Liam Markey, Criminology, Social Policy & Social Work, University of Liverpool, 2018 Cohort
At the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, Herbert Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, contrary to the popular belief that the troops would be home by Christmas, predicted that the coming conflict with Germany and her allies would be a brutal and drawn out affair. To fight this war, Britain, who had long relied on a small but professional army, would need to raise a new volunteer force of around 500,000 men in order to play a significant part in the coming global struggle.
The call for volunteers was put out, and up and down the country the now infamous ‘Pal’s Battalions’ were formed, where men from the same football teams, factories, or other such similar communities, enlisted and served together. Within two months Kitchener’s initial call for 100,000 volunteers had been vastly exceeded, with almost half a million British men having enlisted.
My own great-grandfather was one of these men who rushed to sign up in the initial months of the First World War. Edwin Earl, a 16-year old from Cheshire, lied about his age and served as a Private in the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment. He would go on to participate most notably in the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, being wounded in the former, as well as in the Hundred Days Offensive which ultimately brought the First World War to a close in November 1918. For the duration of the war Edwin kept a diary in which he collected cut outs from a Cheshire newspaper; articles concerned with men from the local area serving in the Cheshire Regiment.
Over the last 12 months or so I have been digitising the small diary, as well as researching the lives of the Cheshire men that feature in its pages and posting the finished pieces on my blog. With the digitisation process now complete I have over 35 diary entries online; 26 of which are either obituaries or profiles of men who served in the First World War, along with a variety of letters, poems and opinion pieces concerning the experiences of the Cheshire Regiment on the Western Front and in the Middle East. I’ve also created an interactive map which visualises the scope of the Cheshire Regiment’s involvement in the First World War, detailing the final resting places of many of those men from the diary that were killed in action, or the locations from which letters were sent home back to Cheshire and beyond.
Despite a relatively small sample size of soldiers from the Regiment there is a vast array of stories to be found in the diary. For example, that of Joseph Brassey, a 15-year-old boy from Thornton-Hough who enlisted in 1914 and was tragically killed on Boxing Day 1915 in Northern France. There is a letter written by an anonymous soldier that describes his experiences of being shelled and targeted by snipers, with only the stock of his rifle standing between himself and a German bullet. Private Harry Delamere, of the 9th Battalion, was not so fortunate, and was killed by a sniper in 1915 whilst repairing a trench parapet. Another letter concerns a Cheshire soldier stationed in the Middle East, who excitedly sent photographs of Jerusalem to his mother back home, including one of his “magnificent view… of the place where the first Christmas was celebrated.”
The boredom, excitement, and tragedy of life on the frontlines of the First World War are demonstrated by the newspaper cuttings collected in the diary, and whilst it does not contain handwritten entries, I believe it’s clear enough to see that the inclusion of these obituaries and letters bore a special emotional value to my great-grandfather. The diary in itself is an expression of his own personal commemoration of friends lost during the war, and a potential effort of reconciliation with his own private experience of conflict.
My own research as a 3rd year PGR student at the University of Liverpool is concerned with militarism and commemoration, and part of the methodological framework I have adopted is concerned with ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ discourse surrounding the war-dead of the First World War. Macro refers to top down discourse mediated through, for example, the mainstream media, whereas micro relates to bottom up discourse, and this diary perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the latter. There is an established framework of commemoration that British society still adheres to, one that is often portrayed as a homogenous and unifying tradition by the mainstream media. Through my initial analysis of micro discourse produced over the past century, it is clear that this dominant narrative can be challenged, and it is my aim to demonstrate that a far more complex and nuanced view of commemoration in Britain since 1918 exists.
The democratising of media production through the development of the internet means that more and more people are able to share their own relative’s experiences of the First World War with a much larger audience. Through the sharing of these personal stories, we will perhaps see a transformation in the way the First World War is commemorated over the coming decades, with the personal and emotional connection to the war returning to the forefront of the national conscience, as it was for those Britons in the wake of the Armistice in 1918.