On Monday 4th August ceremonies took place across Europe marking 100 years since the start of the First World War. A ‘reconciliation ceremony’ was held at Liege where 50 heads of state gathered to mark the invasion of Belgium. Guests read from the letters and diaries of those who had fought and died, while musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle played Brahms’ German Requiem and the music of George Butterworth, killed on the Somme in August 1916. Various services took also place across the UK, with different groups choosing to commemorate the events of 1914 in a variety of ways. In Wales a national service of remembrance at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff took place from 22:00; while a new memorial was unveiled in Bramley, Leeds, in honour of 500 fallen soldiers from the area. At the All Saints Church in Dunsden, Oxfordshire, where World War One poet Wilfred Owen worked, his poems were put to music. In London a candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey and a ‘lights out’ event were staged, where people were invited to turn off their lights for an hour until 11pm (the time war was declared in 1914). The event was inspired by the words of wartime Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who said on the eve of WW1: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
These commemorations will undoubtedly prompt further discussions on the lead up to the war in 1914. Historians studying Modern European History could do worse than brush up on some of key debates in the historiography surrounding the conflict – with Cambridge academic Chris Clark’s recent bestseller providing a fresh look at events. Clark argues against his forebears who claim that the alliance system made war inevitable. For Clark it was the precise weakness and unreliability of the alliances, and the lack of certainty about who would be on whose side, that exacerbated the crisis of summer 1914 in the capitals of Europe – resulting in a scenario where European leader ‘sleepwalked’ into the clutches of war.
The variety of methods adopted by people across Europe to evoke the war also raises questions about the role of historical memory in modern society. History undergraduates at both Oxford and Cambridge will be well-versed in the different methodologies and approaches to constructing the past when delving into the realms of public history, memory and oral history.