The Wipers Times (belatedly)

A couple of months ago, I tweeted this in response to the publicity surrounding a new television drama co-scripted by Ian Hislop and starring Michael Palin as a First World War general. That drama was The Wipers Times, which has now been broadcast, several weeks ago, and I can only apologise for the delay caused by pressure of work which means it is no longer available on iPlayer for anyone in Britain who may have missed it.

As the comments on my original tweet forshadowed, I am forced to eat my words because, as a historical drama, it was, I thought, very good indeed, mainly because it didn’t attempt to represent itself as historical realism.  Rather it adopted the tone of the trench journal which was its subject to represent the war as seen by the Wipers Times.  Here I want to particularly commend Ben Daniels as a stereotypical brass hat blowhard, the very stereotype I was so concerned about, played to the point of exquisite caricature, beautifully illustrating the way in which trench journals such as the Wipers Times satirized the absurdist situation in which the men who created them found themselves.  Far more than the music hall interludes, with their nods to ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ and the excesses of cabaret culture, Daniels’s performance (and that of the more sympathetic figure played by Michael Palin) illustrated how our view of the war has been distorted by a tendency to define all wartime behaviours in black and white terms.  No one in reality could be either so blindingly stupid or so wittily sympathetic as the characters these two actors portrayed. Only as satire do they make sense.

In general, all the performances were excellent, although Emilia Fox’s role as a loving wife was more or less superfluous.  And my only potential historical criticism relates to some mumbling on the part of Julian Rhind-Tutt who made what I assume was meant to be ‘red tabs’ (staff officers) sound suspiciously like ‘red hats’ (military policemen), an entirely different, if equally loathed group of authority figures.  But it was a good drama and, for the first third, very funny indeed.  After that the humour became repetitive, and the shift of focus almost exclusively to the officers meant a loss of the voices of the ordinary soldier.  While the tone towards these men was generally condescending, mocking the ignorance and unsophistication of the young British working class man, this was an accurate reflection of the language used by many trench journals which were as class-bound as so much else in British culture during the war.

The increasing staleness of the humour as the drama continued may seem like a criticism, but it is not.  It too is an accurate reflection of trench journalism.  For anyone who has spent any time reading such journals, and those produced in prisoner of war camps and hospitals, this growing staleness is all too familiar. It reflects the fact that (pace all those television reviewers who referred to the public school humour of the publication) these publications represented the humour not of the upper-middle classes (although this was well represented) as much as that of the institution.  The result is a predominance of in-jokes which, to the outsider who is not caught in the institutional setting, be it a hospital, a prison or a military unit under orders, seem either inexplicable or dull.  The trajectory of the drama captured this beautifully, with the only duff note being the uncharacteristic injection of sentimentality and 20/20 ‘foresight’ in the scenes depicting Fred Roberts, the originator and editor of the Wipers Times, at home with his wife on leave.

In the end, it was not the drama itself which troubled me as a First World War historian, but the response of television critics after its broadcast, an number of whom implied that the Wipers Times was worthy of note because it dramatised the viewpoint of a unique publication and, as such, stands as a necessary corrective to more sombre commemorations of the war.  In fact, as I have suggested, it was one of a number of such publications which treated the trials and tribulations of warfare (including serious injury and the loss of liberty) as subjects of humour and absurdity.  Some 800 such journals have been collected by Cambridge University Library.  Nor was it only periodicals that adopted this tone.  Herman Cyril McNeile, better known as ‘Sapper’, wrote a number of short stories which were published for propaganda and recruitment purposes by The Daily Mail, which also adopted an amused, flippant tone in their descriptions of life at war.  For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend George Simmers’s excellent essay on facetiousness in wartime and post-war writing (which does a far better job of teasing out the class dimensions of this literature than I have done here).  And for anyone want to read more institutional war time journals, Sue Light’s blog of the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital, Ward Muir’s Happy Hospital, gives an excellent idea of what can be found in that extraordinary organ, including contributions from C.R.W Nevinson, later a war artist, and Stephen Baghot de la Bere, the cartoonist.  Nor were British the only servicemen to produce trench journals.  Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s Men at war, 1914-1918 : national sentiment and trench journalism in France during the First World War(translated by Helen McPhail) and Robert L. Nelson’s German Soldier Newspapers of the First World War present a transnational picture of bottom-up morale building during the war.

So The Wipers Times ended up not only proving itself an enjoyable drama, but also the source of considerable reflection on popular understandings of the war. While reviews of the programme expose some of the limits of public knowledge, my previewing comment exposed the limits of my own.  It provoked a very interesting discussion with the historical adviser to the programme on the limitations inevitable with creating drama out of history, particularly on the sort of budgets provided by the BBC.  I am now training myself not to complain about the misrepresentation of roles until I consider how a limited cast is being deployed to cope with sheer lack of numbers, and not to judge a popular television programme by its publicity.


A couple of publicity (self and otherwise) notices.

The University of Leeds Legacies of War seminar series is delighted to announce that Professor Adrian Gregory will be giving the first paper of the new term on Thursday, 7th February at 5:00 in Michael Sadler Room 3.11.  He will be speaking on the topic of ‘Did God Survive the Somme?’  All are welcome.

Adrian GregoryMy review of Leo van Bergen’s Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918 appears in the latest edition of First World War Studies which also includes several interesting-looking articles.  I should be reading about the establishment of the Territorial Army in Britain, but I think I may take break and read about Old Etonians, demographics and eugenics instead, courtesy of Richard Carr and Bradley W. Hart.

A letter to Simon Russell Beale

privateson-parades_2423627bDear Mr Russell Beale,

First of all, please allow me to apologize for making such a complete idiot of myself when I saw you on Friday evening before the performance of Privates of Parade. In the first instance, it was extremely rude of me to stare at you so long and so idiotically while you enjoyed your cigarette at the stage door. Secondly, when you had the civility to say hello, for me to mutter something incomprehensible and slink off in the other direction was beyond impolite. My only excuse is that, at that stage, I did not have anything I could have said to you that would not have been more than the burblings of a long-term fan.

In all honesty, I do wish our encounter had taken place a few hours later, after I had had the privilege of seeing your hugely enjoyable performance as Terri Dennis. As a theatrical experience it was, as the reviews have said, enormously enjoyable, courageous, full of energy and life and wit. But writing as a historian of gender and warfare your performance,along with that of all the rest of the cast and Michael Grandage’s highly accomplished direction, offered a great deal of food for thought as well.

The story the play tells is, of course, one about the achievement of masculine maturity, both sexual and emotional, in a theatre (in all its many meanings) of conflict. As Steven says in the final scene, he has become a man thanks to his experiences in SADUSEA, specifically, rather than in the military more generally. But what I found far more fascinating was Terri’s attainment of a conventional masculine identity at the end, one defined not by his military status, which is so successfully undermined throughout by the campness of his demeanour, but through his marriage and impending (surrogate) fatherhood, a narrative emphasized by the modulation you brought to that closing scene.

For me, that was the most powerful theme of the entire evening, the importance of the domestic and of home to the identity of all the men involved. The scene in which letters home are opened and read is the first in which their characters become fully defined, as sons and husbands, and throughout it is through their domestic ties, former, potential, respectable and subversive, that the characters developed. Dennis’s own story of domestic tragedy was profoundly moving, a lovely counterpoint to his eventual domestic ‘respectability’.

Not that these were the only themes: the role of uniform and costume in defining masculinity, the transient power of wounding and disability in creating heroic identities and the appalling things that conflict does to warp both men and women were all powerfully evoked. In the end, I had so much to say that, had I seen you again I probably would have been no more coherent than I was on our first encounter. So all I can do is say thank you, to you and the rest of the cast, for creating a theatrical performance that had so many profound echoes of my own work and which forced me to think critically about questions of sexuality and emotion. And again to ask your forgiveness for one tongue-tied long-term fan who remains

Yours very sincerely,

Jessica Meyer

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.

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.

A Final Parade

Yes, I know it is over a week since the final episode of Parade’s End was broadcast.  I won’t go into the reasons why I haven’t had a chance to see it before this weekend, except to say that infant sleep patterns were definitely involved.  But I did, finally, watch it, so here are my concluding thoughts on programme.

Let me start by saying that I thought they did a pretty decent job of the trench scenes.  The scene in the dugout with the C.O. was particularly brilliant, capturing the surreality of the war that I think has tended to get lost in more recent representations of the war.  Since Blackadder Goes Forth the tendency has been to merge surreality and satire – the war is mad therefore we must mock it.  This was just pure surreality, without point or purpose, and all the more moving for it.

There was one major source of irritation for me, however, and that was the depiction of the stretcher bearers who appeared twice, once with an empty stretcher, once with an injured man on board.  In both instances the stretcher was carried by two men, one at each end, the typical image of stretcher bearers in the war, you might say.  Except it must be born in mind that First World War stretchers were immensely heavy objects made of wood and canvass, not the lighter metal ones that were used in later conflicts.  They were a struggle to carry empty; loaded with the dead weight of an injured man, usually wearing his heavy clothing and gear, they needed a minimum of four men (one at each corner) and in heavy going like Ypres in 1917 required six.  In fact, as George Swindell, an R.A.M.C. stretcher bearer, noted on several occasions in his memoirs, untrained bearers (those not in the R.A.M.C.) almost always carried six to a stretcher because they didn’t have the practice and training to do so more efficiently.  In the front line, stretchers would be carried by regimental bearers, infantry men told off for stretcher duty from front line to Regimental Aid Post (RAP), rather than R.A.M.C. bearers who generally carried men from the RAP to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).  So in Parade’s End there should have been at least two and most probably four additional bearers for that loaded stretcher for authenticity.  Now that directors seem to be more willing to show the trenches as angled rather than straight, I am starting a new campaign to get them to employ the appropriate number of bearers in their films!

Despite the bearer problem there were brilliant moments in this episode. The scene describing Tietjens, McKechnie and Perowne going up to the line was a masterclass in succinct and spot-on dramatic adaptation, and Roger Allam’s face at the very end, when Sylvia propositions General Campion was perfection.  Allam has been a revelation throughout, and this moment was beautifully done.

I did, however, have some broader reservations.  I’m not sure the final scene worked.  It was too slow and the music too sentimental to capture the sheer joy and relief that book evokes.  There is a tendency to forget  that, behind the lines, the reactions of many, particularly the young, to the Armistice were euphoric, even bacchanalian in some instances. (Dan Todman has an excellent discussion of this, and its cultural impact, in The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon & London: 2005)). Ford captures the immense sense of release beautifully in the final pages of A Man Could Stand Up -. Stoppard and White, I think, lost some of that by sexing the scene up and slowing it down.

I am also in two minds over the wisdom of the decision of simply eliminating The Last Post from the adaptation.  Given Ford’s own later reservations about the novel, and the immense difficulties that I imagine would be involved in adapting the most difficult of the four novels, it probably does make sense.  But I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Christopher and Valentine at this point in their story.  It did feel a little incomplete.

So, in the end, an excellent adaptation beautifully acted but with some problems inherent to any dramatic adaptation of a superb set of novels.  Now I just have to make the time to reread the books…