Transforming the ways we commemorate war

Dr Niall Munro and Dr Jane Potter

Dr Niall Munro and Dr Jane Potter are united in a common aim: to change perceptions of war poetry and how we commemorate war. Their work at the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre harnesses new research and positive action to take a fresh look at writings about war, to bring people together to discuss commemoration, and to work creatively with military veterans.

“To change perceptions of war poetry and how we commemorate war. ”

Challenging assumptions about well-known war poets

Dr Jane Potter
Dr Jane Potter

As a leading international expert on First World War poetry, Jane’s extensive research into Wilfred Owen’s life and letters and how these interplay with his poetry has challenged his reputation as ‘the poet of pity’ and his perceived pacifism. She has also led the call for wider recognition of First World War women writers like American-British novelist and poet Mary Borden. A reappraisal of the notion of ‘war poet’, is also needed, she argues, to include non-combatants. Her reassessment continues by examining the letters, diaries and weblogs of nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers across both world wars, the Vietnam War and Iraq.

During the period of the First World War centenary, Jane shared her findings on high-profile media shows like BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour and The Jeremy Vine Show. She was interviewed too for the 2018 Sky Arts film The Pity of War, seen by an estimated 8 million people.

Her passionate advocacy of women’s voices during conflict was picked up by Beatrice Rubens, Radio 3 producer of the 2018 Minds of War series. She remarked that Jane’s programme about Mary Borden, which reached an audience of 132,000, was ‘important in extending knowledge of the First World War and of lesser-known female artists.’  

Commemoration - what should it look like?

Jane also spoke to public audiences about the capacity of poetry to diversify how we commemorate war, appearing at many events including a production of Britten’s War Requiem in 2018 at Guildford Cathedral. She also contributed to an interactive app about Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Devised by Ian Bennett at Anglia Ruskin University, it was designed to reach new audiences and was downloaded nearly 300 times in the UK, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and other countries.

In exploring what commemoration should look like in the 21st century, Niall has undertaken groundbreaking work as part of a major project. In collaboration with Professor Kate McLoughlin and Dr Catherine Gilbert from the University of Oxford, the ‘Post-War’ project brought together more than 1,200 participants and audience members from at least 24 countries, including artists, writers, composers, lawyers, academics, theologians and war veterans.

Over a series of 14 events, internationally recognised speakers and participants explored how stories of war are recorded and remembered, and how we might do commemoration better. The project captured the attention of a much wider audience too with 6,550 visits to the website homepage and 4,800+ visits to the podcast page.

A shared international focus

On Commemoration book cover

The consensus was that in a globalised world, we need to shift away from outdated nationalistic practices, focusing instead on shared international perspectives. In the subsequent book, On Commemoration, 50 international contributors, including renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, award-winning novelists Aminatta Forna and Rachel Seiffert, and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, endorsed a transnational approach. They argued that greater sensitivity to current conflicts is essential when remembering past wars.

Both projects have also helped to develop new poetry as an essential means of commemoration and through On Commemoration have provided poets with an opportunity to see their work published.  

Empowering military veterans through poetry

Drawing on his research about the literary memory of the American Civil War, another important strand of Niall’s work was the Veterans’ Poetry Workshops, which he set up in 2018 at the Poetry Centre alongside Jane, poet Susie Campbell, psychologist Dr Rita Phillips, and veteran and PhD researcher Alex Donnelly.

In a bid to challenge the stereotypical image of a veteran as an old white male soldier, the workshops provided a space where UK and US veterans could offer alternative viewpoints. Rather than take a therapeutic approach, the emphasis was on enabling veterans to hone their poetry as artists, regardless of their writing experience. The resulting ebook, ‘My teeth don’t chew on shrapnel’: an anthology of poems by military veterans, reached an international audience and has been downloaded over 800 times. Several of the veterans have continued writing and their work has been published in other books, poetry pamphlets, magazines, and online. 

Veterans’ Poetry Workshops
Veterans’ Poetry Workshops


Transforming commemoration

Through their ongoing research, public and academic engagement, and their work with veterans, Niall and Jane have set out to transform how we remember conflict and military life. The result has been a reshaping of public understanding into a much richer, more multi-faceted view of what war poetry and commemoration means in the 21st century. 

Image credits:

Letters - Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
Candles - Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay 
Afghanistan - Image by Amber Clay from Pixabay