The Great War Centenary in 2014 will be the first major anniversary without the presence of veterans. On the occasion of the 90th anniversary the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ Harry Patch was still alive as was RNAS/RAF veteran Henry Allingham. Their voices were the last beacons in the dark; both men a fascination for the media and public alike for whom veterans of the Great War were as strange and compelling as if they had been from Mars.
The question of what we should make of the war now there were no veterans of course was asked many times when Harry and Henry both died in 2009, but the difference with the upcoming centenary is that a constant stream of media interest is likely to begin with 2014 and the last voices in the dark and the many before them are all too easy to forget. Those who knew and interviewed veterans, and there are really all too few, in many respects have a debt to repay for that friendship during 2014-18; they must ensure that these voices are not simply seen as the ramblings of old men but are put in the context they deserve.
Work by Martin Middlebrook and Lyn MacDonald firmly put Great War oral history on the agenda and that has been superbly continued with work from Imperial War Museum oral historian Peter Hart and author Richard Van Emden. Technology and the internet enables those of us with photographs, transcripts and recordings all relating to veterans we knew are duty bound to share them during the centenary – at least I would hope so. When I look at the photo above of the last surviving men of Lowther’s Lambs in 1979, I see the faces of old men I knew and who transport me back to their memories of Richebourg, the Somme and Flanders. But there has to be a way to ensure that others see that too and for recordings, online services like Soundcloud make the sharing of interviews with veterans easier than they ever were; below is one such with E G Williams, a Liverpool Pal remembering the Somme whom I knew back in the 1980s.
The veterans have faded away and while many are to be found in the pages of books, there is still much new material hidden which will hopefully come to light as the centenary period unfolds.