#Somme100 – commemoration or appropriation?
Today marks 100 years since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. As the bloodiest battle of the First World War, it still resonates in public memory throughout Europe and worldwide. The battle (in fact a series of connected battles) caused around 419 000 British and 204 000 French casualties (60 000 and 7000 on the first day alone, respectively), and has become synonymous in public memory with the brutality and pointlessness of trench warfare. The memory of the battle is also deeply rooted in class in the UK: ‘the battle [is] a profoundly ambivalent site of mourning, one complicated by variable affiliations to class and locality.’ Alongside the Allies, the German army suffered around 465 000 losses (10 000 on the first day). This carnage, consisting of some thirteen separate battles, lasted until 18 November 1916. Today, the battle is still the subject of much debate by historians arguing over its purpose. Now, a hundred years later, the British people find themselves not at war, but in a different state of turmoil.
It is hard today to imagine what it was like to be in Britain, France, or Germany during the First World War. Men at the front were unsure how long they would survive whilst many in the home fronts faced dire food shortages as battles continued to rage. Governments said when men returned home, everything would go back to the way it was—this of course was not the case. War also brought new opportunities and responsibilities for women, expanding their employment in new job roles, often bringing independence. Yet, resistance to change took many forms; indeed, most women in European countries did not receive the vote because of their war efforts. While the war brought much change in the interim, the post-war years also saw considerable continuity in gender relations.
Nonetheless, a lot has changed since the ‘Great War’—another war of greater devastation has been fought, the Cold War has ended (or has it?), and capitalism reigns supreme. Globalisation has become the new buzzword: everyone talks about it, and those who travel feel it as they glide through airports. Markets across the world have grown tremendously, and countries once held back by colonialism eagerly work their way upward. Although this sounds a tad reductionist as a historian, the gist of this narrative is commonly accepted and taken as fact. Yet, in this past week (and even longer), we have witnessed a challenge to ‘globalisation’ and to idea of ‘Europe’ at the very time we are documenting this iconic battle.
It was hardly surprising to see the memory of World War II used to guide the Brexit debate. In the lead-up to the referendum, the memory of the world wars was used by both sides of the argument. Those that backed the United Kingdom remaining in the EU used fear mongering, citing the risk of a new world war as a reason to vote remain. Meanwhile, those backing Brexit have used the memory of World War II liberally, likening the European Union to Hitler and using the sentimental claims that a “war veteran’s dying wish was for them to post his Leave vote”. Further subversion of World War II memory comes in the form of both sides of the argument trying to claim Churchill as a staunch supporter. In this instance, we see the memory of the First World War no longer as much a part of the rhetoric. How public memory is used to engage a populous changes, and the Battle of the Somme is brought into the limelight today because of its anniversary.
It is not just pre-referendum antics that tried to use the memory of the World Wars either. Since the rise of #postRefRacism the Polish airmen of World War II have been rolled out repeatedly to show the British history of multiculturalism and present a united front against racism. Let alone, all the colonies and other powers around the world that fought in both wars.Whilst the World Wars are being used to showcase multiculturalism, they are also being used to satirically criticise the lead campaigners, with the lead leave campaigners having been likened to Hitler’s inner circle. Finally and most recently, after Nigel Farage’s declarations of ‘Independence day’, is his most recent tweet, praising the soldiers of the Somme and highlighting their fight for ‘freedom’. Is this not a sign of appropriation of their memory?
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) July 1, 2016
The centenary anniversary of the Battle of the Somme falls at a time of instability when the UK’s relationship with Europe is in flux. The Bishop of London’s remarks that future generations should never experience the horrors of battle and his laments against ‘those who would stir up hatred and division’ are of course relevant to the heated political debates taking place today. Commemoration is inherently linked to current events and concerns, but at the same time roots countries in a shared culture of remembrance at a time of great uncertainty. The marking of this anniversary provides a pertinent opportunity for reflection on how this traumatic and far-reaching conflict touched thousands of men and women across the world, and reminds us of the sacrifices which earlier generations have made for individuals today.