'British jigsaw map of Europe, showing the belligerents at the outbreak of war in August 1914', courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM, EPH 2600

What does the British Council's report on global understandings of the First World War say?

Posted on centenarynews.com on 13 February 2014
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Centenary News highlights the key findings of the British Council's 'Remember the World as well as the War' report.

The British Council has commissioned a report which states that the UK public has a "limited" knowledge of the First World War's global dimension and its legacy.

Whilst the report provides a particular focus on the British public's understanding of the First World War, the British Council commissioned YouGov to conduct research in Egypt, France, Germany, India, Russia and Turkey, as well as the United Kingdom.

As such, the report provides key insights into perceptions and knowledge about the conflict in both Britain and abroad.

Overview

The report concluded that the UK public's knowledge about the global aspects of the First World War and its global legacy is "limited". The majority of Britons' understanding and knowledge of the conflict is based on the Western Front - which is more engrained in popular culture.

      'Royal Irish Rifles ration party Somme July 1916', courtesy of the United Kingdom Government

It also highlighted that people across the nations surveyed believe that their countries are still affected by the consequences of the First World War and the subsequent peace settlement, and that the conflict continues "to colour international perceptions of the UK".

However, people in the UK may be unaware of the historical events - including those of the First World War - which affect others' perceptions of them today, whether it be in political and business relationships or during cultural interactions.

The report also concluded that the Centenary is "an occasion to share a new, more sophisticated understanding of the conflict in public commemorations and educational programmes".

The British Council also pointed out that whilst its research points to the British public's "limited" knowledge of the conflict, half of UK respondents surveyed thought that creating a "lasting legacy" should be a central focus of the Centenary commemorations.

Helping Britons to appreciate the global reach of the conflict and its legacy will allow a more "sophisticated understanding" of the war and how others perceive them and the UK as a whole. This, the report concludes, will permit Britons to "better understand the world they live in today".

How should the First World War be commemorated?

Of the 1,215 people from the UK surveyed, 64% believed that commemorations should focus on human suffering and loss of lives, followed by 56% who believe that the lasting implications and legacy of the war for the modern world should be a central aspect.

Only 14% of the sample surveyed thought that focusing on who won and who lost the war and why, should be a central element of the commemorations. A further 8% stated that they did not think the conflict should commemorated at all.

The report also found that Britons focus on the Western Front when they think about the First World War, which the British Council describes as "partly [because] of the reality of events" - the Western Front was an important theatre of combat.

However, the British Council also points to the enduring legacy of poems penned by men like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

This has influenced modern understandings of the conflict, as has popular entertainment, including the anti-war musical Oh! What a Lovely War! and the 1989 BBC sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth.

International variations

The report also highlighted interesting variations at a national level between those surveyed in terms of their knowledge and understanding of the conflict.

When asked where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot, the highest number of correct answers came from the the Germans and Russians, with 69% of both samples correctly identifying Sarajevo. The Turkish and French samples also answering Sarajevo stood at 57% and 54% respectively.

The moment of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. From the magazine 'Das interessante Blatt', 2nd July 1914, courtesy of the Austrian National Library ©

Correct answers to this question were lowest amongst the Indian and Egyptian samples, at 34% and 32% respectively. Of the Britons surveyed, 55% correctly stated Sarajevo was the scene of the shooting, while 30% believed it took place in London.

Knowledge of other events, such as the 'Christmas Truce' on the Western Front, garnered much lower results from the non-British samples.

Top three international events of the last 100 years

Of the 7,488 people surveyed by the British Council across the seven countries, the fact that over a third of them (37%) placed the First World War in the top three key international events of the last 100 years was "striking".

This figure rises to 52% amongst the UK sample.

Overall, the Second World War, followed by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and then the fall of the Berlin Wall/end of communism in Europe, were the three most important events identified.

The First World War averaged as the fourth most important international event of the last 100 years.

The Second World War was considered the most important event of the last 100 years by those surveyed. Second World War UK PM Churchill and General Władysław Sikorski, the PM of the Polish Government-in-Exile, are pictured here, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM H 4969

Perceptions

Perceptions of the conflict and its legacy varied dramatically across those surveyed.

Whilst 47% of Turks and 42% of Britons believe that the First World War "strongly contributed" to their country's identity, only 9% of Germans believed that the same was true in their case.

Amongst the Indian sample, 24% believed that India's role in the conflict and the subsequent peace negotiations are - to this day - often misrepresented, second only to Turkey, which believes the same of its country at 30%.

'Indian cavalry of the 20th Deccan Horse in the Carnoy Valley shortly before their unsuccessful attack at High Wood during the Somme offensive, 14 July 1916', courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM Q 823

Turks also polled highest when asked if the First World War influenced their country's modern day international relations and how it is viewed by other countries.

35% of Britons believed that the UK's role in the war influences its modern day international relations, whilst 25% of Frenchmen thought this was true in France's case.

Only 14% of Egyptians questioned believed the First World War had a lasting influence on Egypt's modern day international relations.

How international perceptions of the UK around the globe are influenced by its role in the First World War were also surveyed.

45% of the Indian sample thought that the UK's role in the war and subsequent peace negotiations was very postitive or positive. Whilst 34% of Turks answered that the UK was perceived either negatively or very negatively as a result of the conflict.

Almost all of the six samples from India, Russia, France, Egypt, Turkey and Germany gave a majority answer of "neutral" to this question.

"Much confusion" over who was involved

The report concluded that "popular understandings of the wide reach of the war and its implications is limited".

This is evident when those surveyed were asked to identify the regions of the world involved in the First World War.

Just over a fifth of the French sample correctly identified the Middle East as a theatre of combat, with 34% of Britons answering the same. The largest sample to identify this correctly was the Turks, with 45%.

Positives responses dropped further when Africa's involvement was queried: 21% of Britons correctly identified African involvement - leading the seven nations sampled - followed by 20% of Germans. The lowest of the group were Egypt and Turkey, at 5% and 4% respectively.

The British Council also highlighted that there was "much confusion" about which sides countries fought on.

In Germany, 53% believed that Turkey (as the Ottoman Empire) was neutral during the First World War, when it was actually one of Germany's allies.

Nearly a quarter of Britons mistakenly identified Japan as a wartime enemy, when it was actually an ally - perhaps influenced by Japan's role in the Second World War.

Japanese troops departing for Russia in 1918, courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Interestingly, 27% of Indians believed they were fighting against the United Kingdom during the First World War, when India was actually part of the British Empire.

A majority of French respondents - 78% - believed that India was neutral, when India actually provided 1.4 million soldiers - many of them serving on French soil.

Conclusions

The British Council concluded from its research that understanding of the global reach and legacy of the First World War is "limited".

It also said that it was important to acknowledge how countries across the world were involved in different ways - particularly in economic terms.

For instance, by 1917, Canada provided Britain with half of its shrapnel, whilst 97% of Australia's meat was consumed in Britain during the war.

"Britain's war economy gobbled up imports at unprecedented rates".

The report also emphasised that "limited" British knowledge was in contrast to "over half of the people in the UK want[ing] to see the commemorations focus on the lasting implications and legacy of the First World War for today's world and almost one third of them say[ing] that the contributions of different countries should be remembered".

"Acknowledging the global reach, the diversity of experiences and the magnitude of the sacrifices made by peoples beyond Europe will allow people in the UK to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the conflict".

By Britons developing an understanding of how such historical events may influence others' perceptions of them and the UK, whether in international politics, business or cultural interactions, people in Britain will "better understand the world they live in today".

To read the full British Council report - Remember the World as well as the War - click here.

Source for figures: British Council

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