Why and how did the first world war become iconic? The answers are many and complex and have been explored by cultural, social, art and military historians for more than 80 years. Yet, despite a wealth of Great War material culture - above and beneath the battlefields, in town centres, museums and countless homes - what has been missing is a truly anthropological assessment of the multidimensional ways in which the materialities of mass industrialisation mediated the conflict and its aftermath.
We are at a turning point in the study of the Great War. The events of 1914-18 are slipping beyond the realm of personal memory, and it will not be long before most things substantive and new will be beyond the capacity of history alone to capture. Soon, an interdisciplinary anthropological approach, and a currently nascent archaeology of 20th-century conflict, will become significant driving forces in Great War studies.
Guided by the vast amount of information and insight provided by the various histories of the war, anthropology and archaeology, through their focus on material culture, will offer unique possibilities for discovering new evidence based on the social lives of objects. This will bring different kinds of rigour to bear on the issue of the Great War's iconicity. It is no coincidence in my view that the most engaging contributions in these three books are those that, though avowedly historical, focus on issues commonly investigated by anthropologists and archaeologists. This is because nothing connects or endures like the physical. The best work here epitomises the ability of historians at the top of their game to transcend the discipline within which they work.
In World War 1 and the Cultures of Modernity , there is a mix of traditional literary and more materiality-based approaches. How material culture can embody emotions and anxieties, and evoke social context, is demonstrated by James Daughton's analysis of French trench cartoons. Far from being simply humorous doodlings, they give form and substance to soldiers' beliefs, desires and daily concerns.
As portable objects, these cartoons took the war into the home, and the home into trenches. Images of German soldiers being dismembered by a shell spoke of the French fear of enemy weapons technology, yet at the same time offered hope that eventually the foe would be vanquished. Such cartoons invoked a dangerously ambiguous and anxiety-ridden world that seemed a distant memory until the events of September 11 in New York and Washington.
Equally insightful, and not without modern parallels, is Modris Eksteins's account of those who flocked to see the scenes of carnage. This chapter encompasses a world of significant issues, from the provocative yet ambivalent materiality of the Michelin and Pickfords battlefield guides to notions of spiritual intent, respect for the dead, problematical divisions between pilgrims and tourists, and commercial profits accruing to local entrepreneurs and tour companies. Visitors' feelings of disconnectedness and loss were focused by the commemorative materialities of the battlefields, cemeteries and monuments to the missing. Early postwar tour organisers warned that the signs of war were already disappearing and that tourists should book immediately to avoid disappointment. One French tour operator said: "We have an immense fortune in our ruins, provided we don't rebuild too quickly..."
Here, we see the power of physical objects created by war - cratered landscapes, ruined villages and memorials - to produce new worlds, sensibilities and profits. As time went on these civilian re-interpretations distanced old soldiers from their experiences. Some felt they were losing their war, while others despised the commercial souvenirs fashioned from debris that they found on sale in towns such as Ypres and Reims. Ambiguity and irony were in close attendance. These souvenirs were often the only physical reminders of loved ones for bereaved widows.
This capacity of material culture to embody human emotions and to revitalise meanings and individual and collective identities is masterfully illustrated by Daniel J. Sherman in The Construction of Memory in Interwar France . This volume is impressive in size, vision and erudition.
Sherman is an historian, yet this work has a strong anthropological flavour. It offers a painstaking and stimulating account not only of how the French remembered and commemorated their Great War dead, but how these forms of remembrance actively shaped postwar French society and political life.
The author marshals an impressive array of sources, drawing on contemporary novels, posters, memoirs, tourist literature, archival materials and memorials. Again ironically, in the light of recent events, postwar commemoration grew out of a long and agonised search for the dead. What is not mentioned is that such endeavours have not ended. Today, as an archaeology of the first world war slowly takes shape, ever greater quantities of bodies are coming to light.
How to remember, individ-ually and collectively, and where to inter the remains were hotly debated issues after 1918. Arguments turned the dead into contested objects in the same way as battlefields and memorial monuments were contested by those who sought either to preserve or reconstruct. These issues graphically illustrate that the construction of memory is a social and political process.
Sherman identifies three distinct but interconnected kinds of experiences that constructed French memories of the Great War - war narratives, tourism and visual imagery. Here the objectified feelings and memories appearing as writing could be reinforced or changed by visiting the battlefields. In a complex interplay of emotions, physical realities and the surreal, veterans often guided tourists who then constructed memories from their experience. Battlefield tours took place even while war raged, with the Michelin guides being launched in 1917.
Many issues raised here are presented as history but possess great potential for anthropology and modern archaeology. These include the varied practices of battlefield clearance and associated fatalities. Also resonating with modern sensibilities were the bitter arguments concerning burial or reburial, where politicians prevaricated and the wealthy hired private contractors to illegally exhume the supposedly right body for burial at home. Intrigues could be blatant and distasteful - one of the leading advocates of burial at the front being the periodical La Voie Sacrée , a hardly disinterested organ of the French Tourist Board.
The great ossuaries of Douamont and Lorette were a unique response to industrialised war, and a multi-vocal kind of postwar commemorative materiality. Their symbolism is poignantly invoked by the author, who notes how they offered the bereaved the illusion that here were the bodies of their missing loved ones. Equally ambiguous were the many monuments throughout France whose surfaces were inscribed with names that stood for real bodies that lay in pieces on the battlefields - names without bodies, bodies without names.
Where Sherman deals with one issue and its myriad aspects, The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration adopts a broader approach. The volume's strength is its international remit, and the creative ways in which contributors work through case studies from contemporary Argentina, the Anglo-Boer war and Portuguese colonial conflicts to ideas of social exclusion and nation-building in Australia after the first world war.
While the book's cover shows a contentious piece of materiality - a model for a statue commemorating soldiers shot for cowardice during the Great War - not one of the authors is an anthropologist or archaeologist.
This is a missed opportunity, considering the contributions of these disciplines to the study of nationhood, inventing imagined pasts and the construction of memory through objects. In the overly comprehensive introduction, the editors raise and discuss many excellent points, but it is a dense and difficult read, more an obstacle than an enticement to what follows.
The book and its editors come into their own with the choice of authors and case studies. Here we sense the immediacy of real issues and keen scholarship. Two chapters on Australia after the first and second world wars are notable for their sensitive and penetrating analysis. Stephen Garton explores the nostalgia of returned Australian soldiers after 1918 and their active promotion of the divine and transcendent significance of war. Australian soldiers were avid diary keepers, though most start and finish with their war service. In hundreds of half-filled diaries are the objectified lives of otherwise anonymous men who often never wrote a diary again.
These frozen personal lives contributed to wider national narratives as the experiences they recorded articulated elements of national culture. By shedding their blood, Australian soldiers had earned the right to claim their own nationhood. Significantly, Australians recorded the names of survivors and deceased on their war monuments as all were considered as having founded the modern Australian state. Gallipoli Day remains the major event of national celebration for Australians. The landscape of military disaster at the Dardanelles became a crucible from which, by the alchemy of industrialised war, the autonomous nation-landscape of Australia emerged.
Yet, through this act of invention, Australia's indigenous peoples were simultaneously and symbolically dispossessed. As Ann Curthoys's companion chapter shows, in the 1960s Aboriginal ex-servicemen were refused entry to branches of the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL) club. "Good enough for Tobruk - why not... RSL?" and "Bullets Did Not Discriminate" were just two placard slogans. Second-world-war battles and sacrifices were added to the potent image of Gallipoli, highlighting the deeply racist nature of official attitudes to Aboriginal peoples as inferior and a threat to the white nation whose blood sacrifices could not be diluted.
There are many insightful contributions in these books, yet it is those parts that engage directly with the physicalities of lives lived in momentous times that appear most potent in our cultural imaginations.
Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture and British Academy senior research fellow in anthropology, University College London.
The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration: T. G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson and Michael Roper
ISBN - 0 415 24261 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £60.00
Pages - 282