Monday, October 31, 2005

Cultural legacy of the First World War



Continuing the posts below on how the First World War might have helped create a
culture that was adapted to total war. From Picture Post, April 4, 1942, an advertisement for Sunlight Soap.
Previous posts here and here.
A few bits and bobs at the end of (another) hectic week.

1. Questions:
a) Steve Badsey writes to ask for help locating a documentary -

I have a recent memory of having seen a reference to an article (and I can’t be more definite than that) about the mythology of the First World War tank, very much from the ‘it didn’t win the war but it won the post-war literary battle’ perspective – rather like the Timewatch I appeared in some years back, but more scholarly. Have you come across this, and if so can you point me to the reference for it?

b) Astrid Erll would like to know if she's helping to perpetuate a myth:

I'm not sure if the following anecdote relates to British myth or British history: 'When Arthur Nicolson congratulated Edward Grey on his speech of 3 August 1914, Grey cried 'I hate war, I hate war''. A German editor of an article of mine inserted this as a note, and I'm not sure if with this anecdote I'm perpetuating what I was actually going to reflect upon in this article: the British memory culture.

2) Dave Budgen, a postgraduate student at the University of Kent, has asked me to post this:

Rethinking War

An Interdisciplinary Colloquium

Throughout the centuries warfare has been a dominant factor in the shaping of societies. From civil wars to the growth of empires, conflict has remained a constant presence in the history of civilisation. This colloquium aims to bring together research from across the academic spectrum, giving postgraduate and post-doctoral researchers an opportunity to present their work.

We welcome proposals from postgraduate and post-doctoral students on any aspect of warfare.

Subjects you may wish to consider include:

War and Diplomacy, Science and Technology, Justifications for War, War and Society, The Psychological Effects of War, Film and Literature, Guerrilla Warfare and Terrorism, Imperialism, Total War, War and Ethnicity, Art and Visual Representations of Warfare, Heritage and War, National Identity, Medicine and Warfare, Philosophy of War, Propaganda, War and the Media, War and Religion


3) Don't worry, there is an account of Stefan Goebel's talk on Coventration and some new thoughts of my own all upcoming. Just trying to find the time... because

4) The book is finally out!

Friday, October 21, 2005

Learning how to fight total wars

I should, of course, have acknowledged my partial intellectual debt to David Edgerton in concocting the idea at the base of the last post: although what I am proposing is a more cultural approach to a topic that Edgerton deals with in terms of science, technology and industry. But I've just re-read his review of Correlli Barnett's The Audit of War ('The Prophet Militant and Industrial', 20th Century British History, 2, 3 (1991), 377-8) and highlighted:
'We might note, too , that many of the 'New Jerusalemers' did indeed have the backgrounds Barnett claims they did not have. Beveridge and Keynes were senior civil servants in the Great War. ... Major Attlee volunteered in 1914 and fought in Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia, and on the Western Front where he was wounded for the third time just before the end of the war. Stafford Cripps, who had a degree in chemistry, spent part of the Great War as assistant superintendent of the largest chemical explosives plant in Britain.'

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Intellectual legacy of the First World War

Just a quick one - more details coming soon on last night's Writing War seminar, once I've digested it a bit. Today: I've been doing some work on evacuation in the Second World War. Particularly in light of recent events in the States, and bearing in mind the short timescale available, British civilian evacuation just before war broke out seems a remarkable achievement. A million and a half people moved without a casualty (at least according to Titmuss). Not least, it was a magnificent conception to believe that this sort of move (and they'd planned for 4 million) was possible.

At the time of the Munich Crisis evacuation plans were pretty much non-existent, but fear of the bomber was high. As the official historian puts it:

'the London County Council had become alarmed, and pressed the government to reach certain decisions in order to allow transport planning to begin. On 5th August, the Clerk to the Council (Sir George Gater) saw the Home Secretary and offered the services of members of the Education Officer’s staff. With political tension increased by 12th September, Mr Herbert Morrison (leader of the council) urged upon Sir Samuel Hoare the need for immediate decisions. The Council, then drew up plans, necessarily of a primitive and faulty nature, for the removal of some 637,000 children from London.’ (Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy, (London, HMSO, 1950), 29).

Even though it was never carried through, to draw up plans to shift this many people at short notice takes some doing. But what struck me as a First World War historian was George Gater's appearance. Gater was a civilian in August 1914. By 1918 he was one of the youngest brigade commanders in the BEF, successfully leading improvised combined forces in the Hundred Days campaign which finished the war on the Western Front. He is an excellent example of the 'learning curve' and of the successful incorporation of civilians into the wartime army.

Evacuation in 1938 or 1939 was dependent on railway movements and billeting. Where had British administrators learned how to use these tools? How could they deploy them, at short notice, with confidence and relative competence (evacuation didn't run perfectly, but it was, I repeat, a remarkable achievement)? Could we construct a case that some had learned these skills - or at least honed them - in the First World War? Obviously more research is needed - but let's at least float the idea that we can.

Now, we are accustomed to participants in the SEcond World War complaining that all the best men of their generation had been killed in 1914-18. Alan Brooke, for example, often remarked on the poor command resources enjoyed by the British Army in the Second World War for just this reason. But we could reverse this argument. It might have seemed like the best and brightest were killed, but what about all those who took status, achievement and newfound abilities from their wartime experience? Perhaps, what the British had been doing was to create a skill set which, twenty years later, would serve them well in the second great conflict of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

New blog

Esther MacCallum Stewart, now back online, points me towards a new WWI literature class blog, maintained by Simon Ogden and running out of Simon Fraser University. Leaving aside the quality of the history on offer (Fussell treated as a 'truth-teller' about the First World War, rather than a man trying to exorcise his own ghosts about WW2, for example), I think it's an interesting effort to use blogging technology in a teaching context. But thus far it seems to be more about posting information than discussion: although whether or not that was what Dr Ogden intended is hard to tell. My first WWI Online Study Group goes live later in the month - more comments when I've got more experience.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Writing War - the seminars begin!

The first meeting of the Writing War Seminar was held on the evening of Wednesday 5 October. As John Stone remarked to me on the way in, running a seminar is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of an academic life, because of the difficulty of predicting who will turn up week to week. Let’s say that Catherine and I were pleased to convene a small but select group, whose expertise covered a wide range of different areas, from colonial campaigning, via the Russian steppes (1812 and 1942) to the pages of Vogue.

We kicked things off by chatting about what motivated us to initiate the seminar. To draw out three things:

1) the academic difficulty about writing about an extremity of human experience which one has not experienced oneself – and the particular dissonance between writing about combat and sitting on one’s backside pontificating about it.

2) the necessity, nonetheless, to confront and analyse war and the experience of war, given its place in history. Catherine pointed out the need to avoid being diverted into writing about the memory of war just because that was easier than writing about war itself. As someone who’s done just that, I have a slightly different take – I’d emphasise that memory/cultural/literary/theoretical studies which touch on war need to be based in an understanding of the event itself (as opposed to a set of assumptions about it which can go unchallenged because they are so widely held)

3) the difficulties of integrating the wide range of sources and styles of history into writing about war, and the particular problem of applying a narrative/analytical/coherent mode of expression to events and experiences which defy such modes by their nature.

Something which emerged from this discussion, and which would continue to exercise us over the course of the evening, was the distinction between war and combat and the blurry lines which could exist between the two.

Julian Jackson, our esteemed Head of Department, responded with a perceptive question: is there actually any difference between writing about war and writing about any other historically distant experience? Isn’t it just as hard to write about the experience of the medieval peasant as about the Second World War soldier? To an extent, of course, he’s absolutely right – and I think that’s the rationale underpinning what allows us to write about war and combat at all. We don’t have to have been there to try to understand it. But I think there are some crucial – largely cultural – differences between the two. People care, deeply and passionately, about war. They make use of beliefs about it, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. Its centrality to popular culture in particular puts an onus on us to get it right – this is something which feeds into the thread Mark Grimsley has been running on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age about military history’s tendency to promote ‘Shadow Warriors’ – subjects of fantasy rather than ‘useful’ models for historical understanding or civil society.

Veterans, of course, care more than most. And as anyone who has tried to write or talk about war in the presence of those who have seen the elephant knows, it can be difficult for an academic to respond to the criticism that we ‘are fascinated by war but don’t know much about it’. Medieval peasants being few on the ground these days, this isn’t the sort of heckling that some of our other colleague’s experience.

A second question, and one which I think we are going to have to address over the next few months, is whether we are actually talking about a historical constant at all. Although we’re talking about ‘war’, we’re really discussing a very specific subset of wars – those fought in the last 150 years between western states. Can we point to elements in war/combat and its representation which are constant across place and time?

A third issue, and one that I think Cathy is particularly eager to discuss, is what’s in it for us? What leads historians of war onto the subject? Where does their fascination come from? Why do people read what we write? Are we feeding an unhealthy obsession (in ourselves and in our audience)? What is our moral position? (I think I need more time to ponder this)

The group discussed some possible future sessions. These will largely depend on who’s available and keen. We’ve got some offers for next term, but I’d welcome more expressions of interest – mailed to my qmul address.


Topics we will definitely cover in coming months

  • Literature and writing
  • Orality
  • Material culture of war and the mediation of experience
  • The Home Front – minds/materials/participation in fighting
  • Journalism and the media
  • Philosophy

We’d like to make a particular effort to broaden our horizons by including as many different scholars as possible. We are actively looking to recruit those who work on non-European war, early modern and medieval war, religion and war – from whatever disciplinary background.

I was tremendously pleased with the way the evening went. The best bits about it, as far as I was concerned, were the informal but academically rigorous atmosphere that was established, the fact that everyone said something (the advantages of a smaller group) and the feeling of positive encouragement – that this is a project people are interested in and willing to support.

Recovering (from) the First World War

Edward Madigan, one of the organisers of the FWW conference in Dublin, offers his thoughts about what went on (kind of in response to Vanda, Jessica and myself):

Two weeks on, I hope I can reflect more clearly on the Dublin conference. Yet, as someone who was involved in both organising the conference and presenting a paper, I find it difficult enough to assess it with genuine objectivity. I suppose a good way of attempting this is to look at what the organisers set out to achieve. One of the main objectives of the conference was to provide specific feedback for the scholars who presented aspects of their research. The lively and intense discussions during the sessions certainly provided some of that, but, judging from my own experience, the most valuable feedback came after the sessions, both from senior academics and fellow postgraduates. Having one’s work endorsed and encouraged by established historians and peers is an extremely valuable experience for a postgraduate scholar. Yes, some of the discussions could have been more conclusive and could certainly have involved more input from the less senior participants, but I think we should view the sessions as the beginnings of a conversation to be continued via e-mail, through the Society network, at future conferences, and on blogs like this!

The twenty postgraduate scholars who presented papers were almost certainly the primary beneficiaries of the weekend. This is not to suggest, however, that the weekend was not also designed to be relevant to the other sixty or so participants. Firstly, reading and discussing new unpublished work is a very instructive way of taking stock of where the field of First World War studies is at the moment and, importantly, where it is going. This ‘taking stock’ should be of interest to anyone working on the War. Secondly, the evening events, Isabel Hull’s keynote speech on German military culture and the round table debate in the Goethe Institute, both proved to be very rewarding intellectually – regardless of one’s role at the conference. The fact that Professor Hull’s talk gave people something to think about was clear from the way participants in various sessions kept referring back to her views and conclusions over the following two days.

‘That National History of the War is Redundant’ was chosen as the topic for the round table debate as the ‘national versus trans-national’ discourse is something that virtually everyone has an opinion on, irrespective of their particular areas of expertise. This, and the fact that the first remark from the floor was made by one of the younger scholars meant that the discussion turned out to be extremely inclusive and worthwhile. I found Alex Watson’s comment about the role of the historian and his/her duty to the public particularly relevant to us all. This, for me, was the real benefit of the round table debate. On the one hand it was an interesting intellectual exercise, on the other, it was a rare opportunity for a diverse group of historians to reflect on what history is for and what the historian does, or is supposed to do, in society.

During the Experiences of Occupation session, Jean-Jacques Becker referred to his ‘own experience of occupation’. This struck me as a timely reminder, amidst the academic theory, that few people now writing about war have personal experience of it. By opening the conference in the College’s Great War memorial and closing it in Islandbridge, the national war memorial, a link between the actual event and the modern academic interpretation of the event was drawn. The many artefacts housed at Islandbridge, including uniforms, weapons, personal items and the famous Ginchy Cross brought the experience of the war alive and provided a genuinely moving and fitting end to a really good conference.

Dublin 1 Dublin 2 Dublin 3 Dublin 4

Thursday, October 06, 2005

National histories of world wars?

Vanda Wilcox provides a report on those parts of the Dublin conference I missed - and challenges us to think about national histories and the First World War...

I wanted to report on the Saturday evening debate, and consider some of the most interesting points which were raised and which merit further discussion. This ‘Round Table’ session was organised as a debate on the theme ‘Are national histories of the war redundant?’ Many of the themes which were discussed (sometimes heatedly!) in this debate had already begun to emerge in earlier panels, as Dan has outlined. The evening session was a great opportunity to pull some of these ideas together, and begin to think about prospectives for the future.

John Horne, chairing the session, suggested 3 initial questions to consider: firstly, the relevance of national frameworks within a broader study of the war; secondly the type and nature of trans-national themes; and finally the role of sub-national communities of various kinds. Annette Becker spoke firmly in favour of trans-national and comparative history, asserting that the chief function of national perspectives was to enable trans-national dialectic which was the most important approach to the war. The speakers largely agreed on the need to create an integrated and comparative European framework for the war. Of course, the conference as a whole has shown how fruitful this approach is: but it is notable that comparative perspectives have been initiated and are still strongest amongst cultural & social historians. Is this simply that military historians have lagged behind (or are grumpy old nationalists?!) or rather, as Gerhard Hirschfeld pointed out, a genuine reflection of the differences between disciplines? That is, are there fewer common trans-national themes in military and political history than in the cultural and social sphere? If so, military history risks being left behind in the quest for comparative history.

The problems of comparative history are of course practical as well as intellectual. Gerd Krumeich raised the problem of linguistic isolation; my own observation was that whilst the debate flowed relatively easily from English to French to German and back, those of us working on ‘minor’ countries aren’t quite so included in this multilingual dialogue. How many people from the Anglophone world are working with materials in Russian, Turkish, Italian, Romanian or Flemish? If Jovana Knežević had wanted to discuss her sources in the original Serbian, how trans-national would everyone be feeling then? In a sense, comparative and trans-national histories are a bit of luxury for those working away from the ‘big three.’ Even the United States lags behind, as Jennifer Keene noted. And it’s not just about languages: historians are inevitably the product of their national historiographies, to some extent. These observations suggest that rather than expecting individuals to conduct comparative work alone, we should be encouraging more collaborative projects.

Another point raised in the debate was the role of public history. The recent debate on the International Society for First World War Studies’ mailing list over Adam Thorpe’s article in The Guardian was an excellent example of the differing views professional historians hold over the interaction with popular views and assumptions. Of course, as we had discussed at Dan’s colloquium in June, the (probable!) increase in public interest as the centenary approaches make these issues all the more pertinent. Alex Watson made a vigorous defence of national history on precisely these grounds: if dialogue with the public is an essential duty of the professional historian, then we must meet the public’s demand for national histories. The First World War is a part of what Dennis Showalter termed the ‘mythic identity’ of France and Britain, despite the efforts of the academic community to create a European history of the war, and the popular need to create meaning and understanding requires our participation.

Of course even the terms of this debate need interrogation. Jennifer Keene pointed out that if it is a world war, then we must write not a European history but a global one. More importantly the very idea of national history is not unproblematic in this context: the combatant states were not fully unified nations. Scottish and Welsh experiences, to say nothing of Ireland, must be included in any British national history; Germany and Italy were both newly created states; Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey were all Empires; even in France regional identities and divisions undermined unity (consider Brittany or the Basque country). Keith Jeffreys, in making this point, asked us to challenge the very concept of nations, especially when dealing with an event which both built and destroyed them.

One of the most interesting observations in the debate came from Heather Jones who pointed out since popular memory has operated nationally, it is the national aspects of wartime experience which have been most studied by historians also – even when working comparatively. Those dimensions of the war which are most truly international or trans-national have disappeared into historiographical black holes. These include the experiences of occupation, of prisoners of war and refugees – all, as Dan has pointed out, new areas which have recently begun to receive attention. This seems like the most convincing evidence that we are moving away from a narrow national perspective. That said, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to dispense with national histories of the war experience.

So: the challenge for us as historians is to find ways to integrate the national and the trans-national both practically and intellectually. It would be nice to think that practical limitations don’t wholly determine academic approaches. But in considering the way forward we also have to ask ourselves the tricky question: what’s it all for?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Newcastle Conference 2006

Provisional programme for 'The First World War and Popular Culture' Conference available here. Looks like it's going to be huge.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Gender agenda

Dr Jessica Meyer, who works on the First World War and masculinity, offers some responses to the Dublin Conference:

Following on Dan's thoughts on things that the future organisers of this series of conferences might want to think about was something that struck me about the themes around which the conference was organised. Over the course of three conferences there has yet to be a sesson that deals directly with gender, although the first conference had a session on the war and the intimate. Which is not to say that gender wasn't discussed during this most recent conference. Indeed, it seemed to turn up in just about every session, in one form or another. Which raises the question, as indeed one of the conference organisers asked, do we actually need a special session on gender if it is already part of the discussion?

After much thought, I think the answer is yes, for three reasons. Firstly, as Dan has pointed out, there is never enough time for adequate discussion of each paper and inevitably issues get ignored. Unless it forms the focus of a theme, gender is one of those aspects of cultural history which can be swept aside as something of a given. The gender issues raised by Rebecca Gill's paper on Belgian refugees, for instance, seemed to me worth further exploration. How did the issue of citizenship that refugees raised interact with the other issues of citizenship being raised by women or disabled servicemen, two groups for whom the experience of war had radically changed gender norms? Similarly, Sonja Müller's work on children's games and literature raised issues about how gender stereotypes were received and consumed that were touched on in the question and answer session but never addressed directly.

Related to this is the second reason. By spreading the question of gender across themes rather than devoting a session to the topic, we run the risk of atomising the issues. There is still a tendency to view gender history, particularly the gender history of war, as a binary. Although we are moving beyond simply the histories of men on the front line and women on the home front, there is still a tendency to discuss gender in relation to one or other of the sexes. Dan highlighted this problem when he asked Claudia Siebrecht about the absence of fathers in German women's art. By focussing on a specific group, as one conference paper must, the experiences of other groups around them can become lost. This is particularly true for the histories of masculinities in war. Work is only beginning to be done, by collections such as Masculinities in Politics and War (Manchester University Press, 2004), on how war impacted on the gendering of men as well as women. Having a panel focussed on gender would allow for these less visible issues to be discussed alongside the more familiar ones related to the changing status of women. In addition, the sexes did not live in isolation from each other and the ways in which various groups were gendered had direct implications for not only their experiences of war but also for others with whom they come into contact with. What happens to gender in the spaces where one person's home front is another's front line, an issue raised for me by Jovana Knezevic's on the occupation of Belgrade? A panel discussing gender might go some way towards addressing not just questions of gender but also broader questions of gender relations.

Which leads to my third reason, which is as much about what gender history can gain from First World War studies as vice versa. The transnational history of gender and the war certainly exists, but it remains rather limited. Masculinities in Politics and War goes a great way towards addressing this gap in terms of masculinity and war in general and Behind the Lines (Yale University Press, 1987) covers British, French, American and German experiences of the two world wars, but has recently come in for considerable criticism both in terms of use of sources and national exceptionalism. And there still remain huge areas to be covered. These were highlighted for me by Daniel Steinbach's paper on the war in Germany's African colonies. Can we compare imperial and martial masculinities in Germany and Britain? And that is before we start to question the interrelation of gender and race in the uses made of non-European troops, something that could have been discussed in relation to George Morton Jack's paper on the Indian Army on the Western Front. As someone who works very much within a national framework, limited, I'm ashamed to say, by my inability to speak any language but English, the sort of transnationalism that this series of conferences emphasises is not merely a corrective but also challenge. All I am asking for is the opportunity for historians of this particular facet of cultural history to be allowed the space to explore how we are and can continue to meet that challenge.

Dublin (1), Dublin (2), Dublin (4 - not yet active)
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