Recovering (from) the First World War

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 Firstly, reading and discussing new unpublished work is a very instructive way of taking stock of where the field of First World War studies is at the moment and, importantly, where it is going.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.

Dublin 1 Dublin 2 Dublin 3 Dublin 4

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