Friday, December 30, 2005

Book reviews

First draft of review of two books on the Somme for the Society of Army Historical Research. Going to have to be some extensive cuts, so here's a place to get it all out. Another review, by Nick Lloyd at the Centre for First World War Studies in Birmingham, here.

Peter Hart, The Somme (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005); ISBN 13 978 0 297 845705 8, 589pp, £20.00; Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2005), ISBN 0 300 10694 7, 358pp, £19.95.

It might seem extraordinary to suggest that there is anything new to write on the Battle of the Somme. The British have been so obsessed with their first encounter with the realities of industrialised total war that they have been discussing it compulsively since 1916. Yet that very quantity of discussion has obscured much of what actually took place in the summer and autumn of that year under a thick accretion of myth and misunderstanding. Here are two new books which attempt – in different ways – to clear away the silt of incomprehension and explain the battle afresh.

Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have previously co-written on the career of Sir Henry Rawlinson and on the Third Ypres campaign of 1917. Their latest book, based once again on deep archival research at the National Archives, moves back to the titanic battle of the previous year. Prior and Wilson are at their best when subjecting strongly held beliefs about the battle to critical analysis. For example, they refute the idea that every – or even most – British battalions on 1 July advanced ‘as if they were on review at Aldershot’, in straight lines, shoulder to shoulder. They demonstrate that in fact, British units employed a wide range of different solutions to the tactical problem of crossing No-Man’s Land. That so few met with success was a matter of inadequate artillery preparation and support, not lack of infanteer’s skill. A fascination in the historiography with the pace and form of the British advance on 1 July has been misleading. As Prior and Wilson state, concentrating on infantry tactics obscures the basic fact that it was quantity, concentration and direction of artillery fire that was the crucial factor in deciding defeat or victory on the Western Front. This, of course, is a point they have made before. Similarly, these authors have not contented themselves with making the same assertions about length of service in the lines, based on the memoirs of Charles Carrington, as almost every other writer. Instead they have returned to the original documents and built up the data for themselves – in this case, for the experience of 1 Division. Elsewhere, they argue that just because the horrific breadth of loss on 1 July went unrepeated does not mean that the British had instantly ascended a learning curve. The success of 14 July – widely held as a counterpoint to the disaster of a fortnight before – was as much a matter of luck as judgement. Their final assessment of the performance of those in control of the British war effort at all levels is devastating: ‘The soldiers who became casualties in their hundreds of thousands fought well in a good cause. But they deserved a plan and competent leadership as well as a cause.’ (309).

All of these factors make Prior and Wilson’s The Somme a thought provoking and a useful book, particularly as a partner to more positive interpretations of the British performance on the Somme. Sometimes, however, it is unclear quite whom is the target of the authors’ fire. They are eager to dispel popular misconceptions of the Somme. But they are also writing in reaction to what they seem to perceive as a triumphalist note in recent British military histories. Triumphalist these texts may have been, but they have been far from triumphant: their impact on popular belief about the war has been limited. The reader who is familiar with newer writing is less likely to believe that every battalion marched over the top in straight lines, but is perhaps more likely to purchase this book. The result of this compromise is a volume that can feel disjointed or insufficiently directed.

One target of Prior and Wilson’s wrath is obvious: the much battered form of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Yet blaming Haig sometimes takes the place of understanding him and his army. Without doubt Haig took poor decisions in 1916. His command style was inadequate to the task it faced. The objectives he set his army often seem to fly in the face of any retrospective suggestion of a ‘learning curve’ or a battle of attrition. But identifying these faults is not enough. Why did he take those bad decisions or give those poor orders? What was the coincidence of intelligence, organisation, experience, military culture and personality which led to them? The authors may feel they have addressed these questions elsewhere. Here, they too often go unanswered.

Again, it is a useful corrective to be reminded of the logical incoherence of some of the orders Haig issued to his subordinates. But this reader was left wondering whether close textual analysis of selected Haig quotations is really a step on in the historical method. British military historians have been trading such quotes from each side of the No Man’s Land in which Haig sits since at least the 1960s (and arguably much earlier). Prior and Wilson supply those who wish to denigrate Haig with some new quotations. But they do not follow up their interpretation of their incoherence with a clear demonstration that his subordinates either found them so, or were confused by these orders rather than by the rapid pace of change and the tempo of battle. Was there, amongst the ranks of British generals, a better alternative? Given the utility of other parts of the book, the sections dealing with Haig are something of a disappointment.

Peter Hart’s massive The Somme sometimes abdicates historical responsibility in the same fashion, for example when Hart writes that: ‘The collective failure of generalship within the Fourth Army can never be adequately explained or excused.’ (262). Excuses or not, explanation is surely the task of the historian. But this is a different book to Prior and Wilson’s, one aimed much more clearly at the popular market. It is based predominantly on material produced by those who were there at the time. This is an approach which has been taken before – notably by Martin Middlebrook and Lyn Macdonald – but Hart’s work is superior to both these predecessors. He presents an analytical account of the battle, based on an incredibly broad range of sources and a mass of secondary scholarship, which does not shrink from dissecting command decisions. This is far more than anecdotal history. The contemporary sources Hart uses are frequently fresh and striking in their intensity. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Maxwell’s accounts of the fighting for Trones Wood and Thiepval – new to this reader – give an excellent impression of the difficulties of battalion command on the Somme: a level which has too often been ignored. There is here a Rankean exploration of ‘what it was actually like’ – a feeling for the problems of those who were there at all levels – which occasionally seems absent in Prior and Wilson’s volume.

Hart sometimes employs a rather ‘Boys’ Own’ style in celebrating the achievements of VC winners and heroic leaders such as Maxwell. But he is sensitive enough to point out that most men could not reach these heights of courage, and indeed stood rather in awe or in terror of those who could. He does an excellent job of laying out the battles which made up the Somme campaign, and of recapturing the experience of a broad range of soldiers on the British side. The major criticism of his book must be that the reader is usually left to work out the vintage of the source. Hart is a discerning historian with a deep awareness of the problems posed by different sources – be they official report, contemporary diary, letter home or subsequent oral history interview. He has doubtless assessed each carefully before including it. But he owes it to readers – even to the popular audience at whom this volume is aimed – to allow them to make up their own mind about the quality and reliability of his witnesses. In the era of the dodgy dossier, full disclosure and acknowledgement of the difficulties of historical writing are a requirement even for the ‘trade’ writer. We might also wonder whether a closer edit was necessary. The purpose of an appendix describing ‘trench life’, after five hundred pages which have often described just that, is unclear. This either needed to be part of the main body of the text or excised.

Taken together – but only together – these books represent a major step forward in the study of the field. It is noticeable that Prior and Wilson rely on material in the National Archives, whereas Hart concentrates on those held in the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum. This separation of sources, if nothing else, demands that these books be read in combination. Neither book, it is a shame to say, is able to treat the battle as an interaction between British, German and French troops. Both would be more accurately titled The British Army and the Battle of the Somme. But they do represent important ranging shots for the barrage of books that will doubtless descend before July 2006 (let alone the follow up attack of July 2016). Perhaps most significantly, both emphasise that if we wish to lay blame for the suffering of the Somme, we have to look beyond the generals to the politicians and the people who elected them. This may be an early step away from a near-century in which the British have avoided taking responsibility for their participation in this terrible battle.

Review of semester one

Putting my end of semester course evaluations online - partly for comments, partly so that it's easily accessible to students and staff, partly to chart the intellectual journey.

I am course organiser for one undergraduate course (Britainin the Second World War) and one postgraduate course (Victors to Victims: Representing Total War in Britain, 1945-2000). I also supervise seven third year undergraduates undertaking research dissertations on a variety of subjects [it may surprise readers of what's meant to be a First World War historian's blog that I don't teach a WW1 course. I do some lectures on our course on The Great War, but for various departmental/admin reasons, I don't teach the seminars].

I felt that the MA course went very well this year. This was the second time that I’d taught it, so I knew what to expect. I had also reviewed and revised the course over the summer, making the seminar topics clearer and more easily achievable – or rather, it was more obvious to the students when they had achieved what I wanted. I was also stricter about making students prepare and pre-circulate questions for discussion. I was fortunate enough to teach a group of students who were highly motivated, undertook a lot of reading and who ‘gelled’ well despite the wide range of backgrounds and ages. About half the seminars were dream MA teaching, in the sense that my only role was occasionally to point discussion in the right direction or to bring my greater subject knowledge to bear, whilst the students effectively ran the class. The seminar had one student with severe visual impairment. This made it difficult to make use of all the television and film material that I would have liked. There’s enough material of other sorts that this wasn’t a problem, but if I were to encounter this situation again, I’d want to find some more specifically appropriate resources. For example, I could have taught half a seminar on radio plays about the First World War, or on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Aside from this, I’d like to improve the course in the following ways:

1) continue to build up QM’s library holdings of relevant texts. Particularly as term goes on, students find it hard to make time to visit libraries further afield. So I’m going to direct my book-buying on the last weeks of term.

2) encourage students to keep a log of themes and concepts – so that when we wrap up the course they are able to draw comparisons between the representations of the First and Second World Wars.

3) rejig the course structure to place more emphasis on representations of the Home Front in the Second World War. At the moment, this only gets a week, and I think to be explored in its full depth it probably needs two. I’d make space for this by incorporating the discussion of ‘Churchill’ into a broader seminar on the domestic.

I was nervous when I started this year of teaching Britain in the Second World War because this course is my baby, and this is the first occasion on which I’ve taught it with a TA. I am not good at handing over control. I’ve been pleased, however, with the way the course has run. The major problems have been in terms of resources and venue rather than with teaching or student involvement. As it was last year, this is the most popular and oversubscribed course in the history department. I allowed it to double in size last year to this. What I should have foreseen, and did not, was that doubling the student intake increased the pressure on books in the library. I managed to persuade the librarian to lay in extra stocks of the key texts, but in the future I’d want to expand the course more gradually (or get permission to indulge in a massive expansion of book provision before expanding it). There is also a major problem with space. I have to teach my seminar in a colleague’s office. The larger of my two seminar groups only just squeezes in. This may encourage student interaction (on the same basis that parties get more fun as you decrease the space in which they’re held) but it makes writing on the board, or getting people to move around, far too difficult. This is a faculty wide problem, which is hopefully going to be solved next year with the provision of more teaching space, but I will be far more assertive about demanding proper teaching rooms next time round.

Things that I think have gone well. I feel that I’ve managed to build up quite a strong sense of course spirit and cohesion. I strongly believe that students deserve to be treated like adults, but that they also need to be led and inspired. My measure of success here is that, unlike every other course I’ve taught on, there is almost no drop off in student attendance at lectures over the length of the term, and that even in the last seminar of the year (when colleagues were sometimes down to 2 or 3 students), I still had 80% attendance. The problems with my leadership style, which is based largely on enormous personal enthusiasm, are that it gets harder to enact as the course gets larger (in particular, when you’re not teaching students in seminars you don’t learn their names, which makes it harder to interact with them in lectures) and that it can be exhausting. In the weeks when the students are finding life tough, I can end my teaching day feeling wrung out. My Education and Staff Development colleagues would doubtless tell me that to become a more effective academic, I should develop a more hands-off style. I suspect I would find this much less rewarding.

The only major modification to the teaching plan this year was my introduction of a lecture on Clausewitz and the remarkable trinity. The lecture went well, in the sense that I felt that I’d got across a complex idea (less the trinity than the manner in which it is derived) effectively. There was very positive reaction from some students – particularly those at the top end of the mark scale. Others told me that they felt a bit ‘so what?’ about the whole thing. From teaching this subject previously, to army officers, I had expected a moment of revelation when the trinity was revealed in all its glory: this was not forthcoming. I suspect that the reason for this was that I spend a lot of the course emphasising that every aspect of the war is interconnected. So the idea that you have to study the domestic and the political to understand the military was not particularly original to my undergraduates. I didn’t schedule a class immediately after the lecture to discuss Clausewitz further. Instead, I’ve concentrated in subsequent lectures and seminars on returning to the trinity when discussing the nature of war. After a couple of false starts (hard for students to see the relevance of the trinity when discussing the desert war), this did work well with regard to Montgomery’s campaign in NW Europe from ’44 onwards. The trinity is a very effective way to analyse why 21st Army Group fought in the way it did. I’ve just started to mark the term’s essays, and a couple of students have already referred to Clausewitz, so either I did get the point across, or they’ve recognised that this is a personal bugbear. Either way, they have had their horizons widened.

The reason that I didn’t have time for a seminar dedicated to Clausewitz was that the course went on a trip to the National Archives, run by my TA, the very wonderful Mr Matthew Grant. This was effective, in the sense that it got most of the course there, and got them cards, and showed them how to use the archives. But it was not, by all accounts, that much fun. It’s a long way to Kew. It was a cold, wet walk from the tube. There wasn’t time to order up documents individually to match the students’ interests. I don’t know quite what to do about this. Organising trips out, or study days, seems like it ought to be a vital part of what a London university can offer. But getting them right is really hard. It takes, in my experience, three of these trips to actually start doing them right. What I might try to do next year is to involve students more in organising them. This would give them a bit more of an investment in the visit, and adapt what we’re doing to fit their needs. It would also give them some CV points. I’m chatting to the people at the National Army Museum about involving students more: this is an ongoing project.

I’ll say more about how I’ll adapt the course next year when I’ve finished teaching it across both semesters.

Something else which I’ve been pleased with is my use of WebCT as a teaching aid. Both for my research dissertation students and for Britain in the Second World War, I’ve put a lot of the course materials, useful links, lecture powerpoints and discussion boards online. Again, this is something that takes a while to get right: I still haven’t always presented the material in the easiest way for students to access. But I’m getting there. The best bit has been the way that discussion boards can function to allow students to work together and to save my time. Very often, on both courses, I find as a teacher that I’m answering the same question repeatedly when it comes to essay format or research queries. Putting all this online, and getting students into the habit of checking and posting, means that I only have to answer the question once – or even that students answer for me. It also acts as a means of communication and encouragement for students who can become isolated whilst they’re undertaking individual research in their final year. I was going to try to persuade the department that every supervisor should use WebCT with their dissertation students. But I suspect this is a bridge too far.

Final thing that I want to think about for all the courses I teach on next year is finding new modes of assessment. I’m not quite sure what yet, but I’d like to give students a more interesting and real-world relevant task as well as traditional essays. Two things spring to mind – an assessed presentation and some form of online resource archive. Again, more on this as I work on it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A few noted things...

1) Utterly brilliant, not at all log-rolling review of the book, by some chap called Sheffield (never heard of him) from the Indy a couple of weeks ago. Also a very positive review in this month's History Today - but not in the free online bit of it.
2) Turns out that my defence of gallant Brits torturing evil Huns was completely misplaced, as the Guardian turns up even more information (great use of FoI) on all the nasty things some bits of the army were doing after the war. (On the other hand, at least there was an uproar at the time - more on this in a later post).
3) Wonderful carnival of teaching hosted by New Kid on the Hallway.
Upcoming posting on this term's progress, teaching Clausewitz as part of WW2, and even, would you believe it, some First World War books reviewed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Well, I wrote the last post with the intention of being provocative. And look... I succeeded. My PhD student, Jack McGowan, swiftly proclaimed that what I had written 'hurt my eyes and my brain', and that he had to respond. That response is posted - unedited - below:

Reverberations? Indeed: so I'll take my academic life in my hands and join you in taking the risk of "looking like a bit of a tit" You are absolutely right that this issue should be examined in a historical light, and that it is "surprising how little you hear of such rituals in British regiments earlier in the modern period". However, given our discussions about assumed, shared, political-cultural-social norms – yours, mine, and many historians' - I would suggest that the contemporary situation must be viewed within a wider cultural context. At the very least, some contrasting light can perhaps be shed by a different 'cultural' perspective?

Coming from the notoriously violent west coast of Northern Britain, I am no stranger to ritualized, coercive, 'set-piece' male violence, often to express and cement relationships of power. Moreover, Scotland's unemployment black-spots have provided notably high per capita numbers of military recruits in recent decades (I believe???). It therefore provides a substantial proportion of those you rightly describe as coming "from backgrounds where physical violence is more present than it is in the world of the junior academic or the London reporter." "Some of them are not that bright." Absolutely correct on both counts: some of us went to school with them.

I can also well believe that "pretty much any junior infantry officer I have taught has been able to talk about having their eyes opened to the amount of low level violence that goes on amongst those they lead." However, this somewhat contradicts your Reaction 2), i.e., that "boys will be boys." Your implication, perhaps unintended, is that it is more understandable and/or acceptable that certain types of boys will be boys. Within certain social spheres it maybe indeed be "all fun until someone goes too far." Within other mileux it is never fun. It is deadly serious – and deadly. It doesn't occur within a 'clubbable', enclosed context; it happens on the streets and in the home. Is it not this latter (and often not very) "low level violence" which, at the national-cultural level in the 21st century, is the physical and psychological raw material which must be moulded and integrated into a fighting force? This little-educated, non-enlightened, non-Fight Club school of contemporary male violence must surely, despite rigorous training, honing, refining and direction, remain the very backbone of the contemporary "army designed for war".

I am, therefore, confused as to where you draw the distinction between "boys being boys" and "soldiers being soldiers", and left wondering how many commandos from Salford or Airdrie have "been on a sports club night out" which might have ended in rituals bearing any resemblance to those reported. Which of the two apparently discrete models of male violence is harnessing the other? And who, precisely, is the 'enemy' in such a context? In other words, what – other than tacit institutional license – differentiates this from assault on the street?

Finally, none of this explains the apparently essential prerequisite of nakedness. This is the truly 'bizarre' element, which I find more than merely "puzzling". While territorial gang fights occur in many British city centres, they do not, to my knowledge, involve group male nudity. Like you, "I’ve never got involved in a fight, or stripped naked (voluntarily or otherwise)." Unlike you, however, I’ve only ever seen other people (i.e. men) do the former.

Therefore, it is your relatively mild reaction to the nakedness which I find most striking. Perhaps someone better qualified than I will continue this beyond the realms of mere "male posturing and bravado and all that" to address the elusive borderline between male homo-sociability (even when expressed through anti-sociability) and homoeroticism (even when expressed through physical domination and subjugation). I do believe, however, that this is what these 'ceremonies' must be seen, at least in part, to represent.

Perhaps we have both merely revealed that there are no objective points of view; but we can never be reminded of that too often.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Join the club...

Still some reverberations from a story that broke in Britain on Sunday, when the News of the World obtained video images of Royal Marines engaged in a bizarre initiation ritual. The footage shows Marines from 42 Commando, at the end of their 32 week commando training, stripped naked, watching two of their comrades fight in a field. The fight was allegedly orchestrated by two junior NCOs who appear in the video, dressed as a surgeon and a schoolgirl. Initially, the two marines fighting do so with arms bound in bedding rolls. One of the NCOs then gestures for them to fight with fists: and when one refuses, appears to lay him out with a kick to the head.

Widespread denunciation of such behaviour from all and sundry, including conspicuously military rent-a-gob from Colonel Bob Stewart. Best of all, this from Patrick Mercer (a former Sherwood Foresters officer with a distinguished service record and now Tory MP): "Just imagine a young man turning up in his unit and being made to wrestle naked in a field while his non-commissioned officers are dressed up in women's frillies. I mean, it's not very dignified stuff, is it?" Only if you recognise the generations of rivalry and ribaldry between soldiers and marines will you get the full nuance of the tongue in his cheek: ‘Bloody Marines spend too much time with the Navy. Bound to rub off, eh?’

Reaction 1) Surprising how little you hear of such rituals in British regiments earlier in the modern period. I think – please correct me – that ‘milling’ in the Paras goes back to WW2, but I don’t remember encountering anything like this with regard to British regiments, even of regulars, during the First World War. I suspect that this is to do with problems of sources and evidence, rather than that it never happening. After all, many of the rituals associated with the end of apprenticeship in British working class popular culture before the 1950s (maybe later) would now be seen as harassment/sexual or physical abuse (some of them involving women as well as men). I find it hard to believe that some regiments didn’t have something similar.

Reaction 2) Boys will be boys. I think that any British man who has been on a sports club night out will have looked at that footage and only been puzzled by the Marines’ need to strip off before having a stupid fight (dressing up, on the other hand, is pretty much a given). In fact, wrapping their arms in bedding rolls looks like an excellent way to have them make fools of themselves without inflicting too much damage. And as usual, it’s all fun until someone goes too far. There’s always one. And yes, you look back at that stuff and think: ‘That was stupid and barbarous and potentially life-threatening and definitely illegal. God it was fun.’ Nobody’s shown us what happens next in the video, I note. I suspect that the footage of the appalled other soldiers dragging the NCO off the bloke he’s kicked and admonishing him is there, but won’t come out.

(DISCLAIMER: I should point out that I have always done my best to prevent real barbarity on such occasions. And I’ve been lucky enough to do my drunken misbehaviour with fairly genteel fratboys, rather than pissed-up Marines. I’ve never got involved in a fight, or stripped naked (voluntarily or otherwise), but I’ve seen other people do both. And there’s plenty of my behaviour that I’m very glad was never filmed to be played back to the general public.)

Reaction 3) Soldiers will be soldiers. Most of these men come from backgrounds where physical violence is more present than it is in the world of the junior academic or the London reporter. Some of them are not that bright. Pretty much any junior infantry officer I have taught has been able to talk about having their eyes opened to the amount of low level violence that goes on amongst those they lead. I don’t say it’s a good thing, I don’t say they it isn’t awful for those that find themselves on the receiving end. But I don’t think it’s that much of a problem for an army designed for war fighting.
When it does risk become a problem is if it become usual for power to be occasionally acted out with physical violence. If it becomes a given that those in authority may physically abuse those who are subordinate to them, that behaviour will be replicated. It’s more likely than ever before that misjudgements will be documented. Soldiers now regularly find themselves being filmed (or filming each other) in contact with people over whom they have great power. Captured Iraqis who’ve been looting supplies, for example. And if they make a mistake, even momentarily, about what is appropriate behaviour in that situation, it becomes not only a very bad thing for those involved, but for the army and its mission as a whole. That’s why the army will say that it will do its best to stamp it out – even if it will never succeed entirely.


I wrote the above offline about a week ago, and wondered about publishing it. Mainly because I thought it ran the risk of making me look like a bit of a tit – male posturing and bravado and all that. But I came back to it because I thought that the comments I made about seeing this in a historical light were worthy of the light of day.

Whilst sorting out the links, I came across this story from the Daily Mirror. They found the kickee in question – Marine Ray Simmons. He appears to be quite upset by the misuse being made of his experiences. By his account, it was all drunken misbehaviour gone wrong. Quote of the article: ‘Because of all the rushing about, games and the booze I can't recall exactly what happened.’ Hm, either that or the kick in the head, yes.

Victor ludorum

Just searching out material for talking about 'Bravery and Cowardice' to the Writing War Seminar. Noted that an excess of bravery is recklessness, which is about what I feel now. Or would that just be stupidity? Last week of term, pick something stupidly big and complicated to talk about, in the company of brilliantly clever people. Main aim I think is going to be to raise some points for discussion - I'll post ideas up here as I put them together.

One of those talking points is going to be about how we - historians, historians of war, men - sorry, how I use/ have used narratives of bravery and of cowardice. Do they have relevance, are they just fantasy fodder, that sort of stuff. Anyway, in the process I came across this miraculous site, which holds copies of all the covers of Victor comic annuals from 1967 to 1991. I grew up with The Victor. Each week's flimsy paper edition had a different 'true' story of a soldier winning the VC as its first story. To my credit, I remember, aged about 9, writing a letter to ask them the publishers why it was always a British soldier and never a German one. Strangely it was never published....

These comic annual covers actually do a great job of charting the changing place of war in British youth culture. Note how they start to concentrate on fantasy, then move into sporting endeavour. Is that where our heroes are supposed to come from now?

Irregular blogging at the moment due to the end of term. So it’s only now that I’ll get round to talking about Ben Shephard’s paper to the Writing War seminar on 23 November.

Ben provided exactly the sort of paper that I had hoped for in setting up this seminar – wide-ranging, entertaining and provocative of discussion. Ben began autobiographically, explaining how his career had developed from working for a military historical publisher, to researching and interviewing for The World at War, to writing on war and psychology in his brilliant A War of Nerves. Having studied extensively The Great War TV series, I was fascinated to hear Ben talk about the process of gathering eyewitnesses for its Second World War equivalent. I suspect that there was material here for a seminar in itself on war and television history – and what I forgot to ask Ben was how/if he thought television treatment of war had moved on since the 1970s, or if The World at War was the peak.

Ben then moved on to talk about the ideas he wrote about in A War of Nerves. Fortunately for this belated blogger, the two different narratives Ben discussed and analysed have been summarised by Esther at Break of Day in the Trenches. Simply put, A War of Nerves is a great book. Ben’s efforts to return to the empirical evidence, rather than to rely on contemporary discourse and assumption, made it a field-shifting work. A friend of mine who’s working on the treatment of ‘shell-shocked’ men in the First World War suggests that Ben is not completely right about the chronology of the topic – but then it’s a book about a century of war, and I think its overall analysis is persuasive.

Instead of rehashing the book, I’ll concentrate instead on the other controversial things Ben had to say. In no particular order:

1) ‘My Dad was tougher than your Dad’ – both in his paper and in subsequent discussion, Ben vigorously defended his view that the generation which fought the Second World War was tougher than his own, and that those who fought the First World War were tougher again. To a degree, I can see his point: famously, the army now has to allow recruits to wear trainers for the first couple of months of basic training, because their feet won’t cope with boots. Given the fairly poor standard of Edwardian health and safety, the lifestyle assumptions of many of the working-class men who fought the First World War were different from our own. With no real culture of compensation or trauma, neither of the two generations which fought the total wars of the 20th century launched a series of negligence suits against the government in their aftermath (although if you look at some of those who campaigned for pensions in the 1920s, you could see some examples, I suspect). On the other hand, it is a traditional complaint of middle-aged male military historians that the younger generation doesn’t know it’s born, is a bunch of weaklings and so on. And horrible though parts of industrial Britain were at the start of the century, they weren’t the same as finding yourself under the hurricane bombardments of 21 March 1918. Does ability to withstand one equate into ability to withstand the other? As Alex Watson pointed out, purely in terms of physical size, we’re much larger and better fed as a nation than we were before 1914 or 1939. Physically, we might have become more resilient. I don’t know how Ben would answer this – but I’ve met enough small guys with something to prove to recognise that toughness is a mixture of mind and body

2) Gender and culture. Ben was rightly scathing of those who apply an overly theoretical cultural or gender studies approach to the history of war without really taking the time to understand what they’re writing about. I couldn’t agree with him more: without quoting examples, anybody who works on the history of war is well aware of the issue of historians applying a set of modern concerns to the past whilst distorting it out of all recognition. I’m not sure if that means that all these approaches are invalid in themselves. Bad history – polemical, ill-informed, reliant on theory to the exclusion of the facts – is bad history. Good history – analytical, evidence-based, nuanced and balanced, readable – is good history. What we have to work towards is a moment where it becomes an assumption that those who work on war will want to think about all its aspects – so if you work on the British army, you’ll want to think about how its soldiers constructed their own identity, but if you work on British masculinity in the twentieth century, you’ll want to actually have an accurate picture of the army and how it worked.

3) Whippersnappers. Ben argued that there was a real problem with young historians taking on big topics, like war or memory at the start of their careers. The great historians of the past, he suggested, cut their teeth on micro-studies before moving on to the grand themes. For this young historian, at the start of his career, with a book just out on war and memory, this hit home as a criticism. I am highly conscious of the difficulty of taking on these big projects with such a small amount of experience. And I am all too aware of all the things I don’t know and all the research I haven’t done. On the other hand, my ideas aren’t clouded by being the same thing I’ve proclaimed for forty years without additional thought, my brain is still agile enough to cope with new information, and the sort of nuanced history I write means that I can leave room to allow for the fact I might be wrong. So I suspect that we’re going to disagree on this one. Fortunately for Ben, since he comes from an older and therefore tougher generation, when it comes to fisticuffs, he’ll have me, no problem.

4) War and sex. Ben had a lot of very sensible stuff to say about the ways war makes servicemen obsessed by women – mostly not as oppressors or as rapists, but in a host of ways, complex, connected but sometimes contradictory. To give a couple of examples, for many of these young men, the image of ‘woman’ is still bound up with being mothered. Married soldiers become obsessed with what is happening back at the home for which they’re fighting. Ben seemed to suggest that marital infidelity was a major issue – at least for Britain in the Second World War. I was unclear about the degree to which he was looking here at discourse as opposed to reality (dread cultural terms). Was it that there was loads of infidelity going on, or was it that soldiers talked about it all the time? Or both? Catherine Merridale pointed out that, from her research into the Red Army, what often happened was that one soldier would get a Dear John letter, and that everyone else would read it or hear about it and get anxious about what was happening at home. Ben has since been in touch with me to suggest that some of the questions surrounding this issue may be resolved by Pat Thane’s upcoming project on war and illegitimacy. This will indeed be an important addition to our knowledge – but perhaps we should be just as interested in the infidelities that could have happened but didn’t. War presents young people with a host of opportunities. But my suspicion is that for most British married couples in both world wars, the most common sexual experience was abstinence and separation rather than constant infidelity. Everyone knew about those who strayed and everyone talked about them. That doesn’t mean that they all followed suit. As I point out to my WW2 students, it’s no accident that ‘Cleaning my rifle and thinking of you’ was a wartime hit.

Just as with Stefan’s paper, I’ve probably done a terrible disservice to Ben in reporting his paper in this way. For all that I disagreed with some of the things he said, I still think he’s on the side of the angels and I was hugely grateful to him for coming to speak to us. Again, those interested should try to contact him direct.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.