Using the war

October 26, 2006

In response to Chris’s comment on the post below, I thought I might post up another chunk of my draft chapter. Again, I think that this needs some more work- particularly, I think there is a valid point to be made about the use of some aspects of ‘revisionism’ to justify a neo-con agenda. But my basic argument stands.

Particularly with regard to long-running arguments about British generalship, what should be stressed is the degree to which public opinion has become locked in an ‘oppositional discourse’. This is one of those historical fields – like appeasement – where the even moderately informed layperson automatically attaches the word debate. It is assumed that controversy and argument will arise, and indeed some members both of the academy and the general public have responded to such challenges by repeating the ‘Donkeys’ myth with more vehemence – strengthened in their conviction by the fact that such incompetence is being covered up by that murky figure, the Establishment. Those who would seek to popularise the still developing military history of the war face the problem that engaging with these debates – as they must do if their voices are to be heard at all – tends to confirm both sides in the views they already hold, rather than moving on the subject as a whole. To give an example, the National Army Museum’s 2006 Somme exhibition – which in itself sought to present a wide variety of different interpretations and experiences of the battle – was advertised with a leaflet setting it in the context of debates about generalship, with the strapline: ‘Where over 300,000 lie dead, where do you stand?’[1]

This oppositional discourse is significant in the relationship between the depiction of the First World War and contemporary events. Looking back at previous representations of the war, it is sometimes possible to see a strong connection between creative intention and contemporary geopolitical context. Famously, the emphasis in the work of A.J.P. Taylor and Joan Littlewood on the supposedly accidental way in which the war began grew out of a conviction that this was a relevant story in the nuclear era. If incompetent posturing had produced war in 1914, it could do so again, with even more devastating consequences, in 1963.[2] Despite the interesting times in which we have lived since 2001, and the potentially tempting parallels – British troops again in Basra and Baghdad, another seemingly futile conflict – there is little evidence of the First World War being mobilised by journalists, writers or producers to inform modern Britons about the international situation. Read the rest of this entry »

The uses of memory

October 25, 2006

Thanks to Alex for his well aimed kick at my backside– I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time online due to quantity of other outputs at the moment, but I have developed a nasty tendency to post overly long comments on other people’s blogs.

By way of an indication of some of what I’m up to, here is the draft of the final paragraphs of my chapter on ‘British popular culture and the First World War’ for the collection of essays arising out of the SFWWS conference in Dublin last year. Comments – overly long or otherwise, welcomed – but remember it’s in draft, it needs some tidying, and it’s at the end.

The endurance of certain popular myths and the popularity of activities connected to the First World War suggest that they fulfil some social and cultural function. Inevitably discussion of such topics is tentative, since such functions are seldom articulated. What might we suggest is the utility of the war for modern Britons? Read the rest of this entry »


October 4, 2006

Pete Doherty offers sage words of wisdom on the war poets. Or, alternatively, drugged up prat with total absence of self control mumbles some half-remembered chunks of poems he learned at school, pretends it gets him closer to his Dad’s military experience, and is fawned over my mindless journalists as the source of all profundity. One of those. I’m not quite sure if we’re supposed to take from his lawding of Suicide in the Trenches that he too has known ‘the hell where youth and laughter go’ – but if he’s genuinely equating getting nabbed by the police in some East End crackhouse with the trenches of the Western Front, then all I can say is that he can go ————- (deleted on grounds of hygiene and physical impossibility)

Doherty will be reading the poem as part of a celebration of National Poetry Day, which is tomorrow. The theme of the day is ‘Identity’ – so I think there is an interesting case to be made here about how that limited selection of the war poets taught in British schools do get incorporated into ‘identity’ both individually – no-one like a teenager for enjoying a poem about being alienated – and nationally. But relying on a couple of Sassoon and Owen poems to tell you about war is a bit like relying on Hallmark to tell you about love.

Damn – major esprit d’escalier moment there. Obviously I should have said that last sentence in the course of my interview this morning for ‘Things We Forgot to Remember’ (see post below). As part of my – to use Mark Grimsley’s phrase ‘Education of a Talking Head’ – it was interesting. Had a great time describing Haig’s memorial service. But speaking in sentences and paragraphs can be harder than it seems. Sometimes felt myself going off into waffle. That was okay, though, once I realised that I could say – ‘sorry, we need to do that again’. A couple of times I felt myself walking on thin ice. Very disconcerting to see presenter and producer suddenly nodding enthusiastically and making encouraging hand movements and to think ‘What did I just say?’ And of course the problem is that I spend far too long thinking about some of this stuff, so can be hard to remember what people who know nothing about it will find interesting. I have a feeling that i did ‘texture’ – descriptions of crowds in 1928, or 137 Bde on Riqueval Bridge – pretty well, I’m not sure if my analysis came across so clearly. And found myself at the end saying that the big thing people should remember about reactions to the First World War is that they were complicated. Well, uh, dur!

I’d like to thank the academy…

October 2, 2006

A busy time of year: so a post to let everyone know that I’m doing more than cancelling seminars at the moment.

First, of course, it’s the start of term. That means it’s busy, with lots of new students to meet and lots of names to remember. Although I only run one undergraduate course at the moment, I lecture on two others, which are team taught. Perhaps predictably, I ended giving the first lecture on those as well. This got me back up to speed quickly I guess, but I always forget just how exhausting performing history is. But my classes this year seem bright and keen (well, it is only the first week) and my MA seminar has more students in it than ever before. And I have a new PhD student, about whom more anon.

Second, I’m trying to finish writing a chapter about the run up to the Second World War in Britain. After a summer of grappling with a huge reading list on appeasement, I’m struggling with trying to condense it down into something worth reading. And struggling even more because I’ve realised, in the course of the reading, that actually I want to devote as much space to British preparations (official and unofficial, physical and mental) for the war as I do to more traditional concerns about Chamberlain and foreign policy. I’m particularly interested in the effect, and lack of effect, of British conceptions of ‘modern’ (ie total) war. And I think that this is an area which tends to get left out of more popular histories. Read the rest of this entry »