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How far was the memory of the First World War constructed?

Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


The memory of the First World War has been continually re-defined throughout the twentieth and the twenty-first century, thus drawing historians’ attention to the essential malleability and social construction of war memory. By uncovering the different motives behind the social construction of memory in the war’s aftermath, historians have also been able to uncover the diverse meanings the war held for different combatant nations and social groups.

Historians such as Jay Winter have placed mourning and mass bereavement at the heart of the transnational memory of the war, focusing on sites of mourning including war memorials that functioned across Europe as places where people grieved ‘both individually and collectively.’ However, what Winter arguably overlooked in his seminal work Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning was the way the notion of mass bereavement was itself a political construction. Historian Sarenac, for example, has stressed how Balkan countries saw the war as the culmination of a century-long ethnic project of national liberation and unification. This was reflected in efforts to centralize commemorative practices, including in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia where King Alexander commissioned the Monument of the Unknown Hero, built between 1934 and 1938 and intended to represent the sacrifice of thousands of soldiers. According to Sarenac, the positioning was significant, built away from central Belgrade, which was seen as a Serbian stronghold and an obstacle to unification. The social construction of the memory of the war as one of mass bereavement and universal mourning is also clear when historians uncover the continuation of understandings of individualized death and grief that prevailed in localized memories of the war. Many Bulgarians, for example, rejected the idea of mass bereavement, and agrarian communities continued to carve individual names of the deceased into the walls of churches, libraries and schools.

Throughout the interwar period memory of the war was also constructed to celebrate nationhood and national bravery, which moves further away from Winter’s analysis. As historian Beaumont has shown, the ANZAC legend, born out of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, gave meaning to over 61,000 Australian war deaths. The ANZAC celebrations were subsequently used in the war’s aftermath to celebrate the birth of the Australian nation and to evoke pride in the British imperial war effort. ANZAC was also used by conservative politicians to validate continued support for the British imperial war effort after 1917. The construction of memory in the Australian context thus directly disputes Winter’s argument that the ‘universal bond of bereavement was far more universal than any notion of victory or defeat.’

In France, historian Nasson has also shown how the Delville Wood war memorials erected in 1926 were intended to be not only a site of mourning but also as a celebration of South African national bravery and nation-hood. The Delville Wood memorial was also a means of celebrating Anglo-African achievement and exclusively symbolised the achievement of a white nation in arms. French war memorials could thus be seen as a means of upholding a regime controlled by white elites in power in the colonies.

Similarly, historian Alcalde has shown how the patriotism of the returning soldier was used in interwar Europe to entrench fascist regimes. The veteran, for example, was evoked as a symbol of the highest form of patriotism to justify the militarisation of society in interwar Germany and Italy, which was a central pillar of fascist ideology. However, as Alcalde has shown, in reality, not all returning combatants were fascists, and many war veterans became pacifists and democrats; showing further evidence of the social construction and manipulation of the memory of the war by political elites. Likewise, official Turkish state efforts to commemorate the conflict in the war’s aftermath never focused on bereavement, but rather ‘on exalting the nation and its cult of fallen soldiers’ according to historian Unwalla. By contrast, the 1915 Armenian Genocide went largely unacknowledged.

However, political, racial and economic elites were not the only groups who capitalised on the evocation of the heroism of the veteran in the construction of war memory. As historian Hasset has shown, the war created a shared political language of citizenship in France and its colonial possession of Algeria. Returning Algerian veterans subsequently capitalised on the celebration of the war effort by the French Republic, using their own wartime sacrifices to demand better pensions and reserved jobs for returning soldiers. Joe Lunn has also shown how the construction of war memory was used in French Senegal during the interwar period to demand voting rights for the Federation. The symbol of the war veteran in Senegalese war memory was also evoked again in the wake of Senegalese independence.

Moreover, historians who have emphasised trans-national memories of the war that pivot around universal mourning overlook the construction of memory in local contexts and the manifold ways this allowed elites in government to manipulate the memory of the war for their own political ends. Historians have thus continued to unearth the construction of the memory of the war in historically specific and national contexts to understand how it helped to entrench political regimes across the twentieth century.

Further reading

1. A.Alcalde, War Veterans and Fascism in interwar Europe

2.D.Hassett, War veterans and the language of politics in interwar Algeria

3.J.M.Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning

4.K.M.Petrone, The Great War and Russian Memory

5. First World War Studies Volume 10.1 (2019) Special issue on colonial veterans

6. B.Nasson, ‘Delville Wood and South African Commemoration’ English Historical Review 2004

7. 1914-1918 online encyclopedia

Danilo Sarenac, Commemoration (South East Europe)

Joan Beaumont. Commemoration (Australia)

Pheroze Unwalla, Mourning and Bereavement (Ottoman Empire/Middle East)


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