Fresh perspectives on the war
There cannot be many people today whose ancestors were not touched by World War One in some way. Despite the passage of 100 years, it’s a war many of us are familiar with. There are memorials in every village, town and city, acts of remembrance are followed every November to mark its conclusion, and its necessity or futility is still keenly debated.
While images of British Tommies fighting in the mud and trenches of the Western Front remain vivid, and hugely powerful, the First World War was fought on many other fronts which we may not know so well. It was fought across the continents, at sea and in the air. It was fought by servicemen from Asia, North America, the Caribbean, Australasia and Africa. It was also a war that gave rise to technological innovation and scientific discovery.
The centenary gives us an opportunity to explore and discover the unfamiliar stories about a war we think we know.
What we know of the war today
A report published by the British Council in February 2014 shows the knowledge and understanding we have of World War One and its impact today.
A war we know
Of the just over 1,000 people surveyed in the UK, more than half know that it was in Sarajevo that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated – the initial spark that led to the outbreak of war. Almost 70% know that at Christmas 1914 a spontaneous truce between British and German soldiers took place in the no man’s land between their trenches.
A war we don't know
But the report highlighted how knowledge of the conflict is largely limited to the fighting on the Western Front in Europe. Less than half of the Britons asked are aware that North America and the Middle East played a part in the war, and less than a quarter know that Africa and Asia were involved. Yet more than 40% of the world’s population in 1914 lived in countries taking part in the war, and with one in five men serving, New Zealand had a higher proportion of men at arms than Britain, France or Germany.
A war with a lasting impact
Almost three quarters of all the people surveyed, in Egypt, India and Turkey, as well as France, Germany, Britain and Russia, believe their country remains affected by the First World War. For 31%, it triggered more conflict; over a quarter see the war as contributing to their country’s identity, while 28% think the war and its outcomes have had a lasting effect on their country’s international relations, and the way it is viewed by people in other countries.
Images of a familiar war
Arresting photography of quagmire and suffering on the Western Front; challenging verse written by frontline witnesses; annual remembrance of a generation’s sacrifice; the First World War comes back to us through what we read, see and hear.
Michael Portillo reflects on familiar images of World War One. (Images courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library, Getty Images, TopFoto, and Harper Collins).
For the generations that didn’t experience the war, perceptions of it have been shaped by a vast range of images. These include around 44,000 official photographs; poetry such as Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, with its famous line “If I should die, think only this of me…”, and Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est, a satire on the idea that “It is sweet and fitting …to die for one’s country”. Artistic interpretations of later years, such as Oh What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, Blackadder Goes Forth and War Horse have also re-imagined the war.
Stories of an unfamiliar war
The iconic and familiar images we’re all used to may have shaped our view of the war, but they don’t tell the full story.
A war fought across the world
As well as on the battlefields of the Western Front in France and Belgium, the First World War was fought across Europe, Asia, Africa and beyond. For example, in the opening months of the war Britain fought alongside Japan to capture a German colony at Tsing Tao in China, while 68 years before the conflict many people would associate with the Falkland Islands Britain and Germany fought a naval battle outside Port Stanley.
A war fought at home
Away from the frontline, air raids brought the horror of war to London, Hull and other places in between. Hardship, from the loss of loved ones to rising food prices made times tough, but there was also light among the dark. The sight of women working in munitions factories is more familiar, but the story of the Blyth Spartans women’s football team winning the Munitionettes Cup in front of a crowd of 22,000 in 1918 paints a more varied picture of wartime experience on the homefront.
New perspectives on World War One
Explore unfamiliar, surprising and revealing stories of the First World War