Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Uncovering the First World War (2)

Further thoughts on Dublin.

Some thoughts about how to improve the next conference:

The conference organisers did a great job of putting together a stellar cast of conference attendees. About 60 academics and students attended in total, including more than half of the world’s leading authorities on aspects of the First World War from the UK, Ireland, France, Germany and the US. I’ve thought in the past that a spot of food poisoning would be an excellent career development opportunity. At one sweep, you could create the room for all the junior academics to move up the ladder and all the postgrads to get jobs (presumably I will keep chuckling about this until I’m at the top, at which point I will start checking the kitchens).
This is one of the best features of the conference: the opportunity for young researchers to have their work commented on by their seniors.
I wonder, however, if it hasn’t rather outgrown itself. The problem with having 60 scholars, some of them big names, in one room, is that it doesn’t necessarily encourage discussion, particularly from postgraduates who are sometimes just starting their research. Many people will make points, but any discussion that starts has to be curtailed reasonably quickly so that the next paper can begin. And you have to have a chairperson with a hand of iron to force senior academics to be succinct. It struck me that very often we were saying ‘we need some comparative information about this topic’ and that the basis for that information might be in the room. But to access it, you have to have an environment in which scholars are happy to speculate.
(Personally, I always operate from a minimal knowledge base and I suffer from a pronounced inability to keep my trap shut, so I have no problem floating ideas which are subsequently shot down. But a conference room full of mes would be absolutely unbearable. And very noisy.)
So here’s a suggestion for whoever gets the ‘opportunity’ to organise this next time. How about parallel sessions, capped at a maximum of 20 participants each, with the academic big guns spread between the two, and chairpersons empowered to ask experts to provide that comparative perspective?
Please note that this is in no way intended as a criticism of the conference organisers, who I will continue to praise to the high heavens. It’s aimed to be part of a continuing dialogue which will improve the next occasion.

Incidentally, those interested in finding the full conference programme can download it here.

Uncovering the First World War in Dublin post 1

Monday, September 26, 2005

Uncovering the First World War (1)

Just back from the 'Uncovering the First World War' conference in Dublin. Obviously, ideally I should have been blogging this as it happened, posting from the conference hall on a wireless network, possibly whilst sipping my triple strength expresso and bopping to my ipod nano. But academic that I am, I preferred to actually participate: not least in the socialising and drinking that make these events so important. I've also found that blogging these things afterwards is a great way to make myself reflect on what happened. Rather than trying to summarise every paper that was given, I'm going to make a few points about the format of the conference, the range of papers, some key bits of information that I picked up and what seemed to me to be the key themes.

1) Format. The aim of this conference - the third in a series originally by the International Society for First World War Studies - was to allow postgraduates to share their work with more established academics. It was set up differently from most others. Every paper was published online (on a password protected site) before the conference took place. Every participant was expected to read all the papers. In each session more senior scholars acted as discussants, summarising and commenting on papers. The paper's author then responded, before general discussion ensued. This approach has some clear advantages - it involves the audience, it makes for less conference fatigue than other formats (ie it was possible to maintain attention beyond the third paper of the day) and it should put everybody on a similar footing - making it easier for postgrads to present their work. It does rely on everybody reading most of the papers - not too much of a problem, in fact, since academic guilt/fear of appearing stupid creates an effective moral economy - and on discussants recognising that they are meant to provide constructive criticism. Fortunately, it's generally a friendly field, and most did so.

2) Range of papers - I was only in Dublin for two out of three days, but the papers I saw ranged widely in terms of subject, approach and area. Three subjects that often came up which might particularly interest readers of this blog: early war Britain, occupation studies (probably the fastest growing field of WWI research over the last few years), and national identities.

3) Random interesting facts I came away with:

There's an Argentine football team called Douglas Haig FC, set up by an Englishman in November 1918 to commemorate the Field Marshal. Those with better Spanish than mine can find out some more through here. They seem to have done quite well in the 1920s and 1930s, but now they’re in the Second Division. Obviously, I am now frantically trying to buy a team strip on ebay. (Thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield). Their Dennis the Menace style crest is at the top of this post.

b) Romanian prisoners suffered worse than any other PoWs in Germany – 29% didn’t come back.

c) In another aspect of my life, I’m sometimes quite a serious cyclist. The club I ride with is based in the tiny village of Ugley, Essex. In Dublin, I discovered that the village contains a plaque commemorating the evacuation route for civilians established in 1914 in case of German invasion. Yet again, the First World War is inescapable. (Thanks to Catriona Pennell)

d) So popular were rumours of German barbarity and mutilation of children in 1914 that one British woman, offering to adopt a Belgian refugee, specified that she would ‘prefer a whole baby’. (Thanks to Rebecca Gill).

e) Quite a lot of people actually read this blog. But most of you are keeping pretty quiet. So I’m going to try some new ways for encouraging participation, including requesting some guest posts and raising the controversy level.

4) More seriously, key themes that stood out for me:

a) Rather than concentrate on the home or the fighting front, historians are increasingly examining those areas of total war where the line seems more blurred – occupation studies, prisoners of war, and preparations for violence. This is opening rich fields in terms of the variety of experience of war.

b) The key need is for comparative history. Throughout the conference I lost count of the number of times that I heard commentators say ‘What we really need is some comparative studies to know how typical this phenomenon is’. This was certainly a common reaction to Isobel Hull’s stimulating conference lecture on the German army’s attitude to total war and total victory. A few – very few – really high class scholars are doing this. They’ll know who they are when they read this, and I can only say how in awe I am of those able to work across national boundaries. But I was moved to consider whether the conference took every opportunity to promote the possibility for comparison (a subject for a future post).

c) There are still pieces missing in the jigsaw. Most apparent to me, in the growth of occupation studies, is the need for a large scale study of occupiers. Len Smith said something particularly striking about German forces in Belgium ‘performing the power of the occupier’. This seems a potentially fascinating area of research.

d) I was also struck in the papers I saw by the recurrence of what we might call the ‘preformation of experience’. To take just the papers I was involved in discussing: Britons entered the war with a clear set of tropes about what was meant by ‘refugee’, ‘invasion’, ‘atrocity’ and ‘citizen’. They used these to try to understand the war as it happened. Wartime experience challenged all these interpretative models – but what stands out to me is the degree to which they were altered but not abandoned. Rather, wartime events were interpreted through a lens that was already in place. Again, this was a topic that came up in Professor Hull’s lecture as well.

(of course, regular readers might point out that this is a subject I discussed here after the Giessen conference. So perhaps my own experience was preformed).

More on Dublin soon – and hopefully some other comments. I’ll close by congratulating the organisers on an excellent conference. I hope that as the dust settles and their heads clear, they’ll realise what they’ve achieved – not just in bringing scholars together, but in actually moving the field forward.

Link to next Dublin post

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Writing War Seminar Provisional Programme

Writing War Seminar 2005 Programme
Wednesday 1800-1930
Lock Keeper’s Cottage, Mile End Campus, Queen Mary University of London

5 October Welcome: Discussion of Seminar Aims and Format
Catherine Merridale and Dan Todman (QMUL)

19 October Coventry after its ‘Coventration’: local memory and transnational networks.
Stefan Goebel (University of Kent)

23 November Writing about Modern War
Ben Shephard

30 November The Red Army and the Experience of War 1941-45
Catherine Merridale (QMUL)

14 December Remembering the First Crusade
Tom Asbridge (QMUL)

Please contact the Postgraduate Administrator,, to express your interest

Writing War Seminar

Writing War
Location: Queen Mary University of London (Mile End Tube)
Convenors: Professor Catherine Merridale, Dr Dan Todman.

War and the ways it is experienced and remembered are a topic of continuing academic and popular interest. They form key vectors through which we understand the past and the present. Scholars in a wide range of disciplines touch on how war is described and analysed in their work, often from different perspectives and with little direct awareness of each other. In convening this new seminar, we would like to bring together those who study the experience and memory of war to discuss their work in an effort to build the field and develop a coherent approach across the disciplines. In terms of historical period, discipline and approach, the aim is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, in the belief that the very different challenges facing scholars of different periods can serve to illuminate the work of all.

The Writing War seminar will provide a setting which is interdisciplinary, informal and inspiring. The aim is to create a group in which every participant will feel happy to contribute in order to improve work in progress. The seminar will run as a mixture of workshop-style discussions and more formal papers and invites attendance from everyone with an interest in the field.

Amongst the questions we would like to address:
  • How are wars experienced as they happen?

  • What factors affect individual’s experiences of war and how do societies compose broader versions of wartime experience and meaning?

  • How should scholars write about war, combat and trauma? Are some elements of war ‘unwritable’?

  • How have wars been remembered – both by the individuals who take part and by the larger communities of which they are part? What factors affect the subsequent representation of war?

  • What can the many scholars who engage with the topic of war and memory - whose expertise varies widely in terms of period, discipline and approach – learn from each other?

The seminar will seek to identify and confront some of the key issues and problems - of materials, methodology and morality – implicit in the questions posed above.

The Writing War Seminar will meet on occasional Wednesdays throughout the year in the Graduate Centre, Lock Keepers Cottage, Queen Mary University of London. This semester the programme is as follows:

Suggestions for papers in the spring semester (and subsequently) are welcomed.
In order for us to gauge numbers, please contact the Postgraduate Administrator,, to express your interest.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Target marking

Bit quiet on the blogging front for a while, I know. I've been working on one project which is hard to blog, and others where the need has been to produce something specific for a deadline. I'd felt the risk that blogging could be a diversion from work rather than an aid to it, so I knuckled down and just got it done. The other reason for my silence has been that this is the pre-registration week before term begins and that, like academics across the country, I've been remembering all the jobs I meant to get done over the summer but haven't.
Amongst that preparation, things that might be of interest to readers of this blog (I hope you're both well):
1) encouraging my own first PhD student that he should blog his work (a decision he needs to make for himself, rather than having it forced on him, but at least there's plenty of good practice to point to).
2) re-writing my 'Britain in the Second World War' undergraduate course to include a Clausewitz lecture and seminar. I had to think carefully about where to put this. I don't think that my classes generally do enough to extend students' range conceptually, and C von C's remarkable trinity is a fascinating/useful way to look at WW2 (particularly since one of the themes of the course is the interconnectedness of every aspect of the war). When I taught at Sandhurst, we hit the cadets with Clausewitz early on, then referred back. But they were people with quite a lot (in some cases) of background knowledge about war. I can't always rely on that broader knowledge with my undergrads. So I've put the lecture at the end of the first semester, so that they'll be able to apply the theory to some examples they already have. I'll update on progress.
3) converting aspects of my Great War course for use with 'gifted and talented' sixth form students in an online study group.
In the next couple of days, I'll post up this material. And there's also the details of the War and Memory seminar group that Catherine Merridale and I are starting. And then I'm going to a conference in Dublin which I'll summarise for y'all. And then I might finally get back to considering the points about the military experience ratio and the Fathers and Sons threads which I've been meaning to write up for some time.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Fathers and Sons (2)

'As an only child, his main companion though early childhood was his French grandfather. Soon after his father's return home from military service in 1922, young Douglas switched allegiance and adopted military dress: with metal buttons, puttees and a medal made out of a halfpenny, he patrolled the garden, challenging all who passed. His infatuation with this colourful, ebullient father, so suddenly returned from the wars, seems to have been intense and from that time his obsession for playing soldiers came near to dominating his life.
Domestic accidents followed which, one imagines, encouraged him to rationalise his emotional investments, reducing them, perhaps, if possible, to something that would fit in a kit bag. When Douglas was four, his mother collapsed with encephalitis. This illness dragged on (and recurred throughout Douglas's adolescence), the faily smallholding business failed, and on borrowed money Keith was sent, at the age of six, to boarding school. Two years later, his father moved away to North Wales and it soon became clear that he was gone for good.'
Ted Hughes, 'Introduction' to D. Graham, ed, Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems, OUP, 1987, xvii.
Fathers and Sons (1)

Fathers and Sons (1)

A Grand Night

When the film Tell England came
To Leamington, my father said,
'That's about Gallipoli - I was there.
I'll call and see the manager...'

Before the first showing, the manager
Announced that 'a local resident...' etc.
And there was my father on the stage
With a message to the troops from Sir Somebody
Exhorting, condoling or congratulating.
But he was shy, so the manager
Read it out, while he fidgeted.
Then the lights went off, and I thought
I'd lost my father.
The Expedition's casualty rate was 50%

But it was a grand night out,
With free tickets for the two of us.'

D.J. Enright (b.1920), Collected Poems, OUP, 1981, 120 (Originally from his The Terrible Shears: Scenes from a Twenties Childhood, 1973).
My thanks to Professor John Ramsden for pointing this poem out to me.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

On blogging (5)

Great post by Sharon Howard on the topic below. Quality discussion demonstrates value of blogging shocker, as the headline should doubtless read.

Monday, September 05, 2005

On blogging (4)

Interesting discussions starting over at Blog Them Out of the Stone Age and Cliopatria on 'Ivan Tribble's' article 'Bloggers Need Not Apply'. Sitrep - Tribble is the nom de plume of a professor at a 'small Midwest liberal arts college'. The original article was about how job applicants for a post in his department had been disadvantaged by the evidence of their blogging. After receiving the predictable backlash, Tribble's next article was about how, even if he'd been wrong, we still need a debate about academic blogging.
What was wrong with these bloggers? Tribble's argument seemed to have two parts. One was that he didn't get blogging. The other was that the applicants had, online, revealed aspects of themselves or their research that disadvantaged their applications.
The first is, I think, an understandable response from those who haven't linked into this world. And it is a matter of taste. I find this a useful tool - not least for enabling academic discussion at a point in the year when my department is deserted. But it might not work for everyone. I don't force my use of powerpoint and video on my colleagues. They don't force their use of yellowing OHP's on me. We get on fine.
The second is an area more complex than Tribble allows. As Mark Grimsley's passionate response suggests, the whole point of blogging is that the personal will creep into the public. And I would argue this happens in any published piece of work in any case. If you are easily findable (and the great and awful thing about having a distinctive name is that I am very easily googleable), then you probably do want to keep an eye on what people can learn about you from the net. I haven't included a lot of personal stuff on this blog - but that has more to do with traditional English reticence than with a desire to police my image. On the other hand - in a much more important area than tenure location - I did once get our administrator to change my online photo on the departmental site when I knew a potential date was scoping me out. (Is this a damaging confession, Professor Tribble?). No, you don't want to see the original.
An important but usually unacknowledged part of the academic selection process has always been gossip and informal inquiries about personality. If you have a reputation as a difficult colleague, it will probably get to the appointments board. But since they are more bothered about how much research and funding you will generate, they might be willing to overlook that. I suspect that this is probably true of the Google search as well. Name an academic without a personality which is at least slightly strange or socially dysfunctional... I'm not sure those people go into academia in the first place.
It would be an awful thing if Tribble's article put off a generation of younger academics who might be tempted to dip their toes into the blogging waters. Come on in, guys and gals. Just keep your bathing costumes on.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Military History and Theory

As one of my new grad students put it: 'Why are military historians so scared of theory anyway?' My answer - historically, it was a military historian who best defined theory's utility and place:

'Theory cannot equip the mind with formulae for solving problems, nor can it mark the narrow path on which the sole solution is supposed to lie by planting a hedge of principles on either side. But it can give the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and their relationships, then leave it free to rise into the higher realms of action. There the mind can use its innate talents to capacity, combining them all so as to seize on what is right and true.' (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Howard and Paret trans, Princeton UP, 1989), 578.

Clausewitz scholars will, of course, point out that he was talking about a particularly 19th century German definition of theory here (in translation, in any case). But he did have to explain, to a difficult audience, why theory was useful but not all encompassing. And what a great job he made of it.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

'Modern' Poetry

Briefly back at my Mum and Dad's: partly for family reasons, partly because the ultimate cure for 'manflu' is, of course, to demand parental pampering. No update on the military experience ratio for the moment, therefore, but instead a minor diversion inspired by one of the few family relics.
My Great Aunt, long deceased, was a librarian, and left a bookcase full of the cheap Everyman (and suchlike) editions she collected during the 1930s. She is a semi-mythical figure in the family: cantankerous spinster, fiercely independent, engaged in a fight with my grandfather from the time they were seven and quarrelled over who'd found the sixpence in the sandpit until she was laid in her coffin. I disappointed my mother when I pointed out, recently, that she couldn't have lost a fiance in the Great War (she would have been about seven in 1914), but there are two or three independent accounts of her declaration, at her 60th birthday party, that the worst thing about getting old was the lack of opportunities for sex.
Looking through her bookshelf last night, I found a copy of Modern Poetry (ed. Guy. N. Pocock, Dent and Sons, London). First published in 1920, it was in its 11th (1932) reprint when she acquired a copy in 1936. My assumptions about who counts as modern were fairly swiftly overturned by the picture of Rupert Brooke on the frontispiece, and by the selection of poems from Newbolt, Stevenson, Kipling and Masefield (on the other hand, it does have some Whitman and Sacheverell Sitwell). Of most interest, however, is its section on 'The Great War'.
Pocock introduces this section by writing:

'These poems have been written either by men who have seen modern war and tried to seize something tangible amidst its awful complexity, or by those who have had to stay behind and bear the strain of suspense and anxiety. The result has been not a vast epic or drama, but a great number of telling scenes, significant thoughts, like flashes in the great dark chaos. These war-thoughts are often expressed in verse of extreme simplicity; and this is especially so when the writers have themselves looked death and horror straight in the eyes; for to them the thing seen or the thought inspired is too poignant in itself to bear any elaboration.
Whether the war-poetry is designed to live, it is not yet possible to say. All one can be sure of is this: that when time has dimmed the memory of these terrible years, the thoughts of the men who fought, and of those who worked and waited at home, will be found embodied in these poems by those who care to read. No statues, nor pictures, nor novels will put those thoughts so intimately and vividly before us.' (85-6)

The poems are:
Thomas Hardy, 'Men who march away'
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, 'Hit', 'The Messages'
Robert Nichols, 'The Assault'
Herbert E. Palmer, 'The Bushrangers'
Siegfried Sassoon, 'Attack'
Anon. 'The Cricketers of Flanders'
Julian Grenfell, 'Into Battle'
Guy N Pocock, 'Years Ahead'
John Drinkwater, 'Clouds'
Gerald Cumberland, 'The Winging Souls'
Robert Graves, 'The Dead Fox Hunter' (which to me bears a resemblance to Keith Douglas' 'Aristocrats' - a connection I'd never spotted before).

I've never come across Pocock before, and a Google search seems only to suggest that he edited a lot of books in the 1920s and 1930s. His own poem is not impressive in aesthetic terms - but the selection he made, two years after the war, is fascinating.
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