The ending of the “Great War for Civilization” on 11 November 1918 has left an indelible mark on the national memory of the United Kingdom. Now that 100 years have passed since this momentous event took place, our recollections are no longer of the event itself but of its legacy in terms of the memorials, symbols, texts and artefacts that were created in its wake. I write these words whilst listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ poignant Third Symphony; an evocation of the battlefields of northern France in which the composer’s idea for the music first took shape. The symphony is one of many examples of the way in which it is possible to stimulate a recollection in the present day of an event for which no lived experience endures.
As an aspect of our social memory of the First World War, Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony is now merely an historical testament. As the historian Jeffrey Olick has noted, ‘History is the remembered past to which we no longer have an “organic” relationship’. At the time of the symphony’s publication and first performance in 1921, however, the music would have fed into and formed part of a collective memory of the war which would have resonated widely with the direct, lived experience of those who experienced the conflict, facilitating the formation of a collective memory. For Olick, therefore, ‘collective memory is the active past that forms our identities’. Thus the same musical artefact which today provides us with an historical social memory of the war, at the time of its writing fed into a collective consciousness of the event that spurred its creation.
The collective memory of an event such as a world war can be generated at different levels of a society. As a piece of music listened to quite widely, Vaughan Williams’ symphony would have helped to form one element of a national collective memory of the war during the 1920s. Similar forms of collective memory can exist at a more disaggregated level of the social structure. Organizations such as businesses can generate symbols, texts and artefacts that stimulate sufficiently common forms of recollection such as to provide a collective corporate memory. In a recent paper, published as part of a Special Issue of the Journal of Management & Organizational History to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war, I have identified one case in point.
In 1915, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the British-American Tobacco Company (BAT) moved its London headquarters into a newly-built, prestigious building opposite the Houses of Parliament which it named Westminster House. Many of its employees had already volunteered to serve in the armed forces and space was set aside in the new building to exhibit various forms of memorabilia which the returning staff had garnered from the battlefields (including some live ammunition!). Staff in the company also began to publish a weekly newsletter, called the BAT Bulletin, in which correspondence from those serving abroad (suitably censored) was published and disseminated to work colleagues – including those at the front. In this way the company helped to generate a collective memory of the war that was specific to the firm’s own employees.
Interestingly, this process of creating a collective corporate memory of the First World War was not replicated during the conflict of 1939-1945. Although the impact on the company of the Second World War was every bit as profound as its earlier counterpart, the circumstances were such that no contemporaneous artefacts and texts were generated. Moreover, whereas the lived experience of many BAT staff during the conflict of 1914-18 took a similar form – due particularly to the static nature of much of the fighting – the Second World War saw the company’s staff experiencing the conflict from a far more diverse set of circumstances. Indeed, for many of the company’s employees, the war with Japan led to staff in China and the Far East being incarcerated for many years in prisoner of war camps, without ever being recruited to the armed forces.
In many ways this disparity in the corporate memory of BAT mirrors a more general pattern of the national collective memory of the First and Second World War. The most evocative symbol of our social remembrance – the poppy – was spawned directly by the battlefields over which Vaughan Williams fixed his gaze sometime around 1916. No corresponding symbol of remembrance serves the same purpose in relation to World War II. My own musical imagery of this later conflict finds its counterpart to Vaughan Williams’ Third in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony which, the composer later wrote, ‘was an attempt to express the emotional experience of the people, to reflect the terrible tragedy of the war’.
Howard Cox is Emeritus Professor of International Business History, University of Worcester, and the co-author of Revolutions from Grub Street: A History of Magazine Publishing in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).