Cultural legacy of the First World War

October 31, 2005

Continuing the posts below on how the First World War might have helped create a
culture that was adapted to total war. From Picture Post, April 4, 1942, an advertisement for Sunlight Soap.
Previous posts here and here.


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October 31, 2005

A few bits and bobs at the end of (another) hectic week.

1. Questions:
a) Steve Badsey writes to ask for help locating a documentary –

I have a recent memory of having seen a reference to an article (and I can’t be more definite than that) about the mythology of the First World War tank, very much from the ‘it didn’t win the war but it won the post-war literary battle’ perspective – rather like the Timewatch I appeared in some years back, but more scholarly. Have you come across this, and if so can you point me to the reference for it?

b) Astrid Erll would like to know if she’s helping to perpetuate a myth:

I’m not sure if the following anecdote relates to British myth or British history: ‘When Arthur Nicolson congratulated Edward Grey on his speech of 3 August 1914, Grey cried ‘I hate war, I hate war”. A German editor of an article of mine inserted this as a note, and I’m not sure if with this anecdote I’m perpetuating what I was actually going to reflect upon in this article: the British memory culture.

2) Dave Budgen, a postgraduate student at the University of Kent, has asked me to post this:

Rethinking War

An Interdisciplinary Colloquium

Throughout the centuries warfare has been a dominant factor in the shaping of societies. From civil wars to the growth of empires, conflict has remained a constant presence in the history of civilisation. This colloquium aims to bring together research from across the academic spectrum, giving postgraduate and post-doctoral researchers an opportunity to present their work.

We welcome proposals from postgraduate and post-doctoral students on any aspect of warfare.

Subjects you may wish to consider include:

War and Diplomacy, Science and Technology, Justifications for War, War and Society, The Psychological Effects of War, Film and Literature, Guerrilla Warfare and Terrorism, Imperialism, Total War, War and Ethnicity, Art and Visual Representations of Warfare, Heritage and War, National Identity, Medicine and Warfare, Philosophy of War, Propaganda, War and the Media, War and Religion

3) Don’t worry, there is an account of Stefan Goebel’s talk on Coventration and some new thoughts of my own all upcoming. Just trying to find the time… because

4) The book is finally out!


Learning how to fight total wars

October 21, 2005

I should, of course, have acknowledged my partial intellectual debt to David Edgerton in concocting the idea at the base of the last post: although what I am proposing is a more cultural approach to a topic that Edgerton deals with in terms of science, technology and industry. But I’ve just re-read his review of Correlli Barnett’s The Audit of War (‘The Prophet Militant and Industrial’, 20th Century British History, 2, 3 (1991), 377-8) and highlighted:
‘We might note, too , that many of the ‘New Jerusalemers’ did indeed have the backgrounds Barnett claims they did not have. Beveridge and Keynes were senior civil servants in the Great War. … Major Attlee volunteered in 1914 and fought in Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia, and on the Western Front where he was wounded for the third time just before the end of the war. Stafford Cripps, who had a degree in chemistry, spent part of the Great War as assistant superintendent of the largest chemical explosives plant in Britain.’


Intellectual legacy of the First World War

October 20, 2005

Just a quick one – more details coming soon on last night’s Writing War seminar, once I’ve digested it a bit. Today: I’ve been doing some work on evacuation in the Second World War. Particularly in light of recent events in the States, and bearing in mind the short timescale available, British civilian evacuation just before war broke out seems a remarkable achievement. A million and a half people moved without a casualty (at least according to Titmuss). Not least, it was a magnificent conception to believe that this sort of move (and they’d planned for 4 million) was possible.

At the time of the Munich Crisis evacuation plans were pretty much non-existent, but fear of the bomber was high. As the official historian puts it:

‘the London County Council had become alarmed, and pressed the government to reach certain decisions in order to allow transport planning to begin. On 5th August, the Clerk to the Council (Sir George Gater) saw the Home Secretary and offered the services of members of the Education Officer’s staff. With political tension increased by 12th September, Mr Herbert Morrison (leader of the council) urged upon Sir Samuel Hoare the need for immediate decisions. The Council, then drew up plans, necessarily of a primitive and faulty nature, for the removal of some 637,000 children from London.’ (Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy, (London, HMSO, 1950), 29).

Even though it was never carried through, to draw up plans to shift this many people at short notice takes some doing. But what struck me as a First World War historian was George Gater’s appearance. Gater was a civilian in August 1914. By 1918 he was one of the youngest brigade commanders in the BEF, successfully leading improvised combined forces in the Hundred Days campaign which finished the war on the Western Front. He is an excellent example of the ‘learning curve’ and of the successful incorporation of civilians into the wartime army.

Evacuation in 1938 or 1939 was dependent on railway movements and billeting. Where had British administrators learned how to use these tools? How could they deploy them, at short notice, with confidence and relative competence (evacuation didn’t run perfectly, but it was, I repeat, a remarkable achievement)? Could we construct a case that some had learned these skills – or at least honed them – in the First World War? Obviously more research is needed – but let’s at least float the idea that we can.

Now, we are accustomed to participants in the SEcond World War complaining that all the best men of their generation had been killed in 1914-18. Alan Brooke, for example, often remarked on the poor command resources enjoyed by the British Army in the Second World War for just this reason. But we could reverse this argument. It might have seemed like the best and brightest were killed, but what about all those who took status, achievement and newfound abilities from their wartime experience? Perhaps, what the British had been doing was to create a skill set which, twenty years later, would serve them well in the second great conflict of the twentieth century.


New blog

October 12, 2005

Esther MacCallum Stewart, now back online, points me towards a new WWI literature class blog, maintained by Simon Ogden and running out of Simon Fraser University. Leaving aside the quality of the history on offer (Fussell treated as a ‘truth-teller’ about the First World War, rather than a man trying to exorcise his own ghosts about WW2, for example), I think it’s an interesting effort to use blogging technology in a teaching context. But thus far it seems to be more about posting information than discussion: although whether or not that was what Dr Ogden intended is hard to tell. My first WWI Online Study Group goes live later in the month – more comments when I’ve got more experience.


Writing War – the seminars begin!

October 10, 2005

The first meeting of the Writing War Seminar was held on the evening of Wednesday 5 October. As John Stone remarked to me on the way in, running a seminar is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of an academic life, because of the difficulty of predicting who will turn up week to week. Let’s say that Catherine and I were pleased to convene a small but select group, whose expertise covered a wide range of different areas, from colonial campaigning, via the Russian steppes (1812 and 1942) to the pages of Vogue.

We kicked things off by chatting about what motivated us to initiate the seminar. To draw out three things:

1) the academic difficulty about writing about an extremity of human experience which one has not experienced oneself – and the particular dissonance between writing about combat and sitting on one’s backside pontificating about it.

2) the necessity, nonetheless, to confront and analyse war and the experience of war, given its place in history. Catherine pointed out the need to avoid being diverted into writing about the memory of war just because that was easier than writing about war itself. As someone who’s done just that, I have a slightly different take – I’d emphasise that memory/cultural/literary/theoretical studies which touch on war need to be based in an understanding of the event itself (as opposed to a set of assumptions about it which can go unchallenged because they are so widely held)

3) the difficulties of integrating the wide range of sources and styles of history into writing about war, and the particular problem of applying a narrative/analytical/coherent mode of expression to events and experiences which defy such modes by their nature.

Something which emerged from this discussion, and which would continue to exercise us over the course of the evening, was the distinction between war and combat and the blurry lines which could exist between the two.

Julian Jackson, our esteemed Head of Department, responded with a perceptive question: is there actually any difference between writing about war and writing about any other historically distant experience? Isn’t it just as hard to write about the experience of the medieval peasant as about the Second World War soldier? To an extent, of course, he’s absolutely right – and I think that’s the rationale underpinning what allows us to write about war and combat at all. We don’t have to have been there to try to understand it. But I think there are some crucial – largely cultural – differences between the two. People care, deeply and passionately, about war. They make use of beliefs about it, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. Its centrality to popular culture in particular puts an onus on us to get it right – this is something which feeds into the thread Mark Grimsley has been running on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age about military history’s tendency to promote ‘Shadow Warriors’ – subjects of fantasy rather than ‘useful’ models for historical understanding or civil society.

Veterans, of course, care more than most. And as anyone who has tried to write or talk about war in the presence of those who have seen the elephant knows, it can be difficult for an academic to respond to the criticism that we ‘are fascinated by war but don’t know much about it’. Medieval peasants being few on the ground these days, this isn’t the sort of heckling that some of our other colleague’s experience.

A second question, and one which I think we are going to have to address over the next few months, is whether we are actually talking about a historical constant at all. Although we’re talking about ‘war’, we’re really discussing a very specific subset of wars – those fought in the last 150 years between western states. Can we point to elements in war/combat and its representation which are constant across place and time?

A third issue, and one that I think Cathy is particularly eager to discuss, is what’s in it for us? What leads historians of war onto the subject? Where does their fascination come from? Why do people read what we write? Are we feeding an unhealthy obsession (in ourselves and in our audience)? What is our moral position? (I think I need more time to ponder this)

The group discussed some possible future sessions. These will largely depend on who’s available and keen. We’ve got some offers for next term, but I’d welcome more expressions of interest – mailed to my qmul address.

Topics we will definitely cover in coming months

  • Literature and writing
  • Orality
  • Material culture of war and the mediation of experience
  • The Home Front – minds/materials/participation in fighting
  • Journalism and the media
  • Philosophy

We’d like to make a particular effort to broaden our horizons by including as many different scholars as possible. We are actively looking to recruit those who work on non-European war, early modern and medieval war, religion and war – from whatever disciplinary background.

I was tremendously pleased with the way the evening went. The best bits about it, as far as I was concerned, were the informal but academically rigorous atmosphere that was established, the fact that everyone said something (the advantages of a smaller group) and the feeling of positive encouragement – that this is a project people are interested in and willing to support.


Recovering (from) the First World War

October 10, 2005

Edward Madigan, one of the organisers of the FWW conference in Dublin, offers his thoughts about what went on (kind of in response to Vanda, Jessica and myself):

Two weeks on, I hope I can reflect more clearly on the Dublin conference. Yet, as someone who was involved in both organising the conference and presenting a paper, I find it difficult enough to assess it with genuine objectivity. I suppose a good way of attempting this is to look at what the organisers set out to achieve. One of the main objectives of the conference was to provide specific feedback for the scholars who presented aspects of their research. The lively and intense discussions during the sessions certainly provided some of that, but, judging from my own experience, the most valuable feedback came after the sessions, both from senior academics and fellow postgraduates. Having one’s work endorsed and encouraged by established historians and peers is an extremely valuable experience for a postgraduate scholar. Yes, some of the discussions could have been more conclusive and could certainly have involved more input from the less senior participants, but I think we should view the sessions as the beginnings of a conversation to be continued via e-mail, through the Society network, at future conferences, and on blogs like this!

The twenty postgraduate scholars who presented papers were almost certainly the primary beneficiaries of the weekend. This is not to suggest, however, that the weekend was not also designed to be relevant to the other sixty or so participants. Firstly, reading and discussing new unpublished work is a very instructive way of taking stock of where the field of First World War studies is at the moment and, importantly, where it is going. This ‘taking stock’ should be of interest to anyone working on the War. Secondly, the evening events, Isabel Hull’s keynote speech on German military culture and the round table debate in the Goethe Institute, both proved to be very rewarding intellectually – regardless of one’s role at the conference. The fact that Professor Hull’s talk gave people something to think about was clear from the way participants in various sessions kept referring back to her views and conclusions over the following two days.

‘That National History of the War is Redundant’ was chosen as the topic for the round table debate as the ‘national versus trans-national’ discourse is something that virtually everyone has an opinion on, irrespective of their particular areas of expertise. This, and the fact that the first remark from the floor was made by one of the younger scholars meant that the discussion turned out to be extremely inclusive and worthwhile. I found Alex Watson’s comment about the role of the historian and his/her duty to the public particularly relevant to us all. This, for me, was the real benefit of the round table debate. On the one hand it was an interesting intellectual exercise, on the other, it was a rare opportunity for a diverse group of historians to reflect on what history is for and what the historian does, or is supposed to do, in society.

During the Experiences of Occupation session, Jean-Jacques Becker referred to his ‘own experience of occupation’. This struck me as a timely reminder, amidst the academic theory, that few people now writing about war have personal experience of it. By opening the conference in the College’s Great War memorial and closing it in Islandbridge, the national war memorial, a link between the actual event and the modern academic interpretation of the event was drawn. The many artefacts housed at Islandbridge, including uniforms, weapons, personal items and the famous Ginchy Cross brought the experience of the war alive and provided a genuinely moving and fitting end to a really good conference.

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