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The Great War, Memory and Ritual

Commemoration in the City and East London, 1916-1939


Mark Connelly


Royal Historical Society Studies in History, New Series

Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015

Paperback reissue (First edition, 2002). xii+260 p. ISBN 978-0861933273. £17.99


Reviewed by Christopher Phillips

University of Leeds



Published thirteen years after the hardback edition, this book, based upon the author’s doctoral thesis, aims to take the national and global attitudes to the commemoration of the First World War as presented by historians such as Jay Winter and Adrian Gregory,(1) and test them against the local experiences of a ‘geographically homogeneous but socially and economically diverse’ [1] area of Britain: the City of London, East London, and metropolitan Essex. In doing so, he seeks to combat the idea that the Great War was recorded by Britons as a horrific slaughter terminated only by a botched peace and leading to a diminished respect for the values of God, King and Country in an atmosphere of increasing disillusionment in the 1920s and 30s. What emerges is a fascinating, nuanced account of the manner in which the characters and communities in one corner of south-eastern England shaped the forms and styles of memorials erected in the years following the Armistice, and a thorough examination of the various ‘phases’ through which the Armistice Day ritual itself passed between the twentieth century’s two world wars.

The text opens with a brief but crucial survey of the district, informing readers of the ‘nature and psyche’ [13] of the area under investigation and highlighting the diversity of class, race, and economic backgrounds that informed local attitudes to the process of remembrance; from the ancient, affluent, largely non-domicile population of the City, through the giant industrial boroughs of East and West Ham, to the impoverished and overcrowded working-class areas of Poplar and Stepney. Whilst the size and wealth of these districts played an obvious role in influencing the types of memorials created, and affected the speed with which ‘shining symbols of civic pride’ [135] were erected by local governments, the first half of the book highlights a remarkable consistency of approach and iconography within the ‘memorialization’ period: from the first shrines to the dead erected in South Hackney during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 to the permanent war memorials and Armistice Day ritual, the key word which arises from Connelly’s study is ‘progression’ [36]. For Connelly, the core component at work in influencing the act of remembrance in this period – which in turn shaped the representation of the war, an ‘inversion of history and time’ [7] – was Christianity, predominantly in the form of the Anglican Church. Christianity was ‘equipped with a language of consolation and hope’ [36]; the Church brought both a spiritual element and a sense of community, friendship, and inter-dependence. In the absence of graves, the memorials superseded the shrines as surrogate headstones, with the unveiling ceremonies acting as alternative funerals for the bereaved [44-45]. Yet running alongside providing a channel for comforting the private, personal and familial senses of grief and consolation for those who had lived through the war, the memorials (particularly those raised in the workplaces, schools, colleges and clubs discussed in chapter 4) were also perceived as a public, visible, didactic instrument for future generations. War memorials demonstrated the community’s loyalty to the nation and the Empire, and emphasised their contribution to what was unequivocally a noble cause: ‘wartime values and concepts were… still very much alive [in the 1920s and 30s]; the justification of the war was not an issue open to debate’ [79].

Here we find the dead presented as role models for children, across religious and class boundaries. Children were confronted with highly controlled images which stressed duty and obligation, whilst the spirit of ‘Muscular Christianity’ was served through the incorporation of playing fields and sports facilities for youngsters in war memorial schemes. Year after year, the same messages were imparted on Armistice Day, the duality of which does not escape Connelly’s analysis. The young were promised a world free from war as a result of the sacrifices made by the men listed on memorial rolls of honour. Yet they were also exhorted to follow their example and emulate the heroism and courage of the dead were their own world to be threatened. The ‘sheer weight of reassuring repetition’ [93] involved in the commemoration rituals successfully prevented any widespread questioning of the morality of the war in the public sphere.

Whilst the churches provided solace for the individual, the participatory act of ‘communal emotion’ was centred upon the civic memorials. Chapter five of the book stresses the range of local government responses to commemoration, the majority of which were carefully placed to ensure the maximum exposure and public impact – not only to commemorate ‘the glorious dead’, but also to salute the civic achievements which had helped build the memorials. At the unveiling of the Royal Fusiliers’ memorial in 1922 this manifested in the honour of the City overshadowing the memory of the dead [102]. In West Ham, the plaque in the entrance hall of the war memorial out-patients department at Queen Mary’s hospital also placed the ‘Honour of the Borough’ above that of ‘the Glory of the Dead’ [109]. It comes as little surprise to learn that two of the poorest districts covered in this survey did not erect war memorials, though the reasons behind these decisions were not purely financial [134].

The ‘amazing degree of homogeneity of approach’ among the churches, who were first to react to the demand for permanent memorials to the dead, helped create a ‘remarkable consensus’ about the nature of the war. The memorials and dedication services reaffirmed wartime values, and – by literally setting them in stone – ensured that Armistice Day itself would inherit ‘a strictly conformist nature’ [74]. The observance of Armistice Day, and to a lesser extent Remembrance Sunday, forms the second half of Connelly’s study. Four chapters deal chronologically with Armistice Day between the wars: during the initial phase in which the foundations of the ritual were lain; during the 1920s where the day became an established tradition; in the first half of the 1930s, when Armistice Day entered a ‘confused period’ [196] in which themes of domestic strife and international tension threatened – but never severely jeopardised – the ritual; and finally during the years immediately preceding the Second World War. In 1938 – the year of Munich – Connelly notes an acknowledgement from the press of an increased attendance at what would be the final Armistice Day services before the outbreak of war, in an atmosphere of ‘quiet preparation for war’ [206-207]. Although Connelly presents these four phases as resembling ‘nearly a full circle’ [232], it is perhaps beneficial to equate the establishment and development of the Armistice Day ritual with the construction of a house.

In the years 1919-1921, to borrow Connelly’s chapter heading, the ‘foundations’ were laid. From the very outset, Armistice Day was ‘perceived as an active and communal event’ [141]. Rather than taking place in solitude, the two minutes’ silence was immediately recognised as a public expression of active remembrance, and one which was buttressed by the introduction of the now ubiquitous poppy into the ritual in 1921. Once again, it was the church which acted as the leader, and there was an expectation that the day would possess recognisably Christian connotations thanks to the language of consolation and hope which had infused the war shrines and continued to envelop the memorials in the process of being established. The values enshrined on those memorials: sacrifice; duty; patriotism, were reiterated each 11 November in an Armistice Day ritual which, although the ‘frivolous triumphalism’ [125] of the immediate post-war years would recede, confined itself to the same values. The result, as the ‘brick walls’ of the house were built up, was a ‘deep reverence [for] and a high level of public interest’ [150] in Armistice Day throughout the period 1922-1929. Sir Charles Wakefield, the wartime Lord Mayor of London, had written to the City Press in 1920 to voice his opinion that the two minutes’ silence of 11 November 1919 probably ought not be repeated lest it ‘suffer from being stereotyped as an annual ceremony [142]. By the end of 1927, Wakefield would tell the same newspaper that the same ritual was ‘rightly becoming a permanent part of national life’ [174].

However, it is the exceptions to the norm which provide the most fascinating elements of Connelly’s account. In Ilford, the remote location of the civic war memorial led to the early adoption of Remembrance Sunday whilst the more easily accessed town hall provided a focal point for the Armistice Day silence. And as the decade wore on, Armistice Day began to see the first signs of ‘dissent’ emerging from the fog of conformity. The destructive power of war began to reassert its place in services, the work of the League of Nations Union promoted, and the cause of impoverished and unemployed ex-servicemen was highlighted. Armistice Day became a ‘potent vehicle of protest for ex-servicemen; the pride they took in their wartime record was balanced against the unfulfilled promises of the government’ [171]. After 1930, Connelly identifies these breezes becoming more of a gale, bolstered by the deteriorating international situation. Even so, these high winds of disillusionment were never strong enough to jeopardise the walls which had been built up over the previous decade. They did, however, demonstrate that Armistice Day was far more open to the influence of national, and even international, trends, which were able to encroach upon particular localities. In the middle-class districts, this manifested itself in the prominence of the League of Nations Union and a rising number of overtly pacifist agendas; in the more working-class areas Armistice Day bore witness to sporadic protests from the National Unemployed Workers Movement and the Communists.

But in the years immediately preceding the Second World War, Armistice Day reverted to type. The language of comfort and hope, ‘firmly anchored in the reality of the world situation’ [197], provided the cohesive ‘roof’ for war commemoration in East London. Armistice Day, and all of the icons and symbols it conveyed, was not rejected by the public. It remained a time at which the First World War, and all of the sacrifices made, was thoroughly justified. Furthermore, Armistice Day once again took on the role of ‘rallying call’ to those who had been exhorted to prepare themselves for the ultimate obligation to their country. By 1938, the remembrance message was ‘timeless’, and ‘impervious to attempts to undermine it’ [208-209]. Through a twenty-year process of carefully managed ‘ritual and repetition’, the dead of East London retained their status as ‘martyrs for the cause of humanity’ [232]. Though Connelly’s book does not explain how those deaths came to be popularly considered as the most tragic indictment of a futile, mismanaged, and ultimately pointless campaign,(2) it demonstrates beyond doubt that for the people of one area – economically, socially, religiously diverse as it was – by 1939 there was no rejection of the values of 1914, and any disillusionment that existed was far removed from the commemoration of the dead. Highly recommended.


(1) J.M. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (Cambridge, 1995); A. Gregory, The Silence of Memory : Armistice Day, 1919-1946 (Oxford, 1994).

(2) For this discussion, see D. Todman, The Great War : Myth and Memory (London, 2005).



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