We interrupt this programme…

Before I continue with my thoughts on last week’s conference, here is the poster for the next in the Legacies of War series that I am helping to organise:

The turn-out for Krisztina’s paper was excellent and we are hoping for a similar showing for what promises to be a fascinating talk.

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Commemorating War

Unlike most weekends, which are spent ferrying the children to swimming lessons and singing classes while trying to catch up with the housework, I spent most of the past weekend at a fascinating workshop on commemorating war which brought together a number of military and naval historians to discuss ideas about the upcoming commemorations for 2014-18. (And lest you think my house is now a complete tip, my husband got on with the chores, so actually it looks somewhat cleaner than it normally does on a Monday.)

There was far too much discussed to cover in one post, so I will be coming back to what was discussed over a very intense day and a half, but one of the most interesting discussions resulted from Gary Sheffield’s talk on ‘Jay Winter and the Commemoration of the First World War.’ Following a brief survey of Jay’s work, Gary then looked at the legacy of his theories and the implications for 2014-18.

Now, a small disclaimer: Jay supervised my undergraduate thesis and my MPhil and was a huge influence on my decision to pursue an academic career. One of his influences on the study of the First World War has been a concerted effort to bring military and cultural historians of the war together in dialogue, an aim that I hope influences my work. Certainly I do strive to balance my love of social and cultural history with an awareness of the military details that shaped the trends I explore, which is why I am currently going so deeply into the history and organization of the RAMC at the moment. Gary’s main point, however, was that Jay’s idea of the memory boom helps to reemphasize victimhood as central to our understanding of the war, something that, he pointed out, has been picked up on in Cameron’s announcement of national plans for commemoration. The dates chosen are those of battles that are interpreted primarily as defeats, with no mention of the final campaign (the 100 days) which one the Allies the war, a fact which prompted a letter from the Western Front Association to the Independent. (Scroll down). In addition (a point I had not picked up on before), the school visits being funded are to soldiers’ graves, not battlefields which places the emphasis not merely on victimhood but sacrifice. Gary’s point was that children won’t actually be getting a sense of what the war was like by walking the landscape of battle but it also raises the point of whether those who survived the war are to be commemorated. Having worked extensively on the history of disability and the war, I am all too aware of how little is remembered and understood of those who returned to civil society, many wounded in body and mind, and who struggled to reintegrate. The majority succeeded, but not, I would hazard, without significant cost. Their stories are seldom told.

It was fascinating to hear a critique of the announced plans from the perspective of military history, and a reminder that military and cultural historians are often trying to tell a similar story, albeit from differing perspectives, and raise similar concerns about the way in which we remember and commemorate the war. The problems that we all, as historians, face in making these concerns public was the subject of an equally interesting presentation by the historian of the South African War, Professor Fransjohan Pretorius, who was involved with the commemorations in South Africa a decade ago. But that talk was itself rich enough that I think I had better return to it in another post.

The best laid plans

Well, I was supposed to be going to the gym today, and making a start in Special Collections with various histories of the R.A.M.C. which are held there.  The gym plan foundered on the fact that I have left my trainers at home.  The library plan has gone west due to the fact that I have also left my netbook behind, making note-taking an extremely laborious process, and something of a redundant one as I will, at some point, have to transfer any notes taken on to a computer anyway.

I can’t actually say I am sorry to be missing the gym.  It is a grim, drizzly Monday and the thought of trudging off in this weather to put my body through half an hour of discomfort does not appeal greatly.  The missed library trip is a bit more troublesome.  I reached something of a crisis point at the end of last week when I realised that I currently know more about the history of both the Red Cross (British and International) and the St John Ambulance Brigade in the first two decades of the twentieth century than I do about the R.A.M.C. in that period.  I do know that, after the debacle in South Africa, there were major reforms, associated with Haldane’s other army reforms, but I definitely need more detail on this if I am to properly understand the place of the R.A.M.C. within the wider military structure.  This is vital at the moment as I am struggling to get to grips with the differences between non-combatance and neutrality in relation to the medical services, and the extent to which various medical services were answerable to a national military force as opposed to a wider humanitarian mission.  If I am to have any understanding of the role of voluntary services during the war, I need to have a much better understanding of the political position of the army medical services first.  Actually, it might not be a bad idea to get a sense of the place of the military as a whole in British society, so if anyone can recommend a good history of the Haldane reforms, please do let me know.

In the meantime, lack of portable computing (or at least portable computing with a decent keyboard) means I will be hunkering down in my office with 700 pages on the history of the International Red Cross and a book review to write.  There are worse ways to spend a drizzly day, I suppose.

Politicians and Generals

I have spent the weekend trying to get to grips with why I feel so uncomfortable about David Cameron’s announcement of £50 million toward the centenary commemorations of the war.  On the face of it, all his announcements are self-evidently Good Things – more money for the Imperial War Museum (still one of my favourite archives if only for the irony of reading about war under a burnished 10 Commandments in the reading room that used to be part of the hospital chapel), school visits to the battle fields, additional funding for local history groups, a focus on memory and commemoration.

So why am I not embracing this announcement wholeheartedly?  I have come to the conclusion that it is mainly due to the steering committee that was announced, filled as it is primarily with former servicemen and politicians.  Yes, Hew Strachan is an excellent representative of the community of First World War historians in Britain, and Sebastian Faulks seems a sensible choice to represent the arts, although I am sure there are plenty of others who would be just as appropriate.  But they are so far outnumbered by ex-servicemen as to raise the question of what the steering group believes these are commemorations of.  Are we going to see commemoration the war as a total war, one that influenced every facet and stratum of society, not just in terms of mourning (as is usually commented on) but also in terms of changing attitudes, new forms of work and service and technological developments?  Or are we going to have commemorations limited to the Armed Services?  How much of the focus is going to be on this particular conflict and how much on the service and sacrifice of all British (and Imperial/Commonwealth) forces since then?

My other source of unease is the fact that no reference at all was made to the work that universities around the country have been doing for several years now and will continue to do for the next six years.  Yes, many of these projects come under the aegis of the IWM’s First World War Centenary Partnership but so do many of the Heritage Lottery funded local history projects that get a name-check.  I am acutely aware that the Legacies of War project, one which is partnering similar local initiatives, has taken two years of hard work to get off the ground.  A similar amount of time has been spent at the University of Newcastle developing an international network of research into children’s experiences of war in the early twentieth century.  Birmingham and Kent are both centres of research excellence for First World War studies.  And the International Society for First World War Studies, now in its eleventh year, was founded by two academics based in Britain.  There is a wealth of passion and expertise to be tapped in our research institutions in this country, equal to that of the local history groups who will, quite rightly, be contributing so much to the commemorations, passion and expertise which Cameron, in his announcement seems to ignore.  Hopefully it can be used fully by the Centenary Partnership and those of us who make our living out studying the Great War can demonstrate the leading role that British academics have played and continue to play in the study of the First World War.

Oh, and the award for most fatuous comment must go to General Lord Dannatt, quoted in The Times as saying, ‘This needs to be the start of an education programme on the history of the events that led to the outbreak of the war, to make sure it never happens again.’  Given the number of conflicts to engulf the world since 1918, I suspect that ship has sailed.

Age and Class

I am currently supposed to be writing an article on the politics of voluntary medical services in wartime but keep on being distracted by thoughts about age and class in relation to wartime masculinity.

Class:
‘Indeed, to the end of his life the Dean never really understood what work it meant to run a house, a college, or a camp efficiently. All through his life meals appeared, rooms were cleaned, beds were made, clothes were washed and mended, and he took this for granted.’ (P. Pare and D. Harris, Eric Milner-White 1884-1963, A Memoir (London, 1965) quoted in E. Madigan, Faith Under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Palgrave, 2011).)

Milner-White served as an army chaplain during the war, hence Madigan’s interest in him, but the point he is making about the class background of the majority of Anglican chaplains (public school and university educated, middle to upper class social millieu) and the sense of entitlement that this bred applies equally to a great number of other men who served in combatant roles during the war, as Madigan himself notes. The idea that these men might not have known how to run a camp, because that sort of organizational work was something that others did, is quite a startling one. It is forcing me to ask who had the sort of organizational and logistics skills to make the army function in wartime (I am starting to believe the old soldiers’ theory that the NCOs really did run everything) and to return to Ross McKibbin’s endlessly fascinating discussion of the stratification of social class in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998) for a reminder of the complexities of the British class system in the first half of the twentieth century.  It is easy to talk about the ‘middle classes’ and assume that we know what we mean by that (usually ourselves) but applying that label historically takes some careful thought, something I will admit I haven’t been taking enough care with recently.  I tend to focus on continuities in my work, ways in which social and cultural assumptions have not changed that much over time despite all the great historical event of the last hundred or so years, or at least have developed from a common base that remains recognizable today. It is very healthy to be reminded that some things have changed enormously and that getting to grips with why those changes occurred and what the implications might be is part of my job.

Age:
And then this morning I received an e-mail from my colleague asking if I could recommend any studies on the experiences of middle-aged men during the war. And I can’t. Age was a hugely important aspect of the recruitment process in Britain during the war and had profound influence on ideas of appropriate service and, consequently, masculinity during the war years. (It was also hugely influential in ideas about shell shock, something I am exploring for a paper I hope to give at a conference in the spring.) Yet, while underage volunteerism has been discussed fairly extensively in the literature, I can think of no study of those too old to serve. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of over-aged men who volunteered, and many did serve in non-combatant roles (including those being studied by my colleague who contributed to the logistics effort). But there is no systematic academic analysis that I can think of. If anyone can suggest any, I would be profoundly grateful as this is something that I am going to have to look into in more depth, if only because I suspect a number of the orderlies and ambulance drivers I am studying fit into this category.

And, after that digression, I return to the politics of the British Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Shameless promotion

Time for a bit of promotion of various things that I and my friends and relations have been involved in.

First of all, on the academic end of things, I am co-organising a seminar series with a couple of postgraduate students here at Leeds University. Our first speaker is Krisztina Robert from Roehampton University who will be talking about relations between women’s auxiliary groups and the military.

And at the more popular end, and just to prove that historical tendencies do run in families, here is an introduction to the war written by my cousin, Raoul Meyer. It is a bit problematic in its claims about machine guns v. artillery and is very Fussellian in its literary interpretation, which I do take some issue with, but it is very, very good on the global nature of the conflict. Watch and learn.

Finally, totally unrelated to the First World War, can I recommend my friend’s blog The Lion, The Witch and the Bookcase?  She writes beautifully and inspiringly about children’s literature, a pet obsession of mine.  Well worth checking out.

A Final Parade

Yes, I know it is over a week since the final episode of Parade’s End was broadcast.  I won’t go into the reasons why I haven’t had a chance to see it before this weekend, except to say that infant sleep patterns were definitely involved.  But I did, finally, watch it, so here are my concluding thoughts on programme.

Let me start by saying that I thought they did a pretty decent job of the trench scenes.  The scene in the dugout with the C.O. was particularly brilliant, capturing the surreality of the war that I think has tended to get lost in more recent representations of the war.  Since Blackadder Goes Forth the tendency has been to merge surreality and satire – the war is mad therefore we must mock it.  This was just pure surreality, without point or purpose, and all the more moving for it.

There was one major source of irritation for me, however, and that was the depiction of the stretcher bearers who appeared twice, once with an empty stretcher, once with an injured man on board.  In both instances the stretcher was carried by two men, one at each end, the typical image of stretcher bearers in the war, you might say.  Except it must be born in mind that First World War stretchers were immensely heavy objects made of wood and canvass, not the lighter metal ones that were used in later conflicts.  They were a struggle to carry empty; loaded with the dead weight of an injured man, usually wearing his heavy clothing and gear, they needed a minimum of four men (one at each corner) and in heavy going like Ypres in 1917 required six.  In fact, as George Swindell, an R.A.M.C. stretcher bearer, noted on several occasions in his memoirs, untrained bearers (those not in the R.A.M.C.) almost always carried six to a stretcher because they didn’t have the practice and training to do so more efficiently.  In the front line, stretchers would be carried by regimental bearers, infantry men told off for stretcher duty from front line to Regimental Aid Post (RAP), rather than R.A.M.C. bearers who generally carried men from the RAP to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).  So in Parade’s End there should have been at least two and most probably four additional bearers for that loaded stretcher for authenticity.  Now that directors seem to be more willing to show the trenches as angled rather than straight, I am starting a new campaign to get them to employ the appropriate number of bearers in their films!

Despite the bearer problem there were brilliant moments in this episode. The scene describing Tietjens, McKechnie and Perowne going up to the line was a masterclass in succinct and spot-on dramatic adaptation, and Roger Allam’s face at the very end, when Sylvia propositions General Campion was perfection.  Allam has been a revelation throughout, and this moment was beautifully done.

I did, however, have some broader reservations.  I’m not sure the final scene worked.  It was too slow and the music too sentimental to capture the sheer joy and relief that book evokes.  There is a tendency to forget  that, behind the lines, the reactions of many, particularly the young, to the Armistice were euphoric, even bacchanalian in some instances. (Dan Todman has an excellent discussion of this, and its cultural impact, in The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon & London: 2005)). Ford captures the immense sense of release beautifully in the final pages of A Man Could Stand Up -. Stoppard and White, I think, lost some of that by sexing the scene up and slowing it down.

I am also in two minds over the wisdom of the decision of simply eliminating The Last Post from the adaptation.  Given Ford’s own later reservations about the novel, and the immense difficulties that I imagine would be involved in adapting the most difficult of the four novels, it probably does make sense.  But I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Christopher and Valentine at this point in their story.  It did feel a little incomplete.

So, in the end, an excellent adaptation beautifully acted but with some problems inherent to any dramatic adaptation of a superb set of novels.  Now I just have to make the time to reread the books…