Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/June 2012/Op-ed

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Remembering conflict

By Hchc2009

My interest in First World War memorials came about through two events. The first was coming across the Royal Artillery Memorial in London; I think I was in a coach at the time, and only got a brief glimpse, but I was hooked by the brutal but human tone of the monument. I came back a year or so later, on foot, and was just stunned by it. I'm not a natural fan of sculpture, but something about that work really spoke to me.

The second was a radio history programme, discussing the concerns of government in the 1920s that any war memorials that were constructed would be vandalised by delinquent youths. Now, I'd been brought up to think that this was a modern problem, and was a bit taken aback - what was really happening after the war that this should have been a worry? Something told me that the popular history of the post-war years that had been previously presented to me wasn't quite accurate. I remained interested in the issues for years afterwards.

Fast forward a few years, and I began to think about writing something on the topic on Wikipedia. Like most of us, my motivation for choosing particular topics for article is a bit vague and imprecise. It turned out that there wasn't actually an article on this topic. In once sense bad news; more positively, it meant that there was blank canvas on which to work. What I also quickly discovered was that while there plenty of books and articles on aspects of World War I memorials, there were actually very few, if any, that described the subject in the round. Most simply took one national, sometimes quite narrow, perspective on a very broad field. This induced quite a lot of structural work, as I tried to work out how best to present the ever growing volumes of material.

Like most international articles, the linguistic problems began to strike; the French material I could just about cope with but I was having to cover the German in English translation - never ideal; the Romanian scholars had helpfully written extensively in English, but I'm convinced there's some Italian and Turkish material out there, for example, that the article entirely misses. One of the best aspects of the wiki is that one day someone with different skills will fill in the gaps!

How we remember wars and conflicts is an interesting topic in and of itself, of course. When my eldest daughter was about seven or eight, she started asking me what the local war memorials were about. Who built them, whose were the names on them? They normally form part of the background texture of urban life, grey objects sitting on the corner of junctions or high-streets, and suddenly having to answer questions about them felt odd. It's complicated further, as the conflicts and wars that I've been involved in typically don't have many memorials; they've all been in the 1990s and 2000s. I remember them through colleagues, photographs, physical memorabilia - but not monuments or ceremonies. I'm used to private remembrance, not civic commemoration.

The First and Second World War memorials I know, though, aren't those that were experienced by my grandparents or even parents; most European memorials have deteriorated as stonework has eroded and wrought iron rusted, so that in some cases they barely resemble the originals. Cities and urban landscapes change too: what was once a quiet, leafy junction suitable for solemn reflection is now frequently a busy commuter road. A useful memorial building becomes a deserted shell. Times and objects change: we don't see memorials today as they once looked to our relatives.

As a project, how do we approach the remembrance of wars? Wikipedia, or course, is not a memorial site, but inevitably the process of writing Wikipedia is an act of research and recall, and the product part of our collective memory. The one thing that the creators of the World War I war memorials seem to have agreed upon was that their memorials were about remembering - whether that meant remembering victory, defeat, death, survival, politics, or just a fallen father, brother or son. What we choose to remember through articles is often equally personal and often just as contentious as in the 1920s. What causes one editor to choose a medieval battlefield, and another a modern war? The passions that surround the choice of article name, the icon of a flag, or the language to describe a conflict can be as real as the arguments after the Great War.

In practice, a good article on a war memorial will be a blend of artistic history, social context, military events, bound up with the human touch - real people died, suffered and built them. As we approach the centenary of the First World War (in particular), there will be many opportunities for Wikipedia to assist in the interpretation of those events. Alongside the battlefield sites, the personal life stories, war memorials are one of the big ways for many people to engage with the military history of our nations. Consider adding to that remembrance today by improving an article, or writing a new one!