This Remembrance Day weekend Remember Me Co-Investigator, Dr Nick Evans explores the varied texture of memory and the diversity of the forgotten.
On Sunday at 11am Britons at home and in certain parts of the Commonwealth stand to pay homage to the millions of men, women and increasingly animals, who died during the First World War. What was, at the time, called the Great War marked a watershed in the scale and impact of total warfare. In a century marked by recurring bloody conflicts it is increasingly difficult to recall the pain and suffering inflicted on combatants and their families by the prolonged war over a century ago. Yet the way we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War is something that continues to change and evolve as time passes.
This week, ahead of the national day of remembrance on Sunday, Torn, an exhibition by our colleague Dr Lee Karen Stow, opened at the Humber Street Gallery in Hull City Centre. In a powerful montage of textiles and multimedia it compels visitors to remember the women who have suffered in wars, and whose voice is so often forgotten. Inspired by the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, it make us aware of the changing texture of remembrance in the UK and further afield.
Beyond Lee’s exhibition, the landscape of Hull was changed forever by the totality of the ‘war to end all wars’. It was not just damage inflicted by Zeppelin raids that changed the city; grieving communities also erected during and in the immediate aftermath of the war several hundred street shrines. These served to mark the loss felt in each street, terrace or grove where working class combatants had once lived. They sought to help the grieving friends and families to both remember the individuals who perished and remind people how certain spaces suffered collectively. The void in their lives were somehow filled, not by a gravestone in the nearest cemetery, nor on expensive tablets in the nearest church, chapel or synagogue, but instead by erecting secular shrines to local heroes on most streets across Hull, as in other cities across the UK.
Hull’s mass of markers, including a new cenotaph (unveiled in 1924), the ‘Golden Book’ – a memorial book held at the Holy Trinity Church (completed in 1925), aforementioned street shrines, and organisational memorial boards remembered those who would not return. The form of remembrance varied and their location outside reflected the increasingly secular world in which most people lived. Yet, though so many markers have long since disappeared, or are re-displayed in new spaces (see image of the memorial displays in the Royal Mail Delivery Centre, St. Peters Way, Hull), the poppy, as a symbol of remembrance shows no sign of losing its potency.
Yet as we remember the many, it is also important to remember the individual. One Tyke, as Yorkshire folk describe themselves, who is now forgotten was Huddersfield born Sergeant Norman Hiley, of the 7th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment. He sent a postcard displaying the poppy as his own way of remember family during the first year of the war. Yet rather than the poppy symbol emanating from France, this later infamous symbol of national mourning, adorned a postcard he sent to his parents during his training with the East Yorkshire regiment at Hornsea and Bridlington in May 1915.
The text written on the reverse of the card was similar to the millions of postcards and messages of concern criss-crossing Europe before, during and after the war. “Hull, 6 April 1915. Dear Parents, Spent the night here. Having a look around then making for Hornsea & Bridlington. Having beautiful weather. Shall return to-morrow. Kindest regards, Norman.” The fortuitous inclusion of the poppy on the front of the card no doubt had personal meaning for the family, as living in rural communities the poppy was a constant feature of the autumn landscape in Yorkshire. Yet, as with other personal correspondence during the war, its meaning changed as the horror and futility of the conflict dragged on.
Norman’s postcard quickly became a form of remembrance to his parents left behind when, just 15 months later, he was killed at the first day of the Somme. Like so many Yorkshiremen, the battle destroyed not only their lives but also that of their families. We do not know whether Norman’s sacrifice was marked in his nearby street, parish or town – in his native Huddersfield, Shipley where his parents lived, or Hull where so many members of the East Yorkshire regiment are memorialised. He was listed, as so many combatants killed at the time, on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing in France. The card meanwhile was preserved. Where we do not know, but its survival demonstrates that ultimately it served as a private reminder of a lost son and brother. Yet like so many reminders, its forgotten importance explains why it became a discarded piece of ephemera stored away in a cupboard before being sold.
However, as we all wear in the UK what has become the most popular form of remembrance this Remembrance Day, perhaps we should also spare a moment for the now forgotten who died in the World War as well as the millions who have died in conflicts since. It is also worth remembering that in some parts of the UK, the fields of the fallen include the graves of foreign combatants, surveyed as part of the Remember Me Project’s Diaspora stream, who are no longer remembered here or overseas. They include those who fought for the ‘other side’ and the poppies of Flanders fields do not symbolically remember them. Yet in 2016, the graves of German sailors, at the Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery in the Orkneys off Northern Scotland, were marked by Orcadians. Crosses bearing the symbol of remembrance in Germany – the forget-me-not flower – were used instead of poppies to mark each grave. Further, 8,645 forget-me-nots and poppies were also symbolically scattered at sea. For, like the people who died in the First World War, the texture of memory, like the people being remembered, is always more varied than we recall. This remembrance day let us remember not just why we wear a symbol of remembrance, but also to reflect the diversity of the forgotten to ensure all their memories live on.
The exhibition, Torn by Dr Lee Karen Stow, is at the Humber Street Gallery until 31 December 2017. Lee is part of the team, with Dr Nick Evans, Professor Angela McCarthy and Professor Suzanne Schwarz exploring the changing face of memorialisation within the British Diaspora, 1627-1960.
Dr Nicholas Evans is Lecturer in Diaspora History at the University of Hull. He is presently Co-Investigator of the AHRC funded project ‘Remember Me? The Changing Face of Memorialisation in Britain’, leading the study “Identity, meaning and memorialisation in the British Diaspora”. He can be contacted via email@example.com.