Thu 20 Feb 20
Death is central to our memory of the First World War but is almost entirely absent from how we remember the Second World War, despite many thousands of civilian deaths in towns and cities across Britain as well as lives lost on the battlefield.
A new book by historian Professor Lucy Noakes, which explores the experiences of death, grief and bereavement during the 1939-1945 conflict, shows how the national commemoration of our war dead on 11 November doesn’t do justice to those killed in the Second World War.
Dying for the Nation, published by Manchester University Press, traces the impact of grief on those who experienced it. Drawing on letters, diaries and sources illustrating everyday life, as well as films, magazines, newspapers and novels, Professor Noakes shows how local cultures and customs remained extremely important, despite pressures from the state to limit public expressions of grief, and cultural texts providing models for how people should behave.
The book also reveals how people had been encouraged to ‘manage their emotions’ as an aspect of good citizenship during the interwar years. “This emotional training meant that many who were bereaved believed that they should bear their grief privately,” explained Professor Noakes, “and the legacies of this kind of emotional style are something that we are still living with today.”
Professor Noakes was inspired to write Dying for the Nation after researching remembrance of the First World War during its centenary.
"The tradition of 'remembering' the dead, on the 11 November, actually hides as much as it illuminates. Where are the civilian dead, and the dead of other nations? Where is the long-lasting grief and suffering?"
“Death in war matters to the state, which has to convince its citizens that it will look after them, try to prevent death or injury, but care for their bodies, honour their memories, and support their families, should they be killed,” she explained.
“It matters to communities, who have to find ways to protect their members, support the bereaved and ‘dispose of the dead’ in often difficult circumstances. And most of all it matters to individuals, threatened with their own death, or the death of those they love.
“But the tradition of ‘remembering’ the dead, on the 11 November each year, actually hides as much as it illuminates. Where are the civilian dead, and the dead of other nations? Where is the long-lasting grief and suffering that often accompanies bereavement, and which, private texts show us, was so widely experienced?” she explained.
Moving beyond the study of memorials and the traditions of remembrance, in Dying for the Nation, Professor Noakes traces the impact of grief on those who experienced it first-hand.
“I hope that by showing how death is at the heart of war, people will question the traditions of remembrance that are a part of our national calendar, and realise that they only give us a really partial picture of death in war and its multiple legacies, in the past and today,” Professor Noakes added.
Professor Noakes plans to develop her work through two further projects: one exploring the shared memory in the Outer Hebrides of the sinking of HMY Iolaire; and a transnational comparison of experiences, commemoration and personal memory of air raids.