Sunday, August 28, 2005

Comparative Cultural History

Right, away from the literature/history dichotomy that seems to have been dominating my writing here since it began, some actual WWI related thoughts. One of the problems of British history of the First World War - both that which examines the war itself and that which looks at its mythic aftermath - is that the war tends to viewed as unique.
Spurred on by the writings of John Terraine, British military historians have tried to place the Western Front in the context of other modern total wars, but often on a comparatively simple level. This usually takes the form of a statistical comparison of rates of recruitment, numbers of divisions and percentage losses. Useful to a degree (although a statistic is like a glove puppet - stick your hand far enough up its backside and it'll say anything) - but often decontextualised.
This is much more, however, than analysts of the British mythology/cultural memory have done. Although there have been attempts to compare British remembrance with that of other participants in the First World War - see the work of Stefan Goebel and Jenny Macleod - there hasn't so far as I know, been a proper comparison with other wars over the long term, in an effort to bring out the effects of anniversaries, generational change, cultural context and so on.

What might be our criteria for choosing other wars? Off the top of my head, some combination of:
1) scale and totality - level of popular involvement
2) media context - presence of myth-making and spreading structures
3) subsequent impact - how well have they been remembered?
4) ease of access to resources - including, for the moment, my lack of linguistic skills/background knowledge - although my French isn't too bad, my French history is rubbish.

On these grounds, I wondered about comparisons with:
The English Civil War (huge popular involvement, very different media context)
The Napoleonic Wars (in Britain relatively much less popular involvement (depending on how we rate militia service), different media context)
The Indian Mutiny (following a suggestion from Astrid Erll) (tiny popular involvement but huge impact at the time, start of the modern media age - photographs)
The American Civil War - the most obvious source of comparison, I think
The Boer War
Second World War - obvious and probably already being written.

The idea would be to follow through the mythology of these wars in the century or so after they ended, examine how their myths developed and changed, and compare these processes to those which operated in Britain, 1918-2008ish.

Responses, anyone?

5 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

My response is that if I weren't so ethically pure I'd steal that for my dissertation topic and run cackling into the night.

Seriously though, it sounds to me like an interesting study waiting to happen.

5:20 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Too big for one dissertation, I fear. More like a lifetime collaborative project. Time to start recruiting more PhD students...

7:01 PM  
Blogger MaryB said...

Still struck by the comparative mythic/national psyche/can't-put-it-to-rest stature of WWI for Britain and the Civil War for the US (as I mentioned in an earlier comment). Why can't we let go of these two wars? Why do they stick in our craw? Why are we horrified by them? Why do we romanticize them? What do they say about our better (or worse) angels that transcend a few bloody battles at Antietam or Ypres? Something is there that strikes such a deep, collective national chord that we fight and analyze them over and over (much more so than WWII or The War of the Roses or the American Revolution). Work on that one for me, could you? (And I think you're right - too big for one dissertation.)

7:43 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, three reasons:
1) scale of national involvement. Mass participation means everyone can find a link to these wars.
2) primacy: neither country had experienced anything like this before. The first experience of total war strikes deep.
3) utility: these wars were constructed - even as they were being fought - in a host of ways that tapped into shared national beliefs. So we have a tradition of using them to tell us about ourselves (what it means to be British or American, what we think of fighting and the military, race relations (in the States), class (in Britain)).
How's that to be going on with?

10:26 AM  
Blogger Chris Williams said...

I've got the impression that it was the Peninsula War rather than any of the other campaigns of the Great Wars that left its mark on the British officer class - although I could be wrong.

Who's counted the manpower mobilisation rates 1793-1815? I was under the impression that they were pretty large, even if you don't count the militia: and if you don't then you ought to scale down the comparable estimates of WW1 and WW2: 'uncount' large chunks of the RN, the RAF and the army who in the wars of the C20th remained at home in non-combatant roles.

Another one: Crimea.

All this could be approached with a mass communications metholodology, using 'content analysis' methods on newspapers and possibly publishers' lists to look at the coverage of wars and the longevity of the impression that they leave. This methodology is a bit dodgy to my mind, but it doesn't half allow you to cover a lot of ground.

10:56 AM  

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