A question about a footnote

Yesterday I attended the launch of the new British Council report Remember the World as Well as the War at the House of Lords.  The report explores international knowledge and understanding of the First World War, and the headlines here in Britain have mainly focused on the apparent lack of British knowledge of the war. This, interestingly, was not the tone of the discussion which took place yesterday.  The document was introduced by John Dubber, who co-authored it with Dr Anne Bostanci, before being discussed by Parliamentarians Keith Simpson and Baroness Young of Hornsey, with a final contribution from Dr Catriona Pennell, the historical consultant.  The debate was then opened up to contributions from the floor, which included, most pertinently, inquiries as to how the British Council was planning to use the document to engage the public with the debates it raises, as well as suggestions that similar, comparative research be carried out in the US and proposals for collaboration with other organisations to spread the document’s reach.

One of Catriona’s key points was that working as historical consultant had been, for her, a good exercise in academic discipline and concision, forcing her to think critically about how to present a huge range of historical argument, covering at least the past 30 years, in 10,000 words.  Indeed, she noted that she had originally presented her collaborators with 17,000 and that, in the editing process, large swathes of the history of the war, including the conflict’s impact on gender and on science and technology had had to be removed.  I have not yet had time read the document in great detail (I spent the train ride home last night reading the book I am supposed to have written a review for by the end of the week) but, as a historian of precisely those two facets of the history of the war, my initial glance the through did suggest that their importance is implicit in parts of the discussion, particularly the complications that they bring to our understanding of the war.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the graph on page 7 which charts UK responses to the question ‘Were members of your family/your local community involved in, or directly affected by, the First World War?’  The first responses listed are ‘Yes, a family member fought in the First World War’ (37%) and ‘Yes, a family/community member was involved in the war effort in another way’ (9%).  This second response is glossed with a footnote which reads ‘as carrier, labourer or other support staff (for example munitions support or digging trenches); as medical staff; on the home front (for example in factories) etc.’ [My italics.]

Now, I haven’t been blogging directly about my own research recently, but that footnote goes right to the heart of the question that is at its centre, namely how was the war experienced by men who served in military uniform in non-combatant medical roles during the First World War.  Because the structure of the responses as set out creates a seemingly unbridgable gap between combat and non-combat in terms of war service, a gulf that I am increasingly coming to believe did not exist, or at least could not be sustained, throughout the course of the conflict, within the British armed forces.  R.A.M.C. servicemen certainly saw themselves as soldiers, the comrades and equals of their combatant fellow servicemen, even if they didn’t bear arms.  And those fellow servicemen increasingly viewed R.A.M.C. as equals in terms of service rendered, acclaiming the qualities of endurance and comradeship that were key to understandings of heroism during the war years. Military medical service personnel served and were seen to serve, even if they did not fight, a fact which rather nuances not only the question of in what ways family members engaged with the war, but an earlier one about how the war should be commemorated, illustrated on page 5. In answer to this question, 64% (the decided majority) of UK respondents answered that a focus on human suffering and loss of lives should form the focus of commemorations over the next four years.  Yet the broader, more complex question of how the war was experienced, by those who survived as well as those who did not, was not, apparently an option given to respondents.  It is this question that forms the thrust of my research as a historian, as it does for many other social and cultural historians, and, I believe, motivates the large numbers of people engage in personal, local and regional research and commemoration projects taking place around Britain in response to the centenary.

So I had a rather pernickity question about the methodology used by YouGov (who carried out the polling for the survey) and about how the questions and responses presented to respondents were decided upon, as well as a rather broader one about how the material on gender, medicine and everything else that had to be edited out might be utilised in future to enhance the findings already published.  Last night’s launch, however, focusing as it did, quite rightly, on the global nature of the conflict and its continuing, multifaceted, global legacies, was not the right place to ask those questions.  So instead I am asking them here, or at least, to bring it back to Catriona’s own final question about how projects such as this facilitate the communication of cutting-edge scholarly ideas to a wider public, how do we make pernickity questions about footnotes relevant to that wider audience that is keen to find out how the war affected their family, their town, their region?  Buried in that footnote are some really interesting debates about the nature of service, for men and for women, in wartime and the impact of war on international medical and philanthropic ideals of care and compassion.  These are debates that still have relevance today, for medics in the battlefield and for NGOs such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, attempting to alleviate the suffering of all involved in contemporary conflicts.  These are discussions that academics are having.  Now, how do we make sure that they form part of the discussion when it comes to international commemoration as well?

Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?

I thought that, with yesterday’s post, I had managed to get everything I needed to say about Michael Gove’s intervention on the First World War out of my system.  Then I read this and I discovered that I had not.

I consider myself a ‘proper’ historian, a ‘careful’ researcher and, as it happens, one who spends an awful lot of time reading the accounts, both contemporary and retrospective of ‘the men who were there’.  In fact, I have written at some length about why there are historical problems of privileging ‘the men who were there’ as witnesses to the ‘truth’ of the past.  And yet, unlike Mr Mastin, and, as it happens, Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield, I do believe there is a value to showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom, not simply for what it tells us about ‘the different ways in which the past has been interpreted’, and certainly not because of what it has to tell about the lived reality of the war.  But it does have a great deal to tell us about the history of how the war has been remembered and commemorated as a major cultural (as well as military) event in British history and is thus an important historical document in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse my defense of why the cultural history of the war is at least as important as the military history, this centenary year of all years, here.  I have been making that argument in just about every piece of academic work I have published and I have a book review to write.  But I am going come out and say yes, we should be showing students of the history of the war television programmes like Blackadder and getting them to read books like Birdsong and Regeneration. They will teach students as much about how the war was remembered in the last quarter of the twentieth century as they will about the war itself, but that too is part of the history of the war.

What is more, I would add that we should also be getting students to read Sergeant Michael Cassidy by ‘Sapper’, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Kitty by Warwick Deeping.*  They should be watching Journey’s End and The Big Parade and La Grande Illusion.  Will these cultural works tell them the ‘truth’ about war experience? Only as much as Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That tells the truth of war experience.  But they do tell us a great deal about how the war was remembered and understood and interpreted by British (and French) culture.  And that, too, is the proper history of the First World War.

*I have personally cited all these works of fiction as historical evidence in essays which have been published by reputable publishers in independently refereed journals. References available upon request.

Of historians and politicians

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has decided that the best way to start off the centenary years of the First World War is through an article in the Daily Mail which attacks the ‘myths’ of the war and the ‘left-wing academics’ who he accuses of being ‘all too happy to feed those myths by attacking Britain’s role in the conflict’.  The response has been predictably excitable, with various blog posts from a variety of researchers into the history of the First World springing up over the weekend (a fair representation can be found here, here and here), as well as several articles in the print media and from the BBC giving the views of everyone from Tristram Hunt to Margaret Macmillan to Tony Robinson

For me, however, one of the most interesting interventions was one of the earliest, a discussion between Sir Richard Evans (held up by Gove as the prime example of a ‘left-wing academic’ intent on discrediting British national pride) and Gary Sheffield (cited by Gove as a historian engaging in ‘proper study’ for his work on Douglas Haig) on the World At One on Radio 4. These men had been invited to contribute because they were named in Gove’s article, but what emerged most clearly from the debate was the difference of perspective offered by two different types of historical approach, the internationalist analysis which allowed Sir Richard to make an argument about Russia’s lack of democracy, and the national (but by no means nationalist) military history that informs Gary’s views on why the British Army (as an entity) fought the way it did.  These differing approaches expose the many-layered complexity of trying to understand the historic realities of why British men fought in the First World War.

From my perspective as a social and cultural historian, however, there was an important methodological perspective that was missing from this discussion, namely that of the personal or individual history.  This is an explicable, but nonetheless interesting omission, given that personal and family histories are the most common way into a discussion of First World War history for the non-specialist.  This is evidenced by the rash of ‘my grandfather told me’ tweets in response to the discussion of Gove’s article, as well as longer, more thoughtful discussions of individual motivations from researchers such as John Lewis-Stempel and David Underdown.  In my own work, there are plenty of examples of men with equally complex motivations for enlisting initially, as well as those whose ideas about what they, personally, were fighting for changed over the course of their service.

My current favourite example of this is David Randle McMaster, whose papers I read at the National Army Museum last year. McMaster was a bank clerk who enlisted in the RAMC in August 1914 and served with 24th and 2/1st Wessex Field Ambulances throughout the war.  McMaster’s motivations for enlisting were both patriotic and self-interested.  From the outset, he expressed his belief in the necessity of defending the country from invasion and his personal willingness to do so. The son of a Congregationalist draper, he was clearly aspirational and initially enquired about enlisting as an officer, something that, without a medical degree, he was unable to do in the RAMC, the unit he favoured because its non-combatant status could be squared with his religious qualms about killing and violence.  Later, in 1917, McMaster contemplated transferring to a combatant unit in order to attain the social status of officer.  He only decided against doing so when it became clear that he would only be offered a commission in an artillery regiment, rather than an infantry regiment which he viewed as having higher social status.  It is clear from the letters to his parents in which he discusses this decision at length that, in the two and a half years since his enlistment, McMaster’s belief in the justness of the cause he was fighting for had not been eroded.  If anything, it had been enhanced by his experiences under fire (as a stretcher bearer he came under fire and in contact with the extremes of what bullets and shrapnel could inflict on the human body on numerous occasions) to the point where he was willing to compromise the religious teachings with which he had been raised.

Yet McMaster cannot be defined as simply a patriotic jingoist either. At no point does he claim to be fighting for ‘democracy’ as an abstract ideal.  Rather, like so many others, he declared himself to be fighting in defense of home and freedom, in his case embodied in the figure of his mother.  The values he is fighting for aren’t those of politicians but far more concrete ideas about a very particular way of life and the freedoms, from conscription, for example, that it offered. From a 21st-century perspective, these freedoms may appear severely limited, being hedged about by restrictions of class, gender, race and social convention but they nonetheless had value and were deemed worth fighting for by many in 1914.

Why is the personal history of an individual like David Randle McMaster significant?  Partly because he fits part of a pattern with other men, mostly of similar social background and education, who were willing both to enlist and to continue fighting because of a belief in what they were fighting for grounded in an individual and concrete reality, rather than a series of abstractions.  And partly because he is not necessarily representative of all the 5 million British men who served, many of whom enlisted, for instance, because of a desire for glory, because they needed the work, or because, as Regular soldiers, it was their work. Nor is he representative of men who were conscripted, who fought because they had to, rather than because they either wanted to or were misled about what they were fighting for.  The reasons that men enlisted and served were mutiple, complex and contigent upon their personal circumstances and should not be simplified into narratives of either patriotism (as presented by Gove) or ‘lions led by donkeys’ (as suggested by Hunt).

So individual stories are important, giving a much-needed nuance to arguments about why the war was fought. At the same time, individual stories cannot stand alone as representative of every experience.  They need the context of the broader picture for their significance beyond the personal interest of their descendants to be properly evaluated. The benefits of this can be seen in such excellent social histories as Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War and Catriona Pennell’s A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland, both of which locate individual experience clearly in the contexts of geography, class and change over time. The letters of David Randle McMaster help explain why concepts of ‘democracy’ could still be used to justify a nation fighting a war as an ally of imperial Russia and why Haig could remain an enormously popular figure among servicemen (and later veterans), while a knowledge of the structure of the British military helps to contextualise his attitude towards different regiments.

Taking all three perspectives, the international, the national and the personal, together we may be able to start to understand the immensely complex and often contradictory period of history that is the First World War.  What has been encouraging in the past year of working with educators from outside of academe is the extent to which there is a willingness, even an eagerness, to engage with this narrative complexity rather than resort to the crude caricatures that seem to be informing the political debate.  On one level, Gove and Hunt, from their oppositional perspectives, have done a huge disservice to the centenary commemorations by their insistence on reducing the debate to a question of party politics and attempting to divide those researching the subject into camps that fit with their stereotyped ideas. But at least in creating the debate they have made some space for more nuanced discussion among educators and the much maligned Great British Public, a discussion many on both sides seem to want to engage in.

Finally, a brief thought on the word ‘myth’ which has been bandied about pretty freely in a lot of these discussions.  Both sides seem to take the word to mean something equivalent to ‘fiction’ or even ‘a lie’.  Yet, as Samuel Hynes points out, a myth is ‘not a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it, the story … that has evolved, and come to be accepted as true.’ (A War Imagined, ix).  So the myths may be challenged, but they are worth studying too, for what they tell us about the historic societies in which they were developed and came to represent truth.  Even if that does mean showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom.

Never such innocence again

Yesterday was the anniversary of British entry into the First World War and, as such, saw a rash of articles in the British press and on line reflecting on both the conflict and the forthcoming centenary. Among them was this offering from Henry Porter in The Observer.  The main thrust of the piece is a discussion of the meaning and purpose of commemoration of conflict, about which Porter has a number of reservations, some of which I share.  What fascinated me about it, however, was the series of assumptions that underpinned Porter’s argument about the nature of the men who fought the war.

The opening paragraph describes a piece of graffito carved into a tree in Gloucestershire: PM 10/9/13 MKN.  As described, that is it, no heart encircling the initials, no indication of the sex or age of either party.  Yet, from this description, Porter makes the leap to a narrative whereby these are the initials of two lovers separated a year later by the war.  While I, too, make the assumption that at least one of the individuals was male (based on assumptions I make about knife possession and the desire to mark things through carving), my immediate narrative conclusion was rather different: two boys marking their friendship after school, perhaps, rather than two lovers swearing eternal fidelity after work.  Yes, they might have been 18 and, a year later, found themselves in the British armed forces preparing to face the enemy.  Or they might have been 13, too young to enlist until the war’s final year.  Porter’s narrative, while romantic, seems to have little evidence to back it up, making his tour of local war memorials even more of a long-shot than he himself implies.

Another, similar, imposition of narrative occurs later in the article, when Porter writes of the war as ‘an event that prods Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Remarque, Gurney and Nash into great art’.  By implication, the war is the sole source of these men’s artistic inspiration.  Certainly experiences of war inspired great art from these men, but their artistic aspirations and labours predate the war and several of them (most notably Graves, perhaps) produced great art in the years after that drew on other sources of inspiration. We cannot begin to speculate what sort of poets, artists, musicians they might have been had the war not occurred, but positioning the war as the sole reason for their artistic endeavour is equally a-historical.

It seems to me that there is quite a lot of this imposition of narrative in relation to our historical memory of the war.  The narrative runs that the Britain of the pre-war world, and all who inhabited her, were innocent and pure.  The war, with its unimaginable (by us as well as by those pre-war peoples) mud and blood and violence, destroyed that innocence, leaving behind only the grief and cynicism of the modern world.  It is the narrative of Paul Fussell’s literary paradigm shift writ large upon British social history.

And yet… As someone who has spent an awful lot of time reading the letters and diaries of men who fought in the war, documents which cover the complete span of 1914 through to 1920 and beyond, this narrative sits uncomfortably with me.  In the first place, as I have argued elsewhere, the post-war world was not entirely bereaved or cynical.  Men survived the war and came home to families who rejoiced.  All had been changed by their experiences of warfare, but those changes weren’t, in all cases, for the worse.  Some had gained new skills, acquired new aspirations, had their horizons widened, their philosophy and tolerance deepened.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the run-up to 1914, when questions of war enthusiasm and recruitment will be at the forefront of commemorative events, not all men who served were the lovelorn innocents of Porter’s (and I suspect popular) imagination.  The men who enlisted in the first years of the war were probably fairly reflective of the population at large: some were unworldly, some were sophisticates, a few were criminals.  Following the introduction of conscription, the accuracy of that social reflection may have increased as the reluctant soldiers were called up for service. Among the ranks of the army were surely, throughout the war, wife beaters, bullies, incompetents, malingerers, con men, the lazy and the cowardly, as well the idealistic, the intelligent, the grafters, the loyal, the poets and the heroes.  I have read more than enough papers of young men who started the war as prigs, or fire-eaters, and remained that way until the Armistice to know that war did not necessarily change men in the ways the canonical poets would have us believe, as well as far too many of men who were killed before they had a chance to reach anything like maturity.  Their stories, as well as those of the men who war changed in a myriad of ways, reflecting the myriad of personalities who were engaged in waging war, are worth listening to as well.

Over the course of the centenary it will, I know, be very tempting to look at the many artifacts of the conflict that will emerge into the public eye and impose romantic narratives on them, as Porter has done with a piece of graffito and as Philip Larkin did with a photograph in ‘MCMXIV’.  We should be wary of doing so, however, lest, in our romanticism, we miss far more, and far more interesting stories of this extraordinary conflict than the ones we believe we know.

Possibly an angry post

Yesterday the Guardian published this letter.  I am currently at a conference about shell shock but, in between discussing post-traumatic cultures, I have been trying to work out why it has annoyed me so much.  The following are my conclusions; forgive me if they get a bit heated.

My main reason for annoyance lies, I think, in two aspects of the letter.  The first is the apparent belief that those engaged professionally with and in the arts (as the majority of the signatories are) have a particular authority to speak about the horror of war.  I may be wrong; it may be that these were just celebrity names associated with Stop the War, although this still begs the question of where they get their authority to speak so definitely about the war and its meaning for commemorative purposes.  Nonetheless, I cannot help feeling that some, such as Michael Morpurgo, are using their status as creators of cultural expression which use the war as subject matter to give themselves authority to pronounce on the ‘truth’ about the war, drawing on the tradition of the First World War cannon.  This tradition in British culture privileges particular narratives based on what is artistically valued, seeing the poetry in the pity as the overriding truth of the war.  Now, I have nothing against Wilfred Owen, other than his ubiquity, and much of his poetry is beautiful and moving, but his poetry is not the sole truth of the war, however artistically important it may be.  Equally, those engaged in the arts have no greater access to the truth of the war as a historical event to be commemorated than politicians, former generals or any other group with interest in said events.

The second infuriating aspect of the letter is the dichotomy it sets up between national commemoration and the promotion of international peace and understanding through a focus on its futility and devastation.  Such attempts to impose a contemporary political narrative on the commemorations feels like a betrayal of the men who fought.  (This, incidentally, applies equally to attempts to portray the war as a locus of contemporary national identity, which this letter accuses David Cameron of doing.)  There were certainly plenty of voices calling for international peace both at the start and in the wake of war.  Equally there were many who saw the war as a fight for national survival agains the threat of Prussian militarism.  And there were many who, in fighting for King and Country, were simply fighting to preserve the sanctity of the small part of that nation that they called home. Far more men enlisted in the belief that they were defending democracy, however limited that democracy might seem from a 21st century perspective, than we tend to given them credit for.  Many survived the war, just as many did not. Some were disillusioned by their experience; many incorporated it into their life stories and carried on, changed but not destroyed by war.  To deny any this is to deny those who gave voice to these sentiments, as a huge number did, the validity of their beliefs and does their memory a huge disservice.

As I say, I do not think that a commemoration of the war as a moment of great national unity is any more valid.  There was great resistance to war on many levels and from many people whose experiences of war have equal right to be commemorated.  So what do I want from the commemorations of the next four years?  For a start, a depoliticisation, an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of experience that was fundamental to total warfare, experience that ran the entire spectrum from absolutist conscientious objection to the rabble rousing of John Bull.  All form part of the history of the war that is to be commemorated; none should be ignored because it does not sit comfortably with our contemporary political narratives, be they national or global. Please let these commemorations be about the war as a whole, and all who were involved in it, not solely about those whose experiences support a contemporary sound bite.

Why Am I Here?

A couple of recent comments, both on here and via e-mail, have caused me to start thinking a bit more seriously about the point of this blog. Over the past few months I have commented fairly extensively on manifestations of First World War history in the wider culture and a bit less on my own particular field of research. What was originally intended as a space for me to work out ideas relating to the history of non-commissioned members of the RAMC during the war has become a rather more general First World War blog.

I have to admit, this makes me a bit nervous. There are an awful lot of First World War buffs (in the most general sense of those interested in the war, not just pure military history obsessives) out there, and this blog is never going to be able to cater for all interests and I won’t even begin to try. I worry, however, that I spend an awful lot of time defining myself negatively as a historian. I am NOT a military historian (although I do know an increasing amount of military history as I get to grips with the complex systems of evacuation employed by the RAMC during the war). I CANNOT identify specific uniforms not am I likely to be able to help with queries about genealogical research (although I may be able to point people in the right direction). I am NOT a transnationalist and my knowledge of the non-British experience of the war is woeful, although I am hoping this will change in the not-to-distant future.

So where do all these negatives leave Arms and the Medical Man? Well, there are still plenty of positives, I hope.  I AM a cultural historian of warfare. I DO know a great deal about popular literature and the war, and an increasing amount about the medical history of the war.  I AM a gender historian which helps me locate my studies of the war in the narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I still hope to use it as a space to work out my ideas, especially now that I am starting to have more primary material to work with. I am in the Wellcome archive this week, discovering just how little there is on the work of the nursing orderly, something I am going to have to think hard about as I am due to give a paper on that very subject in two months time. And, as the centenary gets ever closer, I will carry on discussing representations of the war in British popular culture. That aspect of this blog has been the source of the greatest amount and potentially the most fruitful discussion so far. And while creating a forum for discussion about the war was not necessarily my main purpose in starting out with this blog, if that is a role that it fills (in a civilized manner, naturally) then far be it from me to resist!

On which note, here is an article that was doing the rounds last week, in case you haven’t seen it. Encouraging to have the problems of commemoration voiced by such an authoritative source, although I am not sure where we go from here. More discussion, then.

Looking Ahead

Happy New Year! I hope you have all had very merry and happy holiday seasons. Mine was lovely, marred only by sickness which struck on Boxing Day and has affected one or other member of my household ever since. Still, sore throats notwithstanding, we KBO.

Today is my first back at work since the holidays, although given the silence in the corridors, most of my colleagues have decided that this half a week is a bit pointless and have sensibly stayed away. With only one day in the office, I have mainly been concentrating on clearing my desk in preparation for the new year and, having almost succeeded (there is one proposal still to draft that is proving so intractable that I think yet another cup of tea will be needed to crack it), I thought this would a good opportunity to take a look ahead at what 2013 has to offer.

Firstly we have a great line-up of speakers for the Legacies of War seminar series. Final confirmation of titles is pending (and the full list will be posted in a week or so), but Adrian Gregory and Santanu Das have both agreed to speak, on ‘Did God Survive the Somme’ (!) and on ‘India, Empire and the First World War’. Both should be fascinating.

Before then I will be heading off to London, to the Wellcome Library where I will be on the hunt for memories of and about medical orderlies. Having had my proposal on the experiences of orderlies accepted for the Social History Society’s annual conference in March (see here for details), I am now looking for material to support the conclusions I have been drawing from reading Ward Muir’s Observations of an Orderly.  There is at least one orderly memoir at the Wellcome, plus a long list of potential manuscript sources, so it will be a busy.  I am also hoping to attend the IHR conference on open access, The Finch Report, open access and the historical community while I am there (there is a waiting list).

Also coming up is a meeting at the Imperial War Museum North for academics across the North of England to discuss plans for the centenary commemorations and I will be taking the opportunity to go round the ‘Saving Lives’ exhibition while I am there.

There are also a couple of long term plans that are starting to take shape – workshop for the autumn on the history of medicine and warfare, a journal special issue that I have been putting together for years now that hopefully will find a suitable home this year, plans for a primary school class on First World War medicine that may or may not include an accurate reproduction of a stretcher and work with some of the All Our Stories projects relating to Leeds hospitals during the war that have received funding.

And in the interim there will be reading and writing – lots of both.  There is the article on voluntary medical services and their relation to the military that I have been trying to write for a couple of months now, and the stack of books on the Territorial Army sitting seductively on my desk which will, hopefully, inform it.  There is the aforementioned conference paper on medical orderlies and the related research.  There is a beautiful (literally – the cover image is gorgeous) book from Ashgate to review.  And there is the ever-growing reading list, not including the ten books sitting disconsolate on my ‘to read’ shelf awaiting my attention.

So all in all it looks as if this will be a very busy and hopefully productive year in the annals of Arms and the Medical Man.  I will, of course, keep you updated as I go along.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I think I will.

Commemorating War

Unlike most weekends, which are spent ferrying the children to swimming lessons and singing classes while trying to catch up with the housework, I spent most of the past weekend at a fascinating workshop on commemorating war which brought together a number of military and naval historians to discuss ideas about the upcoming commemorations for 2014-18. (And lest you think my house is now a complete tip, my husband got on with the chores, so actually it looks somewhat cleaner than it normally does on a Monday.)

There was far too much discussed to cover in one post, so I will be coming back to what was discussed over a very intense day and a half, but one of the most interesting discussions resulted from Gary Sheffield’s talk on ‘Jay Winter and the Commemoration of the First World War.’ Following a brief survey of Jay’s work, Gary then looked at the legacy of his theories and the implications for 2014-18.

Now, a small disclaimer: Jay supervised my undergraduate thesis and my MPhil and was a huge influence on my decision to pursue an academic career. One of his influences on the study of the First World War has been a concerted effort to bring military and cultural historians of the war together in dialogue, an aim that I hope influences my work. Certainly I do strive to balance my love of social and cultural history with an awareness of the military details that shaped the trends I explore, which is why I am currently going so deeply into the history and organization of the RAMC at the moment. Gary’s main point, however, was that Jay’s idea of the memory boom helps to reemphasize victimhood as central to our understanding of the war, something that, he pointed out, has been picked up on in Cameron’s announcement of national plans for commemoration. The dates chosen are those of battles that are interpreted primarily as defeats, with no mention of the final campaign (the 100 days) which one the Allies the war, a fact which prompted a letter from the Western Front Association to the Independent. (Scroll down). In addition (a point I had not picked up on before), the school visits being funded are to soldiers’ graves, not battlefields which places the emphasis not merely on victimhood but sacrifice. Gary’s point was that children won’t actually be getting a sense of what the war was like by walking the landscape of battle but it also raises the point of whether those who survived the war are to be commemorated. Having worked extensively on the history of disability and the war, I am all too aware of how little is remembered and understood of those who returned to civil society, many wounded in body and mind, and who struggled to reintegrate. The majority succeeded, but not, I would hazard, without significant cost. Their stories are seldom told.

It was fascinating to hear a critique of the announced plans from the perspective of military history, and a reminder that military and cultural historians are often trying to tell a similar story, albeit from differing perspectives, and raise similar concerns about the way in which we remember and commemorate the war. The problems that we all, as historians, face in making these concerns public was the subject of an equally interesting presentation by the historian of the South African War, Professor Fransjohan Pretorius, who was involved with the commemorations in South Africa a decade ago. But that talk was itself rich enough that I think I had better return to it in another post.

Politicians and Generals

I have spent the weekend trying to get to grips with why I feel so uncomfortable about David Cameron’s announcement of £50 million toward the centenary commemorations of the war.  On the face of it, all his announcements are self-evidently Good Things – more money for the Imperial War Museum (still one of my favourite archives if only for the irony of reading about war under a burnished 10 Commandments in the reading room that used to be part of the hospital chapel), school visits to the battle fields, additional funding for local history groups, a focus on memory and commemoration.

So why am I not embracing this announcement wholeheartedly?  I have come to the conclusion that it is mainly due to the steering committee that was announced, filled as it is primarily with former servicemen and politicians.  Yes, Hew Strachan is an excellent representative of the community of First World War historians in Britain, and Sebastian Faulks seems a sensible choice to represent the arts, although I am sure there are plenty of others who would be just as appropriate.  But they are so far outnumbered by ex-servicemen as to raise the question of what the steering group believes these are commemorations of.  Are we going to see commemoration the war as a total war, one that influenced every facet and stratum of society, not just in terms of mourning (as is usually commented on) but also in terms of changing attitudes, new forms of work and service and technological developments?  Or are we going to have commemorations limited to the Armed Services?  How much of the focus is going to be on this particular conflict and how much on the service and sacrifice of all British (and Imperial/Commonwealth) forces since then?

My other source of unease is the fact that no reference at all was made to the work that universities around the country have been doing for several years now and will continue to do for the next six years.  Yes, many of these projects come under the aegis of the IWM’s First World War Centenary Partnership but so do many of the Heritage Lottery funded local history projects that get a name-check.  I am acutely aware that the Legacies of War project, one which is partnering similar local initiatives, has taken two years of hard work to get off the ground.  A similar amount of time has been spent at the University of Newcastle developing an international network of research into children’s experiences of war in the early twentieth century.  Birmingham and Kent are both centres of research excellence for First World War studies.  And the International Society for First World War Studies, now in its eleventh year, was founded by two academics based in Britain.  There is a wealth of passion and expertise to be tapped in our research institutions in this country, equal to that of the local history groups who will, quite rightly, be contributing so much to the commemorations, passion and expertise which Cameron, in his announcement seems to ignore.  Hopefully it can be used fully by the Centenary Partnership and those of us who make our living out studying the Great War can demonstrate the leading role that British academics have played and continue to play in the study of the First World War.

Oh, and the award for most fatuous comment must go to General Lord Dannatt, quoted in The Times as saying, ‘This needs to be the start of an education programme on the history of the events that led to the outbreak of the war, to make sure it never happens again.’  Given the number of conflicts to engulf the world since 1918, I suspect that ship has sailed.