Dr Ben Roberts in conversation with Dr Tosh Warwick
The First World War centenary has provided opportunity for reflection, commemoration and discussion of the first worldwide experience of total war. The impact of this conflict on the history, direction and future of individuals, families and communities is profound and wide-ranging. Yet today there is no longer lived experience within our communities – the effects are no longer immediate and some question or ignore the act of remembrance.
As part of this month’s Discover Middlesbrough, an annual festival to celebrate all things good about the famed Victorian boom town on the banks of the River Tees, Social History Society ‘Spaces and Places’ strand convenor Dr Tosh Warwick (University of Huddersfield) caught up with Dr Ben Roberts (Teesside University) after a talk at Teesside Archives on the new Rememorial WWI project exploring the immediate aftermath of the Great War. The HLF project will explore how the Tees Valley moved on from the First World War by recollecting, retelling and reflecting the people’s experience.
TW: What led you to pursue this project and, in particular, its focus on those who survived the Great War?
BR: My research on Peace Day as part of my PhD on civic ritual in Darlington and Middlesbrough made me consider how there must have been more to it than the more familiar story of celebration at the end of the war. In fact, there was great strife and responses to the immediate aftermath of war varied across communities. The responses varied significantly even across the relatively small region of the Tees Valley from Darlington where there were protests to Middlesbrough where celebration was quite widespread.
Having been introduced to Charles Tait, Senior Lecturer in Design at Teesside University, we began to explorer themes of recovery from the First World War, drawing upon his expertise in developing ways of disseminating stories in innovative ways that have not been pursued before. By collaborating between history and design, we will hopefully bring a fresh, new, engaging perspective. Plan include public roadshows and innovative exhibitions drawing upon new digital technologies to expose new narratives, while exploring the emotions so often overlooked in focus on celebration.
TW: What has the early research undertaken to date indicated?
BR: The project has already revealed that the Tees Valley really struggled to recover after the war. A number of themes familiar to us in contemporary Britain emerged 100 years ago, including industrial decline, housing shortages, the role of women in employment, strikes, the varied experiences of demobilised and disabled service personnel as well as the Spanish Flu pandemic. The responses to peace varied significantly from Armistice Day to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
TW: How is the project different in its approach to life after the war compared to more conventional histories?
BR: The project is moving beyond the established narratives which concentrate on politics, the military and especially Armistice Day as a ‘red letter day’ which brought an end to turmoil. Instead by delving into these social histories, Rememorial WWI will instead draw out the day-to-day experiences of individuals and multiple narratives of recovery.
Through HLF support, the project also moves beyond academic histories and means we can share our research with the wider community, allowing participants and the wider public to gain further understanding of the immediate aftermath of war. The public will also be able to contribute to ongoing academic research on Britain at one of its most challenging points in modern history.
TW: As part of your project, you have talked about reflecting on the recent centenary activities. What do you hope to shed light on?
BR: We want to acknowledge that each personal view is relevant, whether people are immersed in the centenary celebrations through regular engagement with events and projects, or are completely disengaged and uninterested in the First World War. It is a unique opportunity to record this moment in time, 100 years on from the months that marked the move away from war. We hope to create a permanent record of public feeling towards the centenary and remembrance of conflict. The issue is particularly relevant as we approach the 100th centenary of Armistice Day next month. Some commentators are asking the question of how long we should actively ‘commemorate’ the First World War, with the suggestion that this might slip out of public consciousness in the ensuing decades.
TW: Lastly, what are the immediate plans for the project?
BR: We will be holding a number of public roadshows in November-December 2018, where we encourage people to share artefacts from the period, through which we hope to access stories of previous owners and bring to the fore new narratives and insights into social history. We will also be developing our exhibitions, which will be launched next summer across the Tees Valley. Social media is also central to the project, with new channels set up including twitter @RememorialWWI, a Facebook page and a dedicated website.
Project volunteers have already started researching some of the underutilised oral history collections here at Teesside Archives and we hope that these will reveal some individual experiences of the region in the aftermath of the war. We also hope to delve into the letters pages and editorials of the local press to gauge wider reactions to the challenges society faced between 1918-1919.
You will also find @RememorialWWI on twitter