Uncovering hidden stories of the First World War

Anna Jarvis, HLF's First World War Centenary and Anniversaries Advisor
Anna Jarvis, HLF's First World War Centenary and Anniversaries Advisor looks at the breadth and width of people's connections to the First World War.

One of the things I’ve been most struck by during the Centenary is how varied people’s connections to the First World War can be. Some people have a family connection, a relative’s story that has been passed down through generations. Others feel connected through their education or through remembrance. For a long time my own understanding of the war was shaped entirely by the experience of reading Birdsong as a teenager while on a long coach journey through the battlefields in France. I felt overwhelmed by how horrific the war had been for those involved, but I’m not sure I felt personally connected.

For me, and for so many others, the feeling of connection comes when we see how the war relates to the world we live in today. When we see how people like us were affected, how it has shaped the last hundred years, and how it still impacts on some of the most contested parts of our lives today – politics, world affairs, national identity, social equality, arts and culture. The list is endless.

At HLF, one of our most important aims for the Centenary is that we encourage a broad range of perspectives and interpretations of the war and its impacts. This has resulted in us funding more than 1,000 projects, all of which look at the war from a slightly different angle. Communities across the UK are looking at a range of stories, from Colman’s Mustard factory workers in Norwich, to blackberry pickers in the Midlands, to Belgian refugees in Scotland.

We want to fund more of these projects, and I hope that the examples below inspire some ideas.

Finding hidden stories

Every project is different and stories reveal themselves in all manner of ways. Throughout the Centenary, I have spoken to a number of project leaders to find out how they came across their stories. Some chose a broad topic – for example, the role of women, a local wartime hospital or the experiences of soldiers injured by the war - and then found the more hidden stories once their project research got underway.  Others focused their projects around a very specific story right from the start.

 Jackie Ould explains how she came to develop a project focusing on a Gurkha knife in Manchester. She said: “I wanted to make sure the stories of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities were told during the Centenary. I went to the County Record Office and local archives to try and find a local link. I couldn’t find any records of soldiers from India, Africa or the West Indies being stationed, hospitalised or buried here in Greater Manchester.  

“Before I gave up I looked at the Manchester Evening News on microfiche, between January to March 1915. There were reports of Indian troops in France, so Mancunians knew they were there. Then a news report jumped out at me: two Manchester shopkeepers were prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act for wrongly labelling a Kukri (knife) to say that Gurkha soldiers used poison on them.

“This formed the basis of our project – we worked with 15 Pakistani women to research that story and the role played by Gurkhas during the war.  Working with poet, Anjum Malik, the group created a dramatic monologue which was performed across the North West.”

Research support is available to groups through the First Word War Engagement Centres based in universities. These are set up to work with communities to research some of the less well-known aspects of the war and I would encourage any group who has a broad topic in mind to get in touch with them. 

Making the Centenary inclusive

During the Centenary, I have been impressed by the creative ways in which projects have involved people who may not previously have felt connected to the war.

In Glasgow, New College Lanarkshire worked with prisoners to create an exhibition about the experience of conscientious objectors imprisoned for their political beliefs. Through drama and creative writing, they explored their own feelings and attitudes towards violence and imprisonment.

Muslim communities in Birmingham are learning about the important contribution made by Muslim soldiers in the British Indian Army. Through their research, they have found that some Indian soldiers relocated to the UK after the war, and that their descendants are still living in Birmingham today.

The key to making a project genuinely inclusive is talking to the community about the project before getting underway. What will motivate them to get involved? They might want to gain skills, do something practical, carry out research, or do something creative, like create a play for a film.

Telling uncomfortable stories

Many of the projects we’ve funded have shown how stories that make some people proud make others feel ashamed or angry. We’re encouraging communities to allow time to look at these stories from different perspectives, to accept that we can’t always reach consensus and to handle challenging topics sensitively.

West Midlands Central Youth Theatre provided a shining example of this when they created a film about the stories of the 306 men executed by the British Army for cowardice. They found that some of the relatives of the executed men found it difficult to talk about the men, and that many people still have strong views about the pardon, which they received in 2006.

We asked Dr. Santanu Das from King’s College London to reflect on the importance of telling uncomfortable stories. He said: “More than four million non-white men served in the colonial armies of Europe. Men from different countries, races and religions came together resulting in an extraordinary range of encounters and intimacies; but some of these are also painful and difficult histories, marked by hierarchies of race and inequalities of rank. Rather than weaving celebratory narratives of the empire coming together or turning these men into loyal colonial heroes, when many actually fought to keep hunger at bay, we should approach these embattled histories sensitively, thoughtfully – and with honesty.”

Looking at these stories isn’t always comfortable, but it’s a fitting way of commemorating the enormous diversity of experiences undergone by those who lost their lives and who lived through the war.

Do you have a project in mind?

At HLF, we provide funding to help communities and organisations explore, conserve and share stories of the First World War and our grants start at £3,000. Funding is available throughout the Centenary. If you have a project idea, visit the First World War feature on our website, and get in touch. We want to hear from you. 

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