Narrating Britain's War: A 'Four Nations and More' Approach to the People's War

Daniel Travers, Paul Ward

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Memories of the Second World War have been central to understandings of Britishness in the post-war period. During the war itself, there was a concerted effort by the state to produce an unproblematic narrative of the war as Britons standing alone in adversity. At the centre of the development of this war story was Winston Churchill, the charismatic leader of the people, whose lionization proved pivotal to creation of the British national war story. Elements of the war considered to be in the spirit of ‘Britishness’ were deliberately maintained by national consensus. Aspects such as the snatching victory from the jaws of defeat at Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, rationing, evacuation, social levelling, and the ‘make do and mend’ attitude, became the accepted version of the war experience, while divisive and tangential aspects of the war were marginalized. National commemorations over subsequent decades both drew from and reasserted this particular experience. Historians too played a part in the construction of the British war narrative: A.J.P. Taylor described Churchill as ‘the saviour of his country’ and Richard Titmuss’s official history of the war encouraged the interpretation that a ‘People’s War’ had created a People’s Peace in the British welfare state. As early as the 1960s however, some historians set about deconstructing the ‘myth of the Blitz’ as Angus Calder called it. Some like Clive Ponting looked purely for historical accuracy, pointing out every discrepancy he could find in 1940: Myth and Reality (1990). Other historians, like Malcolm Smith and Mark Connelly became interested in the meaning of the myths surrounding the war and what they meant for British national culture. This chapter will explore both the wartime construction of the myth and the role of historians in its discussion.
Furthermore, it explores the continuing engagement of British society with the Second World War through commemoration and memorialisation. It considers the complexities of the public history of the Second World War by taking a ‘four nations and more’ approach. It considers how the ‘Churchill paradigm’ masks the assertion of local, regional and national identities through commemoration of the diverse experiences of war across the United Kingdom.
The traditional British war narrative suggests unity and uniformity yet the experiences of ‘alien’ communities like the Italians and West Indians, alongside regional experiences in the Channel Islands (conquered by Nazi Germany), the Isle of Man (used as an island prison), and Northern Ireland (where rhetoric of unity was resisted by a Protestant Unionist government seeking to maintain its exclusivity), suggest that a nuanced understanding is necessary to unpick the real significance of memories of war in the formation of British identities. This chapter will take an inclusive look at the United Kingdom and its people, gauging the acceptance of the Churchillian paradigm in populations which it has seemed to marginalise and in regions whose distinct history diverges from the ‘accepted’ version of events.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Long Aftermath
Subtitle of host publicationCultural Legacies of Europe at War, 1936-2016
EditorsManuel Bragança, Peter Tame
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherBerghahn Books
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781782381549
ISBN (Print)9781782381532
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015

Publication series

NameContemporary European History


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