Yesterday I attended the launch of the new British Council report Remember the World as Well as the War at the House of Lords. The report explores international knowledge and understanding of the First World War, and the headlines here in Britain have mainly focused on the apparent lack of British knowledge of the war. This, interestingly, was not the tone of the discussion which took place yesterday. The document was introduced by John Dubber, who co-authored it with Dr Anne Bostanci, before being discussed by Parliamentarians Keith Simpson and Baroness Young of Hornsey, with a final contribution from Dr Catriona Pennell, the historical consultant. The debate was then opened up to contributions from the floor, which included, most pertinently, inquiries as to how the British Council was planning to use the document to engage the public with the debates it raises, as well as suggestions that similar, comparative research be carried out in the US and proposals for collaboration with other organisations to spread the document’s reach.
One of Catriona’s key points was that working as historical consultant had been, for her, a good exercise in academic discipline and concision, forcing her to think critically about how to present a huge range of historical argument, covering at least the past 30 years, in 10,000 words. Indeed, she noted that she had originally presented her collaborators with 17,000 and that, in the editing process, large swathes of the history of the war, including the conflict’s impact on gender and on science and technology had had to be removed. I have not yet had time read the document in great detail (I spent the train ride home last night reading the book I am supposed to have written a review for by the end of the week) but, as a historian of precisely those two facets of the history of the war, my initial glance the through did suggest that their importance is implicit in parts of the discussion, particularly the complications that they bring to our understanding of the war.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the graph on page 7 which charts UK responses to the question ‘Were members of your family/your local community involved in, or directly affected by, the First World War?’ The first responses listed are ‘Yes, a family member fought in the First World War’ (37%) and ‘Yes, a family/community member was involved in the war effort in another way’ (9%). This second response is glossed with a footnote which reads ‘as carrier, labourer or other support staff (for example munitions support or digging trenches); as medical staff; on the home front (for example in factories) etc.’ [My italics.]
Now, I haven’t been blogging directly about my own research recently, but that footnote goes right to the heart of the question that is at its centre, namely how was the war experienced by men who served in military uniform in non-combatant medical roles during the First World War. Because the structure of the responses as set out creates a seemingly unbridgable gap between combat and non-combat in terms of war service, a gulf that I am increasingly coming to believe did not exist, or at least could not be sustained, throughout the course of the conflict, within the British armed forces. R.A.M.C. servicemen certainly saw themselves as soldiers, the comrades and equals of their combatant fellow servicemen, even if they didn’t bear arms. And those fellow servicemen increasingly viewed R.A.M.C. as equals in terms of service rendered, acclaiming the qualities of endurance and comradeship that were key to understandings of heroism during the war years. Military medical service personnel served and were seen to serve, even if they did not fight, a fact which rather nuances not only the question of in what ways family members engaged with the war, but an earlier one about how the war should be commemorated, illustrated on page 5. In answer to this question, 64% (the decided majority) of UK respondents answered that a focus on human suffering and loss of lives should form the focus of commemorations over the next four years. Yet the broader, more complex question of how the war was experienced, by those who survived as well as those who did not, was not, apparently an option given to respondents. It is this question that forms the thrust of my research as a historian, as it does for many other social and cultural historians, and, I believe, motivates the large numbers of people engage in personal, local and regional research and commemoration projects taking place around Britain in response to the centenary.
So I had a rather pernickity question about the methodology used by YouGov (who carried out the polling for the survey) and about how the questions and responses presented to respondents were decided upon, as well as a rather broader one about how the material on gender, medicine and everything else that had to be edited out might be utilised in future to enhance the findings already published. Last night’s launch, however, focusing as it did, quite rightly, on the global nature of the conflict and its continuing, multifaceted, global legacies, was not the right place to ask those questions. So instead I am asking them here, or at least, to bring it back to Catriona’s own final question about how projects such as this facilitate the communication of cutting-edge scholarly ideas to a wider public, how do we make pernickity questions about footnotes relevant to that wider audience that is keen to find out how the war affected their family, their town, their region? Buried in that footnote are some really interesting debates about the nature of service, for men and for women, in wartime and the impact of war on international medical and philanthropic ideals of care and compassion. These are debates that still have relevance today, for medics in the battlefield and for NGOs such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, attempting to alleviate the suffering of all involved in contemporary conflicts. These are discussions that academics are having. Now, how do we make sure that they form part of the discussion when it comes to international commemoration as well?