Bullets and Bayonets

The Cornish Coast Murder (British Library Crime Classics)

Spoilers for The Cornish Coast Murder throughout.

One of the things that this extraordinary summer has allowed me to do has been to catch up on reading my way through my shelf of ‘to be read’ books. I don’t mean that the shelf has become emptier; I have been buying nearly as many books as I have read. Nonetheless, I have finally read all but one of the books that were waiting to be read when we moved house two and half years ago. (Wade Davies’ mammoth Into the Silence at over 600 pages is still proving too much of a challenge; I will tackle it eventually.) So last week I finally got around to reading John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, one of several British Library Crime Classics editions that were given to me as a Christmas present several years ago.

The Cornish Coast Murder, first published in 1935, the same year that Dorothy L. Sayers published Gaudy Night, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, is very much a standard Golden Age detective novel of the puzzle variety. That is, the focus of the narrative is on the murder plot, with very little in the way of characterization. Indeed, the characters are such archetypes that the key players tend to be referred to as the Inspector, the Vicar or the Doctor (although we are given their names and some physical description). The interest and momentum of the book is generated by uncovering the method of the crime (including possibly the first description of the sort of forensic tracing of bullet trajectory popularised by early series of CSI), with contemplation of motives and morality reduced to an afterthought in the final few chapters. It thus fits well into Alison Light’s description of the interwar whodunit as ‘a literature of convalescence’, ‘as insensible to violence as it could be. … As many critics have noted (usually dismissively) it is the lack of emotional engagement in the detective fiction between the wars which matters.’ [1]

So no, The Cornish Coast Murder is not one of the great novels of the Golden Age. This is no The Nine Tailors (1934), The Beast Must Die (1938)or even And Then There Were None (1939). But of particular interest to a social and cultural historian of the First World War with an interest in detective fiction on two counts. Firstly, there are the various suspects and witnesses. Since writing my Phd, half of which looked at the figure of the wartime hero in interwar detective and crime fiction, I have been on the hunt for ex-servicemen, and particularly disabled ex-servicemen, in such fiction. The Cornish Coast Murder stands out for having not just one such character, but four. Two of them are said to be suffering from a psychological wound of war. Three of them are suspects, one a witness and one, ultimately, the murderer. The second, related, aspect of interest is the murder weapon, a service revolver, described in some detail. Indeed, as with ex-service characters, there is not merely one but a second which acts as a significant red herring for much of the novel.

Taken together, these two aspects of the novel mean that there is an awful lot of war and its legacy, for both individuals and society, in this book. This stands in direct contrast to Marzena Sokolowska-Paryz’s assertion that ‘In the interwar period, detective fiction retained its distinctive autonomy as a genre, refusing to embrace the subject matter of the war or its repercussions in the present.’ [2] In making her argument, Sokolowska-Paryz quotes John Scraggs’ assertion that ‘The Golden Age fixation with the upper class, or the upper middle class, is further compounded in British fiction of the period by the fact that the physical and social settings are so isolated from the postwar depression that it is as if the Great War never happened.’ [3]

These are pretty extraordinary assertions. One only has to have even a passing acquaintance with the works of Dorothy L. Sayers to take issue with both of them. The war and its legacy for the present are central to her novels, whether in the form of her shell-shocked ex-service detective (Whose Body? (1923)and passim), plots which turn on the ex-service status of suspects and victims (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), The Nine Tailors (1934)), or passing references to social impacts such as the refugee crisis and ex-service employment or lack thereof (Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness (1926), The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Gaudy Night). Sayers, to be sure, is something of an outlier within the genre, both in the sophistication of her novels as socially reflexive literature and the extent to which the war is referenced throughout, but she is certainly not alone. Examples of war reference can be found in the work of Ngaio March (Enter a Murderer (1935)) and, of course, both Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings have wartime backgrounds. Like these, what Bude’s plethora of ex-service characters demonstrates is the extent to which the war underpinned everything in interwar society. It did not need to be made the explicit subject of interwar detective fiction (although it could be); its violent legacy, including moral panics over both the brutalisation of ex-servicemen by war service and, conversely, the psychological damage inflicted by war which might lead them to lose control which forms the definition of Ronald Hardy’s shellshock in Bude’s novel, is always there, emerging at various times and in various ways, as it must have done off the page as well as on.

Sokolowska-Paryz and Scraggs’ arguments, and indeed Light’s, can thus be read as an interesting manifestation of the debate about what makes for an ‘authentic’ depiction of the war by post-war fictions. This debate has been going on since at least 1919, and not solely in relation to literary fiction. As Mark Connelly has argued, for the film critic Annie Winifred Ellerman, who wrote under the pseudonym Bryher, ‘realism about the war could mean one thing – only its horrors and miseries. This ideological position then categorically denied that chivalry, honour, or bravery were part of the reality of war. Alternatively, if they were accepted, they were either wasted in such an ignoble pursuit and/or such a tiny component of war as to be irrelevant. In turn, this meant that any depiction that foregrounded these qualities was inherently flawed, and worse still, fundamentally immoral.’ [4] Conversely, Cyril Falls, the literary critic and ex-serviceman, complained in 1959 that ‘The flood of anti-militarist literature, for the greater part fiction, which poured from the presses, deriding the leadership from top to bottom, treating patriotism as a vice when not a fraud, as it was bathed in blood and rolled in mud, was astonishing. It was far from being representative’.[5] While two sides to the debate of what constitutes an ‘authentic’ representation of the war clearly emerged in the interwar period, it is interesting that the Bryher position seems to have come so clearly to dominate contemporary criticism of the detective genre. If it isn’t brutally realist and violent, then it is not, by Sokolowska-Paryz, Scraggs or Light’s argument, a depiction of or reference to the war and its social legacy in Britain. While Sokolowska-Paryz does discuss the more heroic representation of the war in Anne Perry’s Joseph Reavley novels in her analysis of contemporary detective fictions about the war, these form only one of the five series she examines, with all the others adhering to the disillusionment narrative.

Webley Mk IV Revolver

Which brings us to the second interesting element of The Cornish Coast Murder, namely the service revolver. In Bude’s novel, the revolver (or rather the two revolvers, one belonging to the shell-shocked suspect Ronald Hardy and one belonging to the murderer) is the subject of much discussion and description. Both are Webley .45s, the standard issue service revolver during the war, with the Mark VI replacing the Mark IV and V from 1915. Issued to officers, pipers, range takers, airmen, naval crews, trench raiders, machine-gun teams and tank crews, service revolvers were not carried by every serviceman but nor were they reserved solely for the officer corps. Thus while Hardy’s monogrammed revolver reflects his former rank as a junior officer and his social status as a middle-class author, the murderer, a manual labourer, ‘scrounged [his] in France, before being demobbed in ’19, and several rounds of ammunition.’ [6] One of the suspects, Cowper, the groundsman at Greylings, served as a Lance Corporal in an undisclosed regiment but never handled a revolver during his service.

While two service revolvers in one novel is slightly unusual, these weapons appear with some regularity in interwar detective fiction. Christie, who as a pharmacists during the war, knew more about poisons than guns, tended to label the pistols that appeared in her novels as ‘army service revolvers’. Sayers, meanwhile, has the murdered in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club shoot himself in the head. The type of gun used is not specified, but given the setting of a serivemen’s club (and the themes of the war and its legacy which are central to this book in particular), the reader might easily conclude that the weapon was a service revolver.

What is interesting is the extent to which in more contemporary detective fiction with a wartime or interwar setting, the service revolver has, in large part, been displaced by the bayonet as a weapon with wartime associations. [7] On my recent rewatching of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, for example, I was interested to note that bayonets were used twice, once as a murder weapon in Dead Weight (2013) and once by a disabled ex-serviceman when confronted with evidence of drug theft from a medical clinic in Blood and Money (2015). Sokolowska-Paryz points to the symbolic significance of the bayonet as the murder weapon in Rennie Airth’s Rivers of Darkness (1999), noting that the ‘sexual overtones of the killings is made apparent through the psychoanalytic meaning of the bayonet’ as a substitute penis. [8]

The symbolism of the bayonet, however, goes beyond its Freudian overtones. As Paul Hodges has argued, it was a weapon fetishized during the war and after as one of masculine aggression and face-to-face combat in ways which led to its use in wartime atrocities such as the killing of prisoners of war and the wounded. [9] Used in infantry training to instill aggression in the private soldier, its use as a weapon in modern industrialised warfare was generally perceived by servicemen as futile, a throwback to an earlier age. It is thus the symbolic inverse of the service revolver, a middle-class officer’s weapon associated with duty and honour and fired from a distance. Even when duty leads to violence and the taking of life, there is always an explicable motive, including the defense of the domestic, a common justification for war service. The distance between murder and victim, meanwhile, is particularly emphasized in The Cornish Coast Murder by the fact that the murderer fires from a boat, requiring three widely spaced shots to hit his target. The revolver, therefore, comes closer to wartime artillery as a fatal force, a distanced and almost random form of killing.

The service revolver and the bayonet can thus be read as emblematic of the two interpretations of the war at the heart of the debate over authenticity – the technologically advanced form associated with honourable (or at least explicable) motivations and the middle-officer corps and the brutal, apparently futile form associated with psychopathy and men damaged physically or psychologically by war. It is interesting to note that there appears to have been a decisive shift from one to the other as the symbolic weapon of the war between detective fictions of the interwar period and those of the past quarter century which have the war as its setting. As I start to think about the wider implications of this shift for understandings of the war and its legacy, I would be interested in hearing about appearances of both weapons in other fictions, both then and now. I promise not to wait as long to read them as I did with The Cornish Coast Murder.

[1] Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1991), p.70.

[2] Marzena Sokolowska-Paryz, ‘The Great War in Detective Fiction’ in The Great War: From Memory to History, ed. by Kellen Kurschinski, et. al. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015), p.84.

[3] John Scraggs, Crime Fiction (London: Routledge, 2005), p.48.

[4] Mark Connelly, ‘The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) and the Struggle for the Cinematic Image of the Great War’ in The Great War, ed. by Kurschinski, et. al., p. 317.

[5] Cyril Falls, The Great War (New York: Putnam, 1959), p. 421, quoted in Ian Andrew Isherwood, Remembering the Great War: Writing and Publishing the Experiences of World War I (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p. 160.

[6] John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder (London: The British Library, 2014; first published London: Skeffington & Son, 1935), p. 275.

[7] By bayonet I mean here the rifle bayonet; interestingly, the Webley Mk VI could be modified to take a small bayonet as well.

[8] Sokolowska-Paryz, ‘The Great War in Detective Fiction’, p. 94.

[9] Paul Hodges, ‘They Don’t Like It Up ‘Em!’: Bayonet fetishization in the British Army during the First World War’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 1:2 (2008), 123-138, DOI: 10.1386/jwcs.1.2.123_1.

What’s in a Name?

Cover of The New York Times, 24th May, 2020

I was in Cambridge on 11th September, 2001, but I went home to New York City for the Christmas holiday that year. My memory of that holiday is dominated two experiences: first seeing the city skyline without the domination of the Twin Towers as the cab drove me from JFK to Manhattan, and sitting for days at a time on the sofa in my father’s tiny apartment on 79th and Broadway reading the obituaries of those who died in the New York Times. Every day the paper included several pages of these, brief biographies, some accompanied by photographs, of the cross-section of New Yorkers and Americans who had lost their lives so inexplicably and suddenly. I found my old babysitter and a girl I had studied history of art there; I was introduced to firemen and cleaners, bankers and parents, real people with real lives cut brutally short.

On Sunday, the New York Times again placed a list of the dead at the heart of its publication, this time a list of those who lost their lives to Covid-19 as the number of pandemic fatalities in the US neared 100,000, over 30 times the number who died on 9/11. This time there was no space for pictures, even the short life stories of the 9/11 obituaries. Instead the front page lists names, ages, place of residence and, for most, a brief phrase describing something which made that person unique. These descriptions range from the banal through the humorous to the startling. They capture working lives, domesticities, private passions. They help to illustrate the claim of the sub-heading that these ‘were not simply names on a list. They were us.’

In all, the front page, and the continuation on page 12, lists 1,000 names, 1% of the marked death toll. It is, for me, as for so many others, profoundly moving in its personalisation of the loss that this pandemic is causing, not just in the US but across the world. But does it, as my cousin, who specialises in the visualisation of enormous numbers, asked, really convey the scale of this loss? Remembering these people as individuals is important, he implied, but in doing we lose a sense of the enormity of what 100,000 deaths really looks like.

The tension that my cousin is flagging here is one that has shaped commemorative practice for over a century, at least in the Anglophone world. While epidemic and pandemic illness have shaped society through extensive and profound loss of life for centuries, the First World War (and the ‘flu pandemic which followed it) brought this tension into focus as concentrated mass death occurred for the first time in a world of the nation state and global communication. Each death in and of itself was a personal tragedy and a loss to a community, but it was also, in the case of the deaths in war service, a death in the service of the state and thus required a more public marking. In Britain, this came in the form of casualty lists, published initially daily in the press, and later, as the numbers grew, weekly. Visually, these lists bear a startling resemblance to the New York Times cover, although they include none of the personalising details, only name, rank and unit of service.

It was after the war, however, that the process of naming the dead as a way of remembering them as individuals rather than as part of a mass truly came into its own in Britain. The decision not to repatriate the dead meant that traditional forms of naming on gravestones were precluded for all who died overseas. The loss of bodies meant that, for many, even a corner of a foreign field was an impossibility. Instead the names themselves became the markers and the memorials, both at home and overseas. It is impossible to travel around Britain without encountering a memorial listing the names of the dead – churches and churchyards, in schools and universities, on railway station concourses and street corners. The pattern is repeated in memorials overseas, most notably Lutyen’s monumental arches at Thiepval, with their overwhelming list of the 73,000 names of the missing of the Somme.

Panel of names, Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

Thiepval seems, one way, to illustrate the problem of naming as a way of commemorating the enormity of mass death through naming. The scale of the memorial is such that it is impossible to see some of the names in its highest reaches from the ground. The names of the dead on my local village war memorial may mean little to me as an incomer of three years’ standing, but I can still read each and acknowledge them as individuals in a way that the sheer scale of Thiepval precludes. Unlike Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which most notably took on the tradition of naming as commemorative practice in the US, those visiting Thiepval cannot touch the names, as those visiting Washington often do. Sensory connection, whether of eye or fingertip, seem to be denied. The visitor to Thiepval risks being overwhelmed by the size, the number, the enormity of so many names who cannot be comprehended as individuals.

Blackshaw Head War Memorial

And yet Thiepval remains one of the most profoundly moving memorials to British war losses, inspiration for at least two generations of historians and cultural critics. The invocation of names, with their assertion of an individuality, and individual loss, mirrored in the gravestones of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries across the world, aids our perception of the scale of loss, rather than distracting from it. Smaller local war memorials can have a similar effect, particularly once one is aware of their prevalence. The relentlessness of encounter wherever one travels in Britain serves to bring home the sheer number of dead as profoundly as any weekly gazette of casualties or daily listing of obituaries. The dead are many, but they are not numbers. They are names – of soldiers, students, workers, congregation members, parents, children, siblings. This, then, is the power that the mass listing of names has in commemorative practice, to bridge the gap between the unknown individual and the incomprehensible scale of loss. Names make not just the dead but the meaning of their deaths as one of many known to us. They never were just names on a list, then or now. They were, they are us.

To hold the hot hand of the man who talks wild

There have been a lot of war metaphors thrown about since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. Donald Trump has styled himself as a ‘war’ president; commentators compare Boris Johnson to Churchill, both favourably and unfavourably; the ‘Blitz spirit’ has been invoked (and critiqued) as the public response to social distancing and lockdown; and manufacturing has, in an echo of the economic mobilisation of total war, been rallied to supply ventilators and other necessary medical supplies. Our language has become military  with talk of care workers and food supplier being on the ‘front line’, of shirkers and spivs and black markets. In my own home, having reached the end of fourteen days in self-isolation during which we were unable to get any food delivered other than milk and eggs (blessings be on our milkman!), my children have learned a great deal about the history of rationing – and how to bake bread.

But there is another, more difficult way in which the history of war has echoes in today’s crisis. Because, like so many battlefield casualties, those dying with or of Covid-19 are doing so far from their families. The emotional burden that this fact brings with it is something that the history of both British mourning practices and medical care in the First World War can tell us about.

The Victorian ideal of a ‘good death’ – the individual dying in bed surrounded by their loved ones with time to utter final profound, pious words – was, of course, always a myth. [1] That myth, however, was utterly demolished by carnage of the First World War. Men died in large numbers, far from their families. The technology of war had the power not merely to kill but to destroy, even obliterate bodies. The recording and reporting of deaths in such circumstances meant that official news could take time to reach families, often contained only the barest details and could, in some cases, be inaccurate. The result was the reinforcement of the importance of one mourning practice of the pre-war era, that of writing letters of condolence.

While official notification of death could be brief and brutal, a telegram informing the family that their loved one had been killed in action, died of wounds or was missing, it would almost always be followed, or indeed occasionally preceded, by a letter from a commanding officer. In many cases, this would then be followed by letters from the deceased man’s comrades; in some cases, particularly where a man was missing, presumed dead, extensive correspondences grew up between men’s families and the men of their military unit.

These letters were more detailed than the initial announcement, not only celebrating the character of the man in question, but also telling the story of his death. Depending on how well known the man was to his officer and comrades, these letters could be generic or personal in their description of men as individuals. But the detail they contained acknowledged the importance for families of knowing both that their loved one had been known as an individual and also how he had died. As E. K. Smith’s platoon sergeant wrote to his parents, he was ‘only too tell you what actually happened, & being as you say a parent myself, I know you would like even the smallest details concerning the sad event.’ [2]

The descriptions of the death itself could vary in detail, depending on when and where it happened. A death in the midst of an action could be more difficult to describe than one which occurred on quiet day in the line. Almost all, however, had one thing in common – the depiction of the death as ‘clean’ and usually quick. Gerald Stewart’s parents were reassured, for example, that ‘Your son was killed by a bullet and died without suffering any pain. He was not one whit mutilated, and as I looked down at his face as he lay in the battle field I remarked how bonny he looked.’ [3] W. Lindsey ‘was at the time of being wounded splendidly advanced and skilfully leading his men’ while A. R. William’s ‘died a soldier’s death giving his live saving the lives of his comrades.’ [4] Wartime letters of condolence did not seek to tell the truth of death to families who could not be there when their loved one died. Rather they sought to bring emotional solace by emphasising lack of suffering and even heroism in the face of death. While deaths from coronavirus may not lend themselves as clearly to stories of heroic action, the daily newspaper columns giving brief descriptions of those who died points to the need, both of families and society more broadly, to construct a narrative around individual deaths. The need to articulate death as meaningful only becomes more powerful when it occurs at a distance.

Not all or even most of those who died during the First World War did so on the battlefield, however. The system of medical evacuation, which emphasised clearing the ill and wounded from the field in order to leave it clear for combat, meant that many men died in one of the sites of medical care that made up the chain of evacuation. For men who made it as far back as a base or home hospital, there was the potential for their families to be by their sides. Wealthy families could pay to travel to and stay near where their loved one was hospitalised, even as far as the base ports in France. For the majority of families, such travel was beyond their means; in the case of fatal wounds and illness, grants were made available for families to travel to be with their loved ones at the point of death. The importance of such connections was acknowledged by the British state and society at the time.

However, even where money was available and families were able to travel, only a tiny minority were able to be at there for men dying in hospitals. And for men dying in Casualty Clearing Stations or dressing stations, family visits were never an option. For the vast majority of men dying in sites of care during the war, those by their sides at the end were care providers – nurses, chaplains and medical orderlies. To these men and women fell the task of ensuring not only that the story of a man’s death was told to his family but, even more importantly, that he did not die alone.

The emotional labour that this entailed was immense. George Swindell, a Royal Army Medical Corps stretcher bearer recalled the period he spent seconded to a moribund ward, nursing men whose wounds were too serious to treat alongside a chaplain, as one of the most difficult of his military service. [5] As Alice Kelly has noted in relation to nurses, ‘A large part of the … role was comforter, and all of the nurses’ accounts record the men seeking comfort from the author, both physically and mentally.’ [6] Chaplains, working in religious traditions of death bed visiting and vigil, might have some experience with this form of labour. Nurses and orderlies as a rule did not. Yet throughout the war they acted as bridges between the dying and their families, taking final messages to pass on to loved ones, reassuring the dying that they were cared for and not alone.

If the conditions reported on hospital wards in Spain and Italy are anything to go by, this is a form of labour that hospital staff will increasingly be required perform as part of their care for Covid-19 sufferers. The nature of the illness is such that they must be isolated from their family in extremis, and treated by carers shielded, where available, by extensive personal protective equipment. In such circumstances, where the dying sufferer is isolated, with limited physical contact with other people, the importance of communicating emotion between the sufferer and their loved ones becomes even more important. This will come, as it did for caregivers in the First World War, on top of immense physical strains to simply provide care for all those suffering.

Are there lessons to be learned from this history? Until comparatively recently, the emotional labour of carers was not the subject of much discussion. [7] And, as the late Sir Michael Howard noted, ‘historians may claim to teach lessons …. But “history” as such does not.’ [8] But in acknowledging the significance of the role that care providers, not just doctors and nurses but nursing assistants, orderlies, even cleaning staff, can potentially play in bridging the distance between the dying and those they love and who love them, we can, perhaps, more fully appreciate the care being given not only to the bodies of individual patients but to the psyche of society as a whole.

In 1917, Private W.H. Atkins wrote a poem in praise of the quiet heroism of the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps, including the nursing orderly:

Oh! it’s weary work in the white-washed ward,

Or the blood-stained Hospital base,

To number the kit of the man who was hit

And cover the pale, cold face,

To hold the hot hand of the man who talks wild

And blabs of his wife or his kids,

Who dreams he is back in the old home again,

Till the morphia bites, and he loses his pain

As sleep settles down on his lids. [8]

Today, in hospitals up and down the country and across the world, carergivers will be doing similar weary work. It may not earn as much recognition as the physical labour of medical caregiving or the danger that they will be putting themselves in of catching a potentially fatal illness. But this necessary emotional work is heroic nonetheless.

[1] Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); David Cannadine, ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’ in Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death, ed. Joachim Whaley (London: Europa, 1981), pp.187-242.

[1] G. Gould, letter to Mrs. E. Smith, 24th January, 1916, Letters of E. K. Smith, Documents.2535, Imperial War Museums, London (IWM).

[2] Lt.-Col. S MacDonald, Letter to Mr Stewart, 14th April, 1917, Papers of G. Stewart, Documents.8572, IWM.

[3] W. Gillam, letter to Mr Lindsay, 4th August, 1917, Papers of W Lindsay, Documents.11765, IWM; Lt. Collinson, letter Mr Williams, Papers of A. R. Williams, Documents.4436, IWM.

[4] George Swindell, ‘In Arduis Fidelus: Being the story of 4 ½ years in the Royal Army Medical Corps’. TS memoir, RAMC 421, The Wellcome Library, pp. 118–19.

 [5] Alice Kelly, ‘”Can One Grow Used to Death?”: Deathbed Scenes in Great War Nurses’ Narratives’ in The Great War: From Memory to History, eds. Kellen Kurschinski, et. al. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015), p.338.

[6] Carol Acton and Jane Potter, ‘”These frightful sights would work havoc with one’s brain”: Subjective Experience, Trauma, and Resilience in First World War Writings by Medical Personnel’, Literature and Medicine 30(1), 61-85, here 62.

[7] Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p.11.

[8] W. H. Atkins, ‘The R.A.M.C.’, The ‘Southern’ Cross 2 (June 1917).

Counting the War Injured

Cross-posted from the Men, Women and Care blog:

In a Twitter discussion sparked by the BBC’s screening of Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ in November, Greg Jenner quoted the statistic that nearly 90% of British servicemen returned home and that half of these were injured. The first statistic didn’t worry me. 88% is the generally accepted rate of survival for the conflict, although it appears high in the context of a cultural narrative which emphasises the death and destruction of the war above all else. The second figure, however, was not one I recognised from my research into disable ex-servicemen of the conflict, so I asked Greg where he had got his figures from, as my own estimate is that about 30% of men returned from service did so suffering from illness or injury. What resulted was a conversation that, as I noted at the time, was one I wasn’t in a position to engage in properly, given that I was lying in bed, attempting to tweet on my iPad after a very long day listening to my son sing in choir at a large-scale Remembrance Service. This, then, is my attempt to think through the issues raised by Greg’s tweet, and my querying of it.

To start with the problem, which is that I believe 50% of all men returning from the war as injured to be an overestimate.  Greg’s figure, which comes from the Imperial War Museums and has been cited by a number of historians over the years, is based on the official Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War: 1914-1920. The summary table of the ‘Total per cent of Battle Casualties and Deaths’, which is tabulated by theatre, gives the rate as 5 casualties to every 9 men sent out to France, 2 to every 9 men sent to the Dardanelles, 2 to every 12.5 men sent to Mesopotamia and smaller ratios for other theatres, including Salonika, East Africa, Egypt and Italy. In percentage terms, this works out at 56% for France, 23% for the Dardanelles, 16% for Mesopotamia and smaller percentages for other theatres. The total percentage of casualties across all theatres has not been calculated, although the History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Medical Services: Casualties and Medical Statistics of the Great War states that ‘the total numbers affected by war service, in the sense of death or some form of war disablement for which State compensation was given, may be estimated at approximately 2,414,000 or 40.2 per cent. of those who served.’[1]

There are some problems with these figures, however. First, figures from the Statistics of the British War Effort include casualties not only from Britain but from the colonies and dominions as well. The statistics cannot, therefore, be considered reliable in discussions of the effect of casualty numbers on British society alone. They force us to think about Britain as a colonial actor in this period, but do make local and regional analyses much harder.

Second, the inclusion deaths in the count of battle casualties makes it much harder to evaluate how many men returned from the war injured or ill. If we could calculate the total percentage of casualties due to death, injury and illness across all theatres, we could subtract the accepted 12% mortality rate that is the generally accepted figure for the British armed forces. But we don’t have that figure. The percentage of battle casualties does distinguish between ‘killed and died’, ‘wounded’ and ‘missing and prisoners’ for each theatre, but specifically excludes casualties due to sickness. The medical services statistics, meanwhile, only counts those in acknowledged as ill or wounded by the Ministry of Pensions, not all those who became casualties during the war.

This raises the question of what is meant by casualty even when deaths are discounted from the numbers. I have focussed on the word injury throughout my discussion so far, reflecting the omission of the sick from the official calculations. But men did not become casualties only through injury, that is damage caused by accident or attack. Many casualties, particularly in the Middle East, were the result of illnesses, including those which could persist long after demobilisation, such as malaria or the rather general ‘debility’, or physical weakness resulting from other illness. [2] Some illnesses, perhaps most notability heart conditions, were the result of aggravation of pre-existing conditions by the experience of war, conditions that had either been missed in hurried medical inspections [3] or had been dismissed as not severe enough to affect a man’s service in light of the ever-increasing military demands for manpower. To say that these men returned from the war suffering from injuries would be inaccurate, yet they undoubtedly returned from the war suffering from physical consequences of their service, whether attributable to or aggravated by it.

Sickness rates are analysed in the official statistics, as part of the wastage rates. Also tabulated under ‘wastage’ are statistics relating to multiple injuries. A single injury does not equate to a single man injured. Because of the military priority for manpower, the work of the medical services aimed at conserving manpower through not only the treatment of wounded men but also their rehabilitation for return to active service where possible. Wounded men were thus often recycled through the military medical system, some multiple times for multiple injuries. This repetition and overlap is at least partially captured in the statistics, but not in a way that makes clear how this affected the headline figure.

Finally, there is the problem of the invisible injury and underdiagnosis in the casualty rates as defined by the official statistics. The most obvious example of this is, of course, psychological traumas which are generally accepted as being underdiagnosed by the British military medical authorities throughout the war, in part due to the social stigma attached to such traumas and in part due to lack of medical understanding of the conditions. (These two things are, of course, related.) It is worth noting, however, that underdiagnosed invisible injury also includes conditions such as hearing loss, where diagnosis had to be based on highly subjective observations. The existence of both invisible injury and the stigma attached to it has led several historians, most notably Jay Winter, in a lecture at the British Academy in 2014, to suggest that might higher numbers of men suffered from disabling traumas than is reflected in official statistics. While the statistics do, undoubtedly, underestimate the number of men so injured in war, the methodology used to arrive at the figure of 25% quoted by Jay remains somewhat opaque.

Nonetheless, it is possible that the numbers of invisibly injured undiagnosed and therefore uncounted in the official statistics cancels out the overcounting of individual men who suffered multiple injuries and illnesses. There is no way, from the statistics available, to demonstrate this, so that 50% feels like a guess rather than solid estimate. Which brings us to the figure that I have been using in my research, also drawn from the official statistics, this time those relating to the men in receipt of some sort of support from the Ministry of Pensions up to 31st March, 1930. This figure is given as 1,664,000 or 27.7% of those who served. [4] Based on the mortality rate of 12%, this gives a figure of 31.5% of those who returned from the war suffering from an attributable illness or injury sufficiently serious enough to warrant a pension or gratuity.

Again, we have to qualify what is being counted here. Men in receipt of either a gratuity or pension from the Ministry of Pensions could do so for either an illness or an injury, so they cannot be described solely as injured men. To receive support they had to show that the illness or injury was either attributable or aggravated by the war, with aggravated conditions often disallowed for support. Other exclusions included injuries caused by carelessness or those deemed to be self-inflicted. Then there is the issue of self-reporting. Pension had to be applied for; ill or wounded servicemen were not automatically assessed for them, although Article 9 of the Pensions Bill gave them the right to apply for a pension following discharge if attributability or aggravation could be demonstrated.  Some men did not apply for a war pension because they had sufficient income not to need additional support; other viewed any sort of state support as associated with the heavily stigmatised aid of the New Poor Law and the workhouse, or else as a form of dependence that was at odds with their subjective sense of self as independent male breadwinners. Of course, the willingness to define oneself as disabled by war might change over time and with circumstances. A wound or illness might deteriorate; financial circumstances might change for the worse. A man reluctant to apply for a pension in 1919 might feel he had no other option in 1927, although he might have a harder time proving attributability at that distance from the point of illness or injury.[5]

So just over 30% of men returning from the war injured or ill is almost certainly an underestimate, but by as much as 20% or 1,056,400 men?  Even in the circumstances, that seems too big a margin of error to me. So I would conclude, not very helpfully, perhaps, that the actual figure falls somewhere between the two, probably more than the 1.7 million men noted by the official statistics but not as many as 2.7 million. If we wanted to talk in round figures, about 2 million men would seem as close a guestimate as can be made on the figures currently available.  According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK population in 1929 was estimated at 45.7 million. Disabled ex-servicemen, it can therefore be argued, made up approximately 4.5% of the British population. But this figure comes, as we have seen, with all sorts of qualifications.

In his statistical examination of casualty records, Those We Forget (2014), David Noonan is sharply critical of the statistical methodologies of all the official histories of the war efforts of Britain and her Dominions. Noonan has attempted a statistical revision of the Australian official record. A similar exercise has yet to be carried out in relation to the British armed services from the First World War, although, in comparison to Noonan, who used the well-preserved embarkation records of Australian First World War servicemen for his re-evaluation, historians of the British armed forces face greater difficulties due to the loss of relevant documentation over the years. Nonetheless, it behoves us to treat the statistics of the war effort, official or otherwise, with critical care. As I hope this post has demonstrated, quantitative analysis can throw up a range of interesting nuances in relation to questions about the social impact of mortality, survival and illness, even if the numbers can’t answer our questions as clearly or easily as we might hope.

 

[1] T.J. Mitchell and G. M. Smith, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Medical Services: Casualties and Medical Statistics of the Great War (Imperial War Museum, 1997; originally released 1931), p.315.

[2] David Noonan, in his statistical analysis of Australian casualty records, defines debility as a euphemism for psychological trauma in the records. There is, however, no evidence that this was, in fact, how it was used at the time.

[3] See J.M. Winter The Great War and the British People (Basingstoke: Macmillan Eduction, 1985), pp.48-64.

[4] Mitchell and Smith, Medical Services, p.315.

[5] This discrepancy can, perhaps, be seen in the estimate of the the International Labour Office of 1.7 million British ex-servicemen suffering from war-attributable disability in 1921, a year after the official statistics recorded 1.4 million men being granted a pension or gratuity for war-atributable disability. ‘Studies and Reports: The Compulsory Employment of Disabled Men’, Series E, no.2, International Labour Office (Geneva, 1921), p.2. I am indebted to Bethany Rowley for providing me with this figure and reference.

The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

Lest We Forget

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Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory, Cannongate

This year I have noticed that several of my contacts on social media have used the phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ as part of their remembrance practices in advance of Armistice Day.  I’m not sure if this is a new trend or if I am just more aware of it this year. As this year’s definitely more vociferous debates over the politicization of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance indicate, the words and symbols through which we commemorate wars and their legacies are nothing if not mutable across time, responding to changing social and political contexts. As someone who wears a poppy to commemorate the disabled men for whom the manufacture of poppies formed their employment in war’s aftermath as much as the men who died in the war, the multiple meanings of any given object or phrase in relation to this emotive subject have always been a source of fascination.

At the same time, I know that this particular phrase has an association with Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday because I am aware the my emotions in encountering it in this context are familiar. Once again, I am struck by the oddity of the use of this phrase outside the wider context of Kipling’s ‘Recessional’, the poem with which it is so strongly associated. My awareness of the phrase’s ubiquity this year sent me back to that poem, written not to commemorate wars but Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. And for many reasons the 120-year-old poem struck me as more apposite than ever, in ways far beyond those the poet could ever have envisioned.  Today it seems to me worth quoting in full:

Recessional
God of our fathers, known of old,
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

(1897)

Women, Gender and Sexuality visit Women, Work and War.

A guest post from Laura Boyd, a second-year PhD student in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. Laura is researching the work of non-combatant male medical caregivers in Britain and France during the First World War, and is a postgraduate member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster.

On 8 March 2017, the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster at the University of Leeds had the fantastic opportunity of a guided tour of the Women, Work and War exhibition at Armley Mills, followed by coffee and a chat. We were a mixed group of academic staff and postgraduates, from MA to Ph.D level in the Faculty of Arts. Guiding us was Lucy Moore, the Project Curator for First World War and member of the Legacies of War Project.

The visit began with the guided tour. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, and gave a real insight into the lives of the women working in and around Leeds during the Great War. These women came from all around Leeds and indeed much further, and took over the jobs in factories that were left by men who had gone off to war. Though it started in Armley, the factory expanded to the Barnbow site and employed large numbers of women.

Not only did it portray the ‘general’ or ‘bigger picture’ of the lives of these women who worked at Armley and Barnbow in the munitions factories, but was interspersed with personal stories. Lucy showed us around the different exhibits, including munitions and clothing, and shared other anecdotal tales that were not on display, taken from the writings of the ‘Canary Girls’ themselves. The exhibition featured personal accounts of the 1916 Barnbow explosion, which really brought home just how dangerous this behind-the-lines war work was. We even had the chance to have a sneak-peek at an original medal press that is currently awaiting restoration!

We then sat down for coffee and a chat with Lucy, and we began by asking about her own career progression into becoming a curator. Her answer? Refreshingly honest! And by that I mean that it wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression, as these things rarely are. A few of the postgraduates in attendance were interested in hearing about how to get into her line of work and Lucy gave us some great tips on how to get started.

This led to a discussion of the academic buzzwords ‘impact’, and ‘partnerships’ between academics and the community. Though these words tend to scare people like me, it was actually a really insightful and interesting discussion. Both Dr. Jessica Meyer and Lucy Moore are part of the Legacies of War Project here at Leeds, which they were delighted to talk about. Lucy was open about how the academic world has helped create interest around exhibitions such as Women, Work and War. Not only through organising trips such as ours, but by spreading the word among colleagues and at other academic events such as conferences and seminar series. She also said that she is happy to have connections to which (and whom) she can turn for information and help. Jessica was also keen on this point, telling us how the museum had also helped greatly in terms of ‘impact’, by helping the academic world bridge the gap between us and the public, leading to some fruitful and fascinating interactions. She also noted that often independent researchers involved in projects such as this come with knowledge and sources often unknown to academics!

So, to sum up, it was invaluable. Academic-community partnerships can help to get the public interested in what we do, and in turn can, through these partnerships make our research available to all. I would wholeheartedly suggest that if you have not yet been to the exhibition – GO! It will be well worth it, I promise.

A (belated) report from the wilds of Borsetshire

A recent post on Twitter asked if we are starting to witness the demise of the personal academic blog, at least in the field of history. Reasons put forward for the decline in the number of posts being written were pressures on time, developments in the research cycle (implicitly related to the increased imminence of the Research Excellence Framework) and variations in the teaching cycle, as posited by George Gosling.  Concern was also expressed that blogging was coming to be viewed as a requirement of postgraduate and early careers scholars, rather than more established ones.

I didn’t respond, all too aware that it has been months since I posted anything here, and even more since I directly posted anything related directly to either of my research projects.  This is due to all of the above reasons. I am teaching this term, not much but a new module that requires a certain amount of additional preparation and organisation.  I have committed myself to a large number of speaking engagements and forthcoming publications, as well as helping to organise two conferences.  On top of my research commitments and administrative obligations, this leaves me little time for writing the remaining chapters of the book, let alone reflections for the blog. And then there is the question of what I write about.  While I agree that blogging should not be the sole responsibility of PGRs and ECRs, I am becoming increasingly aware that it is easier to blog about searching for a job than it is about applying for promotion.  Similarly, blogging about ideas at the start of a project enabled me to work through key themes in ways that now seem to have less utility as I actively incorporate them into the book. If I am going to write about these ideas, I need to do it as part of my manuscript, not as a shorter reflection.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have things to write about (beyond my despair at the current political situation).  There are stories emerging from the new research project, although as this has its own blog now, I tend to reserve them for that forum.  And the number of speaking engagements I have undertaken means I am regularly coming into contact with the work and ideas of others which is giving me much food for thought and which is worthy of putting on record.

Which brings me to the Academic Archers conference, possibly one of the oddest but also  among the most interesting academic experiences I have had since I spent two days up to my ankles in mud talking about medical care on the Somme last summer.  This was the second annual conference organised to bring together academic analysis subjects based on or inspired by Radio 4’s long-running rural soap opera and the immensely knowlegable ‘Research Associates’, the long-term listeners whose knowledge of the world of Ambridge and Borsetshire is unrivalled in terms of breadth and depth.  Papers presented range from sociological analyses of familial relationships among prominent family groups, and the wider social implications of the resulting (matriarchal) power structures through an examination of the programme as an exemplar of rural theology to a discussion of the social standing of male characters and the relationship to perceived penis size (a phrase I never thought I would type on this blog or, indeed, anywhere else).

Arguably this was all tongue-in-cheek good fun, something not to be taken very seriously but to be played predominantly for laughs.  Certainly the most popular papers, such as the ones picked up by the press looking at negative aspects of competing in village flower and produce shows, and the ‘Ambridge Paradox’, or why all the characters don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes, involved much laughter along with the learning.  But there was very serious scholarship being undertaken here as well.  The session focussing specifically on the Rob and Helen story line of domestic violence and coercive control was sobering not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in relation to the information conveyed, whether on the forensic analysis of blood spatter patterns or the cost per day of food for women in prison.  Additionally, my understanding of my own work has been enhanced by a number of papers.  I have come away with a long list of recent sociological texts on masculinity, disability and violence taken from Katherine Runswick-Cole and Becky Wood’s paper on the use of the stoma bag in representing Rob’s disability and Jennifer Brown’s keynot on using Rob to understand the antecendents of domestic violence perpetration. Amber Medland’s concept of culinary coercion, while derived from the domestic context of Rob’s control of Helen, has opened up questions for me about the regulation of food in the institutional setting of the military hospital.  And I am looking forward to learning a lot more about masculinity in post-Second World War literature, particularly as it relates to birdwatching, in the on-going work of Joanna Dobson.

As for my own paper, I’m not sure I got the balance between humour and scholarship quite right.  ‘Erudite’ was one description of it, and I can only apologise to the tweeter whose brain apparently hurt when I finished speaking.  But the opportunity to explore how this particular artefact of British popular culture has memorialised the First World War – and to use the title ‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field/That is Forever Ambridge’ – was too good an opportunity to miss.  Among other things, it provided me with the opportunity to design an academicMeyer Poster poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues. [1] I will, I hope, be publishing an extended version of the paper in the forthcoming edited collection (the one from last year’s conference is a beautiful object, available to buy from Amazon).  Writing it up will enable me to engage more fully with debates around imagined communities and invented traditions than I have done since I was a post-graduate, a useful exercise that will enhance my other academic endeavours.

And, in a sign of just how stimulating and welcoming the conference was, I’m already considering the topic of next year’s proposal. Leading the field is a plan to recreate the Ambridge War Memorial using the information from English Heritage uncovered by Laurie MacLeod, one of the attending RAs.  I’m even thinking about putting together an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, if any of the Academic Archers community would like to form a group to work on this.  And I know there are several other First World War historians, many more eminent than I, who might be persuaded to trace the progress of the Borsetshire Regiment on the Western Front, analyse the minor poetry of Lt. Rupert Pargeter, explore the records of the Borsetshire Military Appeals Tribunal or discuss the impact of the use of women and prisoners of war in agricultural labour on wartime Ambridge.  I hope they will consider putting in a proposal when the call goes out.  The experience, both intellectual and social, will be well worth it.

 

[1] My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.

Conference Report – Resistance to War

Following on (rather belatedly) from my last post, one of the conferences I was only able to attend partially in March was the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds on 18th-20th March.  In addition to Twitter, an important, and more established, way of keeping up with conferences that one can’t attend in person is via conference reports.  It gives me great pleasure to publish a report of the Resistance to War conference written by Charlotte Tomlinson, a former undergraduate and current MA student in the School of History, University of Leeds, and founder of the HUll Blitz Trail project (which can be followed on Twitter @hullblitztrail).  My thanks to Charlotte for taking the time to write and reflect on what sounds like a fascinating few days.

As the centenary of the First World War has come upon us in the last two years, scholars across fields have turned their attention to the conflict and offered new ways to look at it. As well as encouraging commemoration and highlighting traditional narratives, the anniversary has inspired fresh perspectives and uncovered previously untold (or at least under-told) stories. One such strand of new thought was recently celebrated at the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds March 18th-20th. It was a truly international event, with speakers visiting from stretches as far as Auckland, and covered an equally diverse scope of subjects relating to resistance to war. Inevitably then, the conference encouraged consideration of a less traditional approach to the First World War. However, as all papers seem to, the event had me thinking more broadly about how we, and I, approach histories of war.

The event began with a series of panels exploring different aspects of war resistance. I decided upon one which explored resistance and gender through the lens of wartime literature in France (Philippa Read), Germany (Corinne Painter) and Britain (Sabine Grimshaw and Sarah Hellawell). After four extremely interesting talks, and a few books added to my ever-growing summer reading list, it was a question on how these works were received at the time that really peaked my interest. Not in the answer, but in that it made me contemplate how we use literature in history more widely. As happens so often lately, I found myself pondering the representation vs reception debate, comparing the cultural and social approaches to sources such as those discussed. While our own readings of literature are insightful, and were hugely fascinating to listen to, the panel left me with more questions about my own research than theirs.

The following day, another question of how we approach history left me a little more excited. In a fascinating talk on two ‘gender dissidents’ of the early twentieth century, Conscientious Objectors and Suffragettes, Lois Bibbings argued for a more complex understanding of how the two groups used gender in their resistance. In doing so, she highlighted how Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU used fashion as a method of resistance, how suffragettes ‘consciously played on gender’ by maintaining a prim and proper appearance in order to defend their femininity, and oppose media representations of them as unruly and manly. In a later conversation, we discussed how the loss of control over appearance was also central to the suffragette prison experience. It was encouraging to see how the issue of fashion, so often overlooked as a trivial matter, could be integrated into an analysis of war resistance and I was left feeling quite uplifted about the potential for this research to be taken further in the future.

Another talk inspired a less encouraging but equally interesting reflection, on how collective histories continue to shape how researchers approach resistance to war. The huge success of the conference showed how far we have embraced less typically-glorified narratives of the conflict which do not place the volunteer soldier suffering in the trench as the quintessential war narrative. Benjamin Ziemann’s keynote paper, on German soldiers who refused to fight from July 1918 onwards and how these have been remembered in Germany since, did however cause me to consider how we approach war resisters who were not pacifists. Crucially, a point was raised about the likelihood that a similar project would be undertaken on British so-called ‘cowards’. While popular opinions of war resisters has undoubtedly altered in past decades and become more positive, it was rightly argued that our changing cultural memory in Britain of heroic fighters or brave COs has not yet allowed a shift that adequately acknowledges our ‘cowards’ too.

It is hardly surprising that Cyril Pearce’s paper proved thoroughly inspiring. His work continues to influence scholarly thought on conscientious objectors and encourage new work. It was not his insights into war resistance here that had me thinking though, but his approach. In using statistics and maps to explore the pattern of conscientious war resistance in Britain, the paper was undeniably unique in a historical conference. Outside of economic histories, it is perhaps unsettling for many of us to deal with such mathematically presented ideas, but by mapping COs it was easy to highlight resistance hotspots and identify interesting communities that require further study. Ultimately, it was refreshing and inspiring to see an approach many researchers, myself included, would usually shy away from and provided a visual exploration of COs that really brought the issue to life.

Finally, a paper on the infamous Alice Wheeldon left me thinking about the significance of new perspectives on war resistance beyond the weekend conference, and beyond academia. A moving paper was given by Nick Hiley and Wheeldon’s great granddaughter, Chloe Mason on how the conviction of her family for conspiring to murder the then Prime Minister Lloyd George should be overturned. Hiley and Mason unpacked the case and highlighted the secrecy surrounding it, explaining how they are now appealing for the conviction to be quashed. In doing this, rather than reflecting on war resistance as much of the other papers had, the paper reminded us that our memory of war and war resistance remains a contemporary issue that touches lives today.

Driving home after a long couple of days, my (non-academic) dad asked me, ‘so what’s the point in a conference?’ What followed was a lengthy answer which I don’t think he was quite expecting. In the first instance, the papers given offered interesting insights into many areas of resistance to the First World War, some related to my own research, some not. But more importantly, the papers, as always, left me with a number of questions and points to reflect upon, a few of which I have briefly discussed here. These relate above all to how both I, and we, approach history. So more than just gaining knowledge and enjoying papers from across the globe in a celebration of centenary research, I left the conference with a greater self-awareness of myself as a researcher. Once again I was reminded that no matter the topic, there is always something to be learned in hearing about another’s work.

Doing history across space

This forms the third of a three-part series of posts reflecting on conferences I am have attended in recent months.  The previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

I am writing this on a train on my way to London where, tomorrow, I will attend a workshop before meeting with a potential collaborator.  I have done this journey in one day, getting up to catch the 6 am train and arriving home, bone weary at some time after the rest of my family is in bed.  The second half of the programme will remain the same this trip, but I am taking advantage of having the opportunity to stay with my cousin overnight, which should mean I get at least an hour’s more sleep (although possibly not more, given that she lives in Dulwich and I need to be in central London by 9).

Although this trip feels as if I have found the right balance between productivity and calm, it is nonetheless undertaken with a bit of regret.  In an ideal world, I would have been on this train two days ago, preparing to spend yesterday at a study day on First World War nursing held at the Wellcome Collection. The demands of family life meant, however, that I instead had to follow what looked like a fascinating series of talks, delivered by a number of colleagues whom I hold in very high regard via Twitter.

The dilemmas that this weekend has presented me with are something of a distillation of my experiences of travelling for work and conference attendance over the past few months.  In both February and March I dedicated a week to traveling to conferences, attending two or three within a seven-day period, a schedule which while exciting and often inspiring, was also exhausting and occasionally confusing.  While staying within Britain, I moved intellectually around contintal Europe and the British empire, as well as travelling from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries.

And even as I did all of this, absorbing and communicating information and ideas, I was still missing out. I did not go to Valencia, where what felt like the entirety of my Twitter feed spent a sun-drenched week at the European Social Science History Conference, nor, for the second year running, did I make is to the Social History Society Conference the wee before.  The latter took place at the same time as other conferences I had committed to; the former during a week when my young children desperately needed me around to remind them that they have a mother as well as a father to care for them and help structure their lives.

Such conflicts are, of course, an embarrassment of riches.  It is exciting to have so many possibilities for intellectual contact and cross-fertilisation available.  But there are drawbacks too.  Modern technologies, particularly Twitter and podcasting, mean that conference papers can be communicated and followed from a distance, but this is reliant on the good will, dedication and skill of presenters and live tweeters whose interests and priorities may or may not overlap with your own. In addition, following a Twitter hashtag or a podcast requires a certain amount of time and concentration on the part of both  the reader/listener and the communicator.  Trying to follow one conference while attending another, I have found, is incredibly difficult, while if I am live tweeting a panel, I have given up on taking my own notes, relying on my tweets as a form of note-taking.  Also tough is trying to follow a conference while getting a four-year-old’s lunch.  And ‘attending’ a conference at a distance does not allow for discussion, whether the back-and-forth of a question and answer session or the potential serendipities of coffee and lunch break discussions.  This last point was brought home to me when a live tweeter pointed out to his followers that he coudn’t actually put any of their questions to the panellists.

Then there is the question of cost.  I am in the fortunate position of being able to pay for conference attendance out of my current grant, but even that is not limitless, any more than the departmental budgets available to colleagues are.  For students and early careers researchers, the situation is even more parlous. Even when organisers try their hardest to keep registration costs reasonable (and not all do), travel and accommodation costs can make attendance at even one, let alone multiple events impossible.

Despite these problems, the sheer amount of intellectual activity happening around history, particularly the various types of history which I do (First World War, gender, social, cultural, British), is, as I say, immensely exciting and stimulating.  Which brings me to one of those conferences that I did manage to jam into my week of March madness, the Globalising and Localisng the Great War Graduate Conference on Stories, Spaces & Societies in Oxford. (I also attended the final day of the Resistance to War 1914-1924 conference in Leeds that weekend. A report on second day of that conference will be posted next week.) The scope for this conference, as the title indicates, was immense, and in terms of approach the two days covered military, social and cultural history in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.  Casualty statistics were deployed alongside diary entries and poetry, and discussion was enlightening and enlivening.  For my own part, I came away with a number of nascent ideas, two concrete references to follow up on, and the hope of recruiting another member to my research team at some point in the future.

One of the most interesting sessions was the roundtable discussion which concluded the first day during which current Oxford postgraduates reflected on their explicitly transnational approaches to researching the First World War, before discussion broadened out to a wider discussion of the transnational history of the war in the centenary period.  What struck me was the extent to which definitions of the transnational were defined, in the British context, by the British empire and dominions.  While the subjects of historical study were extra-European, the identity of historical actors from India, Africa, Canada, Australia, was inevitably intimately bound up with their understandings of themselves as imperial subjects, so that studies of these varying cultures and their participation in and memory of the war remain rooted in British history in complicated ways. This paradox was further reflected in the wider discussion, particularly Jane Potter’s point about the difficulties of editing a scholarly handbook of First World War poetry.  With all the good will in the world towards including as many national and supranational cultural perspectives as possibles, the limits of space, expertise and time, as well as the complexities of intellectual debate around definitions, inevitably mean that ambitions for comprehensiveness have to be reigned in, usually at the cost of the lesser known national literatures.

What the discussion highlighted for me is the extent to which we remain bounded by space in our work, whether analytically or physically.  Transnational history is shaped by historically constituted definitions of the nation, itself defined by borders both concrete and ephemeral. Location shapes our perspective, what archives we have access to, which scholars we encounter who influence our own scholarship, who we talk to and in what language.  Collaboration is, of course, a route to transcending boundaries, which are in turn enabled and enhanced by modern technologies.  But, as with conference attendance (that prime space for the development of collaborations), modern technologies cannot overcome every barrier or make space immaterial to the way in which we work.  As frustrating as the limits of space (and the inability to be in two places at once) may be, reflecting on them may, in a small way, help us in our understanding of the significance of space and its limits in the past.