Daniel Travers. The Second World War and the 'Other British Isles': Memory and Heritage in the Isle of Man, Orkney, and the Channel Islands. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 248 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-00694-2.
Reviewed by Danielle Wirsansky (Florida State University)
Published on H-War (March, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
The Second World War and the ‘Other British Isles’ explores in detail the delicate balance of memory and heritage that the Isle of Man, Orkney, and the Channel Islands face with identities and wartime experiences. The author, Daniel Travers, presents the case that those who lived and do live in the British Isles have chosen to remember and commemorate the war differently from what he dubs the “finest hour” narrative that the majority of Britain has long embraced. He states that the book will show readers that “‘the other British Isles’ are capable of picking and choosing from elements of the ‘finest hour’ and appropriating British symbolism in order that they may carve a niche for their stories in the glorious British war narrative” (p. 16). Rather than trying to explain how the citizens of these islands fit into a mold of the British collective wartime experience of World War II, Travers explains how the idea of Britishness can seep into and influence all aspects of these related micro-societies. To support his thesis, he uses the anecdotes of locals, memorials, the celebration of wartime anniversaries, the actions of cultural and heritage-based organizations, and detailed histories of these micro-societies’ experiences, which decidedly few scholars and historians are familiar with.
The author’s introduction is outstanding. Incredibly well written, it successfully lays out the framework for the text, clearly identifies the thesis, and even acknowledges the problematic whitewashing of the history of a multiracial and diverse Britain. His terms are easily and clearly defined and are even accompanied by graphics used to further help pinpoint the terminology regarding the British Isles. He also makes the interesting point that in the British Isles, it was often island identity before British identity that helped set the precedent for how islanders viewed their own identity. The historiography is also well documented, finding a middle ground between being too spare or overburdening readers with too much background. His breakdown of the book is a spot-on description of each section and chapter to come.
Chapter 1 details the widely accepted British collective’s memory of World War II—the idea of the war being Britain’s “finest hour”—and shows how that fed into the way the nation commemorated it. Travers adequately describes the macro British society at large, before diving into the micro-societies that made up the British Isles. However, I found the first section, “Collective Remembrance and the British War Narrative,” to be a little too repetitive as most of that information is also discussed in the introduction. The second section of chapter 1, “Manifestations of the Myth-Sites of Memory,” is much more compelling than the first. I appreciate the point about how institutions often cannot find the room to showcase multiple points of view in remembrance. For example, Eden Camp, though it mostly held German prisoners of war (POWs), only showcased the experience of POWs in general in one out of thirty-two huts where visitors could go to learn about the war, feeding into the problematic practice of museums, who heed visitors’ desire to pay to see stereotypes rather than a more honest or diverse history.
I thoroughly enjoyed chapter 2, which gives a brief foray into the wartime experiences of each of the three featured British Isles and explains how each entity’s experience was different than that of the British collective. The examples of small local events affecting Britain nationally are also effective. Chapters 3-5 each focus on one of the islands featured in the book, the Isle of Man, Orkney, and the Channel Islands. Travers describes the wartime experiences in detail, and he shows how these experiences have shaped these micro-societies’ memories and how this in turn affected their cultural and heritage practices of remembrance.
The conclusion is a bit repetitive; while a conclusion is not necessarily supposed to give more information, it starts out seemingly similar to the introduction. There is perhaps too much referencing of Angus Calder’s The Myth of the Blitz (1991), Malcom Smith’s Britain and 1940 (2001), and Mark Connelly’s We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (2004) throughout the book. However, the later portions of the conclusion become stronger. I found Travers’s articulation of Angela Gaffney’s understanding of the memory of war in Britain very apt, explaining that fallen soldiers are first seen and commemorated as British citizens rather than Welsh, Scottish, Manx, or otherwise. Travers’s personal conclusion is that the reality is that “island identity is influenced by constant interaction—politically, culturally, economically, and historically with Britain”—and that islanders do not have to be entirely British or entirely islander in perspective; a middle ground can be found (p. 169).
The book is filled with interesting tidbits and factoids that not only pull a reader in more but also actually still help Travers to make his argument. One such example is how the Manx Museum, to celebrate the lack of casualties by air dropped missiles on the Isle of Man, put the carcass of a frog on display, touting it as the sole casualty of the Luftwaffe. I appreciate the author’s acknowledgment of the power that veterans can have as agents of heritage as their involvement in the conflict is often seen as the most “authentic” over other wartime experiences but that often these stories must be treated with care and taken at face value until they can be confirmed due to the unreliability of memory.
This book will be helpful for those hoping to get a more diverse look at Britain’s World War II history, students of public history interested in the perpetuation and evolution of memory and commemoration, and those looking to gain more knowledge about the British Isles.
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Danielle Wirsansky. Review of Travers, Daniel, The Second World War and the 'Other British Isles': Memory and Heritage in the Isle of Man, Orkney, and the Channel Islands.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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