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World History

We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

Any direct connection with the conflict has gone but we’re not ready to consign it to history, says John Lichfield

The First World War has passed over the horizon of living memory. Will it soon also pass over the horizon of family memory?

According to a study for the genealogical website, Ancestry.co.uk, over one million of the seven million British servicemen who fought in the 1914-18 war have been “forgotten” by their descendants.

As the centenary approaches next Monday of Britain's declaration of war on Germany, is the Great War about to be buried at last?

We will continue, of course, to study it as history. It will, all the same, be filed away in the same hard disk of unpersonal collective memory as the Crimean War or the Napoleonic Wars.

No it will not. Or not yet.

The First World War does not grow old, as other wars grow old. 

Even Ancestry.co.uk's own statistics are revealing - but not in the way that the website suggests. Turning the numbers around, over five and a half million Britons are aware of descendants who fought in the 1914-18 war. If you allow for emigration over the last 100 years, and especially the last 60 years, that is an extraordinarily high number.

Other statistics support this “positive” interpretation of Ancestry.co.uk's figures. The fact is that British interest in family connections with the First World War is rising, not falling.

Martin Middlebrook, the first British historian to chronicle the war from the viewpoint of the common soldier, told me eight years ago: “After the 80th anniversary [of the Somme] in 1996, I would have told you that two things were inevitable. We will see declining numbers of people at future commemorations. Interest in the war will gradually reduce. The opposite has been true.”

And that is still true. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the number of people visiting the 2,400 British World War One cemeteries in France and Belgium has never been higher. 

Peter Francis, spokesman for the commission, told me: “Four or five years ago we estimated the number of visitors each year to the Tyne Cot cemetery at Passchendaele (the largest British World War One cemetery) at 200,000 to 250,000 people a year. This year we have already had 350,000 visitors. That is partly a jump because of the centenary but it is not just that. The numbers have been on a rising gradient year after year.”

On the CWGC's excellent website you can discover the burial place - or the commemoration site - of every British or Commonwealth soldier who was killed in the First and Second world wars. Mr Francis points out that visits to the commission's site are running ten to one in favour of soldiers who died in World War One.

That can be explained in various ways. Far more British soldiers died in the Great War (almost 800,000) than in World War Two. Each passing generation increases the number of people who had an ancestor in the 1914-18 war. All the same, the figures do not suggest that family connections with World War One are in danger of being “forgotten”.

Why such interest in a soon-to-be century old war? In scores of trips to World War One cemeteries in France in the last two decades, I have often put that question to British visitors. The increased number of visits can, I think, be explained in several ways.

First, British people are travelling to France by car more than they used to. The Flanders and Picardy battlefields are not far from the motorways heading south from the Cannel ports and the tunnel.

Secondly, there is a growing interest in genealogy and “roots” in a rootless age, obsessed with “identity”. The internet means that it is now very easy - through sites like www.cwgc.org - to locate the burial place of long-lost great-grandfather of great, great uncle.

Thirdly, interest in World War One, obscured during the 1950s and 1960s by the shadow of World War Two, has been steadily rising since the 1970s. This began with “people's histories” of the war, inspired by Martin Middlebrok's classic The First Day on the Somme. There are now monographs for almost every small battle and every British regiment.

Interest has also been revived by fictional works such as Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and - more recently - Michael Murpurgo's War Horse.

Where Ancestry.co.uk does have a point is its observation that it was the reticence of many World War One veterans which severed the chain of memory in many British families. “Researchers point out that most of those unaware of having WWI ancestors assume that they would have been told about them, when in fact many veterans never spoke to their children about their role in the conflict, wanting to put the trauma they experienced behind them,” the site says.

That is certainly true. As a young provincial newspaper reporter in the 1970s, I found that 1914-18 veterans (celebrating a 90th birthday or diamond wedding) would often refuse to talk about their war experiences. In my own family, I discovered only in the last decade that I had a great uncle - Monty Lichtenstein - who was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917.

All the more surprising, perhaps, that the grand children and great grandchildren of the World War One veterans should be so keen on rediscovering not just the war but family connections with the war.

Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission says that his organisation is having to adjust to both the sheer number of visitors and the relative ignorance of about the war of third or even fourth generation descendants.

“The one thing people say to us over and over is that they need more information when they visit our cemeteries,” he said. “We have this year introduced for the first time panels which can interact with smart phone apps and give people the personal story of, say, three or four soldiers in each cemetery to help to bring the history alive.”

Truly, the First World War does not grow old, as other wars grow old.