The WEA in Yorkshire and Humber is marking the centenary of the First World War with a series of events under the ‘Voices of Conflict’ banner.
The programme aims to provide opportunities for tutors and students to explore the lives and experiences of those people whose lives were affected by the war.
This isn’t just about history. It’s about raising the voices of those who tend to be least heard whilst also asking what we might learn from their sacrifices. More than anything, it’s about understanding the complexity of the First World War and the enormous impact that it had on society.
These themes were at the heart of an event held last weekend in Harrogate to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the WEA. The event acted as a curtain-raiser for courses that this volunteer-led Branch has planned for the coming year and was attended by prospective students, currents tutors, Harrogate’s MP and the WEA’s very own Director for Education.
My role was to give a taster of our approach in a talk based on the First World War.
This might sound like a simple task. After all, we all know the story of the First World War, it’s been a mainstay of our popular history since the 1950s. But the task raised numerous questions that go to the heart of the ‘Voices of Conflict’ programme. Not least the question of why a prospective student would want to find out more about an event that will no doubt dominate the media in 2014.
It was with this is mind that I decided to use the opportunity as a chance to ask that very question. Handing out scraps of paper to the 40 or so people in the room, I asked everyone to write a single sentence on why they thought the First World War was important.
The answers are illuminating. Fourteen people mentioned the scale of the loss. Fourteen people mentioned the extent of change after 1918. Three used the phrase ‘Never Again’. Three pointed to women’s suffrage. One person said that the war proved a ‘law of unintended consequences’. And the remainder were lost amongst a sea of flyers!
As a historian, these answers are most interesting as the echo the way that the war was viewed by contemporaries. This was the ‘Great War’, a ‘war to end all wars’, a war that was remembered by the phrase ‘lest we forget’. It was also a war to which many different groups claimed a stake. A point of rupture, it was a war’s whose legacy was partly constructed by those who sought to understand its scale by explaining it as a fight for something concrete.
We should not forget this as we consider how we might integrate the conflict into our provision. And nor should we forget that the First World War is an event about which we might feel we ‘know’ without really being able to ‘understand’. The coming centenary provides us with a unique opportunity to move in that direction by showing just how important the War – and its legacy – remain.
Henry Irving’s ‘Relics of the “Great War”‘ course starts at Harrogate’s Community House on Friday 20 September at 2pm.