The Great War between History and Memory

May 7, 2007

Draft review for Biography

Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between History and Memory in the 20th Century (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006), 352p, ISBN: 9780300110685, £20.00.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, the interaction between war and culture became a major issue of historical interest. Historians of that century’s great conflicts are now as likely to study representation and imagination as wartime events themselves. The result has been a more complex understanding of how cultures were mobilised, how wars affected individuals and societies over the long term, and how key cultural artefacts were produced and preserved. Jay Winter has been a key figure in this historical movement, from his original work on socialism and the First World War, through a groundbreaking study of the war’s demographic impact on Britain, through to more recent works on the ways in which it was remembered. His self-evident passion, his breadth of reference and his intellectual originality, have served to inspire a legion of graduate students (myself amongst them). Rather like, in an earlier age, Basil Liddell Hart, Winter is now at the centre of his own world wide web, formed from his interactions with experts, opponents, colleagues and students. Read the rest of this entry »

Steady the Buffs

April 25, 2007

A draft review of Mark Connelly’s new book for the Journal for Army Historical Research. Full disclosure – I count Mark as a friend, as well as esteeming him as a scholar. But this is a good book that you should read if you’re interested in the British army in the twentieth century.

Mark Connelly, Steady the Buffs! A Regiment, a Region and the Great War (Oxford, OUP, 2006), 296pp, £55.00 ISBN-10: 0-19-927860-1

We will all have in our minds an image of what we expect a regimental history to be like. Produced by approved authors to honour the dead and protect the guilty, they track long gone battalions in and out of battle, laying out simple narratives that perpetuate proud traditions. Squat, broad shouldered volumes, bound in deep red, green or brown, they were often written for and sold to the veterans who knew how to decipher the more obscure references. Even when they have spent their lives on the library shelf, these volumes retain the aroma of the second hand bookshop.

Mark Connelly’s book, whilst billed as a regimental history, is something rather different. Steady the Buffs uses a detailed study of four battalions (one regular, three New Army) of the East Kent Regiment to explore, illuminate and revise current historical understanding of the British Army on the Western Front. Connelly has plainly developed considerable pride in the regiment, but this does not overwhelm his critical faculties (although this might be suggested by the emotional Preface). Instead, this book makes a significant contribution to the history of the BEF by testing out more general theories against specific experience.

In chronologically and thematically organised chapters, Connelly examines the formation and make-up of the Buffs battalions, their adjustment to the particular tactical and technological conditions of the Western Front, the process by which they learned from their experiences in 1916, and the way these lessons were applied in 1917 and reached their apogee (at least in offence) in 1918. He also supplies an extremely useful set of statistics, both in his conclusion and appendices, detailing casualties, enlistment details and actions. These should be a model against which other scholars should find material for comparison.

Whilst the experience of each battalion varied, certain key points stand out. Contrary to a popular image of the First World War as one drawn out charnel house, the most intense combat was comparatively rare. Most battalions could have pointed to a small number of days of success or disaster: a point which itself raises interesting points for historians of learning and of unit commemoration. When things went wrong, as they did for 6th and 8th Buffs at Loos in 1915, modern weapons could inflict devastating casualties in a matter of minutes. The unfortunate 6th suffered again when they were thrown into a misconceived attack on Ovillers on 3 July 1916. Yet when they attacked again, precisely a month later, towards Mouquet Farm near Thiepval, better planning and preparation allowed them reasonable success. The battalion’s use of patrols and bombers on this occasion is just one example of the unit-level learning that took place on the Somme – indeed, for all the Buffs battalions Connelly examines, that long campaign stands out as the key moment for grasping the essential pre-requisites for tactical triumph on the Western Front. The speed of learning was sometimes remarkable – for example, between 15 and 25 September 1916 1st Buffs greatly improved their use of machine guns. Not all the factors required for victory were, of course, within the control of individual units. In some ways, therefore, the latter half of the war reads here as a struggle between battalion commanders and the vagaries of the tasks they were assigned, the artillery support they were allocated, the weapons and supplies available to them, and the weather, as well as the enemy.

Despite the losses they occasionally suffered, the Buffs succeeded in maintaining considerable continuity in approach and ethos, even when they had to deal with a large influx of raw recruits in 1918. Amongst the means by which this was achieved were the exchange of regular officers and the commissioning of NCOs between battalions. Connelly’s research bears out the idea that as the war went on, responsibility increasingly devolved to more junior commanders. They proved well able to use the growing range of technology available to them to solve the tactical impasse of early twentieth century warfare. Whilst the Buffs generally depended on decent artillery support to ensure tactical success, by the end of the war they were on occasion able to achieve local victories with their own weapons systems. The automatic firepower available to them by the end of the war was immense: the attack order for 1st Buffs on 8 October 1918 specified the use of fifty Lewis guns per company (a figure which caused me to check with the author, and which suggests that the companies can have carried little other equipment). A side effect of this tactical responsibility was that, although average daily casualties for Buffs Other Ranks reduced over the course of the war, those for junior officers increased.

Connelly’s writing is clear and precise. He does not hold back from condemning more senior officers and command structures when they were plainly at fault, but he is sensitive to the pressures afflicting battlefield commanders. The analysis he provides rescues him on those occasions when – almost inevitably – he risks falling into the syntax of the war diary. His ability to summarise not only the passage of the war, but a mass of secondary historical literature, is enormously impressive. Steady the Buffs is therefore accessible to a wide audience, including non-specialists, and I would feel happy using it with undergraduates as well as recommending it very strongly to all First World War, well, buffs.

If faults are to be found, they are generally in scope and format. Despite its sub-title, this is not really a book about the region of Kent during the Great War. Connelly’s focus is, quite rightly, on the battlefields of France and Flanders, rather than back in Britain. The reaction of Kentish society to the shock of the First World War, and whether this affected the experience and attitudes of the soldiers who fought in their county regiment, is not covered in depth. To include this would, however, have made this a different book, a much larger and perhaps less immediately useful one. A similar justification can be applied to the restriction to the Western Front. Even so, it would be good to see a regimental study that applied the ideas we have developed about the BEF to other Expeditionary Forces, and to those battalions which spent the world war at home.

A final criticism relates to a matter over which the author can have had little control and which must cause him no small irritation. For a hardback volume under three hundred pages, with good maps but with only seven, non-glossy, illustrations, a price of £55.00 is too high. Given the popular market surrounding the First World War, it is hard to understand. It would be a real shame if this price point restricted the dissemination of what is, by any measure, an excellent book.

The Fire

March 22, 2007

Jörg Friedrich’s book The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, was first published in Germany in 2002. In 2006, it was published in an English translation (by Allison Brown) by Columbia University Press. The Fire consists of seven sections: Weapon, Strategy, Land, Protection, We, I and Stone. These chart the development of aerial attack on Germany during the Second World War, the counter-measures undertaken by authorities, the experience of those under attack and the destruction wreaked upon cities and culture. The book received extensive publicity when it came out in Germany: according to the Columbia blurb, it features ‘meticulous research’ into a strategy the wisdom of which ‘has never been questioned’. At the end of last year, we — Brett Holman and Dan Todman — received unsolicited copies for review. Despite some anxieties about the implications of such a marketing strategy (for the profession as a whole and for individual careers), we decided to collaborate on a review in the form of a conversation, which we’ll post at Airminded and Trench Fever and highlight at Cliopatria and Revise and Dissent.
Read the rest of this entry »

Between memory and history

September 7, 2006

Currently reading my former supervisor Jay Winter’s book Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century (Yale UP, 2006). I’ve been asked to review it, which is obviously both a pleasure and a challenge. As very often with Jay – and I don’t think he’d mind me saying this – there are details on which we wouldn’t agree. But, again, as very often, I’m happy to overlook those not just because such disagreements are part of academic camaraderie, but because the eventual outcome is so exciting. For me, Jay’s greatest feature as a supervisor was his inspirational capacity – because of his self-evident enthusiasm for the subject and because he’d make me think about my topic in new ways. Both of these are evident in abundance in this book, which is not just an exploration of the memory and remembrance of war, but in some ways a call to arms. Two quick blasts:

(5-6) ‘History is a profession with rules about evidence, about publication, about peer review. Memory is a process distinct from history, though not isolated from it. All historians leave traces in their work of their own pasts, their own memories. And many laymen and women who engage in acts of remembrance read history and care about it. Sometimes they reshape their own memories to fit with history; at other times, they are certain that they have the story right, and historians who say otherwise – whatever the evidence they produce – are wrong. History and memory overlap, infuse each other, and create vigorous and occasionally fruitful incompatibilities. In this book I take the writing and teaching of history to be an act of collective remembrance, of a different order than other such acts, because of the rules which govern it. History is not simply memory with footnotes; and memory is not simply history without footnotes.’

(203) ‘The challenge is clear: at a time of stagnant or limited academic audiences, public audiences have never been larger. Part of the source of this interest is the memory boom itself… While the profession of history us under financial constraints in the universities, it has a clear avenue to expand. The audience is there, the public service is there. But the means to arrive at the destination challenges cherished assumptions of our profession: namely, that what we do is individual; and that the “authorial voice” is the core of our enterprise. But even if individualism is worshiped as the sine qua non of wisdom, there is still room to share our profession with another kind of colleague, the public historian, who speaks primarily to society at large, and does so as part of a group of scholars and other professionals working together.’

I’ll post up a draft of the full review when I write it.

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.