Uncovering the First World War (1)

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


7 Responses to Uncovering the First World War (1)

  1. MaryB says:

    Can you give any specifics as to the number of people in attendance, where folks came from, a general outline of program elements? Will any of this be available to us non-password types? What a wealth of knowledge and research must’ve been represented!

  2. hey there *feeling mildly obliged to comment now*

    What you say about comparative history was one of the main conclusions we reached in the Saturday night round-table debate (proposition: that national history is redundant), which was highly interesting and productive. If you want me to do this guest post malarkey then let me know.


  3. Brett says:

    Random responses:

    That’s fascinating about the evacuation route – I’m fairly familiar with the pre-war invasion paranoia but had no idea that it was taken so seriously by the government during the war. Were the plans made by the Home Office, or local authorities or who? Hopefully there will be a paper to read on this in due course! 🙂

    Could you expand upon ‘performing the power of the occupier’ a little please – I’m not quite sure what this would mean (or rather, the meanings I can come up with aren’t very striking!)

    And finally, about the prospective adoptive mother: ewwwwwwwwwwww.

  4. Dan says:

    Vanda: (‘sparkly princess’? not surprised you’ve been wary of commenting…) – I’d really welcome any guest posts to fill people in on the day and a bit I missed. Mail it to me as a word document (c.500 words) and I’ll stick it up.
    Brett: Catriona Pennell’s paper on perceptions of invasion in Essex certainly ought to be published. I’ll encourage her to get in touch with you. ‘Performing the power of the occupier’ – sounds a bit like Allo Allo now, but I think Len’s point was that sometimes occupiers behave in certain ways because they can – so German interactions with Brussel’s child protection courts during WW1 had as much to do with demonstrating that they had power of the Belgians as trying to effect a war related aim.
    Mary, I posted a brilliant and witty response to your comment, but it’s vanished. I’ve had a couple of blogger problems recently. I will try to remember what I said and get it posted up.

  5. Dan says:

    Mary – hope I’ve addressed some of your points in the next post. And Brett, you’re right on the baby front.

  6. well, I, er, chose my online name about 5 years ago in a non-academic context (obviously) and am now kind of stuck with it, it’s how people know me in various other places… even my family address me as Spangles, tragically. I might have to change it if I’m actually going to do anything work-like online.

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