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

paris

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. 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect