Uncovering the First World War (2)

September 28, 2005

Further thoughts on Dublin.

Some thoughts about how to improve the next conference:

The conference organisers did a great job of putting together a stellar cast of conference attendees. About 60 academics and students attended in total, including more than half of the world’s leading authorities on aspects of the First World War from the UK, Ireland, France, Germany and the US. I’ve thought in the past that a spot of food poisoning would be an excellent career development opportunity. At one sweep, you could create the room for all the junior academics to move up the ladder and all the postgrads to get jobs (presumably I will keep chuckling about this until I’m at the top, at which point I will start checking the kitchens).
This is one of the best features of the conference: the opportunity for young researchers to have their work commented on by their seniors.
I wonder, however, if it hasn’t rather outgrown itself. The problem with having 60 scholars, some of them big names, in one room, is that it doesn’t necessarily encourage discussion, particularly from postgraduates who are sometimes just starting their research. Many people will make points, but any discussion that starts has to be curtailed reasonably quickly so that the next paper can begin. And you have to have a chairperson with a hand of iron to force senior academics to be succinct. It struck me that very often we were saying ‘we need some comparative information about this topic’ and that the basis for that information might be in the room. But to access it, you have to have an environment in which scholars are happy to speculate.
(Personally, I always operate from a minimal knowledge base and I suffer from a pronounced inability to keep my trap shut, so I have no problem floating ideas which are subsequently shot down. But a conference room full of mes would be absolutely unbearable. And very noisy.)
So here’s a suggestion for whoever gets the ‘opportunity’ to organise this next time. How about parallel sessions, capped at a maximum of 20 participants each, with the academic big guns spread between the two, and chairpersons empowered to ask experts to provide that comparative perspective?
Please note that this is in no way intended as a criticism of the conference organisers, who I will continue to praise to the high heavens. It’s aimed to be part of a continuing dialogue which will improve the next occasion.

Incidentally, those interested in finding the full conference programme can download it here.

Uncovering the First World War in Dublin post 1

Uncovering the First World War (1)

September 26, 2005

Just back from the ‘Uncovering the First World War’ conference in Dublin. Obviously, ideally I should have been blogging this as it happened, posting from the conference hall on a wireless network, possibly whilst sipping my triple strength expresso and bopping to my ipod nano. But academic that I am, I preferred to actually participate: not least in the socialising and drinking that make these events so important. I’ve also found that blogging these things afterwards is a great way to make myself reflect on what happened. Rather than trying to summarise every paper that was given, I’m going to make a few points about the format of the conference, the range of papers, some key bits of information that I picked up and what seemed to me to be the key themes.

1) Format. The aim of this conference – the third in a series originally by the International Society for First World War Studies – was to allow postgraduates to share their work with more established academics. It was set up differently from most others. Every paper was published online (on a password protected site) before the conference took place. Every participant was expected to read all the papers. In each session more senior scholars acted as discussants, summarising and commenting on papers. The paper’s author then responded, before general discussion ensued. This approach has some clear advantages – it involves the audience, it makes for less conference fatigue than other formats (ie it was possible to maintain attention beyond the third paper of the day) and it should put everybody on a similar footing – making it easier for postgrads to present their work. It does rely on everybody reading most of the papers – not too much of a problem, in fact, since academic guilt/fear of appearing stupid creates an effective moral economy – and on discussants recognising that they are meant to provide constructive criticism. Fortunately, it’s generally a friendly field, and most did so.

2) Range of papers – I was only in Dublin for two out of three days, but the papers I saw ranged widely in terms of subject, approach and area. Three subjects that often came up which might particularly interest readers of this blog: early war Britain, occupation studies (probably the fastest growing field of WWI research over the last few years), and national identities.

3) Random interesting facts I came away with:

There’s an Argentine football team called Douglas Haig FC, set up by an Englishman in November 1918 to commemorate the Field Marshal. Those with better Spanish than mine can find out some more through here. They seem to have done quite well in the 1920s and 1930s, but now they’re in the Second Division. Obviously, I am now frantically trying to buy a team strip on ebay. (Thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield). Their Dennis the Menace style crest is at the top of this post.

b) Romanian prisoners suffered worse than any other PoWs in Germany – 29% didn’t come back.

c) In another aspect of my life, I’m sometimes quite a serious cyclist. The club I ride with is based in the tiny village of Ugley, Essex. In Dublin, I discovered that the village contains a plaque commemorating the evacuation route for civilians established in 1914 in case of German invasion. Yet again, the First World War is inescapable. (Thanks to Catriona Pennell)

d) So popular were rumours of German barbarity and mutilation of children in 1914 that one British woman, offering to adopt a Belgian refugee, specified that she would ‘prefer a whole baby’. (Thanks to Rebecca Gill).

e) Quite a lot of people actually read this blog. But most of you are keeping pretty quiet. So I’m going to try some new ways for encouraging participation, including requesting some guest posts and raising the controversy level.

4) More seriously, key themes that stood out for me:

a) Rather than concentrate on the home or the fighting front, historians are increasingly examining those areas of total war where the line seems more blurred – occupation studies, prisoners of war, and preparations for violence. This is opening rich fields in terms of the variety of experience of war.

b) The key need is for comparative history. Throughout the conference I lost count of the number of times that I heard commentators say ‘What we really need is some comparative studies to know how typical this phenomenon is’. This was certainly a common reaction to Isobel Hull’s stimulating conference lecture on the German army’s attitude to total war and total victory. A few – very few – really high class scholars are doing this. They’ll know who they are when they read this, and I can only say how in awe I am of those able to work across national boundaries. But I was moved to consider whether the conference took every opportunity to promote the possibility for comparison (a subject for a future post).

c) There are still pieces missing in the jigsaw. Most apparent to me, in the growth of occupation studies, is the need for a large scale study of occupiers. Len Smith said something particularly striking about German forces in Belgium ‘performing the power of the occupier’. This seems a potentially fascinating area of research.

d) I was also struck in the papers I saw by the recurrence of what we might call the ‘preformation of experience’. To take just the papers I was involved in discussing: Britons entered the war with a clear set of tropes about what was meant by ‘refugee’, ‘invasion’, ‘atrocity’ and ‘citizen’. They used these to try to understand the war as it happened. Wartime experience challenged all these interpretative models – but what stands out to me is the degree to which they were altered but not abandoned. Rather, wartime events were interpreted through a lens that was already in place. Again, this was a topic that came up in Professor Hull’s lecture as well.

(of course, regular readers might point out that this is a subject I discussed here after the Giessen conference. So perhaps my own experience was preformed).

More on Dublin soon – and hopefully some other comments. I’ll close by congratulating the organisers on an excellent conference. I hope that as the dust settles and their heads clear, they’ll realise what they’ve achieved – not just in bringing scholars together, but in actually moving the field forward.

Link to next Dublin post

Writing War Seminar Provisional Programme

September 20, 2005

Writing War Seminar 2005 Programme
Wednesday 1800-1930
Lock Keeper’s Cottage, Mile End Campus, Queen Mary University of London

5 October Welcome: Discussion of Seminar Aims and Format
Catherine Merridale and Dan Todman (QMUL)

19 October Coventry after its ‘Coventration’: local memory and transnational networks.
Stefan Goebel (University of Kent)

23 November Writing about Modern War
Ben Shephard

30 November The Red Army and the Experience of War 1941-45
Catherine Merridale (QMUL)

14 December Remembering the First Crusade
Tom Asbridge (QMUL)

Please contact the Postgraduate Administrator, history-postgrad@qmul.ac.uk, to express your interest

Writing War Seminar

September 20, 2005

Writing War
Location: Queen Mary University of London (Mile End Tube)
Convenors: Professor Catherine Merridale, Dr Dan Todman.

War and the ways it is experienced and remembered are a topic of continuing academic and popular interest. They form key vectors through which we understand the past and the present. Scholars in a wide range of disciplines touch on how war is described and analysed in their work, often from different perspectives and with little direct awareness of each other. In convening this new seminar, we would like to bring together those who study the experience and memory of war to discuss their work in an effort to build the field and develop a coherent approach across the disciplines. In terms of historical period, discipline and approach, the aim is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, in the belief that the very different challenges facing scholars of different periods can serve to illuminate the work of all.

The Writing War seminar will provide a setting which is interdisciplinary, informal and inspiring. The aim is to create a group in which every participant will feel happy to contribute in order to improve work in progress. The seminar will run as a mixture of workshop-style discussions and more formal papers and invites attendance from everyone with an interest in the field.

Amongst the questions we would like to address:

  • How are wars experienced as they happen?
  • What factors affect individual’s experiences of war and how do societies compose broader versions of wartime experience and meaning?
  • How should scholars write about war, combat and trauma? Are some elements of war ‘unwritable’?
  • How have wars been remembered – both by the individuals who take part and by the larger communities of which they are part? What factors affect the subsequent representation of war?
  • What can the many scholars who engage with the topic of war and memory – whose expertise varies widely in terms of period, discipline and approach – learn from each other?

The seminar will seek to identify and confront some of the key issues and problems – of materials, methodology and morality – implicit in the questions posed above.

The Writing War Seminar will meet on occasional Wednesdays throughout the year in the Graduate Centre, Lock Keepers Cottage, Queen Mary University of London. This semester the programme is as follows:

Suggestions for papers in the spring semester (and subsequently) are welcomed.
In order for us to gauge numbers, please contact the Postgraduate Administrator, history-postgrad@qmul.ac.uk, to express your interest.

Target marking

September 19, 2005

Bit quiet on the blogging front for a while, I know. I’ve been working on one project which is hard to blog, and others where the need has been to produce something specific for a deadline. I’d felt the risk that blogging could be a diversion from work rather than an aid to it, so I knuckled down and just got it done. The other reason for my silence has been that this is the pre-registration week before term begins and that, like academics across the country, I’ve been remembering all the jobs I meant to get done over the summer but haven’t.
Amongst that preparation, things that might be of interest to readers of this blog (I hope you’re both well):
1) encouraging my own first PhD student that he should blog his work (a decision he needs to make for himself, rather than having it forced on him, but at least there’s plenty of good practice to point to).
2) re-writing my ‘Britain in the Second World War’ undergraduate course to include a Clausewitz lecture and seminar. I had to think carefully about where to put this. I don’t think that my classes generally do enough to extend students’ range conceptually, and C von C’s remarkable trinity is a fascinating/useful way to look at WW2 (particularly since one of the themes of the course is the interconnectedness of every aspect of the war). When I taught at Sandhurst, we hit the cadets with Clausewitz early on, then referred back. But they were people with quite a lot (in some cases) of background knowledge about war. I can’t always rely on that broader knowledge with my undergrads. So I’ve put the lecture at the end of the first semester, so that they’ll be able to apply the theory to some examples they already have. I’ll update on progress.
3) converting aspects of my Great War course for use with ‘gifted and talented’ sixth form students in an online study group.
In the next couple of days, I’ll post up this material. And there’s also the details of the War and Memory seminar group that Catherine Merridale and I are starting. And then I’m going to a conference in Dublin which I’ll summarise for y’all. And then I might finally get back to considering the points about the military experience ratio and the Fathers and Sons threads which I’ve been meaning to write up for some time.

Fathers and Sons (2)

September 10, 2005

‘As an only child, his main companion though early childhood was his French grandfather. Soon after his father’s return home from military service in 1922, young Douglas switched allegiance and adopted military dress: with metal buttons, puttees and a medal made out of a halfpenny, he patrolled the garden, challenging all who passed. His infatuation with this colourful, ebullient father, so suddenly returned from the wars, seems to have been intense and from that time his obsession for playing soldiers came near to dominating his life.
Domestic accidents followed which, one imagines, encouraged him to rationalise his emotional investments, reducing them, perhaps, if possible, to something that would fit in a kit bag. When Douglas was four, his mother collapsed with encephalitis. This illness dragged on (and recurred throughout Douglas’s adolescence), the faily smallholding business failed, and on borrowed money Keith was sent, at the age of six, to boarding school. Two years later, his father moved away to North Wales and it soon became clear that he was gone for good.’
Ted Hughes, ‘Introduction’ to D. Graham, ed, Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems, OUP, 1987, xvii.
Fathers and Sons (1)

Fathers and Sons (1)

September 10, 2005

A Grand Night

When the film Tell England came
To Leamington, my father said,
‘That’s about Gallipoli – I was there.
I’ll call and see the manager…’

Before the first showing, the manager
Announced that ‘a local resident…’ etc.
And there was my father on the stage
With a message to the troops from Sir Somebody
Exhorting, condoling or congratulating.
But he was shy, so the manager
Read it out, while he fidgeted.
Then the lights went off, and I thought
I’d lost my father.
The Expedition’s casualty rate was 50%

But it was a grand night out,
With free tickets for the two of us.’

D.J. Enright (b.1920), Collected Poems, OUP, 1981, 120 (Originally from his The Terrible Shears: Scenes from a Twenties Childhood, 1973).
My thanks to Professor John Ramsden for pointing this poem out to me.