Latest BBC History magazine offers a sound defence of studying History

The latest issue of the popular and best-selling BBC History magazine (October, 2018), which devotes its main article to Anne Boleyn (‘A victim of her father’s ambition?’), and also reflects on the nature of appeasement in the 1930s, includes some very sound advice, tips and inspiration for students ‘hoping to plan a future based on the past’. It also offers some welcome defence of the subject of History.

Anne Boleyn

As this blog has noted on a number of previous occasions, the study of History is currently under siege from a number of worrying directions, including University sector financial cuts, general government scepticism towards the Humanities, or even hostile academic fashions and creeds (such as the absurdities of post-modernism). It has therefore become even more important for historians to strongly defend their discipline.

In an opinion piece in the BBC History magazine by Dr. Alice Taylor, who is reader in medieval history at King’s College in London, she notes the recent negative headlines and complaints made by the UK’s politicians about the economic value of arts and humanities degrees, prejudices which are beginning to ‘devalue and mask those vital sectors of our economy and society which are either staffed by history and humanities graduates, or are dependent on a broader social and cultural interest in the past continuing’.

Indeed, Dr. Taylor points out in her article for the magazine that graduates in History work in multiple sectors, many of them high-paying (such as law and the civil service), and many of them ‘directly related to their degree itself’, such as curation and conservation, museums, heritage, archival work, ‘not to mention being a history teacher or, even, a professional historian!’ A report published in 2016, for example, found that the heritage tourism industry ‘actually supports more than one in every 100 jobs in the UK’.

In addition, in Dr. Taylor’s estimation, there are other equally important and sound reasons for studying History, such as the ‘methods of historical practice coupled with the historian’s profound concern with how past societies functioned’. Historians ‘are trained to treat what they read critically’, not just read, look at or listen to a source, but also to question it. Where does it come from? Who wrote it, designed it, wanted it? Who paid for it, and why? What kinds of evidence, data and perception lie behind different views? As Dr. Taylor observes, ‘in a world where fake news can influence elections, the methods of the historian – what history degrees train their students to acquire – are needed more than ever before’.


A History research seminar at Kingston University

Moreover, historians ‘are not just people who analyse sources; we have to think about the phenomenon of society itself, in all its varieties, and communicate what we think about it’.  Historians, as Dr. Taylor aptly puts it, ‘try and understand how things happen and what their consequences were. This is something that is important and valued. It’s important not just in an empirical sense: that historians have the knowledge to correct gross misinterpretations of the past bandied about as truths on the internet and by political elites alike’.

Finally, Dr. Taylor reminds us that we live in a rapidly changing world: ‘The first iPhone was released only 11 years ago’. It is a mistake to think that History is not adapting to and trying to understand such profound change: historians regularly write ‘new narratives of the past which challenge past orthodoxies’. The skills of the historian are thus ‘profoundly connected to understanding and working within this changing society’.

So, the next time you hear somebody question the value of History, point them to this invaluable article. The full version of it is available in the latest edition of BBC History magazine (October, 2018), which is on sale now.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Image: WikiMedia)

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A Future Career Based on the Past: the benefits of studying History at postgraduate level

Why study history at postgraduate level? At this time of the year, when students are about to commence or re-commence their study of the past in History Departments at Universities right across Britain, including here at Kingston, it is good to pause for breath for a moment and reflect briefly on the value of studying history as a postgraduate.

What do the expert commentators say? BBC History magazine in October, 2015, contained a very handy supplement on expert advice, practical tips and inspiration for students ‘hoping to plan a future based on the past’.

Cartoon of pencil

When it comes to careers with history as your skills-set, the supplement provided some truly great details on how a degree or postgraduate degree in history can lead to all manner of careers, and it listed some famous celebrity graduates to illustrate the point.

From the world of the media, such history graduates have included the broadcaster Jonathan Ross, who studied Modern European History at the University of London, and BBC radio presenter Simon Mayo, who graduated from Warwick University with a degree in History and Politics.

From the world of literature, another history graduate is the writer Penelope Lively, who found tremendous success as a writer of books for children and then of more general novels. Her best-selling novels have included Moon Tiger, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1987. The acting world has a famous history graduate in the shape of the comedian and writer Sacha Baron Cohen (recently on our TV screens in Who Is America?, a critical satire on rightwing politicians in the USA) , who graduated from Cambridge Uni in 1993 with a degree in History. The Golden-Globe winner and Oscar-nominated actor has since become one of Britain’s best-known comics, whose creations have included Ali G and Borat.

And the world of British politics has witnessed numerous examples of history graduates rising through the ranks, including even to the top job of Prime Minister: former PM Gordon Brown (recently in the news speaking out strongly against anti-Semitism) graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First-Class degree in History, and then stayed at the same institution to complete a postgraduate PhD in History ten years later, titled ‘The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918-29’.

Another section in the BBC History magazine supplement contained a fascinating short article by Dr. Anna Whitelock, of Royal Holloway, University of London, on the role of the historian today, and the new challenges and opportunities of the digital age. Her points were real food for thought for anybody contemplating studying history at postgraduate level.

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

As Dr. Whitelock commented in her opening line: ‘Has there ever been a better or more important time to study history? The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant’. She went on to argue that history is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. Moreover, history is more than just studying the past – it is also about ‘critically engaging with the present and future’.

Furthermore, in her estimation, a history degree (whether at undergrad or postgrad level) is not just for those who want to be professional historians – ‘it is for anyone who is curious about the world around them and who wants to be a critically engaged citizen’.

Dr. Whitelock also pointed out that a history training can lead to a career in law, business, publishing, heritage, teaching, media or politics, but it is ‘equally valuable for those wanting to become an artist, author, actor or even a computer game designer’.

Significantly, according to Whitelock, the digital age has brought many new opportunities for historians in the 21st century, ‘opening up archives online, digitising documents and allowing the study of far-flung archives from home’.

That said, she also reminded us that ‘there is nothing better’ than visiting an archive and touching documents, and studying history can give access to ‘this vast treasure trove’. I couldn’t agree more! Here at Kingston Uni, we love to encourage original research. We have, for example, the benefits of The National Archives (TNA) very close to us, just a bus ride away at Kew. And those students who might choose to embark on studying history at postgraduate level will certainly have exciting opportunities to do this via a dissertation of their choice.

Studying history, Whitelock argued, also ‘requires students to consider what the archives of today will consist of for future generations of historians’. This is because there has been a revolution in communication, with tweets, texts, and e-mails rapidly replacing ‘traditional’ forms of contacts, such as hard-copy letters. This is something I have also pondered about myself in a previous blog (see my reflections in a History at Kingston blog on the possible dangers of ‘Digital Decay’ in April, 2015).

John Galsworthy Building

Dr. Whitelock then offered a nicely succinct summary of the dilemmas and challenges faced by historians today in the light of these rapid changes: the key questions, she wrote, are this: what should be preserved? How? By whom? And for whom?

Here at Kingston Uni, we actively encourage our students to think critically about all these types of questions and challenges, and more! Our History MA has a core module on ‘Doing History’, while students can choose other options from choices in the study of 20th century Britain, the study of international history, or the impact of the 18th century French Revolution on history and society.

All these modules are in the hands of real specialists in their fields, who have national and international reputations, and who are keen to integrate their own research into teaching their students. So, what are you waiting for? Check us out.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University



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Three Kingston history students win new blogging award

Three undergraduate history students from Kingston University’s History department were rewarded for their very hard work and contributions to the world of history blogs at a recent graduation ceremony.

The three students – Timothy Lortal, Kate Riley and Adreanna Uttke – all graduated at the University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences graduation ceremony, held at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, on Friday 20th July, 2018.


A Kingston history event (Photo: Kate Stevens)

The students were awarded with the new Emily-Violet Award, a new award created by the University’s History team based on an idea and funds generously donated especially for the module by former History undergraduate (and current Kingston History MA student) Stuart Smith, who had undertaken the module himself during his undergraduate degree at Kingston. The award is given to the student (or students) who, in the view of the History staff at the University, have produced the Best Student Contribution to, and Performance on, the History department’s Final year History Capstone blogging module.

Timothy Lortal produced some fascinating work on the British Space programme of the 1950s-1970s, an area of relative neglect in the available scholarly literature. As he pointed out, many people are aware of the Space race involving the USA and USSR; however, ‘much less known is the British Space programme and you might be forgiven for not being aware that there was one’. It had a severely limited budget compared to the virtually unlimited resources of the American and Soviet programmes, but, while its aims were significantly less ambitious, nonetheless it remained important.

Timothy’s history blogging work was also motivated by his own residency on the Isle of Wight and the fact that rockets in the UK’s programme were manufactured and tested ‘not far from where I lived’ – this inspired him to research into its history. Timothy’s research included some scrutiny of some invaluable primary sources available at the National Archives in Kew, near Richmond.

Kate Riley produced some equally fascinating research work for her blog on Hamilton: the Musical, the hit Broadway musical from 2015 that combined hip-hop music and material on the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers. As Kate pointed out, Hamilton has ‘become one of the most successful pieces of musical theatre ever created’. Written by Lin-manuel Miranda, it has won 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy Award,  and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has continued to sell out shows  months in advance.

Kate’s history blogging work was also motivated by the fact that she happened to be one of the lucky people who had managed to obtain a ticket for the show when it finally transferred to London’s West End, and ‘I witnessed for myself this incredible blend of history, hip-hop and politics’. Kate’s work for the blogging module critically evaluated the historical content and messages and meanings that richly pepper the smash-hit theatre production.

Adreanna Uttke produced some intriguing and highly original work for her blog on the ‘Salish Schools’ and their significance in Native American history. As Adreanna pointed out in her blog, she grew up in Spokane, Washington, about five blocks away from the Salish School of Spokane. She also grew up with Native American family members and friends, visiting local reservations and going to ‘pow-wows’ with her Apache-Aztec step-father. Andreanna also became interested in the Salish language when she attended Spokane Falls Community College, and became interested in learning about Salish and its place in the area’s history.

Explaining her decision to blog on the topic, Adreanna said:  ‘When I moved out of Spokane to study my degree at Kingston University I discovered that I had to take a class on blogging and our final blog post and presentation could be on any topic we wanted with a historical connection. As no one in my course had heard of Salish I thought it would be the perfect topic for my blog post’.

The History teaching team at Kingston, together with Mr. Stuart Smith, would all like to congratulate the above three students for their hard work on Kingston’s innovative blogging module and their well-deserved Emily-Violet Awards, and also for their devotion to the world of history blogs, an approach to understanding the past which remains a relatively new, but increasingly important, area in the academic and more general study of history.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge, Senior Lecturer in History, Kingston University

John Galsworthy Building

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Upcoming Talk: Dr. Marisa Linton speaks on Danton versus Robespierre

Ever wondered what the #Metoo movement would make of the French Revolution’s leaders? Dr. Marisa Linton, Associate Professor in History at Kingston University, is speaking at the @FrenchHistoryUK conference being held at the University of Warwick, 9-10th July, 2018, with a paper on Danton versus Robespierre: a Real or a False Polarity?

       Georges_Danton                 220px-robespierre

As well as teaching at Kingston University, Marisa is an active researcher and is a leading international expert on all aspects of the French Revolution. She has given many invited talks on the Revolution, including in the USA, France, Canada, Australia, Germany and Norway. Do take this opportunity to hear her speak at Warwick.

Marisa Linton’s publications include Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

186Linton, Marisa


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Mussolinism in Kingston: How the Italian dictator caused local controversy

After days of political and constitutional stalemate, Italy now has a new government, made up of two populist and controversial parties in an uneasy alliance: the Five-Star Movement and the League (formerly the Northern League). Both parties have referred to the decline of moral values in Italy. The League, in particular, has espoused some disturbing authoritarian and anti-immigrant ideas, but what is noticeable is how various non-Italian politicians and commentators appear to approve of this latest sign of rightwing ‘resurgence’ in Europe, including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.


These developments have coincided with some recent research I conducted on pro-fascist sentiment in interwar Britain. The advent of fascist leader Benito Mussolini to the premiership of Italy in 1922, and his gradual conversion of the country into a full dictatorship over the course of the next 2-3 years, was watched with mixed feelings in this country. A number of commentators took the view that the Duce was very bad news for liberal parliamentary democracy, and a potential threat to wider European peace, while others appeared to strongly admire his apparent ‘rescue’ of Italy from Bolshevism and economic instability.

Those individuals who admired Mussolini and his new regime were often openly enthusiastic about the ‘new Italy’, and expressed this in terms that many of us today (I would hope) still find shocking. However, even back in the 1920s, the fans of Mussolini could often engender similar outrage and dismay. In particular, people could still be dismayed by the number of clergy who appeared to admire Mussolini’s methods, especially his apparent rejection of atheism and the seeming conversion of his country back to more ‘spiritual’ values. Contemporary historians have sometimes referred to this type of sentiment as ‘clerico-fascism’.

At local level in Kingston-on-Thames, in Surrey, a good example of such controversy occurred in June and July, 1927. In late June, 1927, the Surrey Comet carried a lengthy report entitled ‘Saviour of Italy – Brilliant Address on Mussolini’s Career’. This news item gave an account of a talk given at the 37th anniversary of the opening of the Eden Street Wesleyan Church in Kingston, a two day event. On the second day of the celebrations, the Reverend Dr. J.E.B. Kirtlan had given a lecture on ‘Mussolini and what he stands for’.

The Reverend Dr. Kirtlan ‘began by saying that he regarded Mussolini as the greatest personality alive at the present time’. Kirtlan said that he did not mean by this that Mussolini was ‘the best or the greatest’, or even that he was a good man, ‘but that he was a portent’. Dr. Kirtlan proceeded to give an outline of the history of Italy from Ancient Rome to 1860, the year when the new Kingdom of Italy was founded. He noted, however, that Italian parliamentary democracy had ‘degenerated sadly’ over the years.

He then gave the background to Mussolini’s life. After the Great War, Mussolini had, in the Reverend’s view, seen ‘the sinister hand stretched out from Moscow to seize Italy’. Mussolini had realised that Bolshevism was the ‘very incarnation of diabolism’ and if Russian Soviet ideals took hold, it was ‘the end of Italy’. Dr. Kirtlan then proceeded to show to his audience how Mussolini had ‘rescued’ Italians ‘from gross materialism, and brought them back to the foundation truth of the Christian religion – that it was only by sacrifice that the world could be saved’.

Benito Mussolini Posing with Church Dignitaries

Kirtlan noted approvingly that, today, Italian churches were now crowded and, instead of selfishness, people were inspired  by the ‘ideal of service’. Mussolini had brought back the cross into schools, ‘whereas the Russian Soviet taught the people to blaspheme God and to trample and spit upon the crucifix’. Bringing his talk to a close,  Dr. Kirtlan claimed that ‘striking results’ had followed from Mussolini’s policies, ‘as seen in the regenerated and rejuvenated Italy of today’. He added that he did not for a  moment suggest that we needed a Mussolini in England, as we were happily wedded, he said, to constitutional government, ‘but we did need to recover the belief that the ideals of service and sacrifice, as opposed to self-seeking, were the surest foundations of national well-being’. The Reverend T.H. Fenn thanked Kirtlan ‘for his brilliant address…’.

It was no surprise to find that, over the next three weeks, the Surrey Comet carried a number of letters either condemning or supporting the address given by the Reverend Dr. Kirtlan. In the June 29th issue, for example, a letter from Mr. H. Marsden, of Canbury Park Road in Kingston, said that it was ‘with some amazement’ that he had read in the newspaper details of the address delivered by Kirtlan: ‘We have all heard various accounts of the “Duce”, but it is certainly the first time I have heard of him as a kind of Saint’. Marsden added that Mussolini may have produced in Italy some form of order out of chaos, ‘but by what means has he and his blackshirt fascists accomplished it? In most instances by a ruthless reign of terror, equal to, if not surpassing that of Russia’.

A week later, the Comet carried another letter, from Mr. Lewis, of Teddington. This took a more approving stance towards Kirtlan’s views. Lewis claimed that ‘thousands of travellers’ had told us of Italy’s ‘wonderful position’ under Mussolini. According to Lewis, the country had been ‘in a sad state after the war’, with ‘extreme Socialists holding it in a vice’, and religion ‘scouted’. Mussolini, asserted Lewis, had ‘stopped the ruin. There is order out of chaos and thousands of all classes are bound together to keep Italy great’.

Mussolini March on Rome

Similarly, the next edition of the newspaper contained another pro-Mussolini letter. Penned by Mr. Arthur Webb, a Kingston resident who now lived temporarily in Milan, the writer argued that, immediately after the war, Italy had fallen into the hands of ‘people with pronounced Bolshevistic tendencies’. Mussolini, claimed Webb, had ‘saved his country from the fate of Russia’ and created a happy people who were now ‘staunch adherents’ of fascism. The writer asserted: ‘Let all sane-minded Englishmen think of Mussolini as the Saviour of Italy’.

Clearly, there were those who took a notably pro-fascist or sympathetic view of Mussolini and his new authoritarian regime, and approved (it would appear) of the seeming ‘spiritual’ or religious aspects of fascism in Italy. Was the Reverend Dr. J.E.B. Kirtlan himself a ‘clerico-fascist’? There was arguably a strand of this in his thinking. But I have found no evidence that he was a member (either active or passive) of a fascist organisation in this country. What obviously impressed the Reverend was the image of Mussolini as a defender of Christian religion and the church. Moreover, in a markedly stereotypical way, Kirtlan shared the view of a number of other commentators that the Italian character and nation was somehow ‘weak’ and prone to disorder, and in need of the firm hand of authoritarian government. In this sense, Mussolini and his movement was a force for stability and ‘order’, a view that would continue to influence some members of the clergy during the 1930s (including towards the Spanish dictator General Franco).

One suspects that such sentiments and views of Italy are still around today. Indeed, one can detect a growing nostalgia in Italy itself for the ‘good old days’ of Mussolini, or the restoration of the values of ‘strong’ leadership. Personally, I find this very worrying.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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Wake Up! Invasion fears in Surrey during early World War One

By late 1914, it had become very apparent to people in Britain that the ‘great war’ would not be ‘over by Christmas’, as many had initially predicted and hoped. Moreover, as 1914 gave way to the new year of 1915, an increasingly pessimistic and, frankly, alarmist atmosphere began to develop on the Home Front in Britain concerning enemy intentions.

British anti spy poster WW1

One sign of this was increased paranoia about German spies in the country (see, for example, the poster image). Another, and related, sign of the new pessimism was growing talk about the possibility of German military invasion. The most likely place for this, it was claimed, would be on the south coast of England.

Historians are familiar with the fear of enemy invasion that gripped many in Britain in the summer of 1940, during the Second World War. Much less research has been conducted by scholars, though, on the paranoia about invasion of the British Isles that had also developed within just six months of the start of the earlier world war. Yet there are quite noticeable similarities.

Interesting evidence of this can be found at local level in Surrey in early 1915. As a large County situated next to some key southern coastal Counties, the authorities in Surrey had to develop detailed contingency plans for how the whole area would deal with the impact of fighting on the south coast, and the potential mass movement of people and livestock this might entail. The plan appeared to give priority to ensuring successful evacuation of livestock (thus securing valuable food supplies), but minimising the movement of ordinary civilians, thereby avoiding clogging up major County roads or the main Surrey railway stations.

On January 20th, 1915, for example, the local Surrey Comet newspaper, based in Kingston-on-Thames, published a lengthy article on ‘The Defence of the Realm’, which described for readers (as the paper put it) ‘How Surrey Would be Affected by Invasion’.

The Comet noted that a ‘preliminary notice regarding prospective measures to be taken under the Defence of the Realm Act in case of emergency’ had been issued and published in the press in the previous month. Moreover, said the newspaper, the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey was now of the opinion ‘that further information as to the measures being taken should now be communicated to the public’.

The measures, as the Comet summarised them, involved possible interference with ‘the normal routine of the population, the vehicular traffic, and the live stock of the County’, and this necessitated ‘careful preparation beforehand’, with ‘precautionary measures’ taken in advance. As the newspaper explained: ‘The County of Surrey can only be affected by a raid on the Kentish or Sussex coasts accompanied by a landing of the enemy’s troops. Even then it will not be immediately affected, but the first probable result might be a movement of population, vehicles and live stock from the Coast Counties into Surrey’.

The prospective measures would also involve an important role for the police: ‘Should it be necessary at any time to clear any portion of the County for military operations, notices will be sent through the police to individual owners in regard to various types of vehicles or live stock, etc., giving them orders for removal or destruction’.

Readers were also informed that ‘special routes’ had been laid out in these plans, ‘avoiding main roads for the removal of cattle’, and arrangements had been made for ‘local guides’, with ‘billeting stations fixed, and areas into which live stock will be removed selected’. Owners of animals, it was added, ‘would furnish their own herdsmen’.

As for the County’s civilian population more generally, a firm but also reassuring tone was struck in the official guidance, possibly designed to avoid creating mass panic in the event of nearby fighting: ‘The public are not required or advised to leave their homes when an emergency arises, but if any person contemplates doing so, it will not be wise to leave it to the last moment, as the railways may not be available for the movement of civilians and road traffic may be interfered with owing to military requirements’. The guidance added: ‘A general exodus of the population of Surrey would appear to be impracticable’.

Civilians were also warned that the actual defence of the County was to be in the hands of authorised forces only: ‘The civil population will not be allowed to bear arms unless duly enlisted in a Volunteer Corps which has been recognised by the War Office. A register of affiliated Volunteer Corps is being made’.

British recruitment poster 1915 It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bullets

The First World War, of course, also saw a brand new development in warfare between the nations, where the Island of Britain itself became more difficult to defend and no longer felt ‘safe’: bombardment by German aeroplanes or Zeppelins (see the recruitment poster from 1915). The guidance for Surrey thus also noted that ‘precautions should be observed by the inhabitants of towns in the possible event of bombardment by aircraft’. It was advised: ‘Inhabitants of houses should go into the cellars or lower rooms’ and, if an aircraft was seen or heard overhead, ‘crowds should disperse, and all persons should, if possible, take cover’.

Unsurprisingly, the same issue of the Surrey Comet which carried this official guidance also devoted it’s editorial column to commenting on the advice: ‘However unwilling most people are to contemplate invasion or an air raid as imminent, and however we may hope the event will prove that such confidence is well-placed, prudence suggests preparations and adequate arrangements beforehand, less the unexpected happens’.

The Comet editorial argued that, just for that reason, the public ‘are advised to study carefully’ the official notice issued by the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey and also by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

British recruitment poster Lord Kitchener

It is difficult to know or to measure to what extent local people in Surrey did indeed study such advice, but it is also worth noting that, just a few weeks later, the possibility of invasion by the Germans was still being raised by local officials in the County in order to keep people fully alert. In March, 1915, for example, the Mayor of Kingston, Alderman C.H. Burge, appearing alongside Mr. George Cave (Kingston’s Member of Parliament) at a special screening of the War Office recruitment film Wake Up! in Kingston, commented that the film dealt with ‘the question of invasion’.

Burge said that the purpose of the film was ‘to bring home to the minds of a certain section of the community the very real danger that would follow invasion of this country’. He said that ‘those who thought everything would be all right’, and who thought that there was no need for special preparation, were ‘the dreamers upon whom ruin might descend’, and: ‘He wanted them to realise that the German armies were as near to them as the town of Bristol…’.

Keen to see as many local men as possible sign up for military service, both Burge and Cave echoed the title of the film being shown, and evidently wanted (as they saw it) to shake people out of their slumber and complacency and awaken them to their patriotic duty. The war, proclaimed Burge, ‘was a national work, and each one could do something to the best of his power and ability for the motherland’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

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