Written by Jessica Rowan. Edited by Meg Barker.
In the grand foyer of Derby Council House rests a plaque. This plaque has a specific function, one of memory and remembrance, being a memorial to fourty five council employees who were killed during the First World War. The memorial is not unique, it is simply one memorial amongst thousands across the country that stand as public reminders of the horrifying cost of the war of 1914 to 1918. Similar plaques detail the losses of other wars, such as the Second World War. They seem innocuous, built into the very landscape and fabric of our country.
I was first confronted with the Derby Council House plaque during a work placement, a placement based around uncovering the men behind the names on the memorial. When it had been constructed, the men would have been known to council employees and the people of Derby but as time has passed, and we have lost the immediacy of contact to the First World War, the names have become unknown. My task during the placement was to research and discover these men; who they were and how they lived up to the war, their employment history at Derby Borough Corporation (as it was then known) and their military career throughout the war, leading to their death. A seemingly reasonable task, even if a lot of research would be involved.
However, as I started my research, uncovering the facts around the men’s deaths and proceeding to discover elements of their lives before the war, I was faced with a growing sense of historical inquiry. It made me reflect on the process of remembrance, one that seems especially public and prominent following the centenary of the start of the war in November. How did my research fit into the rhetoric of remembrance; and did I want it to?
Acts of remembrance are a very specific and public way in which historical knowledge is disseminated. There is a very strong rhetoric of ‘heroes’ and ‘sacrifice’ that lies at the heart of many remembrance projects. I do not want to dismiss this notion but I do think it is very important to see the men who died during the war as real, lived individuals. I realised that my personal aims for this project was not to progress a vision of the men as heroes who sacrificed their life for their ‘King and Country’. This image is imbued with ideas about the nation state and constructs the notion of duty to a national sovereign as a personal achievement. Memorials are inscribed onto the landscape of the nation, on our most prominent institutions and cultural spaces, such as the Tower of London’s poppy memorial. National, public memorials are indicative of Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined community’, wherein cultural practises and activities become embedded within images of the nation and are used to construct a national identity. As a result, memory and remembrance, when constructed with specific notions of power and ideologies can become politicised rather easily. The domination of certain narratives of remembrance glosses over the true experience of the men who died during the war. It embeds their experiences with a top down narrative and ignores the nuances that existed between the men. It also advances an idea that the First World War was a national tragedy, an idea that refutes the true horrors of the war and the millions of lives that it cost across the globe. By disseminating a narrative of national sacrifice to the public, remembrance limits the scope for memory. It is limited by nationality, or ideology and it is limited by only remembering the ‘sacrifice’, rather than the lives of those individuals who fought during the war.
Remembrance should not be about the deaths of men, as this extinguishes the value of their pre-war lives. I realised that my personal aims for the placement was to reconstruct the lives of the forty-five men from Derby, to gain a glimpse into their experiences before the war. I want to be able to truly appreciate the horrors of modern warfare by beginning to understand the lives that were cut down because of it. Forty-five men from Derby may have died, but it is in the reconstruction of their lives that we can truly remember them as people, human beings with lived experiences and lives that they valued. We can begin to recognise the complexity of the human experience of war, how it impacted different people, to show that there is no set narrative. War is a human experience rather than a national experience, in terms of its impact on people and the scope of its victims. Only be remembering it as such can it be possible to truly comprehend the horrific results of the First World War, and other wars since and continuing.