Why Am I Here?

A couple of recent comments, both on here and via e-mail, have caused me to start thinking a bit more seriously about the point of this blog. Over the past few months I have commented fairly extensively on manifestations of First World War history in the wider culture and a bit less on my own particular field of research. What was originally intended as a space for me to work out ideas relating to the history of non-commissioned members of the RAMC during the war has become a rather more general First World War blog.

I have to admit, this makes me a bit nervous. There are an awful lot of First World War buffs (in the most general sense of those interested in the war, not just pure military history obsessives) out there, and this blog is never going to be able to cater for all interests and I won’t even begin to try. I worry, however, that I spend an awful lot of time defining myself negatively as a historian. I am NOT a military historian (although I do know an increasing amount of military history as I get to grips with the complex systems of evacuation employed by the RAMC during the war). I CANNOT identify specific uniforms not am I likely to be able to help with queries about genealogical research (although I may be able to point people in the right direction). I am NOT a transnationalist and my knowledge of the non-British experience of the war is woeful, although I am hoping this will change in the not-to-distant future.

So where do all these negatives leave Arms and the Medical Man? Well, there are still plenty of positives, I hope.  I AM a cultural historian of warfare. I DO know a great deal about popular literature and the war, and an increasing amount about the medical history of the war.  I AM a gender historian which helps me locate my studies of the war in the narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I still hope to use it as a space to work out my ideas, especially now that I am starting to have more primary material to work with. I am in the Wellcome archive this week, discovering just how little there is on the work of the nursing orderly, something I am going to have to think hard about as I am due to give a paper on that very subject in two months time. And, as the centenary gets ever closer, I will carry on discussing representations of the war in British popular culture. That aspect of this blog has been the source of the greatest amount and potentially the most fruitful discussion so far. And while creating a forum for discussion about the war was not necessarily my main purpose in starting out with this blog, if that is a role that it fills (in a civilized manner, naturally) then far be it from me to resist!

On which note, here is an article that was doing the rounds last week, in case you haven’t seen it. Encouraging to have the problems of commemoration voiced by such an authoritative source, although I am not sure where we go from here. More discussion, then.

Commemorating War

Unlike most weekends, which are spent ferrying the children to swimming lessons and singing classes while trying to catch up with the housework, I spent most of the past weekend at a fascinating workshop on commemorating war which brought together a number of military and naval historians to discuss ideas about the upcoming commemorations for 2014-18. (And lest you think my house is now a complete tip, my husband got on with the chores, so actually it looks somewhat cleaner than it normally does on a Monday.)

There was far too much discussed to cover in one post, so I will be coming back to what was discussed over a very intense day and a half, but one of the most interesting discussions resulted from Gary Sheffield’s talk on ‘Jay Winter and the Commemoration of the First World War.’ Following a brief survey of Jay’s work, Gary then looked at the legacy of his theories and the implications for 2014-18.

Now, a small disclaimer: Jay supervised my undergraduate thesis and my MPhil and was a huge influence on my decision to pursue an academic career. One of his influences on the study of the First World War has been a concerted effort to bring military and cultural historians of the war together in dialogue, an aim that I hope influences my work. Certainly I do strive to balance my love of social and cultural history with an awareness of the military details that shaped the trends I explore, which is why I am currently going so deeply into the history and organization of the RAMC at the moment. Gary’s main point, however, was that Jay’s idea of the memory boom helps to reemphasize victimhood as central to our understanding of the war, something that, he pointed out, has been picked up on in Cameron’s announcement of national plans for commemoration. The dates chosen are those of battles that are interpreted primarily as defeats, with no mention of the final campaign (the 100 days) which one the Allies the war, a fact which prompted a letter from the Western Front Association to the Independent. (Scroll down). In addition (a point I had not picked up on before), the school visits being funded are to soldiers’ graves, not battlefields which places the emphasis not merely on victimhood but sacrifice. Gary’s point was that children won’t actually be getting a sense of what the war was like by walking the landscape of battle but it also raises the point of whether those who survived the war are to be commemorated. Having worked extensively on the history of disability and the war, I am all too aware of how little is remembered and understood of those who returned to civil society, many wounded in body and mind, and who struggled to reintegrate. The majority succeeded, but not, I would hazard, without significant cost. Their stories are seldom told.

It was fascinating to hear a critique of the announced plans from the perspective of military history, and a reminder that military and cultural historians are often trying to tell a similar story, albeit from differing perspectives, and raise similar concerns about the way in which we remember and commemorate the war. The problems that we all, as historians, face in making these concerns public was the subject of an equally interesting presentation by the historian of the South African War, Professor Fransjohan Pretorius, who was involved with the commemorations in South Africa a decade ago. But that talk was itself rich enough that I think I had better return to it in another post.

Statement of Intent 1

Well, I ended up not watching Who Do You Think You Are? After a two-hour struggle with my daughter, whose molars are making their presence felt, followed by three hours of insomnia, by 9 pm the following day I was in no fit state to do anything more than collapse into bed.
In my long dark teatime of the soul, however, it did occur to me that following my comments on mud, blood and futility, a brief overview of my position as a First World War historian might not come amiss. Let me say first of all that I am not a military historian. I am first and foremost a social and cultural historian (emphasis generally on the cultural), a gender historian and, increasingly, a historian of medicine. My time period happens to be the First World War, so while I might call myself a First World War historian I am less interested in the specifics of strategy, tactics, arms or logistics except in as much as they are vital to questions of discipline, morale and what is generally referred to as ‘war experience’. Most ‘proper’ military historians would certainly not classify me among their number, and I have had my work sneered upon at least one occasion as not even being proper history, let alone military history. I am, however, from the generation of First World War historians that hopes to be learning from the previous generation, one which too often divided itself into ‘military’ and ‘cultural’ strands and then refused to speak to each other. Thankfully, major historians such as Adrian Gregory, Brian Bond and John Horne has striven to bridge the divide and those of us who have had the privilege of learning from them are increasingly demonstrating that integrating the two approaches to First World War history is incredibly fruitful. Thus military historians are widening their scope of understanding to include facets of war experience that extend beyond the confines of the battlefield, while cultural historians are honing their arguments through a more rigorous understanding of strategy, tactics, logistics and the like.
So, although, as I say, I would never classify myself as a military historian, I am a historian of war and, to the best of my ability, I attempt to underpin my cultural analyses with a solid understanding of the technical and strategic realities of warfare. As far as my current project is concerned, this means that, in addition to asking questions about what medical service meant to the individuals who served and how they constructed masculine identity, I am interested in recruitment, training and the practicalities of life serving in a Field Ambulance as opposed to a Base Hospital as opposed to a Home Hospital. Questions of military organization (which is turning out to be remarkably political when it comes to the medical services) and logistics are of particular importance.
The other way in which this desire to fuse military and cultural history influences my work is in my status as part of the ‘revisionist’ school of First World War historians. And here we get back to mud, blood and futility, the more traditional and popular view of the war. This argues that the war was the slaughter of a generation of young men by the elders, that all the generals were donkeys sending their lion-hearted men to the slaughter in pointless battles, that all soldiers suffered throughout the four years and that those who survived refused to talk about it when they got back because it was all so horrible. The revisionist position is that the war was neither futile nor a complete disaster. It was fought for a purpose, to stop German hegemony in Europe which would have been the hegemony of an autocracy, and while there were disastrous aspects and individual battles, lessons were learned over the course of the four plus years, the so-called ‘learning curve’. Nor was the experience for all and without exception entirely and unremittingly horrible, as my own work has shown. For many men who fought it was a formative experience in their lives, often terrifying, uncomfortable and sad, but also (and for many of the same men) exhilarating, exciting and fascinating. Morale in the British Army remained remarkably strong throughout, something which could not have happened if the experience was as consistently bleak as some portrayals would make it appear. And the huge number of memoirs, published and unpublished, of First World War experience seem to indicate that men were willing, even eager, to talk about their experiences. Whether British society, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the war when bereavement dominated cultural discourse, was willing to listen to them is another question.  None of this is said to imply that no one had horrific experiences or refused to talk or to denigrate those individual perspectives.  Disillusionment and horror were common and valid reactions to war experience, and grief was pretty much universal.  But they were not the only reactions to the war, and for some men not even the dominant ones.  And many of those who did experience the war in part as muddy, bloody and futile also found compensations in the comradeship and strength, both physical and emotional, that they discovered in others and themselves.
As far as my current project is concerned, the revisionist arguments about the learning curve seem to be applicable to military medicine as well as strategy and tactics. Certainly Mark Harrison argues that from 1916 both the logistics of evacuation and the medical treatments of various types of illness and wounds developed rapidly on the Western Front, although he points out that other fronts were much less successful in applying lessons learned. It will be interesting to see if this argument holds true for the training and employment of support staff and what influence it had on their level of expertise and morale as the war progressed.