Santanu Das on India, Empire and the First World War

The next Legacies of War seminar will take place on 7th March at 5:00 pm in Michael Sadler Building, Room 3.11:

Santanu Das

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Catching up

Last week my husband and I sat down and updated our diaries and (more importantly) the family wall planner for the rest of the year, or at least until November.  A household that consists of two academics and two young children poses some challenges when it comes to attending conferences, seminars and the like.  Remarkably, we seem to be doing quite well, with only one major conflict where both of us are due to speak at different events at the same time.  Fortunately, mine is the Social History Society Conference which takes place in Leeds this year, so I will have skip the evening events to look after the children while my husband swans off to, well, Sweden. (I would be a lot more resentful if it was the South of France, but that isn’t until later in the year.)

Seeing all my commitments written down (bar the yet-to-be scheduled meetings and the workshop I haven’t confirmed funding for but which hopefully will take place in October) has brought home to me just how much writing I have to do.  With a rising sense of panic, I realise that I am giving three conference papers this year, on three different subjects, only one of which I have spoken on before.  The fact that the first of these is the one based most firmly in my primary research topic and will be the first time I have presented at a society’s general annual conference since speaking at the IHR’s Anglo-American conference in the final year of my PhD, getting on for eight years ago, does not help matters.  Last week I found myself facing a blank page, in a state of complete and utter academic paralysis.

This was not helped by the fact that, along with realising just how much work I had set myself to do, I was also put into contact at that time with Dr Emily Mayhew, who is currently working on a narrative history of stretcher bearers during the war.  Her work sounds fascinating and will, quite rightly, introduce the public to this all-too-often forgotten group of servicemen, which is rather what I hoped my work was going to do.  Having also found out that Amanda Vickery will be presenting a new radio series on gender and disability, a subject central to my research since I began it, I started to panic about being seriously behind the curve.  For the first time in my career I began to wonder if my years’ maternity leave, wonderful as it was, might have been a bad idea.

Fortunately, at this point one I had what I can only describe as a stroke of luck, or rather several small strokes.  In rapid succession I discovered that there are copies of the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital in the Bamji Collection here at Leeds as well as in the Wellcome Library and, via an unrelated Twitter conversation, began following Sue Light who blogs about the Happy Hospital, as the 3rd London General was known.  The name comes from the title given by Ward Muir, one of the hospital’s orderlies, to his second collection of columns and vignettes, published in 1918.  (His first, and better-known collection, Observations of an Orderly, was published in 1916 and is now available print on demand.)  Co-incidentally, and in my third small stroke of good fortune, I was reading this volume, and worrying that my forthcoming paper was going to be overly weighted to the 3rd London General, when I came across the following:

‘the case of two of our orderlies, both privates, whose sons are officers: these youths will have to be saluted and Sirred if by any chance they ever turn up here as patients and are waited on by their fathers.’

This one sentence contains so much of what my work is about: rank and authority, maturity and age, medical and combat roles.  All at once I was excited again about not only my forthcoming conference paper, despite the narrower-than-desired focus, but also about my project as a whole.  If this is what the experiences of one (very articulate) orderly in one (slightly unusual) hospital have to offer, the potential for unpacking a great deal more about the masculinity of men serving in these roles is still there.  And while the work of Dr Mayhew and Liana Markovich, who is writing on Australian stretcher bearers, will do much to open up the subject of these remarkable men, there is still so much to say about them in relation to courage under fire, the bearing of arms in warfare and the strength necessary to be a soldier.  In fact, I have started toying with the idea of a definition of masculine courage in wartime as endurance of danger in direct and explicit contrast to armed attack. (This will need a lot more work, but given the disproportionate number of medals awarded to RAMC personnel there does seem some basis for exploring this further.)

So I may not have caught up with my year off, or even with my schedule for the next month (the conference paper has yet to be written), but I have come out of the dip in research energy which, along with my fear, was holding me back.  Now to turn my new-found engagement into a decent paper…