New stuff

February 7, 2006

I’ve been away from the blog for some time, as a result of the pressure of other work and an almighty dose of cold, so I’ve just taken a day to add a load of new stuff in one go, on the principle that if I didn’t make the effort to restart what I still think is a valuable tool, I’d let it go completely. So here’s a guide to what’s just gone up, and some new items I’ve come across online.

Heather Jones and Sir Rodric Braithwaite‘s papers to the Writing War Seminar

The PhDs that never were

A living memorial

Jack McGowan’s blog – Jack is making exemplary use of his blog as a means of enhancing his PhD studies.

Brett Holman asks what my book is actually called.

Currently I’m in the middle of an enormous UCAS panic. So it’ll probably be another little while before more stuff goes up. Not the ideal use of blogging technology, I know. Incidentally, while I’m here, has anybody else commented thatin terms of training citizen soldiers, the Second World War was actually harder for the British Army than the First. New troops in Britain could not be gradually introduced to the line – instead, whole formations went through the bulk of the war training, but not fighting. Just been re-reading Timothy Harrison Place‘s book on this, and noting how hard it was to train soldiers in certain bits of fighting without a real enemy to practise on.


A living memorial?

February 7, 2006

Thanks to my dad for the photo of a plaque at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. This Sessile Oak was planted from a seed collected at Verdun in 1917. Any other examples of living/growing memorials gratefully received.

Thinking about Modern War

February 7, 2006

Sir Rodric Braithwaite spoke to the Writing War seminar on 1 February 2006 on ‘Thinking about Modern War’. Sir Rodric is a former British ambassador to Moscow, and has just written a book (out this year) on the battle for Moscow in 1941. His essential question was why, if war is so horrible, we as academics are so interested in it. He suggested five potential reasons:

1) War as a moral and legal issue – war is a location for the debate of the principles which act as guides to behaviour within human societies.

2) War as a laboratory of decision making – for those who are interested in organisations and leaders, war seems at first glance to be a useful testbed, with relatively clearly defined boundaries and apparently obvious outcomes (victory and defeat). In fact, the greater the degree of study, the clearer it becomes that war is as multivariant and confused as any other area of decision making.

3) War as a science – military practitioners in particular have been keen to render war understandable so that it is winnable. Sir Rodric went on to discuss Rupert Smith’s new book on the potential outdating of war.

4) The Boy’s Own Paper view of war – war as a (usually masculine) fantasy of individual agency, bravery and fetishised ‘kit’. This was often a potent influence on those joining up to be soldiers.

5) In comparison, Sir Rodric juxtaposed the differences between soldiering – particularly the boredom and brutalisation of training – and fighting. It is in battle that complicated issues of bravery and cowardice, responsibility and physicality come to the fore in the study of war. He highlighted the quality of Soviet writing about officership – citing the words of Bickar (?): ‘If you want to lead men in battle, the first assumption has to be that they will run away.’

6) In conclusion, Sir Rodric spoke about the difference between the civilian and the military mind – one founded on the willingness to kill and be killed, and to cause the deaths of those under command. This combination marks out soldiers from all others (for example, from the emergency services). He closed by asking the seminar to ponder why it studied war.

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a rationale for why I do what I do, and Sir Rodric’s paper led me to consider doing that again. I’ve a slight fear that this form of writing is rather self-indulgent, so I want to do it properly at a moment when I have more time than at present.

Prisoners of War

February 7, 2006

There are few pleasures in academia like listening to someone who is just post-thesis submission discuss their work. The knowledge of the topic, the familiarity with the sources, the intellectual engagement: this is how historians should always be. In fact, that would be rather exhausting – better to say that this is a position lots of us would like to be in more frequently. It was a great pleasure, then, for the Writing War seminar to hear Heather Jones, of Trinity College Dublin, speak about PoWs in the First World War, on 18 January 2006.

Heather’s topic was the evolution of violence against prisoners in the course of the war, and the problematic nature of ‘remembering’ prisoner experience in post-war Europe. The mythology of the First World War has little space for prisoners – particularly for the use of prisoners as labour which, as Heather pointed out, was an essential resource for both sides. The focus of this paper was on these men – so violence against prisoners in this respect should be understood as something separate from that meted out around the moment of surrender. Her sources came from across Europe, including official army instructions, investigations into prisoner treatment and individual accounts.

As usual, rather than summarise the whole paper, let me remark on four things that stood out:

1) The degree to which prisoners were used as labour, particularly by the German army.

With no resources of colonial labour, the Germans had to use prisoners as a means to prosecute total war. In 1916, a quarter of a million prisoners were working for the German army behind the lines (about a sixth of those held) as opposed to about 30,000 for the French. Both sides, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved willing to bend their pre-war attitudes to prisoner treatment and definitions of ‘war-work’ when confronted by the needs of conflict. In 1918, the German army chose to make much greater use of prisoners – including larger numbers of British, French and Italian prisoners – close to the battlefront. At the same time, the use of violence by guards significantly worsened. Mistreatment of prisoners by guards was a major problem for the German army, with a tension existing between the need to make men work and the pressures on guards and commanders from their own military system and the large influx of prisoners in 1918. There was a paradox (seemingly invisible to OHL) between commanders placing prisoners in conditions of (sometimes extreme) danger, but demanding that their men treat these prisoners well.

2) Brutalisation. Some of these men suffered extreme ill treatment, either in the form of exposure to shellfire whilst engaged in warwork within the battlezone, or from their guards. To quote from Heather’s research in her thesis ‘The Enemy Disarmed. Western Front Prisoners of War and the Violence of Wartime, Britain, France and Germany, 1914-1920’ (Trinity College Dublin, 2006): ‘A British prisoner, Drummer Leslie Rudd, described his guards at Sailly, 5 miles from the firing line:

They treated us very badly and beat us with sticks and rifles all times of the day. Many of us were in a bad state and incapable to work [sic] from dirt and lack of food. It was a regular thing for us to lose our bread ration and we had a very small quantity of bread and coffee and soup given us. One day we refused to load shells and one of our men complained to a German staff officer who spoke English, telling him it was wrong to expect us to load shells for them and that we wanted to make a general complaint. His only reply was to line us up in a squad and to order that the first man who refused to work should be instantly shot.[1]

(please cite Heather’s location of this evocative quotation if you wish to make use of it)

British and French prisoners still did better than Russian prisoners, who were bottom of the humanitarian ladder (I can’t remember, at this stage, whether Heather spoke about the small number of British and French Indian and African prisoners taken by the Germans). Allied prisoners also suffered malnutrition as the German ration system broke down at the end of the war (particularly because their employment in labour companies complicated the receipt of Red Cross parcels). Heather’s work therefore fits into a much broader historical debate about the effect of war and military society on human behaviour.

3) National differences

The different hierarchical structures of the various armies and the pre-war backgrounds of the men involved affected how they behaved as prisoner-labourers.

4) Memory.

There was little place for the memory of PoW experience in post-war Europe. Many of these men may in any case not have chosen to remember an experience which was traumatic and emasculating. When PoWs were represented (as in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, and in some British memoirs) they were officers in prison camps inside Germany. This allowed them to be shown in terms which gave them back individual agency and which fitted pre-existing narrative models. It was perhaps surprising that, in the aftermath of the war, the Entente made so little of the mistreatment of its prisoners – although this was perhaps in response to the scale of the global catastrophe from which they were trying to recover.

Heather succeeded in opening up an area which few seminar members had even thought about before. We did however, manage to ask her some useful questions (hopefully in partial preparation for her viva) about differences in national experience, the role of regular, volunteer and conscripted soldiers, and the contribution of prisoners to the war effort. ‘Prisoner Studies’ in a broader sense is clearly a topic deserving of wider study across the century. In an era of trans-disciplinary approaches, it combines legal, military, cultural and social history to the benefit of each.

Writing War Spring Semester Programme

[1] TNA, WO 161/100, no.1785, Interview with Drummer Leslie Rudd.


February 6, 2006

My next major project is a ‘big’ book on Britain and the Second World War, combining the social, cultural and military history of the war (and much else besides). One of the great pleasures of starting a project such as this, at least for me, is the ability to range widely over a broad field, much of which is new to me. But one of the frustrations is that I’ve already encountered a number of areas which seem to deserve more study, or in which I’d like to make some speculative suggestions in the certain knowledge that I won’t have time to launch an in-depth research project. So here are the projects that, were there but world enough and time, I’d like to pursue. If anyone knows of specific material that already exists on them, then please let me know. If anyone wants to pursue one, just let me know what you find out. If anyone would like to be supervised for a PhD – just ask!

1. Gambling and the black market 1935-1945

In the interwar years, Britain developed a huge gambling industry, both legal and illegal. As Mike Huggins points out, much of this related to horse racing. Off course cash betting was illegal, but hugely popular. Working class communities in particular had to develop a version of socially sanctioned illegality – where policemen turned a blind eye to bookmakers, or bookies made sure that they were seen positively by the communities around them – in order that this entertainment could continue. The advent of the Second World War disrupted the sporting programme on which bookies depended. I wonder to what degree they therefore transformed themselves into black-marketeers – similarly a socially sanctioned form of illegality, and one occupying a similar precarious status in communities. The sources for this study would be police records, local newspaper reports, memoirs and oral history. It would be a means of exploring how pre-war society adapted itself to the needs of war. (I think you could do a similar study on the way that inter-war cigarette coupons pre-figured the experience of rationing in the Second World War).

2. The British Police and Technology 1918 to 1945

Many of the debates which military historians have with regard to British attitudes towards, and acceptance of, technological change could equally be explored through the study of different police force’s use of technology from the end of the First to the end of the Second World War.

3. The British Army’s Experience of COIN in post 1918 Europe.

Studying the Middlesex Regt recently, I was astonished (perhaps foolishly) to see that they had been involved in comparatively heavy fighting against rioting Polish miners in Silesia in 1922 (and they had Ireland in 1921 to judge against it). I am not aware of any unit-by-unit studies of the British army’s experience of COIN outside Ireland and the Empire after the First World War. But such a study might tell us a good deal about the problems of demobilisation (cultural and military) and the wide range of roles filled by the army after 1918 (which feeds into how it prepared for the Second World War). It also has a good deal of contemporary relevance – a post-conflict society, with a heavily armed, ethnically divided population, policed by a multi-national force (the Middlesex CO had Italian Grenadiers and French Chasseurs under command).

4. A good social history of allotments, grounded in local council archives (perhaps one or two case studies). Thanks to my good friend James Crabtree, desperately searching for a present for his dad, for highlighting this gap in the market to me. There are a couple of sources out there which I haven’t had a chance to read: D. J. Humphreys, The Allotment Movement in England and Wales. D. Crouch and C. Ward, ‘ “The Allotment” – Its Landscape and Culture’, Allotment and Leisure Gardener. Issue 3 1996. (thanks to for the material.

5. A cultural history of speedway in Britain between the wars. Again, the rapid rise of the sport could tell us a lot about attitudes towards, and familiarity with, technology. There is a least one article in the journal Sport History about speedway, but there’s got to be at least a thesis’ worth of material at the cultural level. One of the things I remember about researching the representation of the First World War in British boys’ papers in the 1920s and 1930s is the sudden appearance, in the mid 30s, of speedway as a location for heroic exploits.

I’ll add to this list as I go on. And perhaps link it from my (soon to be rewritten) departmental page, since we’re all being encouraged to say specifically what we’d like to supervise at a postgraduate level).