"Worthy of th'heroic dead": Gratitude, Memory, and Local Action in a Grieving Britain
AuthorPrehn, Daniel K.M.
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Remembrance both haunts and supports a community. A form of preservation, the process of remembrance requires both collaboration and clear objectives: more specifically, what emotions should future generations inherit? In a postwar society, gruesome experience and painful bereavement converged in commemorative actions. As Pericles observed, “grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known,as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed.” In the years immediately following the First World War, the British people actively searched for ways they could collectively mark the transition from life that had “been long accustomed” to a new life framed by loss. Britain entered into a period of transition; a kind of culture of commemoration emerged following the Armistice. On all levels grief was personal. How a community, whether a rural hamlet or an urban enclave, should commemorate the tragedy required a combination of civic responsibility and personal mourning. The nation was searching for a way to translate their grief to bereavement and their bereavement to commemoration. Yet if one visits the small village of South Elmham, St. Michael ( Suffolk), a conspicuous abnormality may be shortly realized. Unlike most localities in Great Britain, with the exception of the fifty others that share the same good fortune as South Elmham, St. Michael, there is no public war memorial. No Cross or obelisk connects the residents to the bereavement born out of the Great War. What was “long accustomed” was not lost in communities like South Elmham, St. Michael, but simply translated. As a“thankful village,” a community where all enlisted men returned home from the War, the absence of immediate grief and the presence of thanksgiving manifested itself with a simple roll of honor in the parish church.4 At once an aberration and a normality, this thankful commemorative gesture constitutes yet another level of commemoration missing from the narratives about the War’s memorialization. How did those fifty one communities that did not immediately mourn compare in their memorialization to those communities that did mourn? How does an understanding of thankful village memorialization contribute to or challenge the historiography surrounding Great War commemoration? The way in which the nation’s communities processed modern warfare, articulated its significance, and determined its commemoration was affected by the sheer breadth of mourning. A process involving “individual acts” that are “socially determined,” the commemorative process began with local communities looking for a method by which the tragedy would be appropriately memorialized in response to the needs of the locality. Historians have tended to study either the process of mourning and commemoration on a national scale or on a localized scale. How commemoration was produced by specific bereavement and how the memorials contributed to nationalistic goals have been crucial components of the historiography. Studies of Armistice Day, the War Graves Commission, and the development of the Cenotaph have each contributed to or been complicated by Britain’s road toward healing. It is logical, then, that this project proceed within the context of the larger historiographical debates surrounding not only commemoration, but the postwar social analysis required to comprehend the seemingly inexorable grief. Ultimately this study is about memorialization rather than the effects of historical memory. It will contribute to the historiography in a new way by addressing the thankful villages. Scholars have approached British memorials to the War’s fallen as expressions of heroic and patriotic language; however, others have emphasized the centrality of local action to the development of the early memorials. The thankful villages’ commemorative forms, developing without immediate grief, mediate this debate: they demonstrated how a community could maintain highly localized commemorative forms, while also illuminating the significant need to participate in a national process of grief.