It’s That Man Again!

March 22, 2006

An edited version of this review (cut for length and minus the comments about nicknames) has just gone in
to the Journal of Military History.

Full and frank disclosure: I have co-edited and co-written with Gary Sheffield, and consider him a friend as well as a colleague. But I’d still tell him if I thought he’d written a bad book. That I know him personally made it more of a pleasure to write as I’ve done below, but it didn’t change what I wrote.

G. Sheffield and J. Bourne, eds, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005), ISBN0 297 84702 3, pp550, £25.00

A. Wiest, Haig: The Evolution of a Commander (Washington DC, Potomac Books, 2005), 137pp, ISBN 1 57488 683 5, $19.95.

Douglas Haig stands with Neville Chamberlain as one of the two most controversial figures in British twentieth century history. Both men took difficult decisions in situations which baffled contemporaries. Both were certain they were right. Both arguably laid the groundwork for final victory in their respective world wars. Neither has ever been forgiven by their countrymen.

Throughout the war, Haig kept a detailed diary, written by hand and sent back at regular intervals to his wife to be copied up. Rather like the Bible, the Qu’ran (and countless other religious texts), excerpts from this diary have often been used to back up commentators’ existing beliefs. Either it demonstrated beyond all doubt that Haig was a far-sighted general, educated in the ways of modern war, or that he was a callous butcher, blind to technology and more concerned with kings and horses than the lives of his men. Those who wished to read the diary in context had to rely either on a version published in 1952, heavily edited by Robert Blake and reflecting his interest in political, rather than military history, or on the original diaries, held in the National Library of Scotland. Haig’s diary has itself been a subject of controversy. The keeping of manuscript and typescript versions, and differences between the two, has led some to see a conspiracy designed to advance the Field Marshal’s career or to shield his post-war reputation.

John Bourne and Gary Sheffield, two of Britain’s best historians of the Great War, have therefore rendered an enormous service to the field by publishing as full as possible an edition of this diary, together with a number of letters from Haig. Although inevitably edited for reasons of space, this volume indicates omissions and divergences between manuscript and typescript versions. Sheffield and Bourne argue powerfully (following the work of Elizabeth Greenhalgh) that Haig did not in general re-write his diary in an attempt to deceive the reader. Sheffield and Bourne would both interpret Haig’s command in a more positive light than some other historians – but they do not press their opinions on readers and their editing has been to produce a publishable volume rather than to support a particular interpretation. Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters is well supplied with an introduction, which narrates Haig’s life, explanatory footnotes, appendices and biographical sketches. There is great pleasure and much information to be gained from the editors’ expertise.

Sheffield and Bourne are ideal guides to this material because of their detailed knowledge of the British army in this period. The footnotes giving Haig’s subordinates’ nicknames are a work of wonder in themselves. If the derivations of ‘Fanny’ Fanshawe (99)and even ‘Stiff ‘Un’ Stephens (102) are reasonably apparent, what incidents in far off imperial hill stations led to the appellations awarded to ‘Meat’ Lowther (96) and ‘Gobby Chops’ Mullens (348)?

For those who wish to see it, there is copious evidence here for a more positive interpretation of Haig’s command. Entries in the diary clearly show Haig’s interest in his men, his recognition of the problems of command on the Western Front (even if he struggled to find solutions), his faith in technology and his acceptance of the need to bring in civilian expertise to manage the logistical efforts of the British army. By 1918 Haig had not only recognised that tactical manoeuvre in this war was possible only at the most junior level, but through the focus of his attention at inspections and training exercises, was clearly part of the BEF’s reinvention of itself as a skilled all arms modern force.

This volume will not, however, end debates about Haig’s character, nor convince those who continue to condemn him. They will find here evidence of Haig’s misreading of the confusion of war, of his self-belief obscuring any reasoned analysis of the reasons for failure, and of his appalling prejudices against Catholics in general and Italians, Frenchmen and Irishmen in particular.

It is for the scholar who is able to clear his or her mind of the detritus of previous interpretations of Haig’s life, that this volume will offer the greatest rewards. Read in full, rather than in excerpt, Haig’s diary gives a remarkable impression of a man of his age (his prejudices, religion and belief in technology were typical of his gender and class) struggling with the difficulties of the First World War. Haig was not a man given to introspection or self-doubt – no Alanbrookian worries over his own competence or the perils his troops were undertaking here – but he did leave a remarkably detailed account which can help us to reconstruct the past whilst avoiding psychological anachronism. As a source for understanding how Britain managed to fight the First World War, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters is invaluable. For the history of Britain in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and for British military history, it is probably the single most important publication in the past year.

Andrew Wiest’s Haig: The Evolution of a Commander is a good guide to those new to the topic. Wiest guides his readers through the mass of writing on Haig, indicating areas of controversy and providing helpful suggestions for further reading. In a book of this length and purpose there is not room for really detailed historiographical analysis: but this means that Wiest is able to sum up both what we must still call the ‘revisionist’ case and to indicate where Haig’s command should be criticised. For undergraduates, cadets, or those unable to understand what all the fuss is about, this would be a good place to start.


The First World War in stereoscope

March 20, 2006

(Thanks to Michelle Rhoades, via the Society for First World War Studies discussion list, apologies for cross posting).
A new set of First World War photos, from a private collection, posted on a French site. These images (some of which are pretty grisly) were originally produced in stereoscope.
You can see an original example on the site. The idea was to create a three dimensional effect. It might at first seem curious that anybody would want a 3-D picture of dead bodies, yet the images and viewers were an important means of imaginative participation in the war for non combatants at the time and after. Althought there was a vital line of separation between front line soldiers and civilians based on experience, we shouldn’t believe that those who didn’t fight were completely ignorant (at the time and after) of the horrors of the trenches.

Follow up to Hitting the Headlines

March 17, 2006

Great example from David Knight’s blog of hitting the (archaeological) headlines.
And this, which is obviously written by someone with little sense of chronology (or French leaders) but which is still pretty funny for anyone with experience of instant messager and online gaming.
Hat tip (or perhaps more appropriately for this site, a salute, to the latest edition of the Carnival of Bad History)

Hitting the headlines

March 17, 2006

One of the things which can frustrate/inspire/depress historians is the way that their subject is misused by the media. We can be irritated when our – vitally important – topic areas are ignored because they aren’t perceived as media-friendly. We can be driven to distraction when our topic is simplified or misrepresented (one obvious example is the lazy use of the same piece of footage or audio to represent a historical event). All of us, as practitioners of an evidence based profession, used to rigorous critical thinking, will be annoyed when we see the past being used illogically or inadequately to justify current policy (think of the resonance of ‘appeasement’), or to make a quick buck without regard to the historical record (was about to link there, but might just check with my lawyer).
I’ve long had a pipe dream of inaugurating a historical hit squad who would scrutinise the public use of the past, and point out errors and inadequacies. The web offers obvious opportunities – and to an extent this function is already carried out by Cliopatria and the Carnival of Bad History. Both of these sites, however, rely on individual research and opinion (indeed, that is a strength). Over the weekend, I was fascinated to meet an old friend who now runs a project for the NHS on evidence based practice: ‘Hitting the Headlines’. You can see daily updates in the top right hand corner here. A major problem for GPs is that news reporting of medical developments affects patient attitudes and demands – so a report of a miracle drugs will see surgeries crowded with patients demanding that treatment, whether it is useful or not. As the critically minded amongst you will know, scientific research can be presented in a multitude of different ways, and factors like sample size, blind testing, and reproducibility are all key.
What the ‘Hitting the Headlines’ website does is to assess all national newspaper reports in the medical arena, and provide the background story which will allow doctors to rate research and treatment. It therefore functions as a portal through which they can learn about the facts behind the headlines. Although it will judge how well papers reported the story, the site doesn’t make value judgements about why stories might have been misrepresented, either by the media or by industry. As a result of the nature of scientific research, it is able to assess research on a number of criteria.
This is obviously a massive undertaking, requiring a great deal of time and effort. But it seems to me to be an extraordinarily useful idea, and a great use of the net – not least because ‘Hitting the Headlines’ can not only summarise relevant research, but provide links to the studies, so that readers can judge for themselves.
My instinctual reaction was that something similar would be wonderful for history. Providing an opportunity to rate the public use of history would not only be a release valve for academics – it would encourage better public understanding and use of the past. Rather than doing this on an ad hoc basis, as currrently occurs in many reputable blogs, this is an area where a central group blog could have a purpose and a mission. History is of course a matter of discussion, opinion and debate in a way that science – it could be argued – is not. But history does have methodologies and is based on the use of evidence to back up argument. These are both rate-able.
Then reality struck. Doing this properly would take a lot of time and money. An whilst the AHRC might look on this as a worthwhile project, I’m just not sure how you’d justify it in total.
So I started thinking about how else we could use this approach. And what I’m going to work on, as an idea, is a “History in the Headlines” site to which undergraduates would have to contribute as part of a first year course. This would be a way of encouraging them to think, not only about the use of evidence and about writing for different audiences, but also about how the past is used. We actually run a joint honours History and Journalism degree, whose students might find this particularly relevant. Lots of problems to address before anything could actually happen: how to integrate it with existing teaching, how to assess it, how to ensure a quality standard. But I think the idea of a wikki-approach – a self-moderating and improving website – icone that might have wings (it could also be a way of publicising the department, which is a subject much on my mind at the moment).

Coming up: Writing War updates

All together now (in No Man’s Land?)

March 17, 2006

Quick post – more coming soon, as term finishes and UCAS forms start to play less of an all consuming part in my life – to note Mark Grimsley‘s setting up of a group blog at Mark – inspiration and guide for history bloggers and winner of a Cliopatria award – has organised a selection of eminent American Civil War scholars to post entries on a more or less rotational basis. Bearing in mind the lack of recent posts here, this seems a particularly attractive solution to bloguctivity. Running a blog is hard work – and as I’ve discussed before, it can be difficult to ensure that it becomes an academic aid rather than a hindrance or an excuse. The blogger can feel a lot of pressure – resulting either in poor posting, or no posting, or just a general increase in stress which defeats the object of the exercise. A group blog – despite the difficulties of coordination and coherence which might appear – seems to me to be one solution, combining communality of the blogosphere in a subject specific single location.
So time to think about whether it would be possible to do something similar for modern British – or specifically world war – history. The only problem I can foresee is that most of those who would be most interested in running something like this already have their own blogs, and that the quantity of instruction/re-education some of my more eminent colleagues might require could be time consuming. But actually, just writing this has made me think of a number of people who I could recruit. Term finishes in two weeks – time for more thinking then.