Charity and the First World War

[audio]Leanne Green, VAHS Seminar, 19 November 2013 (
Advertising War: The Visual Imagery of Charity Campaigns in the First World War

How do we remember the First World War? And what do historians make of how we remember the First World War? Both of these things have been constantly renegotiated over that past century since the lamps went out across Europe, and they show no signs of slowing down as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of war. While pioneering works by Samuel Hynes and Daniel Todman have ensured that the afterlife of the conflict has been given its rightful place in its history, we should be aware that we are at the beginning of a major chapter in that story of how we remember what was supposed to be the ‘last war’.

Some challenges to our collective memory have been contentious. While the Blackadder portrayal perhaps tells us more about how we have tried to come to terms with the war more than the war itself, a more positive rewriting of the ‘donkeys led by lions’ account has the danger of downplaying the sheer scale of sacrifice. Others have been more universally accepted, such as the recognition the war was much more than a European affair. Our April feature piece presented some current research being undertaken by one of our Canadian colleagues, taking a transnational view of the YMCA’s war work.

Peter GrantThis also fits with another shift in the history of the First World War, one readers of this blog are sure to welcome. This is the increasing recognition of charity work within the wider war effort. Peter Grant’s doctoral research on ‘non-uniformed voluntary action’ in Britain has drawn attention to ‘the greatest act of volunteering ever witnessed in this country’; seen in ‘the voluntary effort at home, especially to support the men at the front, in health and sickness, but also to aid numerous other charitable causes’.

Meanwhile, ongoing doctoral projects by Jon Weier and Leanne Green (whose recent VAHS seminar podcast you can listen to above) remind us that this is also part of how we see Britain’s international role. Both as part of transnational networks and with an imperial and humanitarian view of its place in the world. Indeed, the continuity of this view as expressed in the humanitarian appeals for European refugee work at the outbreak of war and after it suggest this may have survived the shock of the war better than we might imagine.

The postwar campaign methods of Save the Children may have been different from those of others following the 'Rape of Belgium' but the message and assumption about Britain's moral duty to act as a protector is remarkably similar

The postwar fundraising methods of Save the Children may have been different from those of others following the ‘Rape of Belgium’ but the message and assumptions about a British moral duty to act as a protector is remarkably similar

We are not the first to talk about this. In the 1960s Arthur Marwick wrote that the First World War provided ‘the last great flowering of grand scale private philanthropy’ and in the 1990s Gerard DeGroot incorporated charitable work into his narrative of Blighty during the war, while a decade ago Adrian Gregory used the Military Service Tribunals to show that civil society is not always benevolent. But there is still much more to say.

So, are you researching charitable work during the First World War? How do you think this should be included in our collective memory of the conflict as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of war?

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2 Responses to Charity and the First World War

  1. Pingback: Feature: The YMCA at War | Voluntary Action History Society

  2. Hi. I work for historical specialist image library Mary Evans Picture Library and am also currently writing a history of the home front during the Great War for The History Press. As my source material are the high-class illustrated magazines of the period – The Tatler, The Sketch, The Queen etc – charity, voluntary work and fundraising form a large part of the book. Certainly from the perspective of these magazines, much emphasis was put on the efforts of those on the home front and the seemingly endless activity in aid of good causes – flag days, subscriptions, fundraising exhibitions, charity auctions, matinees, bazaars, knitting, gifts sent to the front, clubs, hostels – must surely form part of the war’s history. Inevitably, this was a cause taken up by ‘society’ – the wealthy, the high-born, the famous and the privileged. They had time on their hands, had a public profile which benefited charities and came from a tradition of upper class philanthropy. Nevertheless, their efforts are no less diminished and I personally feel it’s a fascinating aspect of the Great War. It’s certainly revealed a number of charities I was unaware of – who knew there was an ‘Eau de Cologne Fund’ providing eau de cologne for wounded soldiers in hospital?

    Coincidentally, it’s this chapter I’m working on at present so I’d better go and get on with it!

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