Pennell, Catriona & Mark Sheehan: Official World War I memorial rituals could create a generation uncritical of the conflict

Catriona Pennell & Mark Sheehan

Official World War I memorial rituals could create a generation uncritical of the conflict‘, The Conversation, 12 July 2016

A New Zealand-United Kingdom co-written article with some Australian input from Christina Spittel of UNSW Canberra and some Australian examples, including Brendan Nelson’s Anzac Day address from this year, where he suggested the Napier Waller windows offered a one-stop shop for young people looking for values for living.

The authors pick up many of the same themes that Honest History has been pushing for three years, focusing particularly on the UK battlefield visits program for children and mentioning some New Zealand examples also. The common theme is the passing of the torch of remembrance to the younger generation. For example:

Much of the UK government’s commemorative activities involving young people are semi-religious, reverential and ritualistic. This risks closing down the opportunity for students to question the purpose of the war, to explore notions of the war’s futility in the light of the outbreak of the World War II, or to consider which narratives of the war are being commemorated at the expense of others.

There is a well-meant but oleaginous prize-winning song linked to the article. It includes a living, modern teenage hand, grasping a dirty hand on a battlefield. The hand miraculously returns the grasp. With all due respect to the young singer (who has a nice voice) this is simply awful stuff. The lyrics, perhaps fortunately, do not seem to be available online. A Legacy battlefield tour currently underway has this as its official tune.

Amid these official celebrations [the authors conclude], there appears to be little space for different perspectives on war remembrance in the UK, Australia and New Zealand that go beyond pride and reverence of the armed forces, are inclusive of difference and allow young people to think critically about the significance of World War I. But if we are serious about the memories of the conflict surviving in all their diversity, we need to equip and encourage young people to engage critically as well as emotionally with this cataclysmic event, and with what it might say to us in the 21st century.

Honest History’s interest in the subject of children and remembrance has fed into our Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial, which has been downloaded 1310 times since Anzac Day. (We have offered to make a presentation on the Guide to the Memorial Council but our offer was declined.) Searching our website under the headings ‘audacity’, ‘blood sacrifice’, ‘children’, and ‘torch’  throws up a number of other resources.

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