The Somme and the Age of Anniversaries


One of my proudest achievements as a journalist was to have led our data unit’s World War I project. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission kindly supplied us with the records of all the servicemen and women from Britain and the Empire – now the Commonwealth – who were killed in the Great War.

We used it to create these widgets where you can search for the names of those who died, or who died in your area.

That was for the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 2014.

Since then we have gone back to the records as the anniversaries of Gallipoli, Loos, Jutland and now the Somme have come and gone.

I’ve realised more fully now that we are entering into what I’d call the Age of Anniversaries.

We can take April 2012, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, as the starting point.

The Age of Anniversaries has continued through to 2016 and will do all the way up to 11th November 2018 for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

But then after that, in time we will have the anniversaries of the crash in 1929 and the Great Depression.

And then as we move into the 2030s we will have had 100 years since the various invasions and provocations from Nazi Germany that eventually led us back into war in 1939.

So why is all this relevant?

War and disaster weren’t invented in the 20th century, but the period from 1914 to 1945 was uniquely bloody and destructive.

But what also changed around that time was our ability to record it through media.

Photographs and later film became more sophisticated and commonplace, which meant that for the first time we were able to record something of the horror and destruction that we caused.

When I was in school we studied war poetry and visited the World War I battlefields and monuments in France and Belgium.

They were moving experiences, but what has stayed with me the most strongly are the pictures of the men in the trenches and No Man’s Land.

A trench warfare scene.

Of course the sheer scale of World Wars I and II and the scars that they left behind mean they will never be forgotten.

But the pictures, I think, are part of the unique imprint they left on British culture.

Everyone is a photographer now

Today, photography and video have moved on even further.

Now the majority of adults in Britain have the ability to film anyone or anything, anywhere, whenever they like using their phones.

The same is no doubt true of other countries, and developing ones are rapidly catching us up in terms of smartphone usage.

It means that whenever something significant and unexpected happens, such as the suicide attack at Istanbul Ataturk Airport this week, members of the public will be always on hand to film it.

So I don’t think we will ever have a situation again like we did on September 11, 2001

Only Jules Naudet, a filmmaker who happened to be working in Manhattan that day, managed to capture the full impact of Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on video.

The best video we have of the crash of Flight 77 into the Pentagon are a few frames of CCTV footage.

If something like that were to happen again, we would likely have film from every angle – including, awful as it is to imagine, from the perspective of the hundreds of people who were trapped in the planes and in the towers.

In 100 years time, as journalists and historians sum up what happened in our lifetimes, they won’t have too little media. If anything, they will have more than they know what to do with.

P.S. If you’ve read any articles that make similar points to what I’ve said, please let me know and I’ll insert them as links. I feel as though I’ve read a similar argument somewhere before, but I haven’t been able to find it.

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