Germany, Britain and the First World War Event

King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II
King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Last week, the Centre held a discussion event about the relationship between Britain and Germany during and since the First World War. With the help of several invited speakers, we discussed the impact of war on the German community in Britain, the realities of internment and the changing patterns of Germanophobia and Germanophilia in the twentieth century.

British Anti-German poster c1919
British Anti-German poster c1919

Professor Panikos Panayi of De Montfort University presented some fascinating material on the changing attitudes to Germany on the part of the British people, including examples and commentary on phenomena such as the proliferation of anti-German invasion literature such as the Invasion of 1910 by William Le Quex, the use of stereotypes in propaganda as well as broadly positive stereotypes of Germans, such as a tendency to efficiency and skill in engineering.

Penny Walker from the Highfields Association of Residents and Tenants in Leicester, discussed her project How Saxby Street Got Its Name, which tells the story of how German-sounding streets in Leicester, including Hanover Street, Saxe-Coburg Street and Gotha Street were Anglicised during the war and are still known as Andover Street, Saxby Street and Gotham Street.

Louise Page, a playwright from Derbyshire, discussed her extensive interest in the topic, including her plans for projects that examine how the spread of anti-German feeling was experienced by members of the German diaspora in Britain. Her focus in on the personal, such as the sensitivity that people felt about their German names, and on the continuity of such attitudes towards other people today.

Dr Maggie Butt, of Middlesex University, gave a presentation of her work on the internment camp at Alexandra Palace. From 1915 to 1919 it was used as a camp for civilian internees, who were billeted according to class. Her project includes retellings of the first-hand stories of several specific internees, including the Old Harrovian R.H. Sauter and the anarchist intellectual Rudolf Rocker.

Andy Barrett of Excavate Community Theatre was accompanied by Heinke and Joyce from the Lutheran congregation in Aspley. They have access to a community of elders from the German community who have many stories to tell. They would like to record these stories and present them in a performative way.

Dr Claudia Sternberg from the University of Leeds told the story of Sophie Hellweg and Frank West, a British-German couple whose lives embodied some of the pressure that was felt by the people in mixed marriages during and after wartime.

The sleeping quarters in the Great Hall at Alexandra Palace internment camp
The sleeping quarters in the Great Hall at Alexandra Palace internment camp

Following these excellent presentations, we held a discussion about the topics and themes that had been raised. This included the relative strangeness of the British experience, with largely fixed borders, as compared to the more fluid nation-states of continental Europe, including Germany. This has contributed to a particular sense of the meaning of the First and Second World Wars that is not necessarily shared on the continent and which is having an impact on the progress of the Centenary of World War One. There is a great desire on the part of the public to learn more about the relationship between Britain and Germany (and between British and German people) that is shared by professional researchers. It is not necessarily shared by official bodies and some delegates reported difficulties in getting public authorities to support their work.

Nevertheless, we finished the discussions resolved to do more to explore this fascinating area of history. The event provided an excellent opportunity for delegates to share contact details and to make plans for collaboration. We are now planning to develop a pattern of projects that will explore and share these histories and ensure that the Centenary does not pass without addressing them.

If you’re interesting in developing a project about the German-British experience, or have a story to share, please get in touch.



From Bombay to the Western Front

On Tuesday evening, I attended a commemorative event at the Imperial War Museum North. It had been organised to reflect on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which was the first major offensive to involve the British Indian Army.

Among the speakers at the event was Dr Santanu Das, of the English department at Kings College London. Dr Das, who is an expert in the culture and literature of the First World War, made the argument that while the First World War is often defined as the ‘clash of empires’, it could equally be defined as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters in Europe.

Dr Das has been leading an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers and a number of cultural institutions across Europe to illuminate and examine this question during the centennial years of the war’s commemoration.

In this film we see how Dr Das has partnered with Imperial War Museum, London, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, and the Museum of European Culture, Berlin to scour their (and many other) vast archives for letters, photographs, literary texts, sketches, artefacts, newspapers, and audio recordings. We see how all these sources are being brought together to be examined side-by-side, in order to piece together a fuller picture of the experience of the Indian troops and labourers, and the Europeans who they came into contact with.

Find My Past -Free Weekend

Always wanted to investigate your family’s past? This weekend might be your chance to start…logo

One of the most desirable outcomes of the centenary period is that people will take the time to find out more about how the war affected their family, their community and the country as whole. A particularly affecting method for doing this is to trace the records of your ancestors using genealogical tools.

Genealogy was once considered a difficult or even impossible task, requiring intrepid hunters to spend hours in dusty archives on often fruitless searches. Recent years have seen a revolution in the hobby and, with the advent of online resources, it has become easier than ever to trace your personal heritage. If you have never attempted this sort of detective work yourself, this Remembrance weekend may be the perfect chance to start.

Find My Past is one of the country’s most popular genealogy resources that provides access to 1.6 billion searchable records. A paid membership is usually required to access this material but this weekend you can do so for free.

From midday, Friday to midday on Monday, Find My Past are giving everyone the opportunity to explore record sets that include:

  • Millions of birth, marriage and death records

    Many First World War images and documents can be found online
  • Millions of census records from all over the world
  • International travel and migration records
  • Military records, including WW1 collections

By accessing the Findmypast record sets, you’ll be able to unlock brand new information about your ancestors, allowing you to bring your past to life.

Find out more and register by visiting the Find My Past website.

History and Memory

Harry Patch, the 'Last Fighting Tommy' 1898-2009
Harry Patch, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ 1898-2009

There are, according to some estimates, 11,000 people in Britain today who were already alive when war was declared in August 1914. They were, of course, very young back then. The eldest, Ethel Lancaster, was just fourteen at the time, meaning that, had she been male, it’s very likely that she would have been in uniform by the time that the Armistice was declared. As it was, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’, Harry Patch, died in July 2009. We enter this centenary period highly conscious that it will probably be the last major anniversary at which any first hand memory of the Great War is available.

This is important and not merely because it gives historians tiny opportunities to glean information from living, breathing people, but also because it places the First World War within the range of accessible cultural memory. There are many more people who, while they were not themselves born before 1918, were the children, nephews and nieces of people who were. They grew up as cognisant of the war as many of us are of, say, the 1960s and 70s. Their recall of the war is obviously second hand, but their experience of its aftermath and of the impact that it continued to have on the lives of those involved is utterly direct. Material items such as medals, uniforms, flags, even weapons, have been handed down to children and grandchildren, but so too have memories and the impact of experience.

Ethel Lancaster, the Last Victorian in Britain
Ethel Lancaster, a teenager during the First World War, is the Last Victorian in Britain
John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States 1790-1862
John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States 1790-1862

These connections can survive a surprisingly long time. As recently as 2012, it was reported that the US government was still paying Civil War pensions to two (elderly) children of veterans, 147 years after the war ended. John Tyler (b. 1790), the tenth President of the United States, still had two surviving grandsons as of 2013. These facts can feel a little odd, as can the realisation that, having been born in May 1900, Ethel Lancaster is not only Britain’s oldest woman, but the last surviving Victorian. If they do, it may be because we’re accustomed to regarding most periods as belonging purely to history and disconnected from our present age. This disconnection can make it difficult to empathise with those concerned or make it tempting to regard much of the details of these eras as irrelevant to ordinary life in the twenty-first century.

The Great War is undoubtedly an historical event. It has been studied again and again and will deservedly continue to do so centuries from now. Questions can be asked of its origins, its progress and its impact. The images that we have of it, often unclear, usually in monochrome, give it a distancing quality that seem to confirm it as the event of another age. And yet, it is not history like the death of Julius Ceasar or the signing of Magna Carta or the Protestant Reformation is history, it is also, for now still memory and that gives it a resonant power that may strike a chord with people as they reflect on its centenary.