Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration

Mobilizing the Past in Europe, Australia and New Zealand

by Shanti Sumartojo (Volume editor) Ben Wellings (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection X, 329 Pages
Series: Cultural Memories, Volume 2


The Great War continues to play a prominent role in contemporary consciousness. With commemorative activities involving seventy-two countries, its centenary is a titanic undertaking: not only ‘the centenary to end all centenaries’ but the first truly global period of remembrance.
In this innovative volume, the authors examine First World War commemoration in an international, multidisciplinary and comparative context. The contributions draw on history, politics, geography, cultural studies and sociology to interrogate the continuities and tensions that have shaped national commemoration and the social and political forces that condition this unique international event. New studies of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific address the relationship between increasingly fractured grand narratives of history and the renewed role of the state in mediating between individual and collective memories. Released to coincide with the beginning of the 2014–2018 centenary period, this collection illuminates the fluid and often contested relationships amongst nation, history and memory in Great War commemoration.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • ‘The centenary to end all centenaries’: The Great War, Nation and Commemoration
  • Part I: War and Memory in a ‘Post-national’ Era
  • National Commemoration after the ‘Second Thirty Years’ War’
  • Lest You Forget: Memory and Australian Nationalism in a Global Era
  • From No Man’s Land to Transnational Spaces: The Representation of Great War Memory in Film
  • Part II: Commemoration and the Politics of National Belonging
  • Anzac and the Politics of Inclusion
  • The Politics of the Great War Centenary in the United Kingdom
  • Divergent Memories: Remembering and Forgetting the Great War in Loyalist and Nationalist Ireland
  • The Great War in Belgian Memories: From Unanimity to Divergence
  • Part III: Mobilizing the Great War
  • Keeping in Step: The Anzac ‘Resurgence’ and ‘Military Heritage’ in Australia and New Zealand
  • Memorial Diplomacy in Franco-Australian Relations
  • Contested Sites of Memory: Commemorating Wars and Warriors in New Caledonia
  • Remembering, Commemorating and (Re)fighting the Great War in Germany from 1919 to the Present Day
  • Part IV: Locations of Commemoration
  • The Sinking of the Marquette: Gender, Nationalism and New Zealand’s Great War Remembrance
  • Museums and the Great War: A Curator’s Perspective on the History of Anzac
  • Wars Afterwards: The Repression of the Great War in European Collective Memory
  • ‘A Piece of Australia in France’: Australian Authorities and the Commemoration of Anzac Day at Villers-Bretonneux in the Last Decade
  • Anzac Kinship and National Identity on the Australian Remembrance Trail
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix → Acknowledgements

This volume has been informed by a sense of collegial inquiry that has made it a real pleasure to compile. It is based on papers presented in April 2012 at a symposium at the Australian National University called Politics of the Past, an event that was generously supported by the then Head of the ANU’s School of Politics and International Relations, Professor John Ravenhill, and the Director of the ANU’s Centre for European Studies, Professor Jacquie Lo. Our thanks must first go to John and Jacquie who provided the support for this collaborative venture. To a person, the authors in this volume, both at the initial symposium and in the subsequent work in bringing their contributions to publication, have been a pleasure to work with. We thank them for their ongoing enthusiasm and intellectual creativity.

We would also like to thank the Ambassador of France to Australia, His Excellency Stéphane Romatet, and the former Ambassador of Belgium to Australia, His Excellency Patrick Renault, both of whom engaged openly at the symposium. The Embassy of France materially supported the participation of some of our French colleagues and Ambassador Romatet’s subsequent intellectual support has been welcome. Brigadier Will Taylor from the British High Commission in Australia also made a very welcome contribution at the symposium, and we thank him for his participation. At the Royal Belgian Embassy, Ms Sophie Hottat’s initial enthusiasm helped start the project.

A lot of invisible labour goes into the success of such academic work. In particular our thanks go to Ms Caroline Wood, formerly Executive Officer of the School of Politics and International Relations at ANU and Jane Coultas, senior administrator at the ANUCES, who ensured a smooth running of the symposium. Not least, we thank Ms Megan Harbridge at the ANU branch of STA Travel for herding the academic cats from Europe to Australia and back again. The production of this book straddled our move from Canberra to Melbourne and thanks go to supportive ANU ← ix | x → colleagues and the wonderful ANU students whom Ben had the privilege to teach over the past ten years: the ‘Last Lecture’ remains a career highlight. Professor Pascaline Winand at the Monash European and EU Centre and Associate Professor Quentin Stevens at RMIT University also supported the project in its latter stages. At Peter Lang, Laurel Plapp has been terrific to work with and Katia Pizzi’s guiding hand as series editor has been most welcome.

Further invisible labour was provided by our friends in Canberra who took care of our children as the symposium unfolded during and after Anzac Day 2012. Jo and Michael, Megan and David, Di and Tim, Helen and Daniel and the all the Kindy and Year 4 parents at Majura Primary School who helped us deserve our thanks. As ever, Ivan and Claire’s ‘Richmond Suite’ was a very comfortable London pied à terre. In the subsequent research stemming from the symposium, Jean-Charles and Sarah in Brussels provided the wine that ensured we got on the wrong train to Germany the following morning and Ralf and Anke picked up the pieces in Oberkessel. Esther and Yo suffered from Maastricht to Amiens, providing opportunities to research European doctors’ views on Australian Great War commemoration in France, while Nick’s seventy-fifth birthday was one to remember. In V-B Agnes Bertoux taught our children more than they realized, while back in England Joyce and Joan took the children to Harry Potter World in Watford (just) when their parents were pursuing work and life elsewhere in Europe.

Most of all our thanks go to our two children. The research for this book took them to Flanders, Picardy, Provence, the banks of the Rhine and beyond. We hope that the embarrassing impromptu talks to French school children and an unwanted introduction to the German classroom were compensated for by Uncle Mick’s garage, dead rats and live snakes on the Somme and the discovery of Nutella and steak haché. This book is dedicated to Adi and Ria.

Melbourne, March 2014


‘The centenary to end all centenaries’:
The Great War, Nation and Commemoration

In 2008, largely thanks to the initiative of Melbourne schoolteacher Lambis Englezos, a number of mass graves were discovered in Pheasant Wood near Fromelles, a village in northern France on the former Western Front. The graves contained the remains of approximately 250 British and Australian servicemen who had been hastily buried by their German adversaries following a disastrous diversionary attack during the opening stages of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. As the remains were recovered and reburied forensic investigators attempted to identify the individuals, aided by DNA testing of potential family members located after historical and genealogical research in Australia. The graves also revealed personal items that helped identify the dead soldiers, including uniform buttons, buckles and insignia; a pipe and toothbrush; and, poignantly, a return train ticket from Fremantle to Perth in Western Australia, with only one leg of the journey marked as used.1

This discovery led to the creation and consecration of the first Great War cemetery since the 1960s, an event attended by high level dignitaries, not least His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Australian Governor-General Ms Quentin Bryce and the mayor of Fromelles, Monsieur Hubert Huchette. At the cemetery’s dedication in July 2010, Quentin Bryce described the treatment of the bodies:

← 1 | 2 → Each and every one of them: gently, expertly, reverently cradled and carried from where they were last thrust side by side, already fallen, more than nine decades ago to a new resting place, this place, a place of resolution and peace.2

The discovery of the gravesite and the official ceremony received a high degree of media coverage, building on decades of interest (personal, official and from within civil society) in what is referred to in Australia simply as ‘Anzac’, a term that implies a set of national values derived from the social and political significance of military service in Australia’s past and present. Thus although the Great War took place almost one hundred years ago, its commemoration is very much a contemporary concern, exemplified in both the discovery of the previously unknown gravesite at Pheasant Wood, and the painstaking attempts to link those individuals buried at the site to their living relatives.

Commemoration of the Great War is thus simultaneously deeply personal and completely public, subject to both family and state rituals that link the individual to the nation. As such, the ceremony at Fromelles was an example of Jay Winter’s ‘historical remembrance’, a ‘discursive field, extending from ritual to cultural work of many different kinds [… with a] capacity to unite people who have no other bonds drawing them together’.3 For Benedict Anderson ‘no more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and the tombs of Unknown Soldiers’ and in this way, remembrance and commemoration help generate the nation as ‘an imagined political community’.4 Events such as the ceremony at Fromelles link the individual and the nation through the figure of the reinterred combatants whom we are invited to mourn almost one hundred years after their deaths.

← 2 | 3 → At the same time as they are personal and national, however, the commemorations are also inescapably global. This is not only because of the multinational nature of the conflict one hundred years ago, but also due to the international relationships that have transformed over the past century from adversarial to cooperative, in the case of the European combatants, or from intimately linked to fully independent, as in the case of former empires. But this is not the only global dimension to such commemoration. International collaboration at Fromelles ensured the bodies were discovered and identified, a new Commonwealth War Grave opened and high level official participation in the consecration of the cemetery. This involved multi-agency cooperation and coordination between British, Australian and French diplomatic corps and veterans affairs’ departments, local government in the Pas de Calais region, British universities and Australian media networks – an intensification of (peaceable) international collaborative effort far removed from that of a hundred years ago.

This example also demonstrates the simultaneous fragility and strength of Great War narratives – fragile in the personal memories of family members that can be lost with generational change, but robust in the repeated use of historical narrative for many different purposes – to cohere co-nationals around a unifying set of ‘values’; to try to define the extent and diversity of the contemporary nation; to shape the tone of international relationships and to build political support for contemporary ends. The examples in this volume, written by established and emerging scholars, examine these processes in detailed case studies, organized into four sections animated by the following questions:

How is war remembered in what is often characterized as a ‘global’ and ‘post-national’ era?

How does commemoration of the Great War inflect questions of national belonging in developed societies today?

To what extent has the memory of the Great War been consciously or unconsciously mobilized as part of a wider politics of legitimacy?

How are specific locations of commemoration and commemorative acts designed to shape individual and collective understandings of the past and present?

← 3 | 4 → This volume has been produced to coincide with the centenary of the beginning of the Great War in August 2014, a period of intense planning and reflection around commemorative activity. The centenary is part of a wider phenomenon whereby commemorative activity has grown in the past three decades. This has expanded to the extent that former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech in 2013 to mark the twentieth anniversary of his speech at the internment of the Unknown Solider at the Australian War Memorial in 1993. This convoluted occasion was effectively a commemorative event commemorating a commemorative event.

The volume’s scope is necessarily international, comparative and multi-disciplinary. The contributions carefully examine how the research themes operate in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany and Belgium, as well as the French overseas territory of New Caledonia. An international approach is necessary given that the Great War centenary will involve no less that seventy-two states across four years of commemoration from 2014 to 2018, a prospect that led Henry Porter describe this as ‘the centenary to end all centenaries’.5 This is a case when one can truly say that for reasons of space only a small proportion of examples could be included.

This book grew from a symposium held at the Australian National University’s Centre for European Studies in April 2012 called Politics of the Past. Given the editors’ location in Australia, the initial motivation behind this project was to place the significant activity associated with war memory in Australia in an international context. Comparative analysis is especially important in the study of nationalism, because nations and nationalisms exist in a tension between the particular and the universal. All nations by their very definition are unique and particular collective manifestations of what are often described as ‘values’ or ‘culture’. On the other hand, nations are a universal category: although the content of particular nationalisms may differ, the form is instantly recognizable throughout the world. Thus, comparative analysis can avoid the trap of over-stressing what may appear significant within the mental universe created by living in a world of nations,← 4 | 5 → by asking if such phenomena are important or significant elsewhere. If, as the Russians say, ‘every duck is proud of his pond’, then a comparative approach enables us to see beyond the banks of our own murky ditches.

The subject matter of this collection also required the breadth of a multi-disciplinary approach to do justice to the subject matter. National belonging and memory are simultaneously public and intimate, collective and private modes of being. At times the relationship between the individual and memory of the past can be close, but often this activity is mediated by governments, civil society organizations and the media. The contributions to this volume accordingly sit at the intersections of history, politics, geography and cultural studies as a means to interpret the diverse ways that nations and national belonging are experienced and reproduced.

The deaths of the last members of the generation that fought in the Great War have offered significant opportunities for political, academic and public deliberation concerning the legacies of the conflict. When the last surviving British combatants of the First World War, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, died in 2009, The Economist declared a farewell to the conflict, claiming that it had shifted ‘from memory to history’ (although some historians in this volume question whether it has moved decisively from personal memory to collective memory, by-passing history as a method of inquiry along the way).6 Nevertheless, The Economist’s headline revealed the inter-relationship between history and memory. Both were seen as having the potential to connect the past with the present and the future. The assumption was that collective and individual life would be enriched if such connections were made. The anxiety, perhaps, was that most people (especially the young) knew little and cared less about the events in question.

This anxiety taps into concerns about the value of remembrance and the necessity of commemorative practices. Nora’s seminal notion of lieux de mémoire is useful here: broadly defined sites, rituals or artefacts of national memory where the past is explicitly, if selectively, evoked and represented.← 5 | 6 → However, lieux de mémoire foreground only some aspects of the past, demonstrating a tension between official history, or a ‘representation of the past’, and vernacular or popular memory, ‘a perpetually acting phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present’.7 Nora’s identification of these two aspects speaks to the relationship between history and memory: the power of institutions to shape national narratives on the one hand, and the resistance, adherence or even indifference to these narratives by the public on the other. The centenary of the Great War occurs at a time when the connections between history, memory, nation, state and the individual have← 6 | 7 → been significantly reframed in comparison with one hundred years ago. The critical, analytical ordering and articulation of the past by historians and politicians who have often sought to elevate the nation through the production of ‘grand’ national narratives has, during the past thirty years or so, become increasingly fragmented.8 According to Jay Winter a ‘memory boom’, embraced by states and citizens alike, has gradually superseded history in the past three decades, pitting a method of inquiry against deeply felt empathy.9 Although this tension started with the First World War and was subsequently underpinned by Holocaust remembrance, it was intensified by new ways of thinking about the role of history and the past in contemporary society that reflected the impact of ‘identity politics’ and the ‘recovery of voices that had been there all along’.10 In this situation, ‘memory’ is not the same as historical inquiry into the past. Aleida Assmann argues that history has been transformed into socially constructed memory cultures through public discourse about how past events are remembered, interpreted and articulated.11 This has meant historical narratives have been reconfigured into emotionally charged versions of ‘our history’, thus providing reference points for complementary and at times contradictory forms of identity. Thus, official ‘history’ and vernacular ‘memory’ have been selectively mixed in the arena of identity politics by a range of actors who choose aspects of the historical past to buttress their own political goals.

This fragmentation is apparent in attempts by governments to deploy historical narratives to repair or occlude perceived instances of social and political cleavage. Accordingly, the state is crucial in facilitating this conceptual shift from official monolithic history towards something more discursive and fluid, and in mediating the memories of its citizens. Comparison over time reveals that state agencies were crucial in creating the first wave of commemoration in the wake of the Great War. As Bruce Scates and Bart Ziino have shown in the case of Australia, shared national consciousness was encouraged and facilitated by the state, offering opportunities to construct ‘collective memories’ from the recent conflict via personal pilgrimages and journeys.12 Citizens were also encouraged to participate in national acts of collective remembrance through the shared experience of state-sponsored memorials, libraries, museums and mass education programmes, something they willingly did across Europe and its imperial possessions in great numbers.13 However, today’s state is different from the one that led people to war in 1914. In many ways it is both stronger and weaker than its forebear of a hundred years ago, which generates a different dynamic for the politics of national belonging. Globalization and the shift from government to governance have required different narratives to bind state and citizen in a historical context of social and political fragmentation. Remembrance and commemoration play a part in this renewal of national narratives.

← 7 | 8 → War and memory in a ‘post-national’ era


X, 329
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
history geography cultural studies sociology politics
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 329 pp.

Biographical notes

Shanti Sumartojo (Volume editor) Ben Wellings (Volume editor)

Shanti Sumartojo is a Research Fellow in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. She is the author of Trafalgar Square and the Narration of Britishness, 1900-2012: Imagining the Nation (Peter Lang, 2013). Ben Wellings is a Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University Centre for European Studies. He has also held fellowships at the London School of Economics, the European University Institute and Huddersfield University. He is the author of English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace (Peter Lang, 2012).


Title: Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration
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