1917 and All That

After a week of reading (and commenting on) reviews of 1917, I have finally had a chance to see it. And yes, it is good, very good. Not perfect, but very good indeed.

*Spoiler alert hereon in*

So, what works? The device of the ‘single continuous shot’ (which isn’t actually) is engaging and hugely propulsive, linking and driving the different episodes of the narrative to gripping effect. The depiction of landscape is visually impressive, particularly in its range and variety. The narrative allows for movement through a huge range of different spaces, each of which is beautifully evoked. In particular, the two transitions from the area behind the lines into the trenches, with the communication trenches rising organically from the land, are incredibly moving, while the nighttime scenes of Écoust lit by flares are, quite simply, works of art.

Some of the incidental (and not so incidental) details are lovely, and attest to the level of research undertaken. The ubiquity and size of rats, the visceral horror of crawling over the bloated bodies of the drowned, men’s ability to sleep where they drop, the importance of rumour as the way in which soldiers understood their situation, the humour they employed to wile away time, are all evocative, effective images and references which give the film a sense of emotional authenticity.

Many of secondary characterisations are also beautifully done. Impressively, while all are brief, almost none are black-and-white. Even the Germans are shown as humans with agency, neither solely evil nor solely victims. Of the recognisable cameos, while both Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are very good (the latter in particular capturing once again something ellusive about the paradoxical nature of British martial masculinity in the period), Andrew Scott’s turn as a lieutenant awaiting his relief after a long night in the lines, stands out as pure Journey’s End.

And that characterization is important for understanding what makes this film such a good film about the First World War. Because its basis is not in the history of the war, but rather in the history of its cultural representation. Yes, the script writers have read soldiers’ memoirs (and possibly also letters and diaries) as well as, I suspect, more historical analysis than they have admitted to. Yes, the costume and set designers have consulted with all the right historical consultants. But the film makers as a whole have also clearly been influenced by the films, fiction and poetry that have so profoundly shaped our understandings of the war over the past century. So, in addition to Journey’s End (1928), we get references to the visual trope of going over the top that has defined First World War films since The Battle of the Somme (1916), to the unheimlich of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (1918), and to the final dramatic scene of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). This is a film as much about, and as rooted in, the artistic interpretation of the war as it is the war itself.

This positioning of the film does not detracted from its quality as a work of cinematic art in itself. But it does help to explain some of the problems with it, because it is not a perfect film. Yes, there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies of detail which, for someone with a deep familiarity with the war and its history, can have the effect of breaking into any suspension of disbelief. As a historian of medicine and the war, while I cheered the use of first field dressings, both to bind wounds and staunch blood, I was always going to notice the continuity error where a bandage disappears and then reappears, complete with a hastily tied knot that apparently managed to survive some pretty extreme activities. (I’m not sure what it is with continuity editors and First World War hand wounds, but referencing the disappearance and reappearance of Thomas’s hand wound in Downton Abbey was probably not the the effect they were aiming for.) And having a man put his wounded hand into a corpse without any reference to the heightened risk of infection (even when he ends up at a medical unit a day later) feels like a wasted opportunity for an otherwise striking historical detail.

As for the final scenes, while it nice to see so many stretcher bearers (not orderlies, as per the script), both regimental and RAMC, represented, did they really all have to be two to a stretcher with no harnesses? Bearer units were four to a stretcher for reasons. Equally, their negotiation of the trenches rather defies belief, particularly in the year when the British Medical Journal was publishing articles about the difficulties bearers faced in moving standard stretchers around the corners of trenches. Oh, and that medical unit? It is a dressing station, not a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), as claimed by Major Hepburn.

Are these niggly little details which won’t affect the viewing enjoyment of those who haven’t spent nearly ten years researching the history of British medical care provision in the war? Yes, of course they are. Even as they affected my ability to suspend my disbelief, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film as a film. And, if nothing else, they have given me a very good argument to present to a publisher of the need for a good accessible history on this subject. But they are not the only, or even the main reason why I call this a very good but not a great film, although the classification of a dressing station as a CCS is symptomatic of the wider problem.

That wider problem, bluntly, is the necessity for films to compress historic realities. There isn’t the time for the film to portray the slog of several hours, over relays between multiple dressing stations, that was the reality of evacuation to a CCS. So dressing stations, and the work of Field Ambulance bearers and orderlies disappear, with space and time collapsed to represent an over-simplified image of the medical evacuation process.

As I say, this won’t be a problem for the vast majority of viewers, but it isn’t a narrative issue limited to medical evacuations. Unfortunately, it also effects the relationship between the two central characters in ways that are confusing and ultimately problematic for the film itself. On the one hand, Blake and Schofield are part of the same regiment, comrades in arms under the authority of the same chain of command from their sergeant on up. They know each other and they know (a bit) about each other. On the other hand, their partnership is presented as accidental, a result of proximity as much as of intimacy. This allows their backstory to be told through their conversation, which is a useful dramatic device, but it robs the relationship of any sense of the intimacy that developed between men who shared lives in the trenches. [1] The result of this apparent lack of connection between the characters is that it undermines the emotional connection forged with the audience. Ultimately, I found myself unmoved either by Blake’s death or Schofield’s contemplation of his family photographs. The importance of these men as individuals, with emotional lives beyond their immediate surroundings, was never developed enough for me to care about them as anything other than carriers of the film’s driving adventure narrative.

This, of course, is a key difference between the time-limited fictional representation of a film and a historian’s engagement with the historical sources which underpin. Reading a collection of letters or a diary covering months and years of war can demonstrate the development of a man’s (or woman’s) character over time, but it can, at times, be incredibly dull. Much of war is extremely boring, and that is reflected in the source material. Most men who served in the war were not great stylists. Their diaries and even many of their letters home are filled with in jokes, family gossip relating to unknown individuals and endless quotidian details about what they had for dinner or how cold the weather is. Films, particularly commercial films, cannot afford to be boring in this way, and 1917 is anything but boring. The compression of the narrative into just under two hours means that choices have to be made, and in this case the choice was made to flatten characterisations for the sake of narrative propulsion. It is, I think, a valid artistic choice in this case, but it has to be acknowledged as that, an artistic choice about how to represent the war. The history, and the men who made it, are inevitably more complex and complicated than any single film can capture.

So, a very, very good film rather than a great one and one which tells us more about the way in which we remember the war than about the war itself. However, as well as enjoying the film, I remain fascinated by the way in which it is being used by reviewers to project their own ideas about the history and meaning of the war, with The Guardian characteristically identifying it a pacifist film (it isn’t) and Variety locating firmly in the history of Hollywood films. And I think it has a great deal to say about the way in which our reading of the war has evolved over time, not least over the course of the centenary period. In fact, I would suggest that this film marks a good moment for Dan Todman to update The Great War: Myth and Memory (2005) to include another generation’s worth of interpretations of the war.

So, as a historian and teacher of history, would I recommend 1917 to students of the history of the war? Only in conjunction with primary sources to illuminate and deepen understanding of its representation. Would I use it as a source for teaching the history of the memory of the war and its cultural representation in Britain? In a heartbeat. It has earned its place in the canon of great Great War fictions.

[1] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books, 1996), Chapter 3.

Beginnings and Endings

Just over five years ago, I posted the first post on this blog, beginning what I thought would be a process of recording the researching and writing of a book about the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War. Just under two weeks ago, I submitted the completed manuscript to the publisher, on the final day the university was open this calendar year. It was a climax, a culmination. But it wasn’t an ending.

There are several reasons why I say this with some confidence, about both the book and this blog. As far at the book is concerned, there is still a great deal left to do – permissions to be sought, images to be sourced, indexes to be completed – and the manuscript itself is to be sent to yet another reader. And this blog has, in the past five years, wandered into all sorts of byways unrelated to the project it was set up to chronicle.  In spite of my neglect of it over the past few months as I’ve concentrated on finishing the manuscript, it remains an important outlet for me, and I will continue to use it to chronicle the ups and downs of academic life, my new research project, my eternal struggle to create an acceptable work/life and, inevitable, a range of thoughts and responses the commemoration and memory of the First World War in British culture.

Yet, while this has been a moment of transition rather than ending, there have been points of ending and new beginnings along the way. The direct funding for this project ended two years ago. In its place, I’ve started on new (related) research , as well as gaining two new job titles. Intellectually and personally life has interwoven, overlapped, bled into itself.

Which, particularly at this time of year, doesn’t stop me looking for tidy endings and new beginnings. Even as I am aware of the chaos of books all over the floor that awaits my return to the office, along with all the projects I’ve been putting off for the past three months, I am also hoping that having given myself permission not to work for two weeks over the holiday period will give me the energy to start if not anew in January, then at least afresh.  There is the blog post I’ve been meaning to write since the summer which, with space from other deadlines, I hope to finally complete; there is the pile of books I’ve been collecting, looking for the time and space to engage with them properly.

There will, I hope, be more, and more definite endings in the coming year, with the final completion of the book. There will also, I anticipate, be beginnings – of ideas, projects, collaborations – as well as the new beginning marked by moving to a new home in the spring. All have looking forward to the near future in ways that hasn’t been true for the past couple of years.

So, at this turning of the year, I wish you all successful endings and hopeful beginnings for the new year.

Happy new year, one and all.


What I do

Over the summer I wrote a piece sort of in response to the furore surround Andrew Adonis’s attack on higher education. I returned to it this morning, after this weekend’s renewed attacks in the wake of the National Audit Office’s report on the supposed ‘lack of value’ in the higher education ‘market’. Based on what I have read and heard, in the print media, on Twitter and on national radio, I am starting to wonder, however, if it is not so much that academics aren’t very good at explaining what it is they do, as that those who enjoy pontificating on the subject don’t want to listen. Radio 4’s Today programme, for instance, managed to interview one lecturer that I heard in the entire course of a 3-hour programme focussed on the subject (a second presented Thought for the Day). Sonia Sodha’s dismissive response to Peter Mandler on Twitter is sadly symptomatic of this attitude.

Anyway, I’m sure Lord Adonis, Ms Sodha, Jo Johnson, Jeremy Vine and the editors of the Today Programme are far to busy to read what I wrote, just as I am rather too busy to repeat myself in another blog, but here it is again for anyone who might be wondering why academics are quite so angry about the implication that they have enough time to properly teach two- rather than three-year degrees. Now, if you will forgive me, I have work to do today (numbers 1, 4, 8 and 9, if you are wondering).


This isn’t going to be a response to the recent Andrew Adonis discussions, at least not directly.  I’ve put in my direct tuppence ‘orth on Twitter already. It is, however, going to be a response to one of the more obscure byways that the discussion trickled into over the course of the day arising out of two comments. The first, from an academic, pointed out that academics really aren’t very good at communicating what it is we actually do. Listing all the jobs we have to do in a way that can give an impression of competitive business, yes; actually communicating to non-academics what our job entails, not so much. Which was reinforced by the second, from an anonymous Twitter user who, agreeing with Adonis’s argument about the laziness and unproductiveness of academics who don’t teach during the summer, stated that academics had never done a ‘real job’.

So the…

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Bread and Roses

As I have said previously, poetry is currently serving as a huge source of solace and consolation, something that I feel very much in need of at this moment. But it is also enabling me to articulate my anger and defiance, particularly the two poems that follow, which have been reminding me that, whatever the next four years may bring, I am proud to be a woman, a scholar and an American.

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

James Oppenheim, 1911

Still I Rise – Maya Angelou

We march on – and still we rise.

Bearing Witness

*Spoiler alert throughout*

I hadn’t intended to write this post. I have been making a very conscious effort this holiday not to do any work until today anyway, and I was planning (still am, I hope) a short post reflecting on the labours of the past year and the promises of the new one, to be written tomorrow.

But then last night, while watching the BBC’s flagship Christmas drama, The Witness for the Prosecution, as a double bill on catch up, I found my husband attempting to soothe me as I harrumphed in irritation at the First World War backstories supplied to both the Voles and John Mayhew.  Having tweeted indignantly and non-specifically about it, I feel it behooves me to explain why in more detail.

To start with, I should say that the production as a whole was beautifully shot and acted extremely well by its stellar cast. It is hard to go wrong with Andrea Riseborough or Toby Jones, and they were, as expected, exceptional.  I wasn’t so keen on the adaptation which, padded out to fill a full two hours felt baggy and lacking in tension.  Was the whole twist involving the cat (very much not part of the original) necessary or even credible?  Given the amount of time which passes between the murder and the discovery of the cat’s body, surely it wouldn’t be in such an uncorrupted state?  But that is, perhaps, a minor criticism.  The bones of Christie’s original plot were maintained, even if the twist she wrote had less impact after nearly two hours than it did in the compact half hour dramatisation that was my introduction to this story.

So I could live with this production of a classic mystery drama, with all its updated bad language and sex scenes.  It was with the First World War back stories that I found I could no longer sustain my suspension of disbelief.  To start with the second, that of the solicitor, John Mayhew, whose poor health and blood-spattered coughing underscore almost every scene he appears in.  The cough, we are told, is the result of being gassed in the war, in which he lost his son, age 17, also to gas.  In the final scenes of the drama we are informed that Mayhew lied about his son’s age in order that they could enlist together and his motivation throughout the play is ascribe to the guilt he feels that he came back while his son did not, thereby destroying his wife’s love for him.

This narrative is physiogologically unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, although Toby Jones as Mayhew looks old enough to have had lie about his own age to have been accepted for service before 1916 (when the dual enlistments must have happened if the two men ‘volunteered’ together. His eyesight, given his spectacles, would have made doing so when overages particularly difficult.)  Equally unlikely would be for them to be serving in the same unit, causing them both to become casualties of the same gas attack (as is strongly implied).  Mayhew’s son apparently learned about motor vehicles during the war, which would suggest a posting either to the Army Service Corps or the Tank Corps to me.  It is just possible that Mayhew Senior would be assigned to the ASC which, as a non-combatant unit, might take volunteers with impairments that disqualified them from combatant duties.  Even so, the chances of father and son ending up in the same unit seem slim.  Psychologically, however, this story seems nigh on impossible.  Fathers certainly supported and even encouraged their sons’ decisions to enlist, may have in some cases turned a blind eye to a teenager lying about his age, and there are examples of fathers and sons both serving, as Laura Ugolini [1] has shown, but the idea of a father supporting his son to the extent of both lying about his age and enlisting alongside him assumes a level of war enthusiasm that has been effectively undermined by historians such as Catrionna Pennell and Adrian Gregory [2].

So Mayhew’s back story is unlikely in the extreme, calling into question the attribution of his motivation to old man’s guilt, as in Owen’s Parable of the Old Man and the Young, over the loss of his son and his son’s generation.  By forcing Mayhew into the role of both guilty old man and, apparently, a witness to war, a ‘man who was there’ [3], the story ensures that he is incapable of properly representing either.

Which brings me to the second backstory, that of the Voles who, in the opening scenes of both episodes, are shown meeting in a bombed-out trench during the war, before walking hand-in-hand across a shell-pitted landscape oddly denuded of any individuals, given that this was apparently the scene of a major battle. For the military historian, this is a frustrating piece of representation.  Setting aside the question of what the hell Romaine as a woman was doing on the battlefield in the first place, somewhere that military authorities on both sides went to great lengths to ensure did not occur, the recurrent emptiness of no-man’s-land is an extremely irritating trope of contemporary televisual dramas.  Even if the battle itself was over, and night had not fallen, in which case Leonard and Romaine would have been fair game for snipers, there would still be wounded men around, as well as corpses, human and otherwise.  Desolate here does not mean empty, but presumably the scene is meant to be symbolic, as much as literal.

I hazard this suggestion on the basis of the final scene in which Leonard and Romaine appear, as they pursue Mayhew down the corridor of a luxury hotel, taunting him with their brutal success.  ‘We are what happens when you butcher the young’ says Romaine, following up her husband’s dismissal of Emily French’s murder ‘just one more life after so many’.  And it was at this point that my husband had to stop me from yelling something very rude at the television screen, because this interpretation of Christie’s story, and the relationship of the whole genre of Golden Age detective fiction to the war, is just plain wrong.  Yes, this narrative of disillusionment existed in contemporary modern novels, the ‘war books’ of the 1920s boom.  But as Rosa Maria Bracco and Alison Light have both shown [4], it was not the narrative of genre fiction, including detective fiction.

In fact, the relationship between interwar detective fiction and the war is a complex one, but the idea that the war brutalised society to the extent of making murder acceptable is, in fact, the very antithesis of the message the genre holds.  There are remarkably few interwar murderers (although rather more murder suspects) who are explicitly ex-servicemen or whose motives can be traced back to wartime experiences.  More common, indeed, are ex-service detectives (some, but not all, attempting to assuage their guilt a la Mayhew), the very people whose role in such fiction is to reassert the social order by bringing the murderer to justice.  War, like murder, may disrupt society in these narratives but in the case of murder, social order reasserts itself; civilisation and society are restored, not distorted.

The significance of this reading can, in fact, be seen in Christie’s own treatment of The Witness for the Prosecution, which she rewrote to ensure that Leonard does not get away with murder.  In this second version, Romaine stabs him as he is about to leave her for his lover, Christine.  The Law in this story remains an ass, but justice, in the classical sense, is served and Emily French’s death avenged.  No life, in interwar detective fiction, is ‘just one more death after so many’.  It isn’t until post-Second World War detective fiction (such as Marjory Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke and Ellis Peter’s The Funeral of Figaro) that we start to see the war-brutalised ex-serviceman emerge as a hardened criminal.  By attempting to attach this narrative to the First World War, the adaptors of The Witness for the Prosecution do a disservice to both the ex-servicemen of the First World War whose main aim was to reintegrate themselves into civilian society in spite of the trauma they had suffered, and to the writers of detective fiction in the interwar years who sought, through their fictions, to make it easier for them to do so.


NB: As I am not in the office, I don’t have all the notes to hand for full references for this.

[1] Laura Ugolini, Civvies: Middle-class Men on the English Home Front, 1914-1918 (Manchester University Press, 2013).

[2] Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2014); Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[3] Samuel Hynes, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (Allen Lane, 1997).

[4] Rosa Maria Bracco, Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (Bloomsbury, 1993); Alison Light, Forever England: Feminity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (Routledge, 1991).

Who Cares? Call for Papers

Next March the Health, Medicine and Society and Women, Gender and Sexuality research clusters in the School of History at the University of Leeds will be jointly running a conference on histories of care.  There will be a conference website in due course, but as this is taking some time to set up properly, I am posting the Call for Papers here as well.

Who cares?: The Past and Present of Caring

Monday 27th – Tuesday 28th March, 2017

School of History

University of Leeds

A collaboration between the Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Health, Medicine and Society research clusters.

Call for Papers

Deadline for Abstracts: 13th January 2017


At all stages of life, people give and receive care. Rapidly changing demographics are affecting the dynamics of care, and now more than ever, gender-based expectations of caregiving in history are being called into question. A growing emphasis on personal well-being denotes a generation that is complicating traditional notions of care.

The way care has been understood and delivered has developed across time.  Approaches to care have historically been and continue to be changed and challenged by spatial, temporal, and socio-political boundaries. This conference seeks to shed light on care within communities and across borders, exploring changes in its perception throughout history and how it intersects with different ages, cultures, and identities.

Our keynote speaker will be Professor Holly Furneaux, Cardiff University, author of Military Men of Feeling: Masculinity, Emotion and Tactility in the Crimean War (OUP, 2016).

The conference will also include a half-day workshop exploring issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through a discussion of parenthood, experiences of supporting family members, and mental health, this workshop will provide a space to explore how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. This session aims to highlight difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Submissions are now invited for 20-minute papers on subjects which may include but are not limited to:


–       Varieties of medical care

–       Gender and caregiving

–       Self-care and mental health

–       Care in the military

–       Care and the family

–       Care and the life cycle

–       End of life care

–       Care and the non-human

–       Care and marginalised communities

–       The economies of care

–       The politics of care

–       Critical care


We particularly welcome proposals from postgraduate and early career researchers.

Submission guidelines

Abstracts must be no longer than 250 words for 20-minute papers.

Please send abstracts to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk no later than 13th January 2017. Please ensure abstracts contain your name and institutional affiliation (if any).

Any general enquiries may be sent to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk

An importunate post

A little unusually, I am writing this post not as a wife, mother or historian, but rather as a daughter.

Last year I wrote a post about the medical issues facing members of my family in which I did not identify the actual people involved or their relationship to me.  Since then, things have moved on and I now feel it is right to make public the fact that two of the three people mentioned in that post are, in fact, my parents.  My father suffers from Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), with a number of related and exacerbated physical conditions.  My mother recently found out that the ampullary cancer for which she received treatment for most of last year has returned to her lungs.  These illnesses are very different but share two similarities: 1) they are rare (in my mother’s case extremely rare) forms of wider conditions (dementia and cancer respectively and 2) while they can be controlled to a greater or lesser extent, neither is now curable.

So why go public now?  Because in this post I am asking for your help.  In this difficult period, where these illnesses, and my distance from my parents who both live in the US, have added to a number of other stresses affecting my life, one of the few things that have kept me sane is running.  I started running seriously two years ago.  Last year I ran the Leeds 10k to prove to myself that I could do it.  This year I am running the Leeds Half Marathon in aid of Cancer Research UK and Alzheimer’s Research UK.  While there is nothing that can be done at this stage to cure either of my parents, I hope the money I raise for research will, in some small way, contribute to better understanding and treatments to alleviate these devastating conditions.  Turning the relative calm I have found in my morning runs to practical purpose is the very least I can do in the circumstances.

I know we all have many claims on our purses, and many calls from charities for support.  If you can spare even a very little to support my fundraising efforts by clicking on the link below, I will be enormously grateful.

Thank you.