Meeting in No Man’s Land

Meeting in No Man’s Land: German and British elders exchange family histories from The First World War

Age Exchange, the leading UK charity working in the field of reminiscence, received an award of £83,900 from The Heritage Lottery fund.

Participants Hillary and Dieter exchange their moving family histories from The First World War

Creating the project structure and making the film documentary 

This unique and ambitious project will conclude in April 2017 after 15 months of intense activity. Of the almost 4000 First World War projects and events supported by the Heritage Lottery during the commemoration period, “Meeting in No Man’s Land” was the only one that brought British and German descendants together to share their family history of the war and its legacy across the generations.
The concept behind and structure of “Meeting in No Man’s Land” was formulated over 18 months. The focus on family histories passed down from those who fought, or experienced the war as non-combatants, to children and grandchildren, grew partly from Age Exchange’s 2014 London based intergenerational arts and heritage project “Children of the Great War”.

The idea to develop this project keeping the family focus but bringing the descendants of former enemies together grew originally from a meeting between David Savill of Age Exchange and Elfriede Pauli of Caritas in Rosenheim, Bavaria. These discussions led to firstly discussions with HLF and then Everyday Lives in War (Herts, Essex) and Professor Mike Roper. Then in January 2016 Age Exchange and Everyday Lives in War flew to Germany to spend 3 days with committed partners from Caritas in Rosenheim, Münchner Bildungswerke, Programme Die Lange Schatten des Krieges, and Bayerischen Rundfunk.

First day of filming British and German descendants in Caritas, Rosenheim, April 2016

Over 3 days partners worked extremely hard to create a programme structure that would enable descendants from both countries to meet for 5 days in Spring 2016, and participate in an intense programme of filmed discussions, reflection, interviews, art workshops, heritage events, as well as time to relax together and socialise. This January planning between the partner organisations was also used as an opportunity for us as individuals to share our feelings about the history of the war, and our own personal family histories from that period. In other words we felt we should first try and exchange our own heritage and feelings about this emotive subject, before expecting elders to participate. This sometimes painful but empathetic and open process and experience lay firm foundations for the project to come. Along with the sharing of family reminiscence – it also became apparent that an important part of the ‘Meeting in No Man’s Land’ project should be an opportunity for descendants to show each other family artefacts, letters, diaries from the war, illustrating the story they had brought to exchange. And with Mike Roper and his colleague Rachel Duffett in the lead, all partners expressed a desire to encourage descendants to share their own experience of the legacy that the First World War had in their family and for them personally.

The premiere of “Meeting in No Man’s Land” at the British Film Institute, London Southbank

After an enormous amount of preparation in London and in Bavaria 23 descendants were brought together for 5 days in Rosenheim and Munich between 7th and 12th April. Before the filmed activities, paired interviews, discussion groups etc both German and British descendants were filmed individually sharing their family history of the war. All partners felt these pre-interviews were important not only in capturing important historical material and story, but we also wanted to see how these histories might change or be adapted when shared with descendants of former enemies. And indeed this was noticeable when the group came together.
Over the period of the exchange we filmed 52 hours of interviews and activity and digitised almost 700 family First World War artefacts, letters and diaries and photos. The experience for everyone involved was a deeply moving and humbling one. Participants commented throughout the process and at the end, how important the meeting was. Family histories shared were listened to with great empathy and understanding. There were man tears and clearly friendships were being formed that would last well beyond the length of the project. Though the partners had not intended Reconciliation to be a part of the meeting, it became for all the descendants a hugely important reason for being together and sharing the stories of their parents and grandparents. There were many outcomes from the meeting of descendants and these can best be seen and understood through watching the documentary

From returning to the UK with the British descendants Age Exchange led by film maker Ivan Riches and David Savill, worked flat out to edit all the film material from the meeting in Germany in order to create a 90 minute documentary. The documentary premiered in July 2016 at the National Film Theatre, marking the 100th Anniversary since the Battle of the Somme. It was a very emotional and proud moment for the many British and German descendants who along with the project partners attended the premiere. David Somerset of the BFI and Karen Brookfield Deputy Director of HLF introduced the film with Elfriede Pauli, who had been so central to the creation of the project.

Since the screening on the Southbank, “Meeting in No Man’s Land” has played in many heritage venues and schools, libraries, and care settings. In November the documentary had its German premiere at the beautiful old cinema in Bad Endorf Bavaria (the venue of the exchange in April) and in Munich. The screenings were packed and covered across the German media. The film has since been entered to the international documentary film festival held in Germany, the Nonfiktionale

Creating the Smartphone app with London Schools

Painting by Ellie from St Ursula’s Convent School, Greenwich

Back in the UK between September and December Age Exchange worked with 4 London Secondary schools, using the film and digital material from the project to inspire students to create their own interpretation and response through art, poetry, animation, performance, and film. Simon Purins and Malcolm Jones from Age Exchange led on this element of the project. Some really wonderful and moving outcomes resulted from 3 months of work. And the students’ creative response has now been integrated along with original project interviews and digital material into a smartphone app for schools, and for school children touring Frist World War battlefields. The app will be used by Battlefield Tours and marketed by the Institute of Education for all UK secondary schools to use which are studying the Frist World War. The smartphone LAYAR app of “Meeting in No Man’s Land” will be available from February 2017. It will also be available HEREwith video links HERE.

Open days recording the London public’s First World War family history

Open day with Chelsea Football Club

Along with the making of the documentary, and the work with schools, throughout 2016 Age Exchange ran Project Open Days for the London public with a host of partner organisations. In response to publicity across London boroughs members of the public brought family histories from the war and shared these as part of a programme of recorded interviews As part of the interview process the public also brought along family artefacts, letters, photos, and diaries from the war, which were digitised and along with the interview no form part of a project archive which can be found online at HistoryPin

Project activity is nearing conclusion with final film screenings at Clapham Picturehouse, Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and with Everyday Lives in War at the University of Essex. However the documentary will continue to serve as an online heritage resource for people around the World interested in the First World War, and family history shared by both German and British descendants. And perhaps the most important legacy of the project itself is the work with schools and the Smartphone app which will be available for students and teachers studying the war for years to come.

British and German descendants hold the chain they have made linking the dog tags of fathers and grandfathers who fought


In creating this project concept David Savill (Artistic Director, Age Exchange) would specifically like to thank Elfriede Pauli, Caritas in Rosenheim Bavaria, and Hedwig Petzet, Caritas, Karin Wimmer-Billeter, Melanie Somer Münchner Bildungswerke, Programme Die Lange Schatten des Krieges, and Jürgen Mueller-Hohagen, Hanne Kircher, Margarita Wolf-Lenz
Karen Brookfield, Anne Dodwell, Rebecca Jenkins of The Heritage Lottery Fund


To find out more about ‘Meeting in No Man’s Land’ , please contact David Savill  at Age Exchange (020 8318 9105)
Follow us on Twitter @NoMansLand2016

For Age Exchange’s previous London-based WW1 project from 2014, see
Twitter: @YourGreatWar

About the Heritage Lottery Fund
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British and German medals, kept by the families of those who fought