Remebering Mi Amigo and the Politics of Commemoration

Eleanor O'Keefe | 29 April 2019

Modern History | Imperial History | Military History | Local History | British History

Students of conflict and commemoration will have found much to reflect on in the story of Tony Foulds, who made commemoration front page news back in February. Tony, who is 82, received a fly past for his work in tending the memorial to the US airmen of Mi Amigo, a B-17 bomber that crashed near Endcliffe Park in Sheffield in 1944. He witnessed the crash when he was eight and has been quietly caring for the memorial to the crew since it was erected in the park in 1969.  A chance encounter with BBC presenter Dan Walker, a Tweet, and Tony was in front of dignitaries, cameras, and a crowd of thousands in Sheffield, witnessing a fly past to mark the 75th anniversary of the crash. What does this story tell us about how practices of commemoration are changing?

Let’s start with a bare fact. Demographically, we are losing our connection to the armies of 1939-45 and the process of remembering the Second World War without its veterans, as Tony’s story suggests, is already underway. The iconography of commemoration in the UK has generally foregrounded combat veterans as the authentic witness of conflict since 1918. This will soon no longer be possible in the case of World War Two. Research funded by the British Legion estimated 4.8 million veterans in the UK in 2005. Over 50% of these were Second World War or National Service veterans, with the former constituting roughly 25% of the total.[1] This study predicted a considerable drop in that population by 2020, but recent figures by the MOD indicates this has largely already happened: they put veteran figures at 2.5 million in 2016, envisaging a fall to 1.6 million by 2028.[2] This is a significant reduction in the veteran population over 22 years.

It is not surprising, considering the centrality of the Blitz experience to the popular memory of the Second World War, that a new authentic witness (a civilian in wartime) steps into the commemorative spotlight. If Tony’s generation takes this place, however, we need to think more about how militarisation – rather than simply bombardment – has affected them. What struck me most about Tony’s response was his survivor guilt – something we associate more with combat veterans. He attributes the deaths of the crew to his failure to read the pilot’s signals, as the B-17 bomber circled in search of a safe landing site. He has returned to the crash site consistently from the age of 17. He now attends the memorial in the park ‘roughly 260 times a year. It’s now taken over my life, literally’.[3]  Yet, this was an unavoidable wartime situation in one of Britain’s industrial cities. That an 8-year-old child can then carry this sense of responsibility for 75 years suggests a darker side to the ‘The People’s War’; a message of culpability and complicity in wartime outcomes that was implicit in the ubiquitous pre-war and wartime discourse about civil defence.

Can contemporary commemoration help us untangle those stories? There are millions of experiences of conflict latent in our society, from the Second World War to Syria, via the post-Empire conflicts of the 50s and 60s, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Their emotional legacies remain socially active down the generations for longer than you might think, as Jan Assman and historians such as Michael Roper have shown. Whether contemporary commemoration allows society to work through the insidious nature of conflict’s legacy is another question. The mass mobilisation around Tony’s fly past in Sheffield confirmed another trend, seen during the First World War centenary: Commemoration is becoming increasingly spectacular and performative. With 14-18Now, formed to coordinate arts responses to the War’s centenary, new cultural producers of commemoration have linked heritage, arts programming and remembrance through large performative and multimedia moments. Tony’s story demonstrates, too, that the power of more traditional leaders in commemorative practices (the armed forces) remains strong.

Spectacle can have a positive place in cementing social bonds and expressing communal values and identity. It may well provide one of the few contemporary cultural spaces that are truly inter-generational, for instance. And, as 14-18Now has demonstrated, artists can help shift and refocus our tropes of war; in that case, away from the Anglocentric, to a global vision. But countless studies also suggest that commemoration, in the way we perform it, does not cultivate the critical thinking, invite the range of perspectives, and engage the reflective emotional responses, that generate a healthy democratic engagement with issues of war and peace. Commemoration is reductive; each experience of war, Homeric. The HLF’s First World War: Then and Now encouraged academics and communities to work together to give these stories the space they need. Looking ahead, then, policy makers, heritage planners, historians and teachers, need to work even harder to ensure that commemorative practices are not History Lite, but History Plus.

Dr Eleanor O’Keeffe is the Post-Doctoral Research Associate on ‘Lest We Forget’, an AHRC funded project on heritage and commemoration during the First World War Centenary based at Historic Royal Palaces. She has put together a Teacher Fellowship on Conflict, Art and Remembrance in partnership with the Historical Association to support teaching of commemoration in schools. 

[1] British Legion, Profile and Needs of the Ex-Service Community 2005-2020: Summary and Conclusions of the Welfare Needs Research Programme (2006), p. 7.

[2] See MOD Population Projections: UK Armed Forces Veterans residing in Great Britain, 2016-2028. Reference Tables. Table 2. UK Armed Forces veterans residing in Great Britain, by age and gender, total numbers and percentages.