From the archives

I have had now had over a week to assimilate the material I gathered from my week in the Wellcome Library and very useful it is turning out to be too.  Of course, I called up a four-volume collection of magazines from the 5th London General Hospital in Wandsworth at 10:30 on my final morning which are filled with stories of hospital life, etchings by C.R.W. Nevinson, who happened to serve as an orderly there until 1915, and the most amazing series of cartoons starring the figure of ‘The Orderlim’ (as opposed to the ‘Orderlette’, female orderlies who were drafted in to replace some male orderlies in 1915).  I was only able to finish about a quarter of the collection, so now I am panting to get back, something that unfortunately won’t happen until the summer at the earliest.

There was a lot more material as well, including the memoirs of two nursing orderlies which were slightly unexpected as they were listed in the catalogue as ‘Field Ambulance stretcher bearers’.  Similarly a man who was initially enlisted as a nursing orderly trained for work with a sanitary unit before embarking for Egypt, a vital role, but one that made for rather dull reading in his diary records of the repetitive disinfection of ambulance train carriages.  I was struck by the extent of this category slippage, which presents me with something of a problem.

The slippage, I suspect, exists not only within roles of within the RAMC but also between combat and non-combat roles. Non-commissioned servicemen in the RAMC were subject to regular comb-outs throughout the war, especially as the manpower shortages grew more acute from 1917.  In the other direction, combat servicemen whose injuries left them at a lower medical classification could find themselves assigned to non-combatant (including medical) roles.  So for many individuals combatant and non-combatant roles both formed part of their service, something that is going to complicate my analysis.  It will also, I suspect, make it harder for me to track down relevant archives as I imagine that most catalogue listings will give precedence to any combat role taken, at whatever stage in the individual’s service.  I will just have to hope for as much good fortune with the archive as I had at the Wellcome!

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Talking about Mary Beard…

So I have spent quite a lot of time this past weekend thinking about the controversy that has surrounded Mary Beard for the past couple of weeks.  For those who are unaware of it, Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge and public intellectual.  A couple of weeks ago she appeared on Question Time, a current affairs programme in which a panel of politicians, journalists and others discuss questions posed by the audience.  Guests are often chosen for their potential conflict, although this being the BBC, said conflict rarely gets beyond eloquent (and not-so-eloquent) disagreement and polite put-downs.  The most controversial guest on the night in question was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, a political party that wants Britain to leave the European Union and generally dislikes what it sees as an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe consequent to that membership.

I didn’t actually watch the programme (the frustration of yelling at the television on a regular basis is not worth whatever intellectual gain I might make from hearing opinions spoken that generally appear in other media anyway), but apparently a question was asked relating to the effects of immigration on Boston in Lincolnshire, to which Professor Beard responded quoting a report that viewed such impact as positive.  The debate that this provoked extended from the programme itself to many other media, including a large number of extremely rude tweets and e-mails directed at Professor Beard.  Many of these were, according to Professor Beard’s own account on her blog A Don’s Life, either withdrawn or led to more polite forms of debate, but significant forms of abuse remained, including the posts on a website, Don’t Get Me Started (which has since been closed).  As Professor Beard herself explains, this abuse was vicious and graphically sexual in nature, having little relation to the topic involved and everything to do with Professor Beard’s appearance and identity as a woman.

I followed the controversy via newspaper articles (which picked up the story fairly quickly) and through Twitter, where I follow Professor Beard.  In addition to a number of interesting contributions from other women in the public sphere who have been at the receiving end of such abuse, both from the relevant website and other quarters, there have been a number of retweets of some of the abusive comments addressed to the professor.  One of these was to the effect that she should grow some balls because she was in the public eye and therefore abuse was only to be expected when she voiced unpopular opinions.  The irony of the suggestion that Professor Beard acquire male genitalia in order to protect her from abuse directed at her primarily because, as a woman, she lacks said physical attributes struck me strongly enough that I posted a reply to that effect.  It was not a particularly witty tweet and, beyond a rather incoherent response from the original commenter to the effect that David Starkey and Simon Schama showed more dignity by not talking about being abused for their views, it sunk more or less without a trace.

What set me thinking, however, was the fact that, while it took me only a couple of minutes to compose my tweet, it took me a good 15-20 minutes to decide to actually post it in a public forum.  As I say, it wasn’t particularly clever or insightful, but nor was it abusive or even unkind.  It was simply a rather sarcastic contribution to an ongoing public discussion.  Yet I was worried about posting it and, I have realised, that that worry derives in part from the fact that I am a woman.

As a published author, I have received my share of green-pen correspondence.  Fortunately they have taken the old-fashioned form of letters signed by a named individual who even gave their address.  They were extremely personal about my intellectual capabilities, which was quite upsetting, but never strayed into more personal territory, beyond the suggestion (which I have heard a number of times now) that as a woman I cannot possibly understand what it was like to be a (male) soldier in wartime.  I was fortunate to receive strong support from my editor at the time and, while very upsetting, I never felt threatened.

What Professor Beard, and many other women who speak out in the public sphere of popular media, have suffered is of another order.  The abuse is explicitly sexual and often both implicitly and explicitly violent.  What is for me the most worrying aspect are the number of threats I have read about directed towards the families of these women, including their children.  Like the sexual threats and commentary, there appears to be no equivalent aimed at men who participate in public discussion.

Which means that, as the mother of young children, I am uncomfortably aware that publishing an opinion in public may not only put me at risk of the sort of sexual commentary and threat that no individual, whatever their opinion, should be subject to, but may also lay my children open to threats of violence through absolutely no fault of their own.  This terrifies me, as it should anyone who values democracy, discussion and freedom of speech.  At the same time, as an historian working in a field that is of considerable (and soon to be increasing) public interest, I want my voice to be heard, even if the stories I have to tell may not be the ones everyone wants to hear.  Although nowhere near as eminent as Professor Beard and the many other courageous women who carry on contributing to civilised discourse in face of irrelevant abuse, I need to find the courage to carry on speaking out in public, to refuse to be silenced.

So I am glad I posted that tweet, however silly and sarcastic.  And I will carry on putting forward my views in the hopes that some day the voices of reasonable argument will drown out the abuse and threats of those who would seek to silence us, women and men alike.

Publicity

A couple of publicity (self and otherwise) notices.

The University of Leeds Legacies of War seminar series is delighted to announce that Professor Adrian Gregory will be giving the first paper of the new term on Thursday, 7th February at 5:00 in Michael Sadler Room 3.11.  He will be speaking on the topic of ‘Did God Survive the Somme?’  All are welcome.

Adrian GregoryMy review of Leo van Bergen’s Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918 appears in the latest edition of First World War Studies which also includes several interesting-looking articles.  I should be reading about the establishment of the Territorial Army in Britain, but I think I may take break and read about Old Etonians, demographics and eugenics instead, courtesy of Richard Carr and Bradley W. Hart.

A letter to Simon Russell Beale

privateson-parades_2423627bDear Mr Russell Beale,

First of all, please allow me to apologize for making such a complete idiot of myself when I saw you on Friday evening before the performance of Privates of Parade. In the first instance, it was extremely rude of me to stare at you so long and so idiotically while you enjoyed your cigarette at the stage door. Secondly, when you had the civility to say hello, for me to mutter something incomprehensible and slink off in the other direction was beyond impolite. My only excuse is that, at that stage, I did not have anything I could have said to you that would not have been more than the burblings of a long-term fan.

In all honesty, I do wish our encounter had taken place a few hours later, after I had had the privilege of seeing your hugely enjoyable performance as Terri Dennis. As a theatrical experience it was, as the reviews have said, enormously enjoyable, courageous, full of energy and life and wit. But writing as a historian of gender and warfare your performance,along with that of all the rest of the cast and Michael Grandage’s highly accomplished direction, offered a great deal of food for thought as well.

The story the play tells is, of course, one about the achievement of masculine maturity, both sexual and emotional, in a theatre (in all its many meanings) of conflict. As Steven says in the final scene, he has become a man thanks to his experiences in SADUSEA, specifically, rather than in the military more generally. But what I found far more fascinating was Terri’s attainment of a conventional masculine identity at the end, one defined not by his military status, which is so successfully undermined throughout by the campness of his demeanour, but through his marriage and impending (surrogate) fatherhood, a narrative emphasized by the modulation you brought to that closing scene.

For me, that was the most powerful theme of the entire evening, the importance of the domestic and of home to the identity of all the men involved. The scene in which letters home are opened and read is the first in which their characters become fully defined, as sons and husbands, and throughout it is through their domestic ties, former, potential, respectable and subversive, that the characters developed. Dennis’s own story of domestic tragedy was profoundly moving, a lovely counterpoint to his eventual domestic ‘respectability’.

Not that these were the only themes: the role of uniform and costume in defining masculinity, the transient power of wounding and disability in creating heroic identities and the appalling things that conflict does to warp both men and women were all powerfully evoked. In the end, I had so much to say that, had I seen you again I probably would have been no more coherent than I was on our first encounter. So all I can do is say thank you, to you and the rest of the cast, for creating a theatrical performance that had so many profound echoes of my own work and which forced me to think critically about questions of sexuality and emotion. And again to ask your forgiveness for one tongue-tied long-term fan who remains

Yours very sincerely,

Jessica Meyer

Why Am I Here?

A couple of recent comments, both on here and via e-mail, have caused me to start thinking a bit more seriously about the point of this blog. Over the past few months I have commented fairly extensively on manifestations of First World War history in the wider culture and a bit less on my own particular field of research. What was originally intended as a space for me to work out ideas relating to the history of non-commissioned members of the RAMC during the war has become a rather more general First World War blog.

I have to admit, this makes me a bit nervous. There are an awful lot of First World War buffs (in the most general sense of those interested in the war, not just pure military history obsessives) out there, and this blog is never going to be able to cater for all interests and I won’t even begin to try. I worry, however, that I spend an awful lot of time defining myself negatively as a historian. I am NOT a military historian (although I do know an increasing amount of military history as I get to grips with the complex systems of evacuation employed by the RAMC during the war). I CANNOT identify specific uniforms not am I likely to be able to help with queries about genealogical research (although I may be able to point people in the right direction). I am NOT a transnationalist and my knowledge of the non-British experience of the war is woeful, although I am hoping this will change in the not-to-distant future.

So where do all these negatives leave Arms and the Medical Man? Well, there are still plenty of positives, I hope.  I AM a cultural historian of warfare. I DO know a great deal about popular literature and the war, and an increasing amount about the medical history of the war.  I AM a gender historian which helps me locate my studies of the war in the narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I still hope to use it as a space to work out my ideas, especially now that I am starting to have more primary material to work with. I am in the Wellcome archive this week, discovering just how little there is on the work of the nursing orderly, something I am going to have to think hard about as I am due to give a paper on that very subject in two months time. And, as the centenary gets ever closer, I will carry on discussing representations of the war in British popular culture. That aspect of this blog has been the source of the greatest amount and potentially the most fruitful discussion so far. And while creating a forum for discussion about the war was not necessarily my main purpose in starting out with this blog, if that is a role that it fills (in a civilized manner, naturally) then far be it from me to resist!

On which note, here is an article that was doing the rounds last week, in case you haven’t seen it. Encouraging to have the problems of commemoration voiced by such an authoritative source, although I am not sure where we go from here. More discussion, then.

Looking Ahead

Happy New Year! I hope you have all had very merry and happy holiday seasons. Mine was lovely, marred only by sickness which struck on Boxing Day and has affected one or other member of my household ever since. Still, sore throats notwithstanding, we KBO.

Today is my first back at work since the holidays, although given the silence in the corridors, most of my colleagues have decided that this half a week is a bit pointless and have sensibly stayed away. With only one day in the office, I have mainly been concentrating on clearing my desk in preparation for the new year and, having almost succeeded (there is one proposal still to draft that is proving so intractable that I think yet another cup of tea will be needed to crack it), I thought this would a good opportunity to take a look ahead at what 2013 has to offer.

Firstly we have a great line-up of speakers for the Legacies of War seminar series. Final confirmation of titles is pending (and the full list will be posted in a week or so), but Adrian Gregory and Santanu Das have both agreed to speak, on ‘Did God Survive the Somme’ (!) and on ‘India, Empire and the First World War’. Both should be fascinating.

Before then I will be heading off to London, to the Wellcome Library where I will be on the hunt for memories of and about medical orderlies. Having had my proposal on the experiences of orderlies accepted for the Social History Society’s annual conference in March (see here for details), I am now looking for material to support the conclusions I have been drawing from reading Ward Muir’s Observations of an Orderly.  There is at least one orderly memoir at the Wellcome, plus a long list of potential manuscript sources, so it will be a busy.  I am also hoping to attend the IHR conference on open access, The Finch Report, open access and the historical community while I am there (there is a waiting list).

Also coming up is a meeting at the Imperial War Museum North for academics across the North of England to discuss plans for the centenary commemorations and I will be taking the opportunity to go round the ‘Saving Lives’ exhibition while I am there.

There are also a couple of long term plans that are starting to take shape – workshop for the autumn on the history of medicine and warfare, a journal special issue that I have been putting together for years now that hopefully will find a suitable home this year, plans for a primary school class on First World War medicine that may or may not include an accurate reproduction of a stretcher and work with some of the All Our Stories projects relating to Leeds hospitals during the war that have received funding.

And in the interim there will be reading and writing – lots of both.  There is the article on voluntary medical services and their relation to the military that I have been trying to write for a couple of months now, and the stack of books on the Territorial Army sitting seductively on my desk which will, hopefully, inform it.  There is the aforementioned conference paper on medical orderlies and the related research.  There is a beautiful (literally – the cover image is gorgeous) book from Ashgate to review.  And there is the ever-growing reading list, not including the ten books sitting disconsolate on my ‘to read’ shelf awaiting my attention.

So all in all it looks as if this will be a very busy and hopefully productive year in the annals of Arms and the Medical Man.  I will, of course, keep you updated as I go along.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I think I will.