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 in 2016 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 November 2017 after 18 months of intense activity in London and in Munich. 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 of First World War soldiers together to share their family history of the war and its legacy within their families across the generations.

The concept behind this unique project and the international partnerships intrinsic to its success grew throughout a long planning process which began in the Autumn of 2014. The decision to choose family histories passed down from those who fought, or experienced the war as non-combatants, to children and grandchildren was a decision which was partly shaped by Age Exchange’s London based intergenerational arts and heritage project “Children of the Great War”. The idea to develop this project through activity focusing on family legacy including the ambitious decision to bring the descendants of former enemies together, grew from meetings between David Savill of Age Exchange and Elfriede Pauli of Caritas Rosenheim, which took place in London and 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 24 descendants from both countries to meet for 4 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.

After an enormous amount of preparation in London and in Bavaria 23 descendants were brought together for 4 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 as a first recording of important family histories, but in order that we might form a comparison and see how these histories might change or be adapted when shared by individual participants with descendants of former enemies. And indeed this was noticeable when the group came together and became a highlight of the project.

Over the period of the exchange we filmed over 60 hours of interviews and project 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 many tears and clearly friendships were being formed that would last well beyond the length of the project. (In fact this has grown into being a major project outcome with visits and meetings and further exhibitions about the process of the project being ongoing. It has included some British descendants learning German and some German participants learning English too!) Though the project 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 then in Munich. The screenings were packed and covered across the German media. The film was entered into the international documentary film festival held in Germany, the Nonfiktionale.

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

Creating the Smartphone app with London Schools

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 is also available HERE. It is currently being used by schools in the UK, Southern Germany and in Austria.

Open day with Chelsea Football Club

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

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 concluded 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 (versions for UK and German audience) 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 German and British descendants.

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 here
Twitter: @YourGreatWar

British and German medals, kept by the families of those who fought

Other news and academic articles and presentations for “Meeting in No Man’s Land”

‘Making Histories’ – Read our Artistic Director’s comments on academic paper published by The Public Historian

“Between 2015 and 2016 Age Exchange undertook a truly unique project with partner organisations in Germany. ‘Meeting in No Man’s Land’ brought together British and German descendants of First World War soldiers, who shared their family histories from the War with each other over 5 days in the Spring of 2016.

“Of over 4,000 First World War projects carried out during the anniversary period, only 2 [organizations] in the UK attempted to work with Germany; “Meeting in No Man’s Land” was one of these. Our academic partners from the University of Essex (supported by Everyday Lives in War and Peace) have since published several articles on the process behind and learning from the project. The most recent, by Professor Mike Roper and Doctor Rachel Duffett, is published in the international history journal THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN (VOLUME 40)  which can be read by clicking on the link [proof copy]”

The Institute of Historical Research to host a seminar on “Meeting in No Man’s Land” film by Age Exchange

Meeting in No Man’s Land, Age Exchange’s acclaimed Anglo/German First World War project from 2016, continues to inspire and engage – latterly at UCL, plus screenings of the original film are confirmed in Austria.

“Making Histories in No Man’s Land: Reflections on the First World War Commemorations of British and German descendants” will be co presented by Professor Mike Roper, Doctor Rachel Duffett, and David Savill, Artistic Director at Age Exchange. Read more about the event.

The Institute of Historical Research at UCL (Senate House) on 28th February 5.30pm-7.30pm.
IHR, John S Cohen Room, N203, Second Floor, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Background to the event

In early 2016, Age Exchange’s Artistic Director collaborated with Rachel Duffett and Michael Roper from the University of Essex in hosting a five-day event in Bavaria, which explored the family legacies of the First World War among British and German descendants. In this seminar, we talk about our experience of bringing together family stories from across the national boundaries of ‘No Man’s Land’, and reflect on our experience as practitioners working across the boundaries of heritage and history.

Dieter Filsinger’s (German participant’s) Grandfather holding his father as a baby. Dieter is pictured above with Hilary, his British counterpart and fellow participant in Meeting in No Man’s Land, sharing this photo

Professor Michael Roper is a social and cultural historian of twentieth-century Britain based in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex. He is currently working on a Leverhulme Trust funded project about childhood and family legacies of the Great War in Britain, and a study of the War’s impact across three generations of his own family in Australia. He is a Co-investigator in the University of Hertfordshire’s AHRC/HLF Engagement Centre, ‘Everyday Lives in the First World War’, which funded the collaboration with Age Exchange.

Dr Rachel Duffett is a social and cultural historian of twentieth-century Britain based in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex. She has a particular interest in the material culture of the First World War and its legacies in the interwar years, and is a researcher in AHRC/HLF Centre, ‘Everyday Lives in the First World War’.

David Savill is the Artistic Director of Age Exchange, specializing in Reminiscence practice with older people in care and community settings. David joined Age Exchange in 1998 and his work with older people and with intergenerational groups has resulted in many theatre productions, exhibitions, documentary film, and most recently dance. David has lectured and presented on the work of Age Exchange at Universities and drama schools around the UK. He has also worked on various projects, productions, and conferences with partners in Germany, Poland, Ireland, and Australia.

Austria hosts “Meeting in No Man’s Land”

Two screenings of “Meeting in No Man’s Land” in Austria (Innsbruck) will take place, on the 14th of March and on Armistice Day this year, chosen by the Kino to commemorate the 100thanniversary. Thanks to our friend Elfriede, our Austrian contact responsible for making this possible!

Austrian screenings

Age Exchange, January 2018