Birmingham Conference Report

Rather than trying to report on all of the lectures and papers at Birmingham, I thought I’d post about four of them, to give a flavour of the conference to those that weren’t there and because these were the ones that struck me at the time.

In the afternoon on Tuesday 1 September, there were papers from two scholars still engaged on doctoral study, Jonathan Boff (Kings) and Dennis Williams (Birmingham). Jonathan spoke to us about Command and Control in Third Army during the Hundred Days. He’s gathered a lot of very interesting statistical data on the length of time the holders of key posts within Third Army and its subordinate units had been in post by the summer of 1918, and some good qualitative information about the difficulties of adapting to open warfare – and the reluctance of some officers to do so. Dennis talked to us about the Second Army in Flanders during the same period – often a forgotten formation because it wasn’t making quite the dramatic advances that its counterparts were, thanks not least to the terrible state of the ground. Dennis emphasised to us both the part played by liberation in the experience of Second Army soldiers (they were freeing Belgians from German occupation) and that this was coalition warfare, with a multinational force posing problems of command and control.

What I really liked about both these papers was the way that they restored texture to the past. These detailed studies really demonstrated the ‘forgotten’ nature of what happens in 1918 (however much you think or don’t think it was a victory, what seems undisputable is that it has been sorely absent from the list of historical studies). Jonathan Boff in particular indicated the dangers of a simplistic, Whiggish approach to the narrative of improving effectiveness within the BEF, by quoting the introduction Gary Sheffield and I wrote to Command and Control on the Western Front. There is no more exciting feeling for a historian than to be told – pleasantly – that you got it wrong or that you didn’t get it right enough. This is the sensation of the subject moving forward.

What both these scholars also demonstrated was the way in which the military history of the First World War has moved on in this country over the last twenty years. Their work is rooted in material in British archives, but both took it as a matter of course that they would have to look at files in other European countries as well, and made use of a number of different forms of source. In a commentary on Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory in the 1990s, Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior suggested it was time for British First World War history to come out of its protracted adolescence – its obsession with personalities, its reliance on a narrow range of memoirs, its perpetual refighting of old battles. Studies like Jonathan’s and Dennis’ indicate that the subject is now in early adulthood at least.

On Wednesday, I was interested by two non-land papers. Stephen Prince, of the Naval Historical Branch, crammed a huge amount into his paper on the Royal Navy’s part in victory. Stephen’s maps of shipping routes and resources drawn on by the Empire struck me particularly because I’ve been trying to work on similar things for the Second World War. But I was also made to think about the degree of logistic flexibility that naval dominance gave to the Allies in 1918 – a counterpart to the blockade that I hadn’t considered before. Then, retired Air Vice Marshal Peter Dye, of the RAF Museum, talked us through the logistic basis of British airpower in 1918. This was fascinating material – Peter situated his discussion in terms of the ‘birth of modern warfare’, but his point seemed to me to be that the logistic processes necessary to sustain the complex and varied equipment of airpower were ‘modern’ in far wider terms. The systems of stock control and reverse logistics that sustained the RAF had relevance far beyond the battlefield. Here is an excellent example of why cultural and military historians need to keep talking to each other – what better way to reinvigorate the debate about modernity and the First World War?

A final point, unrelated to these fantastic papers.

The only thing that concerns me slightly about the way 1918 is increasingly becoming celebrated as a British victory (and this cuts across what I wrote earlier about the way research has improved), is the degree to which it excludes other nations’ experience of the First World War. I have a fear that, in trying to sell the idea that the ‘Forgotten Victory’ needs to be better remembered, military historians as a group (myself included) have fallen too easily into a rhetoric that can be portrayed in nationalist terms. With its technology, heroism and triumph over Johnny Foreigner, 1918 is ripe for Clarksonisation. However much that might help us get access to the media, that’s a temptation we need to avoid.

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