WWI (2)

If the forthcoming WWI centennial is uncontroversial in New Zealand, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Britain. Concerns continue to be expressed there about ‘celebrating’ the war, glorifying militarism and wasting money. The British government is adamant that there will be no celebration, only commemoration. It will be interesting to see how they maintain the distinction.

They also intend their centenary to be ‘a Commonwealth-facing event’ – or so their representative told our prime minister a couple of weeks ago. It’s not a particularly inviting phrase (connotations of added fabric, addressing an audience, turning one’s back on something else). Perhaps it’s a way of adding an acceptably celebratory note to the proceedings: they’re going to celebrate the Commonwealth, while resolutely commemorating the war.

Meanwhile, practical initiatives are underway there as here. As outlined by the Guardian, it is now possible to access digital copies of wills made by Welsh and English soldiers who died during the war, with each accessed record costing six pounds. In most cases the scans contain a basic will and an envelope with elementary information about the soldier and his death. However, some of the records include the last letter written by the soldier, too, since letters considered to contain sensitive information were retained rather than being forwarded to the intended recipient.

The record I obtained was a poor copy, made on a scanner which was peppered with scratches and marks intruding into the document. Nonetheless, it was strangely moving: a will whose contents ran to just eighteen words, made to fulfil the minimum legal requirements before going into battle, in the hand-writing of a soldier for whom there are no photographs, diaries or letters – just this as a remaining trace.

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