This time last year, John Simmons and I approached Imperial War Museums with the idea to mark the centenary of Armistice through the power of words. We were thrilled to find IWM as enthusiastic as we were, and John immediately set about creating a new literary form: the centena, exactly 100 words with the opening and closing three words repeated. In February this year, we opened the project up to 100 writers – instead of the usual 26 – and watched as every place was taken in less than 24 hours.
Now, after an enormous amount of work from our writers, editors, project team and IWM’s First World War Partnership (FWWP) team, we are just days away from the official launch. To write that sentence is both joyous and a little overwhelming.
Alongside the project team, I have had the enormous pleasure of reading all 100 centenas over the past few weeks. And it is no exaggeration to say that this is a remarkable body of work, each piece commemorating someone who was alive at the outbreak of the First World War. Our subjects hail from all over the world – as befits a world war – and represent all walks of life.
There are soldiers of varying nationality fighting on the Western Front – naturally – but there are also hospital ship sick berth attendants caring for the injured and nurses protecting patients as bombs fall; there are wives and husbands, parents and siblings, all coping with the loss of loved ones in their own unique way; there are refugees fleeing what they love and sometimes finding hope in new endeavours; there are photographers and writers making sure we remember the horrors; and there are even suffragettes and Irish soldiers fighting for a different kind of life outside the main theatre of war. They reflect a generation that is no longer with us – many of whom felt unable to speak of what they saw, or died before they even had the chance.
From 5 August until 12 November – 100 days – each centena will be posted at both IWM’s FWWP website, www.1914.org, and here at 26. Several writers have also had the chance to commit their centenas to film, thanks to IWM’s in-house team and these will appear on the writer’s IWM page and be used to promote the project. IWM will also officially launch the project.
And, as John wrote in his previous update, there will be a book; something we felt passionately about right from the start. Reading through each centena only made us more determined. So, after failing to secure Heritage Lottery Funding, we set up a crowdfunding page on JustGiving. As well as raising money to print copies of the book, we intend to donate profits to War Child, a charity that helps children all around the world trying to survive current conflicts. The response has been wonderful – we’ve already reached our target. We want to go beyond the target, though, and as well as following the project online over the coming months, I would urge 26 members to visit our JustGiving crowdfunding page and consider pledging to buy a copy, or three, of the book, to share these stories.
All too often these days it feels as though the power of words is used only to provoke and divide. To tell us what we are not and why we shouldn’t. This project offers an alternative view; an opportunity to remember that what connects us to one another, to our ancestors, to our children and to our children’s children is our humanity. You will meet people who showed true compassion in the face of appalling circumstances, who chose to protect others before themselves, who found ways to turn hate into good. These stories will inspire you and break your heart.
Many years ago, during a break from my Saturday job at Waterstone’s, I sat in the staff room reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A colleague noticed and told me how jealous she was. Confused, I asked her why. She replied, ‘because you are reading this for the first time and I know what joy is coming.’
That is precisely how I feel about this incredible project. Over the next three months, you are going to read these centenas for the first time and I know what joy is coming.
This remarkable body of work deserves to be preserved in a book. We’re raising £11,000 to help children affected by war and publish this incredible body of work in a book – all profits go to War Child. We’ve already raised £5,500, which means the book will definitely be published so thanks to all who have donated so far. But we want to keep going to help more children. Please help us make that happen by visiting our JustGiving crowdfunding page.
And come and celebrate this remarkable project with some of the writers and editors who made it happen: on 5 September, 26 will be hosting a celebration of the Armistice 100 Days project. Details are still being worked out, but if you would like to attend please email firstname.lastname@example.org by August 1st and we will add you to the list to receive further details.