The Great War – Black and White or Shades of Grey?

The Great War DigVenturesMy enduring memory of growing up in the Seventies was that everything that happened prior to 1945 happened in Black and White.

It must have. I’d seen the primary evidence in all its monochrome richness – the films, the newsreels, the photos – and they all spoke of a simpler world where right was right and wrong was wrong and colour had yet to be invented.

A forgivable fallacy in a five year-old (the world is a very confusing place!) but for a forty-five year-old you’d perhaps expect a little more sophistication.

With the centenary of World War One approaching, Michael Gove began the year by setting out his store for the forthcoming commemorations. In an opinion piece in the Daily Mail entitled ‘Why does the left insist on belittling true British Heroes?’ the Conservative Education Secretary challenged the ‘lion’s led by donkey’s’ myths so ingrained in popular culture, from Blackadder to Birdsong.

The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best.  But even as we recall that loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths, which have grown up about the conflict. Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”

Rebuttals have come fast and furious, not least from Gove’s opposite number (and former Cambridge History Scholar) Tristram Hunt, emphasising the need to reflect and embrace the multiple histories that the war evinces – from the Royal British Legion to the National Union of Railwaymen to the Indian, Ethiopian and Australian servicemen fighting for the empire.’ Sir Tony Robinson challenged Gove too, defending teachers who might wish to show Blackadder Goes Forth to engage their students, though when it comes to historical revisionism, the last laugh has to go Private Baldrick, the hapless soldier he played in the self same series:

worldwarwednesday[Discussing how the war began]

Private Baldrick: I heard it started when some fella called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ‘cos he was hungry.

Captain Blackadder: I think you mean that it started when the Arch Duke of Austro-Hungary got shot.

Private Baldrick: No, there was definitely an ostrich involved’

The ‘Black and White’ or ‘Shades of Grey’ debate can also be seen in running through archaeology, where the separate sub-disciplines of ‘Battlefield Archaeology’ and ‘Modern Conflict Archaeology’ are busy digging trenches on either side of the line. With a relatively narrow focus, Battlefield Archaeology was particularly in vogue during the 70s and 80s becoming a catchall term adopted by anyone investigating battlefields from the prehistoric to the modern period. As Nick Saunders, one of the UK’s foremost Great War archaeologists, wrote in last months Current World Archaeology, ‘little consideration was given to the context of such battle events, to their connections to individuals and society during conflict or afterwards, or to their often visceral emotional aftermaths’.

Distinguished from Battlefield Archaeology through a concern with the aftermath of war as much as with the conflict itself, Modern Conflict Archaeology is a new approach that engages with the social, cultural and political dimensions to the material record and its confusing and often morally ambiguous physical remains. Study of the First World War has historically been separated into three strands: a) military history from above (the history of military operations); b) military history from below (based on personal letters, diaries, memoirs and oral history research); and c) the history of popular struggles and revolutionary movements. Modern Conflict Archaeologists such as those working with the Great War Archaeology Group explicitly reject this silo approach. By choosing instead to take an anthropological and integrated approach to the material evidence, supported by detailed historical research, Modern Conflict Archaeology seeks to draw the numerous links between these strands together. It reconnects the ‘macro-history’ of politicians and generals with the ‘micro-history’ of human experience at the front and in the workplace, reframing WW1 sites in their social and political context, linking them wherever possible with the lives and experience of known individuals.

The industrial intensity of modern conflict reaches deep into the heart of civilian life, with ideological notions of ethnicity and identity resonating long after the guns fall silent. With careful consideration of these issues at Project Design stage, and sensitivity to the contested representations and memories associated with modern conflict sites, archaeological research in conflict and post-conflict environments can be channelled towards an active memorialisation – challenging simplistic and reductive explanations of warfare by engaging with forgotten, neglected or marginalised voices. WW1 Trench Warfare DigVenturesThis dimension makes modern conflict sites extremely powerful, and popular participation in their investigation – through public archaeology initiatives, training courses and volunteer fieldwork – can bring us closer to the human experience of the Great War participants than any other form of engagement.

In forthcoming posts we’ll be describing Modern Conflict Archaeology (in rich and colourful detail!), and our work planning what we hope will soon become a World War One commemorative community excavation in Doncaster. If you’re interested in getting involved or have any WW1 archaeology questions, drop us a line in the box below or click through to the contact page.

Until the next time…  #WWWednesday

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Brendon Wilkins

Written by Brendon Wilkins

Co-founder and Projects Director at DigVentures, Brendon heads up our field and post-ex team. Aside from field archaeology, his specialisms are cheese, tea and writing animatedly about himself in the third person.

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