The presence of the First World War in our lives today…

The First World War was a watershed moment in world history. It had an impact on so many parts of life that it is inescapable, even to this day. A few examples of that include the way in which certain phrases have become part of the English Language (please read my blog post about this dated 13th May 2020 for examples of this). Another example is the change in social mobility for women – a further post will discuss this in greater detail. There were also long lasting effects on the geography of Europe and other parts of the world which are still being felt to this day. Medical technologies and equipment used to help soldiers during the First World War are still used today in hospitals around the world, which will again be covered in another blog post. In this particular post, I will be focussing on the physical ways where the First World War is still present in our day to day lives.

The first element, and possibly the largest, is the concept of remembrance. For Britain, prior to the First World War, wars had been fought in far off corners of the globe. The Empire’s reach was far, and the British Army had a significant role in maintaining order throughout the Empire. British soldiers were men who made careers out of being in the army, for a variety of reasons. But being a soldier and serving one’s country was not considered, in some circles, a respectable profession. This all changed with the First World War and the request by the Secretary of State for War, Earl Kitchener, for young men to enlist in the Armed Forces. These young men were not career soldiers; they enlisted in their country’s hour of need, ready to defend her.

As time passed by, casualty and death lists began to grow and grow, resulting in the creation of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission to look after the resting places and memorials of the men and women who gave their lives during the conflict. But in 1919, it was decided that an official, national day of remembrance should be instituted to ensure the continuation of the memory of the men who served. It was to be commemorated on the same day that the Armistice ending the First World War came into effect – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The first Remembrance Day was inaugurated by the King and the first two minute silence was reported on in newspapers across the country as this quote demonstrates:

The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all

This day of remembrance has continued for over 100 years and has now also come to commemorate those who gave their lives in other conflicts since. It has become a part of the national psyche in a way that was and continues to be unprecedented. The symbol of this national remembrance is the poppy, a flower that was often seen growing on the battlefields as one of the few things that could survive the conditions in which it grew. This usage has also developed into Poppy becoming an extremely popular girls name – a continuing presence of the symbol of remembrance and the First World War in our day to day lives.

UNVEILING OF THE CENOTAPH AND FUNERAL OF THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR, ARMISTICE DAY 1920 MINISTRY OF INFORMATION FIRST WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION (Q 14964) The King at the Cenotaph during the singing of the hymn ‘Oh God our Help in Ages Past’, before the unveiling. On the west side of the Cenotaph are the political leaders of the nation. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205067424

As a secondary point to this, the presence of the First World War on a local level, rather than a national level is evoked by two things: local memorials and road/place names.

Quite often, as we walk through our local towns, cities and villages, we will often walk past local war memorials. Some memorials in larger towns will usually bear an inscription and dates of conflicts, starting with the First World War. These become the central points for Remembrance Day in a local setting, playing host to services and memorials. Usually these larger memorials will not list the names of those who died from the place it is dedicated, mostly because there are too many names to be commemorated. In smaller towns and villages, local memorials may contain those names; names of young men who maybe grew up together, went to school together, and maybe had the same surnames. Memorials were also created in other ways, for example, places of work such as factories and offices, having memorials for the men killed in the war who used to work there. Certain streets throughout the country had memorials designed for the young men killed from the immediate vicinity. Local churches having memorials designed for the members of their congregation killed. All of these memorials, regardless of size and design, are a continuing reminder of the legacy of the war; the names of young men from our local communities inscribed upon them, reminding us of those who paid the ultimate cost. Next time you’re in your local town, city or village centre, find the memorial and see how the young men from your area are commemorated.         

A memorial in my town, dedicated to the men who were part of the congregation of this church. The main memorial for the town itself is in the cemetery 0.7 of a mile away (April 2020)

Street names are another way in which the First World War is still present in our day to day lives. Throughout the country, there are many places where road names and even entire estates in some cases were named after key events or people from the First World War. Some popular names include Jutland – 23, Mons – 22, Somme – 6, Vimy – 9, Ypres – 6, Anzac – 5, Cavell – 36, Haig – 81, Jellicoe – 36 and Kitchener – 69. For some town planning departments, they may have chosen names of places where lots of young local men died, or people who had key significance during the war. As you can see in the above, recognisable names were popular choices for these new roads that were being built. Two examples that I can add here personally that I am aware of is an estate in Dudley which has the following road names – Arras Road, Mons Road, French Road, Cavell Road, Haig Road and Kitchener Road and an estate in Wednesbury which has Vimy Road, Vimy Terrace and Delville Close.

Another example of this shows that the use of First World War connections to the naming of roads continues to this day. In Lichfield, the city council are developing a new housing development on a piece of land near to a road where there is a memorial to 22 men from the immediate area who were killed.  These 22 men have between them 7 surnames, showing the family connections to each other. The seven roads will be called Axten Avenue, Baker Way, Mullarkey Drive, Smith Close, Turner Road, Ward Close and Whittle Street.

Of course, this is not a phenomenon just limited to the United Kingdom. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other countries now part of the Commonwealth all have names of places that are significant to its history in the First World War as road names. France and Belgium also have renamed roads and town squares after countries who sent soldiers to fight, types of soldiers, key dates and people – just one example of this being the Rue du 11 Novembre in Albert, France.

As we can see by the points raised in this blog and many others, the First World War continues to have a lasting and visible presence in our society today. If you know of any other examples such as the ones I’ve listed above, please feel free to comment and share that information.

‘Til next time!

Beth

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