In October 2017 I started my doctoral research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the National Productivity Investment Fund through the TECHNE Doctoral Training Partnership. Working alongside Dover Arts Development I have been looking at the way performance-based commemoration has emerged as a significant form of mnemonic labour during the centenary years of 2014-2018.
My PhD research initially arose out of my reaction to Jeremy Deller’s large-scale piece of performance art planned to commemorate the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 2016, We’re Here Because We’re Here. I’ve felt uneasy about military commemoration for a long time. I am often wary of the motives behind such commemorations and worry that they can serve to legitimize war and foster an exclusive ‘us and them’ mentality that makes wars possible – probable even. But Deller’s piece moved me. The more I thought about it and researched the popular memory of the First World War the more uneasy I got. Why, in a time of austerity is the government willing to spend so much money (£50 million) on commemorating a war that is often presented as a disaster in British leadership and why, as the war moves out of living memory, does it still appear to have such an emotive hold on the British public?
(Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 2016.)
Although 100 years have passed since the first shots were fired, the First World War continues to resonate within British collective memory. At the time it was touted as ‘the war to end war’, but the unexpected scale of causalities and the destruction of full-scale industrial warfare resulted in the events of 1914-18 becoming seared into the British popular memory. Although, strictly speaking, the First World War was a military victory for Britain and her allies, for over 50 years it has been predominantly remembered as a tragedy. Representations of the war have shifted over time, but one of the dominant narratives since the late 1950s has been that of tragedy. One only has to mention ‘the trenches’ or ‘shell shock’ to conjure up a whole catalogue of imagery associated with the futility of war. In contrast with the popular memory of the Second World War this was not Britain’s ‘finest hour’; it was ‘lions led by donkeys’ and ‘mud, blood and futility’. Despite various recent attempts by some politicians and historians to reconceptualise the war as a just, necessary, and well-fought war, the dominant representation is that Britain was drawn into a conflict for reasons most did not understand, where brave men were led by incompetent officers, and many men were left with physical and mental scars. These narratives persist because they serve political and emotional needs in the present.
It has been widely recognised that war commemoration is instrumental in the formation of collective identity, creating imagined communities that bind a nation together.  By creating a national narrative that a large proportion of the population can identify with a politics of inclusion, and subsequently exclusion, is at play with those whose experiences, values, and ideals that do not meet the national narrative marginalised or excluded.
By exploring the relationship between large nationally funded commemorations and smaller community-led initiatives my research will interrogate the politics behind the centenary commemorations of the First World War, drawing on the framework provided by Timothy G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson and Michael Roper to explore what narratives of articulation are drawn on, what arenas of articulation are open to whom, and what agencies of articulation are functioning. I aim to show how the centenary commemorations have been used as a stage to play out present political concerns. The centenary years of 2014-2018 have been a particularly tumultuous period for British politics with the Scottish referendum, Brexit, the ‘refugee crisis’, debates over immigration, women’s issues, and questions around Britain’s imperial legacy all finding expression through commemorative performances. My research analyses several national performative re-enactments staged in partnership with large institutions such as the National Theatre, 14-18 Now, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, comparing and contrasting them with the ways in which smaller community-based performances have been staged and what sort of narratives are being presented in each and to what political ends.
Distinct from traditional battle re-enactments with their emphasis on military glory these performances often foreground stories of resistance, such as anti-war protests or the tribunals of conscientious objectors. This distinct strand of commemorative activity often encourages its observers to become active participants, not simply recreating the factual events of the past, but actively engaging with the past to serve ideological aims and emotional needs in the present. But as Jay Winter succinctly observes, ‘memory is always about the future’, and this research will address the complex temporalities inherent in commemorative forms that aim to construct futures though (re)presenting the past.
(Clockwise from top left: These Dangerous Women, Clapham Film Unit; A re-enactment of an anti-war meeting in Haringey by the Haringey First World War Peace Form, 2014; A re-enactor in the grounds of Brighton Pavilion as part of Dr Blighty, Nutkhut, Brighton Festival, 2016)
By focusing on the movement of the First World War out of living memory and into purely cultural memory my research will foreground the relationship between the embodied experience of performative re-enactment and the transition from communicative memory into cultural memory and the role of such memory work in identity formation.  My research will explore the relationship between the embodied experience of a distinct category of performance which I have identified as ‘performative re-enactment’ as a mode of commemoration and the circulation of historical knowledge.
 The way that the First World War is commemorated in each of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom makes it problematic to speak about a single ‘British’ collective memory of the First World War, particularly in Northern Ireland where the original Ulster Volunteer Force has taken on a strong symbolic significance for the Protestant community, lending its name to a loyalist paramilitary group during the troubles. Despite these challenges, and despite the fact that many of the projects I am evaluating take place in England, following Raphael Samuel, I choose to use ‘British’ over ‘English’ as it’s germane to the research I will be doing on the legacy of FWW and Empire in commemoration. According to Samuel ‘English’, with all its pastoral connotations, eschews the imperial difficulties acknowledged by ‘British’. Raphael Samuel, Introduction: exciting to be English, Patriotism: the making and unmaking of British national identity. Vol.1, History and politics, Edited by Raphael Samuel, London, Routledge, 1989, p. xii.
 Herbert George Wells, The war that will end war, London, Frank & Cecil Palmer, 1914, https://archive.org/details/warthatwillendwa00welluoft, (accessed accessed 14 November 2017).
 Dan Todman, The Great War: myth and memory, London, Hambledon and London, 2005.
 For an excellent extensive exploration on ‘war discourse’ see, Ross J. Wilson, ‘Still fighting in the trenches: ‘War discourse’ and the memory of the First World War in Britain’, Memory Studies, vol. 8, no. 4, 2015.
 Winston Churchill, HC Deb 18 June 1940 vol 362 cc51-64, edited, 1940, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1940/jun/18/war-situation, (accessed 1 February 2018); Alan Clark, The donkeys, London, Hutchingson, 1961. Reprint, 2006; Peter Parker, The last veteran: Harry Patch and the legacy of war, London, Fourth Estate, 2009, p. 19.
 Todman. On attempts to correct the historical inaccuracies see Brian Bond, The unquiet Western Front: Britain’s role in literature and history, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002; Gary Sheffield, Forgotten victory, the First World War – myths and realities, London, Review, 2002; Gordon Corrigan, Mud, blood and poppycock, London, Cassel 2004. British Future, Which meanings of First World War centenary do people agree with?, http://www.britishfuture.org/articles/news/how-people-feel-first-world-war-centenary/, 2013, (accessed 22 April 2018).
 Timothy G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, and Michael Roper, The politics of war memory and commemoration, London, Routledge, 2000, pp. 16-17.
 Jan Assmann, ‘Communicative and cultural memory’, in Astrid Erll, Ansgar Nünning, and Sara B. Young (eds), Cultural memory sudies: An international and interdisciplinary handbook, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2008.
 Substantial work on performance and temporality is currently a work in progress Jay Winter, ‘Commemorating catastrophe: 100 years on’, War & Society, vol. 36, no. 4, 2017, p. 239.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London, Verso, 1983, revised 2006