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.

Doing History in Public Again

IMG_4460I was on television last night. If you follow me on Twitter, then you will probably have seen this already. Given that I was speaking to Daniel Radcliffe for Who Do You Think You Are?, both I and my department were quite keen to publicise this event.  Since the broadcast, there has been quite a lot more interest, and some very interesting discussions about historical research for factual television, letters from women to soldiers during the First World War, and the significance of the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Dud Corner. In other words, this bit of academic public engagement, me bringing my historical expertise to bear on a popular subject in a very public forum, went as well as I could have hoped when my meeting with Dan was filmed back in May.

What has made this experience slightly ironic, however, is the coincidence of the publication of an article in The Economist late last week. Entitled The study of history is in decline in Britain’, it argues that historians (by which the author, ‘Bagehot’, means academic historians) ‘increasingly devote themselves to subjects other than great matters of state: the history of the marginal rather than the powerful, the poor rather than the rich, everyday life rather than Parliament. These fashions were a valuable corrective to an old-school history that focused almost exclusively on the deeds of white men, particularly politicians. But they have gone too far. … What were once lively new ideas have degenerated into tired orthodoxies, while vital areas of the past, such as constitutional and military affairs, are all but ignored.’ While some historians, the author graciously acknowledges, do ‘demonstrate a genius for bringing their subject alive’, they are, he claims, either not in academic posts or ‘face brickbats and backbiting from their fellow professionals’. Military history, according to the author, is catered for entirely by non-academic historians. Academics he (an educated guess at the gender of the author) argues ‘need to escape from their intellectual caves and start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power and nation-states.’

Now, I make no claims to having a genius for bringing my subject to life but, like all my colleagues doing our best to work with the current impact agenda, I am fully aware of the dangers of ‘learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion.’ I don’t want to speak only to other historians, which is precisely why I jumped at the chance to appear on a nationally broadcast, BAFTA-winning programme which, for the first time in its history, was touching on a subject about which I had written a book.  I hope and believe that my enthusiasm for the subject and the relevance of the type of document I was exploring with Dan came across, even if there wasn’t time or space for our discussion of the references to the Easter Uprising that occur in one letter, or the contemporary political significance of separation allowances as a form of proto-welfare benefit. Similarly, I hope and believe that the public lectures I gave on the ranks and work of RAMC throughout the First World War centenary and the variety of resources I helped produce for schools on the medical history of the war helped to both nurture public interest in history as a subject and inform debate over the relevance of the past to the social challenges of the present.

The problem isn’t that academic historians don’t do public history. We do, in far more ways than publishing books or appearing on television, as I have noted previously. Nor is it that we ignore war, politics or power structures by focusing on ‘marginal’ subjects. Social and cultural histories simply provide another way of looking at war, politics, economics, diplomacy. Indeed, the interrogation power structures are their very fabric, not their antithesis. I would strongly recommend Dr Daniel Todman’s (QMUL) acclaimed two-volume social history of the Second World War to Bagehot’s attention to see what I mean.

Rather, the problem is that public history is a different discipline from academic history. Doing both well is possible for a single individual, but it is hard and time-consuming, especially when added to the other expectations of teaching, administration, pastoral care and grant capture that are expected of academics today.  I am becoming increasingly aware of just how different and difficult a discipline it is as I work to turn my academic research into a ‘trade’ book for wider public consumption (although even in its academic form it is free of charge to download, and I have been honoured to have it recommended as a useful resource for GCSE teacing). Even if I succeed in doing so, I doubt that the ultimate product will have anything like the breadth of impact that 5 minutes of speaking with the man who played Harry Potter about some of the work I did for my PhD and turned into an academic monograph has had. But that isn’t going to stop me trying because I am historian, even if one who happens to work in an academic job. And I believe from my experience in engaging with the public that people are interested in listening to these stories of those on the margins, including those on the margins in wartime, and hearing what they have to say about the world they lived in and how it shaped the world in which we live in today, even if Bagehot does not.

And now for something completely different

The following post, by Christopher Phillips, a postgraduate student in the School of History at the University of Leeds and member of the Legacies of War project, is the second the occasional series of guest posts to this blog. One the surface, a biographical sketch of the coordinator of canal transportation for the British armed forces in France during the First World War may appear to have little relation to the medical research interests of this blog.  Yet Chris touches upon a number of key issues that I am currently exploring in both my book and related articles, including the key role of transport logistics and the relationship of the Regular Army and its officers to the range of support services that total war required.  I hope to explore some of these issues myself in future posts.  In the meantime, I leave you to enjoy Chris’s story of a man who exemplified war service in ways that go far beyond popular cliché.

The grave of Brigadier-General Gerald E. Holland lies in the Catholic cemetery in Holyhead, where he had lived and worked prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Holland died on 26 June 1917, at St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, from a sickness contracted whilst on active service in France. Alongside 888,245 of his colleagues from within the British Empire, Holland’s death was represented by a ceramic poppy planted outside the Tower of London as part of the commemorative activities linked to the centenary of 1914. Holland’s war service, however, was far from the popular stereotype of the First World War soldiers’ experience, whilst Holland himself was a distant cry from the stylised image of those who died on the battlefield.

Gerald Holland was born in Dublin in October 1860. At the age of 20, he joined the Royal Indian Marine, seeing service in Burma prior to a posting as a Naval Transport officer during the South African War. In 1905, at the age of 45 and with the rank of Commander, Holland retired from the navy and returned to Britain. He re-entered civilian life in the employ of the London and North-Western Railway, occupying the post of Marine Superintendent for the railway company, first at Fleetwood and later at Holyhead. In this role, Holland was responsible for the operations of the port, ensuring that goods traffic between the mainland and Ireland was handled efficiently. In August 1914 Holland was just two months shy of his 54th birthday. Despite his age, and his retirement from martial service almost ten years previously, Holland was able to apply his skills and abilities to the prosecution of the war in Europe.

In the opening month of hostilities, Holland approached the War Office with an idea to take advantage of the highly-developed system of inland waterways in France and Belgium to provide supplies to the army and to relieve pressure on the railway network behind the front line. As the position of that front line stabilized in the latter months of 1914, creating the conditions of trench warfare which have become synonymous with the conflict on the Western Front, Holland was offered the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. On 30 December 1914, the newly-appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Holland reported for duty at GHQ in France, and took over responsibility for the provision of canal transport to the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

At first sight, Holland’s task seemed formidable. At the beginning of 1915, the Department of Inland Water Transport consisted of two officers (Holland and his assistant, another former naval officer), one tug hired from the French, and thirty-four barges. A meeting with the French Army’s canal expert also revealed that Holland would be unable to obtain much assistance from the locals, French canals having largely been plied by entire families who lived on their barges and chose not to follow military orders. With the British Army possessing no expertise in canal operations, the only alternative for Holland was to enlist personnel from Britain with the requisite skills to man the barges and provide the technical and administrative support necessary to maintain an efficient service. Whilst the War Office were able to provide officers for clerical support, the majority of the men, unsurprisingly, were chosen for their experience of the shipping industry (such as Horace Pitman, for ten years a yachtsman, or the fifty-two year old George Tagg, who came from a boat-building family and knew the French canal system well), whilst Holland’s pre-war employer also supplied fifty men from the Marine Department at Holyhead. An active campaign of enlistment at various ports in Britain accounted for the lightermen, watermen, seamen, engineers and other assorted trades required to ensure the department’s ability to fulfil its duties. By February, Holland had created a self-sufficient unit that had already begun to transport bulk commodities such as road stone and coal inland. By the end of June, just six months after Holland had arrived in France, inland water transport had moved: 19,142 tons of supplies; 27,421 tons of road stone; and had evacuated over 600 men from the battle zone by ambulance barge. As the war continued to grow in scale, Holland worked tirelessly to ensure his department’s ability not only to keep pace with demands, but to create new services.

By the middle of 1916, Holland controlled a fleet comprising almost 600 vehicles, with a capacity of over 70,000 tons. He had overseen the creation of a bespoke depot for inland water transport at a site which became known as Zeneghem, and had successfully argued for the creation of a cross-Channel barge service to eliminate the need for landing ships at the overstretched French ports. Arrangements were also already in place to commence a barge service for the evacuation of wounded horses to complement the ambulance barge service which continued to expand its operations. In October 1916, Holland’s department was, along with the army’s other transportation methods, placed under the control of Sir Eric Geddes as part of a widespread reorganization of the force’s logistics in the wake of the Battle of the Somme. Whilst those responsible for the provision of railway transport and the operations at the docks were ultimately replaced, such was Geddes’ appreciation of Holland’s work that he retained his position in the reshuffle (and gained a promotion to Brigadier-General), and both men looked forward to the continued expansion of waterborne traffic in 1917.

Unfortunately, it was not an expansion that Holland would live to see. As part of their coordinated withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line over the winter and early spring of 1917, the retreating German Army devastated the land and destroyed the canals in the surrendered territory. Days of inspecting the damage in freezing temperatures took their toll on the fifty-six year old, and Holland fell ill in April 1917. He was evacuated back to Britain but never recovered. His assistant, Cyril Luck, another former Royal Indian Marine commander, took over operations in France and retained his position until the armistice. The provision of canal transport on the Western Front, therefore, was at no point under the direct supervision of a regular officer of the British Army.

By discussing Holland’s service in more detail, a richer, more nuanced image of the diverse range of wartime experiences emerges. It reminds us again of the ‘totality’ of the First World War, and of the myriad relationships that developed during the tumultuous progress of the conflict, as armies, states and societies grappled with the unprecedented challenges of understanding, influencing and coping with the dislocation and shock brought about by the war.

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.

Men at work

Last Thursday, as well as being my birthday, was the date of the second in the Legacies of War seminar series.  Rob Thompson gave a fabulous talk on engineers at Third Ypres.

Superficially, this looked to be a relatively dull topic, but not the way Rob presented.  First of all, he is an excellent and highly engaging public speaker.  But more than that, he gave one of the best demonstrations I have seen of how cultural and military history can fruitfully be married to create a deep analysis of particular moments in the history of war.  He argued that by 1917 the culture of war had changed from a martial one fought by warriors to a civil one worked by civilian soldiers. He pointed out that most men serving in the BEF were predominantly labouring (building roads, digging trenches, mending things) rather than fighting (engaging with the enemy) and that the landscape was dominated as much by the roads, rails, trucks and trains of logistics (sights familiar from civil society) as the otherworldly eeriness of no-man’s-land.

Having outlined this cultural shift in the way war was being carried out, Rob went on to argue that the failure of British High Command to fully grasp the implications at an operational level led to ultimate failure at Third Ypres. The dominance of civil logistics was due to the rise of artillery, yet no provision was made at the front line for an increase in manpower to serve the needs of the engineers in building/rebuilding roads for the artillery to advance over the landscape it had decimated.  The result was poorly trained, exhausted soldiers doing this work badly with the result that the advance became bogged down in its own built-in inertia.

Rob’s arguments were highly seductive, particularly given his flair for dramatic and humorous narration.  The more I think about his arguments, the less convinced I am about the dominance of civilian work culture as that of the war.  There were other cultures at play as well, notably the domestic culture which Joanna Bourke and I have both discussed and which had links to the structures of the regimental system, as discussed by David French.  There is also an entire social group being ignored by an analysis that focuses on the work cultures of manual labourers, namely the aspirational lower middle classes, the clerks and shop keepers and service workers, men whose experiences of work would no more prepare them for the heavy labour of the front than it would for hand-to-hand combat with an enemy.  This is a not-insignificant group of men, yet there has been little discussion beyond that of domesticity, as to how they retained a sense of civil identity in wartime.

There was also a question of morale that I am not sure was fully addressed.  From my own work on diaries and memoirs, the aspect of warfare that men found most morale-sapping was repetitive heavy labour and the feeling of being a cog in the machine, both aspects of this civilian culture that Rob identified.  Yet morale was maintained, even at the pinch-point of 1917.  Why the British Army did not mutiny even at the height of the manpower crisis is something that clearly needs a lot more discussion in light of this analysis.

So there are many questions still to answer, not least, for me, the effect of the manpower crisis on the RAMC in 1917.  I am starting to wonder if I might not be able to challenge Mark Harrison’s assertions about the centrality of 1916 to the RAMC and its effectiveness, arguing that from a personnel, rather than organisational, stand-point 1917 is more significant.  It certainly has given me some useful ideas to work on.

And, as a bonus, the talk served as a useful reminder that engineers didn’t spend their entire time (or even most of it) digging tunnels.  It is always good to have a few assumptions demolished occasionally!