Research Project

Afterlives of the Great War

Principal Investigator
Professor Michael Roper
Photo of a lady and a man looking at an old family photograph

Afterlives investigates the family legacies of the First World War in regions with very different histories of conflict in the twentieth century: Britain, Australia, and Germany.

It is an inter-generational study, which seeks to understand how descendants born after 1918 imagined the conflict before their time, and how it shaped their own lives. Funded by the British Academy, the AHRC/HLF and the Leverhulme Trust, Afterlives combines oral history interviews, personal research on Roper’s own family in Australia, and observation of descendants during the First World War Centenary. It is an experiential history, based on the overlapping roles of historian, interviewer, observer, and descendant.

The photo featured is from the HLF/AHRC funded project “Meeting in No Man’s Land”, carried out in 2016 by Age Exchange. This project formed the basis of two publications from the project.

In 2011, Roper began interviews with thirty-six British descendants then in the eighties and nineties. They described what it was like to grow up in the 1920s and 30s when the First World War was in the recent past. Silence was the legacy they noticed most of all as families strove to put the past behind them. Yet children witnessed the impact of trench warfare on bodies and minds, lived amidst the mourning and encountered the material past of war in their daily lives. The legacies could be benign as well as mundane, carried across the generations in the love of travel, ambitions for education, a sense of citizenship and duty, and military aptitudes. The British research resulted in publications on children of war disabled servicemen, while Dr Rachel Duffett investigated the war’s legacies in children’s play culture. Roper’s interviews formed the basis of the play Voices of the Great War, performed at the Lakeside Theatre in 2016.

Alongside the interviews with British descendants, Roper undertook research with his father in Australia, interviewing him and venturing into the history of his father’s war service at Gallipoli and the Middle East. In doing a family history of the war, he gained a deeper understanding of the motivations of other descendants in Australia as they undertook family histories of the First World War.

The research extended to Germany after 2015 through Essex’s membership of the HLF/AHRC First World War Engagement Centre Everyday Lives in War. In 2016 Roper and Rachel Duffett collaborated with David Savill and the reminiscence organisation Age Exchange on the project Meeting in No Man’s Land which brought together 23 British and German descendants in Bavaria for four days of interviews and sharing of family war heritage. This resulted in a digital archive of filmed interviews, commemorative art projects and the Age Exchange film, Meeting in No Man’s Land, which premiered at the British Film Institute in summer 2016 and has since been shown in venues across Germany.

Our research highlights the differences and similarities in family cultures of First World War remembrance. While Australian descendants commemorate the war as a moment of national making, British descendants remember the ‘pity of war’, and in Germany, family stories of the First World War form a ‘pre-history’ of guilt and responsibility during the Second World War. The findings of the three projects will be published in a Manchester University Press monograph, Afterlives of the Great War, in 2022.