Some more about footnotes

Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War finished its four-part broadcast on BBC 1 last week.  Billed as the BBC’s flagship centenary programme, and the starting point for its commemorative activities, which now appear to reaching fever pitch in advance of the launch of the regional and online World War One at Home project, despite it only being February, the programme was a bit of a curate’s egg, although one that, on the whole, I enjoyed.

Four hours to cover the entire course of the First World War, principally from the perspective of the British ‘home front’, although with bits and pieces about the Western Front tucked in as well, is not a lot, and many topics were, inevitably, simplified or simply omitted.  To some extent, this doesn’t matter.  The BBC has, as it keeps informing us, over 2,500 hours of programming devoted to the war planned for the centenary years and many of the topics, including the global reach of the war, the relationships between Britain and her allies and even straightforward military history will, doubtless, be dealt with elsewhere and in more detail.

Other aspects were more troubling.  Choosing to focus, often in some detail, on particular topics ended up giving an oddly skewed impression. Shell shock and facial disfigurement, currently vying for the status of symbolic wound of the war, were by no means the only life-altering medical conditions that men survived with, yet there was no mention of disease, amputation or the long-term affects of gas.  Fronts beyond the Western Front had little impact on this narrative of war, despite their impact on the consciousness of the British population at the time. And the limiting of the discussion of the importance of letters to a brief section on the postal system and the perspective of a single officer on the process of censoring letters was, for me as someone who has worked extensively on the letters men wrote home, extremely reductive.

Which brings me to the real problem I had with the programme, which has at its hearts a fairly fundamental contradiction.  Paxman has gained many plaudits for his authoritative and, on the whole, sensitive presentation of a range of material which was new to many viewers and which reflected many of the more cutting-edge and original arguments made in recent years by academic historians.  He also interviewed a number of people, most memorably the centenarian Violet Muers, whose eye-witness account of the German bombardment of Hartlepool made for powerful television.  But not one of these interviewees was a professional historian, a deliberate decision on the part of the producers who wanted to use the programme to emphasize familial connections between the war and their audience.

This in itself is not a problem.  As programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have shown, family connections to the past make for good television and are a powerful way of connecting contemporary audiences to history.  It is the attempt to combine cutting-edge historical arguments with the perspective of the interested descendent that creates issues.  Because the overall effect was to invest all the authority for the arguments made entirely in Paxman himself.  And while he is an authoritative figure, and I can well believe read widely around the subject and come to his own conclusions about what points to make, he is not, in fact, the historian who has undertaken the research that backs so many of the claims he made over the course of the programme.

Some of that research has been done by programme’s historical adviser, Adrian Gregory, who published The Last Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2008), an excellent piece of social history that is both scholarly and accessible and which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. Presumably the interested audience member would be able to pick Adrian’s name from the credits and track down his publications if they wanted to read more about the subject.  But Adrian’s is not the only original research to influence Paxman’s arguments.  David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990), Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon and London, 2005), Michael Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2009) and, most recently of all, Laura Ugolini’s Civvies: Middle-Class Men on the English Home Front (Manchester University Press, 2013) all contributed to at least some part of the argument being made.  And these are simply the works that spring most immediately to mind, reflecting as they do my own particular research interests. With greater concentration (and rather more time at my disposal), I suspect I could compile a further reading list of recent scholarly research so extensive as to be potentially daunting to an undergraduate, let alone a curious but not obsessive Monday night television viewer.

The problem this highlights is the fact that, as there are no footnotes on television, how do professional historians (both academic and otherwise) working on the history of the First World War ensure that their work is properly acknowledged?  Many have spent a great deal of time and effort, not to mention funds, sourcing and interpreting the primary source material, as well as formulating the arguments that Paxman so authoritatively deploys.  For academic historians, this work forms the basis of their professional reputations and the intellectual capital that they deploy to make a living.  As such, that work needs to be recognised not simply by specialists but, if those arguments are going to be deployed more widely, then by all those who are making use of them.  This is not merely good manners; it is the very foundation of intellectual exchange and honesty.  But how to do this in a way that is both engaging to a broad non-specialist audience and is fair to researchers remains something that needs urgently to be discussed.  I have been mooting the idea of topic-specific further reading lists to be publicised alongside future programmes, but who compiles these and how their time is paid for remains an open question.  Equally problematic, from the perspective of engagement, is the ethics of recommending books that may have cover prices beyond not merely the interested individual but also the cash-strapped local library.  The Cambridge History of the First World War may be one of the most important recent publications on the subject, but at £90 a volume (£240 for all three), it is hardly going to have a wide circulation beyond university and other specialist libraries.

There is also the related problem in the BBC’s apparent fear of historians as specialist commentators, at least in relation to its most prominent offerings on the First World War.  While BBC 2 and BBC 4 television both seem willing to interview historians as specialists, BBC 1 so far prefers to use Paxman, Kate Adie and Dan Snow for almost all commentary related to the First World War.  Regional radio, working in partnership with the AHRC, has made extensive use of specialist historical knowledge in producing the World War One at Home project. It remains to be seen how the programme is received more widely, but as a researcher and contributor it has, to date, been a positive and highly informative experience.  Yet Woman’s Hour has run a number of features on First World War topics (including Edith Cavell and the aftermath of the war) with no input from historians, despite there being not merely experts but indeed female experts in these fields who might have added useful perspective.* And the major on-line offering, the interactive guides to various aspects of the war, are predominantly fronted by either media personalities or those with contemporary professional interests in the subject, with historical expertise usually tucked away at the end.**  This is the most public and accessible display of historical knowledge of the war that the BBC is providing, yet the role of the historian in all of this is too often hidden and unacknowledged.  This is troubling given that most historians are fundamentally communicators, interested in ensuring that other people know about the work they do and the stories that they uncover.  And many are not only presentable but are capable of learning the skills necessary to engage with a popular audience.  Indeed, in the current academic climate, with its emphasis on impact and engagement, many are not merely willing but feel compelled to do so, whether through formal media training or less formal practices including blogging.

None of this, of course, is new or specific to the centenary of the First World War, or even to the popular media.  Recent impassioned blogs by Matt Houlbrook and Lesley Hall point to the pervasiveness of the potential for mistreatment and exploitation of academics, particularly early-career researchers, by both the media and well-known established historians (and their publishers).  For historians of the First World War, however, this centenary moment presents both a challenge and an opportunity, to ensure not only that our research, in all its originality, is made accessible to a wide audience, but that we gain due credit for we have done and are doing, both those of us who choose to work directly with media outlets and those who do not.  There are no easy answers as to how we do this, but the moment to have the discussions is too opportune to be missed.

In the meantime, I will start compiling my further reading list, to be posted on here at a later date.  Please do get in touch if there is a particular volume that you think should have been cited in relation to Paxman’s programme (preferably with a note as to the bit it relates to) and I will make sure it is included.

*The special extended programme on 5th February made excellent use of Professor Joanna Bourke and Professor Maggie Andrews as commentators, but again, Kate Adie and Baroness Shirley Williams were the guests who names featured most prominently in the publicity.

**Honourable exceptions here are Gary Sheffield and Sam Willis.

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A question about a footnote

Yesterday I attended the launch of the new British Council report Remember the World as Well as the War at the House of Lords.  The report explores international knowledge and understanding of the First World War, and the headlines here in Britain have mainly focused on the apparent lack of British knowledge of the war. This, interestingly, was not the tone of the discussion which took place yesterday.  The document was introduced by John Dubber, who co-authored it with Dr Anne Bostanci, before being discussed by Parliamentarians Keith Simpson and Baroness Young of Hornsey, with a final contribution from Dr Catriona Pennell, the historical consultant.  The debate was then opened up to contributions from the floor, which included, most pertinently, inquiries as to how the British Council was planning to use the document to engage the public with the debates it raises, as well as suggestions that similar, comparative research be carried out in the US and proposals for collaboration with other organisations to spread the document’s reach.

One of Catriona’s key points was that working as historical consultant had been, for her, a good exercise in academic discipline and concision, forcing her to think critically about how to present a huge range of historical argument, covering at least the past 30 years, in 10,000 words.  Indeed, she noted that she had originally presented her collaborators with 17,000 and that, in the editing process, large swathes of the history of the war, including the conflict’s impact on gender and on science and technology had had to be removed.  I have not yet had time read the document in great detail (I spent the train ride home last night reading the book I am supposed to have written a review for by the end of the week) but, as a historian of precisely those two facets of the history of the war, my initial glance the through did suggest that their importance is implicit in parts of the discussion, particularly the complications that they bring to our understanding of the war.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the graph on page 7 which charts UK responses to the question ‘Were members of your family/your local community involved in, or directly affected by, the First World War?’  The first responses listed are ‘Yes, a family member fought in the First World War’ (37%) and ‘Yes, a family/community member was involved in the war effort in another way’ (9%).  This second response is glossed with a footnote which reads ‘as carrier, labourer or other support staff (for example munitions support or digging trenches); as medical staff; on the home front (for example in factories) etc.’ [My italics.]

Now, I haven’t been blogging directly about my own research recently, but that footnote goes right to the heart of the question that is at its centre, namely how was the war experienced by men who served in military uniform in non-combatant medical roles during the First World War.  Because the structure of the responses as set out creates a seemingly unbridgable gap between combat and non-combat in terms of war service, a gulf that I am increasingly coming to believe did not exist, or at least could not be sustained, throughout the course of the conflict, within the British armed forces.  R.A.M.C. servicemen certainly saw themselves as soldiers, the comrades and equals of their combatant fellow servicemen, even if they didn’t bear arms.  And those fellow servicemen increasingly viewed R.A.M.C. as equals in terms of service rendered, acclaiming the qualities of endurance and comradeship that were key to understandings of heroism during the war years. Military medical service personnel served and were seen to serve, even if they did not fight, a fact which rather nuances not only the question of in what ways family members engaged with the war, but an earlier one about how the war should be commemorated, illustrated on page 5. In answer to this question, 64% (the decided majority) of UK respondents answered that a focus on human suffering and loss of lives should form the focus of commemorations over the next four years.  Yet the broader, more complex question of how the war was experienced, by those who survived as well as those who did not, was not, apparently an option given to respondents.  It is this question that forms the thrust of my research as a historian, as it does for many other social and cultural historians, and, I believe, motivates the large numbers of people engage in personal, local and regional research and commemoration projects taking place around Britain in response to the centenary.

So I had a rather pernickity question about the methodology used by YouGov (who carried out the polling for the survey) and about how the questions and responses presented to respondents were decided upon, as well as a rather broader one about how the material on gender, medicine and everything else that had to be edited out might be utilised in future to enhance the findings already published.  Last night’s launch, however, focusing as it did, quite rightly, on the global nature of the conflict and its continuing, multifaceted, global legacies, was not the right place to ask those questions.  So instead I am asking them here, or at least, to bring it back to Catriona’s own final question about how projects such as this facilitate the communication of cutting-edge scholarly ideas to a wider public, how do we make pernickity questions about footnotes relevant to that wider audience that is keen to find out how the war affected their family, their town, their region?  Buried in that footnote are some really interesting debates about the nature of service, for men and for women, in wartime and the impact of war on international medical and philanthropic ideals of care and compassion.  These are debates that still have relevance today, for medics in the battlefield and for NGOs such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, attempting to alleviate the suffering of all involved in contemporary conflicts.  These are discussions that academics are having.  Now, how do we make sure that they form part of the discussion when it comes to international commemoration as well?