War, Grief and Private Commemoration

In Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, Jay Winter writes: ‘Grief is a state of mind; bereavement a condition. Both are mediated by mourning, a set of acts and gestures through which survivors express grief and pass through stages of bereavement’—commemoration being a later stage.  In the second Textual Panel Workshop of the Mellon-Sawyer Series Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation, both panellists and audience members considered how individuals, communities, and nations grieve, mourn, and commemorate in the aftermath of conflict. During the breakout session, we considered, in particular, how writing—whether public or private, fiction or non-fiction—might serve as one such ‘act or gesture’ though which survivors might express grief. In this context, the blank page offers a potential site of control, a place where meaning and value can be sought or reasserted, a place where horrors can be exposed and fear mitigated, a place where the dead can be remembered and honoured, and finally, a place to imagine possible routes to reconstruction and reconciliation.

As a researcher in First World War life-writing, I was led to consider how public narratives of remembrance and commemoration often entwine with those produced in private. Indeed, even those who wrote vehemently of the Great War’s futility in the midst of its chaos, often drew on nationalistic rhetoric in their private commemorative acts and rituals post-war. The private writing of the grieving home front mother provides a clear, and poignant, example. The Imperial War Museum houses countless memory books, or memorial scrapbooks, compiled both during and after the war, most frequently by mothers. Documents made both to honor and through which to grieve sons, these texts present sub-genres of life-writing. The delicate and meticulous care taken in their creation—exemplified in their intricate cutting and pasting, careful chronological arrangement and placement, photograph and letter inclusions—make clear that this was a labour of love and of memorialization. They were a means through which these grieving women ensured that their soldier’s experience was both preserved and dignified—and thus reclaimed from the war’s indignities, anonymity, and mass death. Public narratives surrounding war, death and grief are often woven throughout the pages of these private commemorative texts. Words and phrases like ‘heroic sacrifice’, ‘duty’, and ‘honour’, for example, occur frequently. Such widely-circulating language, and the accompanying coherent narrative of honourable self-sacrifice it provided, perhaps offered a kind of balm to the bereaved. It seems to function, at least in part, in mitigating what Joy Damousi calls, the ‘havoc grief unleashes’. A private act of commemoration, in short, here entwines with that of the public, the language of collective remembrance functions in assuaging private grief.

You can watch the panellists’ presentations from the workshop here.


Nancy Martin

Dr. Nancy Martin is a post-doctoral researcher and Co-ordinator of ‘Lest We Forget’, an Oxford University-led project that aims to capture the memories and stories of the Great War through digitization.

texture of the memorial to the murdered jews of europe