Britain and the World Wars: Experience, Identity and Public History

An inaugural lecture by Professor Ian Whitehead.

Inaugural lecture: Professor Ian Whitehead

Initially trumpeted as the ‘Great War for Civilisation’, the First World War has become the definition of the futility of war. It is characterised by a narrative of failure, inept leaders and callous generals. It is the view of the War that was presented to great comic effect in Blackadder Goes Forth. The Second World War, by contrast, is usually depicted as a worthwhile conflict, which united the British people in a collective effort, overcoming social divisions and laying the foundations of a better post-war society.

Professor Whitehead showed how his research has contributed to questioning some of these easy assumptions about Britain’s experience in both conflicts. He drew on his work in areas such as medicine in the Wars, the Home Front experience, and the evolution of British identity. In doing so, he addressed the importance of public history in helping to uncover and communicate different perspectives on Britain’s experience of the World Wars.

Professor Whitehead outlined his research over the past 35 years, highlighting how a focus on personal experience has helped to shape more nuanced narratives about Britain and the two world wars of the twentieth century.

Professor Ian Whitehead

Professor Ian Whitehead is in the Department of the Provost Learning and Teaching. He leads the University’s Online Hub and the Pedagogic Innovation, Enhancement and Research team. He has published on various aspects of British experience in the First and Second World Wars. 
His most recent publication was ‘The Great War and British Identity’ in P H Liddle, Britain and Victory in the Great War (2018).