Keegan on British and Southern Memory of War

by Scott Manning on November 1, 2012

The other day, I watched a talk by the late John Keegan on World War I, given at the Cambridge Public Library in 1999. He spent a good deal of time trying to answer why the war was still important to the British, covering the overwhelming number monuments and the yearly commemorations. Among several anecdotes, he stated, “You can’t be British without being descended by a First World War veteran.”


He took it one-step further and invoked Southern sentiment on the American Civil War to describe how the British still feel about the war (see 47-second clip).

The British feel deeply about the First World War, because it wounded their society so much, but it also wounded the families whose sons, and husbands, and brothers went to the war. And they’ve never forgotten. They’ve never forgotten. Perhaps in the United States, you could catch an echo of the emotion still in the South, I suspect. Now, let’s don’t hear a chorus of protest from Northerners saying, ‘We feel as strongly about the Civil War, as Southerners do.’ But I think you get the point I’m making. It’s not just a national emotion, it’s a deeply personal and family emotion in Britain.

As soon as he said it, he seemed to catch himself, realizing he was in the North. Yet, it is interesting to see a non-American perspective take notice that the Civil War still holds such a strong position in our memories, especially in the South. Having experienced several sesquicentennial commemorations in Pennsylvania and Maryland, I can attest that memory of the war is strong up here as well.

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