Statement of Intent 1

Well, I ended up not watching Who Do You Think You Are? After a two-hour struggle with my daughter, whose molars are making their presence felt, followed by three hours of insomnia, by 9 pm the following day I was in no fit state to do anything more than collapse into bed.
In my long dark teatime of the soul, however, it did occur to me that following my comments on mud, blood and futility, a brief overview of my position as a First World War historian might not come amiss. Let me say first of all that I am not a military historian. I am first and foremost a social and cultural historian (emphasis generally on the cultural), a gender historian and, increasingly, a historian of medicine. My time period happens to be the First World War, so while I might call myself a First World War historian I am less interested in the specifics of strategy, tactics, arms or logistics except in as much as they are vital to questions of discipline, morale and what is generally referred to as ‘war experience’. Most ‘proper’ military historians would certainly not classify me among their number, and I have had my work sneered upon at least one occasion as not even being proper history, let alone military history. I am, however, from the generation of First World War historians that hopes to be learning from the previous generation, one which too often divided itself into ‘military’ and ‘cultural’ strands and then refused to speak to each other. Thankfully, major historians such as Adrian Gregory, Brian Bond and John Horne has striven to bridge the divide and those of us who have had the privilege of learning from them are increasingly demonstrating that integrating the two approaches to First World War history is incredibly fruitful. Thus military historians are widening their scope of understanding to include facets of war experience that extend beyond the confines of the battlefield, while cultural historians are honing their arguments through a more rigorous understanding of strategy, tactics, logistics and the like.
So, although, as I say, I would never classify myself as a military historian, I am a historian of war and, to the best of my ability, I attempt to underpin my cultural analyses with a solid understanding of the technical and strategic realities of warfare. As far as my current project is concerned, this means that, in addition to asking questions about what medical service meant to the individuals who served and how they constructed masculine identity, I am interested in recruitment, training and the practicalities of life serving in a Field Ambulance as opposed to a Base Hospital as opposed to a Home Hospital. Questions of military organization (which is turning out to be remarkably political when it comes to the medical services) and logistics are of particular importance.
The other way in which this desire to fuse military and cultural history influences my work is in my status as part of the ‘revisionist’ school of First World War historians. And here we get back to mud, blood and futility, the more traditional and popular view of the war. This argues that the war was the slaughter of a generation of young men by the elders, that all the generals were donkeys sending their lion-hearted men to the slaughter in pointless battles, that all soldiers suffered throughout the four years and that those who survived refused to talk about it when they got back because it was all so horrible. The revisionist position is that the war was neither futile nor a complete disaster. It was fought for a purpose, to stop German hegemony in Europe which would have been the hegemony of an autocracy, and while there were disastrous aspects and individual battles, lessons were learned over the course of the four plus years, the so-called ‘learning curve’. Nor was the experience for all and without exception entirely and unremittingly horrible, as my own work has shown. For many men who fought it was a formative experience in their lives, often terrifying, uncomfortable and sad, but also (and for many of the same men) exhilarating, exciting and fascinating. Morale in the British Army remained remarkably strong throughout, something which could not have happened if the experience was as consistently bleak as some portrayals would make it appear. And the huge number of memoirs, published and unpublished, of First World War experience seem to indicate that men were willing, even eager, to talk about their experiences. Whether British society, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the war when bereavement dominated cultural discourse, was willing to listen to them is another question.  None of this is said to imply that no one had horrific experiences or refused to talk or to denigrate those individual perspectives.  Disillusionment and horror were common and valid reactions to war experience, and grief was pretty much universal.  But they were not the only reactions to the war, and for some men not even the dominant ones.  And many of those who did experience the war in part as muddy, bloody and futile also found compensations in the comradeship and strength, both physical and emotional, that they discovered in others and themselves.
As far as my current project is concerned, the revisionist arguments about the learning curve seem to be applicable to military medicine as well as strategy and tactics. Certainly Mark Harrison argues that from 1916 both the logistics of evacuation and the medical treatments of various types of illness and wounds developed rapidly on the Western Front, although he points out that other fronts were much less successful in applying lessons learned. It will be interesting to see if this argument holds true for the training and employment of support staff and what influence it had on their level of expertise and morale as the war progressed.

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