Updates available!

August 31, 2005

My ACUME paper is available to read at Mark Grimsley’s site. Many thanks to Mark for hosting the paper. I’d be very grateful for any feedback.

My fellow member of the Jay Winter Supervisee’s Club, Jessica Meyer, is organising a conference on the representation of the First World War in Newcastle next year. The closing date is almost upon us (15th September). I promised a submission: time to put my thinking cap on again.

Upcoming – some thoughts on previous blogs/comments about ‘military cultural memory’, involving the useful concept of the military experience ratio.


Comparative Cultural History (2)

August 29, 2005

One topic of abiding interest to me has been how soldiers learn. Partly about how armies teach them, but much more what they learn informally, not least before they join the army, about what it is to be a soldier and what they should expect of war. This has particular importance for the writing of military history given the things I learned at Giessen about the importance of preformation of expectation in the shaping of experience (see ACUME (2) below).
One thing that forms soldiers’ expectations and experience of war is what they know about previous conflicts. In some cases, of course, they may have participated in these earlier wars, but otherwise they may have learned about them through a mixture of family participation, popular culture and more formal education.
As an example of this mix of expectation and experience, consider British soldiers in the Second World War. Most had grown up in an atmosphere where the First World War was both celebrated and mourned. As children they learned that the trenches had been terrible – but also that heroism and self-sacrifice were still possible, and that the defining experience of masculinity was soldiering. When the Second World War came, most Britons did not avoid military service. They did seek, where they could, to join ‘clean’ arms (the navy, the air force, anything but the PBI). Those who did end up in terrestrial combat arms continued to make use of their forefathers’ experiences as a sort of emotional talisman. There’s plentiful evidence of Second World War infantrymen – often those who experienced what were, by any definition, awful wars – saying to themselves “This is bad, but it’s not the worst. If my father could serve for three years in Flanders, then I can stick this. At least I’m not in that war.”
Sam Hynes has some useful stuff on this in The Soldiers’ Tale I think – primarily about Vietnam.
What about other wars? Using some of the comparators suggested below, what formed soldiers’ cultural expectations? Lots has been written about the literary basis for First World War soldiers’ world view. Much less about what they had learned from fathers/older brothers/uncles/their own involvement in the Boer War or the pre-war militia or TF. With the American Civil War, I recall that many of the men who held senior command had won their spurs in the Mexican War, but the forces engaged were small relative to the American population. What were the popular ‘memories’ of 1812 – or the Napoleonic Wars, given the mass of European immigration at the time?
Again, new comments always welcome: I’m finding the blogging inspirational to thought, as you can tell.

Comparative Cultural History

August 28, 2005

Right, away from the literature/history dichotomy that seems to have been dominating my writing here since it began, some actual WWI related thoughts. One of the problems of British history of the First World War – both that which examines the war itself and that which looks at its mythic aftermath – is that the war tends to viewed as unique.
Spurred on by the writings of John Terraine, British military historians have tried to place the Western Front in the context of other modern total wars, but often on a comparatively simple level. This usually takes the form of a statistical comparison of rates of recruitment, numbers of divisions and percentage losses. Useful to a degree (although a statistic is like a glove puppet – stick your hand far enough up its backside and it’ll say anything) – but often decontextualised.
This is much more, however, than analysts of the British mythology/cultural memory have done. Although there have been attempts to compare British remembrance with that of other participants in the First World War – see the work of Stefan Goebel and Jenny Macleod – there hasn’t so far as I know, been a proper comparison with other wars over the long term, in an effort to bring out the effects of anniversaries, generational change, cultural context and so on.

What might be our criteria for choosing other wars? Off the top of my head, some combination of:
1) scale and totality – level of popular involvement
2) media context – presence of myth-making and spreading structures
3) subsequent impact – how well have they been remembered?
4) ease of access to resources – including, for the moment, my lack of linguistic skills/background knowledge – although my French isn’t too bad, my French history is rubbish.

On these grounds, I wondered about comparisons with:
The English Civil War (huge popular involvement, very different media context)
The Napoleonic Wars (in Britain relatively much less popular involvement (depending on how we rate militia service), different media context)
The Indian Mutiny (following a suggestion from Astrid Erll) (tiny popular involvement but huge impact at the time, start of the modern media age – photographs)
The American Civil War – the most obvious source of comparison, I think
The Boer War
Second World War – obvious and probably already being written.

The idea would be to follow through the mythology of these wars in the century or so after they ended, examine how their myths developed and changed, and compare these processes to those which operated in Britain, 1918-2008ish.

Responses, anyone?


August 26, 2005

What was a war historian to make of all this?

The atmosphere between the youngest generation of history and literary studies academics is much friendlier than it used to be. There is a lot for us to learn: particularly on reading texts and using cognitive psychology. The boundary between the disciplines here is sometimes pretty blurred.
That having been said, there are some areas in which our academic paradigms are still very different. Military history (as distinct from war history) does, I think, encourage a pragmatic, empiricist approach. The result is that I can bristle at an overly theoretical – or an overly metaphysical/metaphorical – approach. There does seem to be a tendency amongst literary scholars to say ‘the well established fact that…’ where ‘well established seems to mean ‘asserted by lots of other eminent literary theorists’ rather than ‘proven by use of evidence’. I suspect I’ll get some flak for saying that, but I think plenty of literary scholars would acknowledge these faults – just as I would acknowledge the numerous problems in my own discipline. One of them is an unwillingness to theorise – so perhaps this is swings and roundabouts.
There is also a more general issue which I think relates to the place of war in popular culture. In this field in particular there is a tendency to regard strongly held beliefs as historical facts. By its nature, modern war attracts strong beliefs and assumptions. ‘War is bad’, ‘Armies (and generals) are stupid’, ‘All war is traumatic’. Lay readers, literary scholars – and many military historians – often end up inflicting these beliefs on the past, imposing ahistoric judgments because of what they ‘know’ to be the truth.

I was surprised that I was the only speaker at the conference to consider audience reaction. I think that reception studies is an area that some literary scholars are interested in, so I’m surprised that nobody working on this area spoke. Even if excellent work being done on the creation of these texts, without studying the whole process we are hardly looking at ‘cultural memory’. Many of those working in the field of literature are telling us how the roads are made, but they don’t seem to be paying much attention to the atlas.


August 26, 2005

(This posting, and the ones that follow, are brought to you by Lemsip and Sudafed. I have been struck down by a severe dose of ‘manflu’ which has left me coughing like a hag and cursing through sludge. So if I sound irascible, that’s probably the explanation).

Just back from the ACUME conference in Giessen. Excellent venue – a 19th century schloss which made me feel I needed a couple of duelling scars. Interesting selection of papers. Although the overall topic of the conference was cultural memory, most of those speaking were literary scholars. I was one of two historians out of about twenty participants.

This made me a bit apprehensive, but I have to say that for the most part I found it stimulating. It made me think about the study of literature and history in a way that should wrap up some of the points Esther and I have been bouncing back and forth on our two sites.

Papers that stood out for me:

Max Saunders on writing traumatic memory in both world wars: for a military historian, very interesting on the way that memoirs/autobiographical fiction have been written and the shifts that take place around the writing of traumatic experiences. Max used examples from Graves, Douglas, Ford Madox Ford and making reference to Freud. I was struck by the way authors write around these key experiences – circumnavigating them before writing them in detail (arguably The Great War and Modern Memory is a giant circumlocution of Fussell’s Second World War experience), and by the changes in syntax and imagery that accompany them. Most military historians would not, I think, interrogate a text so closely to derive meaning.

Astrid Erll offered a great summation of current thinking on the formation and rehearsal of memory. Astrid’s used research in cognitive psychology to suggest how important pre-formed expectations are in shaping experience and memory. Again, lots for historians to consider here about what ‘witnessing’ war actually means – what scripts are witnesses using. These were points bolstered – from a wider historical perspective, in a paper by Horst Carl.

Geert Bulens gave us a paper on modernist poetry and responses to the Great War that focussed on way these poets – from across the continent – envisioned ‘Europe’ in response to the war. A lot of the work I’ve looked at in terms of re-discovered poetry of the First World War has concentrated on more traditional poets – Geert’s paper had some wonderful examples of avant garde poetry from Belgium and Poland which I’d never seen before. I’ve mentioned elsewhere a possible European-funded project on the 100th anniversary of the war – I think Geert stands a great chance of securing such funding!

Andrea Birk’s paper on recent German literature dealt with a lot of the issues I’m interested in with regard to the First World War in relation to the Second. Particularly: how do you represent a ‘lost’ family experience, the impact of generational change on fictional representations and the growth of ‘family memory’ texts in recent years. Obviously the context and event being represented are different, but I think there are interesting comparisons to be drawn. I left with a list of German texts I need to read and compare.

Elena Lamberti’s paper on the Spanish Civil War immediately preceded mine and (miraculously) dovetailed quite well with it. Elena had some excellent points to make about the development of a universal visual language of war in the 20th century – that we all have a set of shared images of ‘war’. There is a technological-chronological explanation for this – the coincidence of information and print technology with a period when mass wars were being fought. Elena pointed towards the Spanish Civil War as the moment when a war which attracted international concern coincided with the growth of magazines which relied on pictures to tell their stories – most obviously Henry Luce’s Life. I need to think a bit more about the implications of this ‘globalisation of war-imagery’ for my own work on the ‘memory’ of the First World War in the 1960s.

Diederik Oostdijk gave a paper on the US WW2 poet James Dickey. Dickey wrote about the war at various stages in his later life. He was also, it turns out, an inveterate fantastist and fabulist about his experiences (and the writer and screenwriter of Deliverance). In terms of witnessing history, Dickey’s changing story – depending on personal and national context, medium and other texts (including Rambo) – was a very informative case study. Again, some interesting comparisons to be made with WWI authors.

War and Literature

August 22, 2005

‘A poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse – indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history. … The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.’
(Aristotle, The Poetics, trans W. Hamilton Fyfe, (London, 1955), 35 [9, 1451b]. My thanks to Professor Alex Danchev for first pointing me towards this quotation.)

To continue with the post below, and to touch on an issue that Esther MacCallum Stewart is discussing elsewhere, how should historians react to popular historical fiction? Should we just say ‘Well, what do you expect?’ and dismiss it? Should we try to work with it? These books aren’t going to go away, and they have formed a route into interest in the war for many readers. Some of them might even go on to buy our books.

The question I finished my paper at Oxford with was whether it would be possible to have a book about the First World War which was inaccurate at the level of historical detail, but which offered concepts of which historians could approve? For me, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is an interesting example. At the level of historical detail, it is packed full of anachronisms. Its take on Edwardian male sexuality, the development of military psychiatry, the writing of poetry and the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are all just plain wrong (ironically, these seem to anger literary historians more than they annoy me). At the level of concepts, however, a reader could leave these books with the following ideas: 1) the First World War wasn’t just about the war poets, 2) some First World War soldiers believed that they were fighting a just war, 3) total wars create a range of social and cultural tensions, 4) some elements of the military experience might be enjoyable to some men. These could represent a significant shift of the reader’s opinion from the normal mud, blood, donkeys cliches. In contrast, I think you could argue that Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is more historically accurate, but far more likely to reinforce its readers’ existing prejudices. Which, as historians, should we prefer?

Interviewed after she won the Booker Prize, Barker commented: ‘What people don’t like to be told, I think, is that there are dictatorships so abominable that in the end you have to fight. People aren’t comfortable with that – they’d rather think about innocent young men being slaughtered at the behest of stupid generals.’ That could be Brian Bond talking, or Gary Sheffield. Or me.
(A. Quinn, ‘What Sassoon could never resolve’, Daily Telegraph, 2 September 1995, A4.)

War and literature

August 22, 2005

One of the aspects of the First World War in Britain that I find particularly interesting is the intersection between ‘literature’ and ‘history’. We can perhaps have a semantic debate later about what exactly the boundaries of those two terms are. The particular relevance for my work lies in the way that modern Britons form their ideas about the war as historical event – what it was like and what it was meant – from literary sources – either the poetry they are taught in schools or the modern popular fiction which uses the war as a setting.
Earlier this summer I took part in a colloquium on ‘Periscope and Telescope’ at Wolfson College Oxford. The aim was to bring together ‘literary’ and ‘military’ historians to discuss ‘conflicting views of the Great War’. I was slightly surprised to find myself the junior representative of the military historians. This put me in some excellent company, but left me rather open to the preconceptions most academics seem to hold about the study of military history (and since I wasn’t wearing my regimental blazer, had a goatee rather than a moustache, and seldom sit up straight, this could have been confusing).
In a session set up as a debate, I was asked to speak against the motion that ‘Historians need creative imagination as much as imaginative writers need historical information’. Facetiously, I opposed it on the grounds that it was insufficiently strong: historians need far more creative imagination (whether in devising a methodology, analysing incomplete information, or writing without committing the crime of ‘psychological anachronism’) than do imaginative writers. Indeed, if you look at the field of recent First World War fiction, it’s apparent that a lot of writers use only the bare minimum of historical research, and seldom look to assess their sources (even on the simplest primary/secondary basis) in the way that a historian would do. The whole point, of course, is that it’s creative writing – if historical fact doesn’t fit what you want, you’re allowed to bend it. Let’s steer clear, for the moment, of how much some historians do exactly the same thing.
The problem for many historians of the war is that readers tend to accept these works of historical fiction as accurate pieces of reconstruction. This suspension of disbelief is probably true of all historical fiction, but is particularly the case for a war in which many Britons still feel bound up by myths of family involvement. Like many of my colleagues, I have had otherwise perfectly reasonable and intelligent people tell me that books like Birdsong or Regeneration told them the ‘truth’ about the First World War. This frustrates historians for three reasons: 1) we see the errors, plagiarism and anachronisms, 2) we can’t understand why readers get confused between fact and fiction, 3) some of these books sell in quantities we could only dream about and reach audiences we never will.