In these centenary years, like many others, I’ve been researching the meaning of the First World War for the place where I live. I’ve looked into the Home Front in Penge – food, drink, recruitment. And most recently, I’ve been finding out about the young men from Penge who went off to fight and never came back.
The sheer volume of material available for this sort of research, the variety of sources, is astonishing. In the case of Penge I have made use of:
- The local war memorial with its four hundred inscribed names;
- Local newspapers, some available online through the British Newspaper Archive. The Norwood News has been especially useful, and the Penge & Anerley Press has some good content.
- The official ‘Penge Roll of Honour’, compiled diligently from 1914 onwards by local school-teacher W.T. Stuart with help from pupils at Oakfield School, written up and published as a bound manuscript after the War, now carefully preserved in the Bromley Archive.
- The National Archive, which has put a vast amount of its First World War holdings online, including soldiers’ and sailors’ individual ‘medal cards’.
- The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, another impressive resource in terms of the data it holds, and its ease of use. The CWGC embodies the moral imperative of ‘remembrance’, charged with remembering the war dead in perpetuity: even today they rededicate graves, and hold burial services when the remains of First World War victims are identified.
- The Imperial War Museum (also a product of the First World War) and its ‘Lives of the First World War’ project.
- Regimental histories: in my case, I’ve been looking at The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment 1914-1919 by C.T. Atkinson, published in 1924, because this was the Regiment that Penge men were most likely to join.
By putting all these together, every so often we can establish the circumstances of a death which would otherwise be just another statistic. For instance: the raw data on Leslie Kitchen of Minden Road in Penge is that he was a Private in the 7th Battalion of the West Kent Regiment, and died at the age of 19 on 28th March 1918. But from Atkinson’s history we can place the 7th battalion, and therefore Leslie, at the village of Gentelles, south of Amiens, on 28th March. Leslie was killed in a sudden and overwhelming German attack in which the battalion was virtually wiped out. This was one episode in the great offensive of spring 1918, Ludendorff’s last gamble, his attempt to exploit his temporary numerical superiority on the Western Front while Russia was out of the War, and the USA not yet properly in it.
One final word: I am enormously indebted to my partner, Dr. Lucie Dutton, for contributing her own research skills, honed in the course of producing her PhD. She has pulled together data from multiple sources to produce a consolidated record of the Penge war dead.
I’ll be talking about our findings, about who these young men were, where they lived, how they met their ends, on Tuesday 6th November, at 7 pm, in Melvin Hall, Melvin Road, Penge.
But is there a danger in this sort of research? Isn’t there something mawkish or prurient about cataloguing the War’s dead? And isn’t there a risk that it will be hi-jacked by the peddlers of cheap sentimental patriotism and Brexit nativism?
These risks are real, but there is also a duty here.
Millions of young men died on the battlefields of the First World War. Four hundred of them came from Penge. The streets where they lived, in many cases the houses where they lived, are still here. They were snatched from suburbia to face horror and death. Of course the same was true in the Second World War, and the other wars, but the fact is that, in this country, it was the First World War which became and remains the symbol of tragic slaughter, the source of the imperative of remembrance. And society is richer for having such a symbol and such a source.
Max Horkheimer put it like this:
“What has happened to the human beings who have fallen, no future can repair … human consciousness alone can become the site where the injustice can be abolished, the only agency that does not give in to it”.
What Horkheimer is saying is that the past is past, the dead are dead, the circumstances of their deaths cannot be undone, but some measure of hope and redemption for them is still possible if we, the living, can find it in ourselves to offer it to them. Our living human consciousness, our grief and sense of shared humanity, offers the only possible site, the only available place, where their suffering may be acknowledged and their humanity sustained despite their absence.
I find this thought immensely moving. It touches not just the First World War’s dead, but the victims of history as such. In fact it defines the moral ground of historical sensibility and historical study. It argues that the practice of history is simultaneously an intellectual and a moral endeavour, an exercise both in diligent research and interpretation, and in human sympathy, imagination and solidarity. This is why remembrance matters.