Yet it’s important to commemorate it “in the right way,” and to resist “some of the myths which have grown up” about it, while defending “virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.” The German elites’ ruthless social Darwinism, pitiless occupation, expansionist war aims and scorn for the international order made this “plainly a just war” and one “seen by participants as a noble cause.” Those who fought “were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the Western liberal order” and “Britain’s special tradition of liberty.”

So far, by Gove’s standards, so vegan. The meat, signalled by an off-the-shelf Mail headline – “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” – was his criticism of the Cambridge historian (“and Guardian writer”) Richard Evans, for contending that the soldiers of 1914 were wrong to imagine they were fighting for freedom or a better world, and of three prominent dramas depicting the war as “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Gove’s foes were roused from the post-new-year slumber. Evans himself – who had in 2010 denounced the new minister’s plans for England’s school history curriculum – wrote in the Guardian that during the war Britain was allied with despotic Russia (“far more authoritarian than the Kaiser’s Germany”) and in any case its restricted franchise meant it “wasn’t a democracy at the time.” Thus, the notion that Britain was defending Western values is misplaced. Moreover, the fact that right-wingers such as Niall Ferguson, Max Hastings and the late Alan Clark are also scornful of the country’s war effort shows the “arguments that will rage about the war over the coming months and years have nothing to do with left versus right.” Gove is displaying his “ignorance of history and his preference for mythmaking over scholarship.”

Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education shadow and a historian of Victorian England – writing in the Observer, stablemate of the Guardian – called Gove’s comments “shocking” and “crass” and accused him of using the commemoration to “sow division with ugly attacks.” The Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, taking aim at “the Tory right’s standard-bearers,” described Gove’s view of the war as “preposterous nonsense.” The conflict was “a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources,” and the anniversary “should be a reminder that empire in all its forms, militarism and national chauvinism lead to bloodshed and disaster.”

It is an iron law that every political argument in Britain soon descends into an asphyxiating squabble between the Daily Mail and the Guardian, and goes phut! just before the expiry of its maximum allowed length (two weeks). So it proved here, and the debate about the war fell into a six-month torpor, from which it will doubtless emerge around 4 August for another tendentious and circular bout. Continental people, to adapt George Mikes, have history wars; the British have history tantrums.

In his article Michael Gove targeted three famous creative works whose portrayal of the Great War as a “misbegotten shambles” had, he said, created a “fictional prism” through which many had come to see the conflict. These were the musical Oh! What a Lovely War, inspired by Charles Chilton’s 1961 radio play The Long, Long Trail, staged in 1963 by Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles and released as a film in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough; The Monocled Mutineer, a four-part BBC serial based on a strike over conditions at an army training camp in Étaples on the Normandy coast in 1917, written by Alan Bleasdale and directed by Jim O’Brien; and the last series of the BBC TV comedy Blackadder, written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, broadcast in 1989 and repeated many times since.

All deserve far greater scrutiny than Gove’s passing swipe might imply: as creative works in their own right, for their impact on public views of the war, and (not least) for their place in the spectrum of creative responses to the Great War since the 1920s. The latter point is important, for whatever influence these dramas exert also inheres in the broader, and much older, patterns of thinking about the war that they embody – which have acquired their own self-perpetuating life over these ten decades.

Oh! What a Lovely War, for example, whose stylised portrayal of military and social experience conjured the atmosphere of the pre-1914 music hall to great effect, also drew on Leon Wolff's book In Flanders Fields, published in 1958, and Alan Clark’s caustic The Donkeys, published in 1961, for their shaping view of arrogant, indolent and reactionary upper-class officers sending waves of salt-of-the-earth infantry to their futile deaths. (The theme is reprised in Peter Weir’s magnificent film Gallipoli, though that is another story.)

But in turn, Clark’s shoddy work – whose title connotes the phrase “lions led by donkeys,” which he falsely attributed to a German general in a pretence of moral weight – here recycles a trope that had been present in England’s literature of the war since R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End premiered in London in 1928, with a film adaptation to follow in 1930. And Blackadder Goes Forth (the series title), beneath the flamboyant anachronism that supplies most of its comic reward, fuses the world of Journey’s End with the verve of Oh! What a Lovely War.

These connections are less a matter of conscious borrowing than they are an indication of the ability of archetypes, and other such devices, to acquire a life and emotional valency of their own. As the stock elements of literary or filmic portrayals of the Great War become established, they cross genres, reinforced by a perpetual loop of validatory reference. (The inescapable poetry of Owen and Sassoon, and more recently the testimony of Harry Patch, play strongly here.) In the end, they define the very terms in which debate about the war is conducted.

This is a formidable obstacle to grasping the past “as it really was.” An article published in the wake of the January row by John Blake, a London schoolteacher, was sparked by a realisation “that I was teaching the causes of the first world war in almost exactly the same way as they were taught to me fifteen years ago, and using almost exactly the same resources and textbooks.” The war, he writes, “was an infinitely more complex historical phenomenon than British popular memory makes it.” Its centenary should be neither “a chauvinistic cavalcade nor a pacifist’s parade,” but lead to “a profound public conversation, challenging received wisdoms and raising uncomfortable truths.”

A vital part of the search for historical understanding is examining events and sources in their original context while laying aside (as far as possible) the benefit of hindsight. But the search also requires a larger account of change alert to later sources and evolving perspectives. (Mark Mazower’s plenary address at that Sarajevo conference was about new trends in the research on the Great War.) History, after all, is always a dialogue between past and present; literary techniques such as archetypes, and the creative works embodying them, offer themselves as raw material.

The success of the Oh! What a Lovely War–The Monocled Mutineer–Blackadder Goes Forth version of the Great War needs, then, to be scrutinised as part of the war’s longer-term legacy, as well as a mirror of the cultural and political worlds of Britain since the 1960s. This is especially so since, brilliantly effective as satire though they are, their cartoonish moralism has become so much the “common sense of the age” about the war that it can block the sunlight from fresh discoveries and buried truths, or even from curiosity about these.

In fact, the question of how later generations came to see the war and the historical issues this raises is explored in a forensic book by Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory, published in 2005. So far this work, though well-known and widely praised in the academic world when it came out, has had no visible imprint on the centenary. The same is true of earlier critical works such as Brian Bond's The Unquiet Western Front: Britain's Role in Literature and History, published in 2002.

Todman, then as now a historian at Queen Mary, University of London, takes as his canvas the dominant view of the war held in Britain, exploring how it developed over the postwar decades via six themes: Mud, Death, Donkeys, Futility, Poets and Veterans.

Mud, for instance, examines how the horror of the trenches became a “visual shorthand” for Britain’s entire war, its influence on both the testimonies and silences of the war, and the meanings attached to both. After 1945, the notion of the war’s horror “developed a remarkable momentum and achieved a position of overwhelming cultural dominance,” aided by a “flowering of representation in popular culture.” By the 1980s, “a readily understood symbolic vocabulary of the war” – constantly repeated in literature, media and teaching – was well established. “Mud and horror were a requirement, allowing readers quickly to situate themselves in a shared sense of the past.”

Todman’s research illuminates the Great War’s successive imaginative associations as history: how, for example, the notion of the military elite’s incompetence (embodied above all in the figure of Douglas Haig), once contested, became orthodoxy and reference point for many other arguments about contemporary Britain; or how cultural artefacts such as the famous BBC series The Great War, shown in 1964, or Oh! What a Lovely War (revived at each major anniversary), themselves undergo a process of “heritaging” and gradually accrete their own nostalgia. “The myths are themselves becoming mythologised.”

The book extends the sharp critiques of the Great War's myths by historians such as Gary Sheffield, Ian Beckett, Alex Danchev, and Stephen Badsey (who quotes a description of Blackadder as "Journey's End with jokes"). By meticulously historicising the myths, Todman's book counters the tendency of cultural studies to abstraction and reification, and the tendency of partisan history (patriotic and radical versions alike) to reductiveness and anachronism.

A generation and more of “memory studies” has taught that the way each society marks its history is also a mirror of its present: collective remembrance is about us, now as much as them, then. That would make the centenary in Britain a stage set of current preoccupations: an “identity crisis” (featuring Scotland, the European Union and immigration), economic insecurity, default distrust of leaders and institutions, a turning away from the world, a rediscovered localism, and a reverential attitude towards the past (shared by right and left even as their versions of it differ).

Amid all this, the National Trust’s restitution of the military hospital at Dunham Massey – with its mix of punctiliousness, suture and vicarious identification – is the emblematic project, its explicit “turning back the clock” the brand offer of a country of permanent involution.

But if history is a trap, it is also the only potential escape route towards a larger, more complex and therefore truer perspective. The commemoration of the Great War should be an opportunity for Britain to look beyond the over-familiar and risk an encounter with the many elusive fragments of its past. Indeed, a bit of estrangement may be just what Britain needs as it gasps, knowingly or not, for fresh air. •