A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016), Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley, Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley
‘I grew up with that border and I wouldn’t want it back again…’ intones the septuagenarian taxi driver taking me from Shannon Airport to Limerick. He is speaking of the boundary separating British-governed Ulster in the north from the Republic of Ireland, which since 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, abolished border controls, symbolically softening an 800 year-long conflict. Now, in the aftermath of June’s referendum, the border’s return seems inevitable: a clear indicator of the disruption to the Irish peace process resulting from Brexit.
I am visiting EVA Interantional, Ireland’s biennale of contemporary art, coinciding this year with the centenary of 1916 Easter Rising, a calamitous event, which definitively swung popular opinion against the British Administration leading to the War of Independence and the constitutional division of the country.
Over the weekend of 18-20 March an international conference took place in Leeds, focusing on resistance to the First World War. The conference, which I helped to organise, brought together academics, community groups, poets and storytellers from across the globe, including delegates who had travelled from Australia and the USA. The conference was envisaged following the suggestion that the prominent narratives during the First World War Centenary were limited to stories of those who had actively participated in the war effort. Stories of resistance to the war were missing from dominant narratives of remembrance and the conference sought to question what war resistance was, how acts of resistance were undertaken, and the significance of war resistance today. The presence of both academic and community focused research on resistance worked particularly well in addressing the many different facets of resistance; including the theoretical underpinnings of pacifism, international and transnational movements for peace, individual acts of conscious and unconscious resistance as well as national and local networks of resistance.
Since 2009 IWM has been running a project to collect the experiences of British military personnel serving in contemporary conflicts. Until last year, the dominant experience was the war in Afghanistan. But as this conflict began to draw down, British forces were deployed to help with other pressing concerns.
The latest IWM display, the fourth in the Contemporary Conflicts Programme, focuses on two different, concurrent deployments. Operation Gritrock was the British military’s contribution to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Operation Shader is the British element of the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), the Islamic extremist group, in the Middle East.
As with the previous displays, Fighting Extremes utilises material gathered directly from personnel who have served on these operations. The IWM team has conducted interviews and gathered film footage, photographs and other artefacts at locations ranging from Cyprus to Belfast. A selection of this material forms the basis of the new display.
On the evening of November 20 1983, 100 million Americans settled down to watch Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV film The Day After. The film’s focus was a familiarly normal community in rural Eastern Kansas in the lead up to, and aftermath of, nuclear war. It is shocking and arrestingly bleak viewing; moreover it was, and remained for years afterwards, the most highly rated TV film in US broadcast history. Its importance however, lies less in its status as a landmark media event than in what it demonstrates about the cultural imagination in the 1980s. The deterioration in relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact raised for a new generation the meaningful prospect of nuclear apocalypse. The Day After is only one example of a notable manifestation of a contemporaneous burgeoning – and now largely forgotten – paranoia in the popular culture of the time. It’s my conviction – and the focus for my PhD research – that such fictional responses don’t just reflect the paranoia that was a product of the period, but that that they ultimately made a necessary and significant contribution to the eventual outcome.
In a frame from the film THE TRUE GLORY, a British Army Film and Photographic Unit cameraman and photographer, Sgt Mike Lewis, is caught on camera as he films the burial of the dead following the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. (c) IWM FLM 1232
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, staff at IWM engaged with popular forms of history in order to publicise its collections, exhibitions and research facilities. In particular, the use of film in understanding history was increasingly significant in attracting public audiences, and as a subject for debate in universities.
On a sunny Autumn afternoon, I moved through the crowds pouring into IWM London to attend a screening of this year’s Film Festival. Launched in 2001 as a student competition by Toby Haggith, the Founding Director, the film festival is back from a three year absence to mark the reopening of the Museum.
It has expanded since its early days to include amateur and professional filmmakers and from the large number of submissions thirty-five films made the cut. Inspired by IWM’s collections, and with a chance to experiment with its unique film archive, the films cover diverse topics including the Domez Camp for Syrian refugees, letters between two lovers during the Second World War and the imagining of First World War letters on Twitter.
Poster for Indigènes (dir Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) released in the UK as Days of Glory by Metrodome
The website Caribbean aircrew in the RAF during WW2 draws attention to the 1953 feature film Appointment in London, a story about Bomber Command starring Dirk Bogarde, and in particular to a scene showing Bogarde mixing with his peers: among the officers is one of Caribbean origin. There is no plot point hanging on this fact – it is simply a tacit recognition of the contribution made in the RAF, as in so many other ways, to the Allied effort in both world wars by people of the Empire. What is sadly remarkable about it, however, is how rare it is to see black troops represented in this way.
One area that the Whose Remembrance? Project set out to explore was the extent to which the wartime role of the peoples of Britain’s colonies has been reflected in the popular media. My contribution was to produce a database of relevant films, tv and radio.
A good start for my search was the Colonial Films Database the result of an earlier AHRC-funded project in which IWM was a partner. As well as providing essays about contemporary films like With the Indian Troops at the Front (1916) and West Africa Was There (1945), this huge database also offers several dozen titles online. Trawls of various websites made it possible to add a number of retrospective documentaries, such as the 2009 Soldiers of Empire episode from Channel 4’s Not Forgotten Series, or Scottish Television’s 2004 programme Treefellers about the work in Scotland during the Second World War of lumberjacks from British Honduras. Drama series which came immediately to mind included Granada’s 1984 adaptation of Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’ as The Jewel in the Crown, and BBC2’s 1992 Black Poppies.
The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917)is a little known masterpiece of British non-fiction cinema that documents the winter stages of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. The sequel to the famous Battle of the Somme (1916), which covers the opening phase of the campaign, ‘Ancre’ should not be dismissed as Somme II. Although similar to the ‘Somme’, Battle of the Ancre is cinematically the better film and contains haunting images of trench warfare, notably of the mud that beset the trenches in the winter, the waves of troops advancing into no-man’s land, the use of horses and the first views of the tank – the secret weapon which it was hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.
IWM has an unparalleled collection of material, covering all aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century conflict. This blog is run by the Department of Research and reports on research undertaken at IWM into our holdings.
Find out more about research at IWM