Insights: Commemorating the First World War

April 25, 2014

The First World War changed everything. It brought the industrialization of war, the fall of empires and it moved women toward the right to vote. It cost more than 9 million soldiers and millions more civilians their lives and tragically impacted families and communities. This year marks the start of the four-year centenary of the Great War and communities around the world are reflecting on their stories overseas and on the home front. Royal Roads University is co-hosting BC Remembers the First World War: 2014-2018 April 30 to bring together heritage practitioners from around the province to start the conversation on how to honour the anniversary.

School of Tourism and Hospitality Management professor and acting director Geoffrey Bird explains the role of tourism and heritage in remembrance and defines the line between honouring the past without commercializing it.

Determine why you remember

We remember to avoid repeating mistakes. Consider it from two perspectives:  first, the state has a role in helping society remember by way of memorials, museums and commemorative events such as Remembrance Day parades. There is always the concern that a government will use war remembrance as a way to mythologize and reshape the past to its own use, or to create a sense of reason and value as to what it is doing now. In this way, remembrance is dynamic, it evolves and it is political. There is also the personal perspective. People hold on to personal stories for their significance in shaping their own identity and lives.

Look at the challenges of remembrance

The First World War is seen as a time when Canada became a nation. For B.C., it was a time of challenges: racism toward certain enthno-cultural communities, and family and economic hardship. For some, commemorating the war is viewed as glorifying it and others see it as a waste of lives best forgotten. The other challenge for British Columbians is that the past 100 years has seen the arrival of people who call this province and country home. How do we keep true to history, while at the same time build inclusive heritage narratives? How do we ensure our conversations capture the significance of the war’s role in shaping the century, and allowing us to talk about what war and conflict mean to us in this century?

Decide how you want to remember

Landmarks, museums and monuments such as cenotaphs are used to mark history. People travel for those experiences to learn and reflect. For tourism, we are involved in interpretation and making meaning of the places, objects and events of history. Commercialization is a big issue though. The balance there is when the government isn’t providing funding, we need to find ways to pay for these things to allow, for example, museums and archives to continue to preserve symbols of the past and to tell their stories for future generations.

The transition back to peace is a period also worth remembering. Coupled with the flow of new migrants with their own experience of the war, the people of this province present an amazing set of stories to be told and learned from.

Understand the evolution of remembrance

How we remember changes with every generation. Veterans, their families or people of wartime generation remember by what they witnessed. Post war generations now must engage in remembrance by first learning, imagining and reflecting upon the past. This is where the challenge lays:  the passage of time naturally leads us to forget. 

One of the most powerful experience people can have in terms of remembrance is when they actually go to the battlefields themselves and stand where a solider stood, fought and died. We are going to see more people visiting the battle fields of Somme, Vimy, and Belgium and elsewhere in particular over the coming years.

There also are great examples of online projects where people can learn more about the war, such as the Imperial War Museum’s website or Vancouver Island University’s Canadian Letters and Images project, where you can read correspondence sent home by soldiers. It’s exciting to think that communities around the world are engaged in a form of remembrance together.

How will you remember?

I see it as recognizing our responsibility as citizens and contributing to a better way of life. That can be in the form of public service, research, public debate or being involved with community projects and movements. When we start to forget past events, we lose the opportunity to learn. Remembrance as an act involves debate and dialogue to question why things happened and how. It’s reflecting on what the war meant then and what it means now. Individuals and communities should ask themselves, “what is our story and how do we want to tell it?”


Royal Roads University is honoured to host BC Remembers the First World War: 2014-2018 in partnership with the BC Museums Association April 30. The one-day workshop will explore possible approaches to First World War commemoration through a facil­itated program that focuses on issues, resources, partnerships, good practices and approaches from around the world while providing an opportunity for sharing and networking.