2015 is a year of significant anniversaries. While Magna Carta will soon attract a good deal of 800th year coverage, the anniversaries that stick out this year are mostly connected to conflict: anniversaries of wars and battles. Just three days after the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta (15th June), comes the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (18th June). This week has seen the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War in Europe (with VJ Day coming later in the Summer), while it is hard to avoid the ongoing commemoration of the First World War’s Centenary – the sinking of the Lusitania being this week’s instalment. And, last but not least, later in the Autumn we also will see the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (25th October).
I think it is interesting to see these various anniversaries arrayed in comparison, and to consider the role that they play within the politics and poetics of identity formation today – the space that they take in our imagination and the place that they hold in our heritage sensibility. Some of these considerations are simply a product of differing temporal dimensions – there are many people still alive who can remember the events of 70 years ago – but I also feel that different conflicts tend to be treated in different ways,
The Second World War is “The People’s War”, experienced directly by some people still alive and nearly everyone having a fairly close direct familial experience, but still quintessentially a war that must always be recognised in terms of the ‘collectivity’. Earlier this year, we recognised the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the horror of a people’s misery and victimhood; VE Day is a national anniversary of joy and celebration; while in a few months, it will be the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima Atom Bomb – more collective horror and the heralding of a future (and on-going) global nuclear collective experience. The First World War is all about ‘ordinary (male) soldiers’ – “lions led by donkeys”, as seen through the lens of “Oh What A Lovely War” and “Blackadder”. And this is in striking contrast to the Battle of Waterloo: as terrifying and murderous as it probably was to experience, the coloured uniforms and temporal distance somehow make it seem less emotionally draining than more recent conflicts. The affective capacity is lower, with fewer people involved and, correspondingly, relatively few people today feeling a close family connection. In contrast to many more recent conflicts, the Battle of Waterloo also demands a central focus on the army commanders; on Napoleon and Wellington. I guess we know more about these figures than we do about the ordinary soldiers, but it does tend to give a ‘boys own’ feel to the battle narrative that is in striking contrast with, say, the remembering of the Western Front in the First World War: two great generals pitting their wits against each other in ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’, rather than a war between ‘People’.
How will Agincourt be commemorated this coming October? It will be impossible to view without the lens of Shakespeare and Lawrence Olivier – which will, once again, automatically provide an automatic focus on military command rather than ‘normal’ soldiers. But perhaps there will also be the semblance of it being a battle between nascent ‘nations’, as a sense of Feudal duty is replaced by a ‘national’ call to arms.
Of course, these observations are extremely generalised. They ignore the nuances, and in doing so, they implicitly make clear the value and imperative of critical reflective work that goes against the grain and works hard to uncover hidden and marginalised voices. Crucially, this critical work must involve a contemporary reflection on and scrutiny of the ‘work’ that anniversaries do, at least as much as further scholarly examination of actual events.