And now for something completely different

The following post, by Christopher Phillips, a postgraduate student in the School of History at the University of Leeds and member of the Legacies of War project, is the second the occasional series of guest posts to this blog. One the surface, a biographical sketch of the coordinator of canal transportation for the British armed forces in France during the First World War may appear to have little relation to the medical research interests of this blog.  Yet Chris touches upon a number of key issues that I am currently exploring in both my book and related articles, including the key role of transport logistics and the relationship of the Regular Army and its officers to the range of support services that total war required.  I hope to explore some of these issues myself in future posts.  In the meantime, I leave you to enjoy Chris’s story of a man who exemplified war service in ways that go far beyond popular cliché.

The grave of Brigadier-General Gerald E. Holland lies in the Catholic cemetery in Holyhead, where he had lived and worked prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Holland died on 26 June 1917, at St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, from a sickness contracted whilst on active service in France. Alongside 888,245 of his colleagues from within the British Empire, Holland’s death was represented by a ceramic poppy planted outside the Tower of London as part of the commemorative activities linked to the centenary of 1914. Holland’s war service, however, was far from the popular stereotype of the First World War soldiers’ experience, whilst Holland himself was a distant cry from the stylised image of those who died on the battlefield.

Gerald Holland was born in Dublin in October 1860. At the age of 20, he joined the Royal Indian Marine, seeing service in Burma prior to a posting as a Naval Transport officer during the South African War. In 1905, at the age of 45 and with the rank of Commander, Holland retired from the navy and returned to Britain. He re-entered civilian life in the employ of the London and North-Western Railway, occupying the post of Marine Superintendent for the railway company, first at Fleetwood and later at Holyhead. In this role, Holland was responsible for the operations of the port, ensuring that goods traffic between the mainland and Ireland was handled efficiently. In August 1914 Holland was just two months shy of his 54th birthday. Despite his age, and his retirement from martial service almost ten years previously, Holland was able to apply his skills and abilities to the prosecution of the war in Europe.

In the opening month of hostilities, Holland approached the War Office with an idea to take advantage of the highly-developed system of inland waterways in France and Belgium to provide supplies to the army and to relieve pressure on the railway network behind the front line. As the position of that front line stabilized in the latter months of 1914, creating the conditions of trench warfare which have become synonymous with the conflict on the Western Front, Holland was offered the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. On 30 December 1914, the newly-appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Holland reported for duty at GHQ in France, and took over responsibility for the provision of canal transport to the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

At first sight, Holland’s task seemed formidable. At the beginning of 1915, the Department of Inland Water Transport consisted of two officers (Holland and his assistant, another former naval officer), one tug hired from the French, and thirty-four barges. A meeting with the French Army’s canal expert also revealed that Holland would be unable to obtain much assistance from the locals, French canals having largely been plied by entire families who lived on their barges and chose not to follow military orders. With the British Army possessing no expertise in canal operations, the only alternative for Holland was to enlist personnel from Britain with the requisite skills to man the barges and provide the technical and administrative support necessary to maintain an efficient service. Whilst the War Office were able to provide officers for clerical support, the majority of the men, unsurprisingly, were chosen for their experience of the shipping industry (such as Horace Pitman, for ten years a yachtsman, or the fifty-two year old George Tagg, who came from a boat-building family and knew the French canal system well), whilst Holland’s pre-war employer also supplied fifty men from the Marine Department at Holyhead. An active campaign of enlistment at various ports in Britain accounted for the lightermen, watermen, seamen, engineers and other assorted trades required to ensure the department’s ability to fulfil its duties. By February, Holland had created a self-sufficient unit that had already begun to transport bulk commodities such as road stone and coal inland. By the end of June, just six months after Holland had arrived in France, inland water transport had moved: 19,142 tons of supplies; 27,421 tons of road stone; and had evacuated over 600 men from the battle zone by ambulance barge. As the war continued to grow in scale, Holland worked tirelessly to ensure his department’s ability not only to keep pace with demands, but to create new services.

By the middle of 1916, Holland controlled a fleet comprising almost 600 vehicles, with a capacity of over 70,000 tons. He had overseen the creation of a bespoke depot for inland water transport at a site which became known as Zeneghem, and had successfully argued for the creation of a cross-Channel barge service to eliminate the need for landing ships at the overstretched French ports. Arrangements were also already in place to commence a barge service for the evacuation of wounded horses to complement the ambulance barge service which continued to expand its operations. In October 1916, Holland’s department was, along with the army’s other transportation methods, placed under the control of Sir Eric Geddes as part of a widespread reorganization of the force’s logistics in the wake of the Battle of the Somme. Whilst those responsible for the provision of railway transport and the operations at the docks were ultimately replaced, such was Geddes’ appreciation of Holland’s work that he retained his position in the reshuffle (and gained a promotion to Brigadier-General), and both men looked forward to the continued expansion of waterborne traffic in 1917.

Unfortunately, it was not an expansion that Holland would live to see. As part of their coordinated withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line over the winter and early spring of 1917, the retreating German Army devastated the land and destroyed the canals in the surrendered territory. Days of inspecting the damage in freezing temperatures took their toll on the fifty-six year old, and Holland fell ill in April 1917. He was evacuated back to Britain but never recovered. His assistant, Cyril Luck, another former Royal Indian Marine commander, took over operations in France and retained his position until the armistice. The provision of canal transport on the Western Front, therefore, was at no point under the direct supervision of a regular officer of the British Army.

By discussing Holland’s service in more detail, a richer, more nuanced image of the diverse range of wartime experiences emerges. It reminds us again of the ‘totality’ of the First World War, and of the myriad relationships that developed during the tumultuous progress of the conflict, as armies, states and societies grappled with the unprecedented challenges of understanding, influencing and coping with the dislocation and shock brought about by the war.

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A few last thoughts on the ‘tunnel’; or a love letter to my colleagues

I quite badly want to start writing about writing my book, my next big project now that I have landed a job. (And yes, it is official, my letter of employment was signed and delivered to HR two days ago.)

But before I do, there are, I discover, a couple more things to say about my experiences over the past month and, in particular, about the experience of academic rejection.  Because while I do now have a permanent job, of all the certainties I have in life, none is more certain than that I will again experience academic rejection of the sort I experienced when my Wellcome application was turned down.  It may (and indeed probably will) take the form of a rejected article or book proposal.  It may (and again probably will) take the form of a rejected grant application.  Because while a permanent job in academia may seem like a holy grail from the far side of temporary contracts, the reality of the academic marketplace today means that in-and-of itself such a position does not bring complete security.  Tenure-track is not tenure and any academic job, even a tenured one, brings with it expectations that you will bring in research funding.  This expectation may not be as onerous as some recent terrible examples, most dreadfully the case of Stefan Grimm, but it is nonetheless there, stated plainly in the terms of my probation, that at the end of three years I will have secured significant funding and by the end of five years have a ‘sustained record’ of grant funding.  I know I will be supported, and on the evidence to date, the likelihood is that I will meet this probationary requirement, but the funding landscape in this age of austerity is pretty bleak, so the experience of rejection of carefully crafted, passionately believed-in applications is also likely.

Of course, I won’t be faced with the elemental fear that accompanied my last rejection in the sense that I will have, at least for five years, a job even if I don’t have research funding.  But how much consolation does that offer in the face of rejection of a project, an idea that you have poured your heart and soul into?  Academic projects can be deeply personal, especially ones which require immense effort and time to put together (as almost all do).  And the ways in which projects are examined and critiqued as part of the evaluation process, generally with rigorous knowledge and attention to detail, can make subsequent rejection feel even more overwhelming.  No surprise then that not only have I experienced rejection as a flattening process, but I have also seen colleagues with secure jobs shattered, at least temporarily, by the experience of being turned down by a funding council or a grant-making body.  It is simply part of academic life, learning to deal with that sort of rejection. Again and again and again.

How do we cope?  Because we do have to learn coping strategies if this cycle is not to destroy our mental health.  And not all of us do terribly well, as the extensive literature on mental health in academia illustrates.  Most of the rest of us find personal strategies – temporary retreat to a dark room, exercise, a bottle of gin, compartmentalizing, a sympathetic non-academic spouse or partner.  In the case of my Wellcome application, I was force to compartmentalize due to the timescales I faced, but running probably helped keep me sane.

However, in the end, it was not my own resources, or even the looming deadlines, that kept me from despair but the immediate support of my colleagues.  From a sympathetic coffee and slice of cake to an advice session with my mentor, from the quick ‘Are you alright?’ in the corridor as I struggled to keep my emotions in check to allowing me (when I was ready) to dissect at length what had gone wrong with the application, work friends and colleagues provided the time, space and emotional energy which kept me going.

If the negative side of academia is the intensity, pressure and scrutiny of the grant application process, then this collegiality is the flip side of the coin, one of the things that, where it exists, makes academia an extraordinary and desirable place to work.  In myriad ways it allowed me to feel that I and my ideas were valued above and beyond the financial value of the grant itself.  And yes, it made the eventual success in gaining a fellowship all the sweeter in two ways.  In the first place, knowing that I will be working with such supportive colleagues in such a supportive atmosphere is both a joy and a confirmation that this is the right job for me. And in the second place, I now have the opportunity to contribute to that collegiate atmosphere myself, to pay back the support I have received by supporting those around me. So I start my new role with my own small probationary requirement for myself – that I do all in my power to support those who were so supportive of me.

Out of the tunnel

So, those overtaking events which I wrote about when I posted last week…  We’ll get to that in a minute. Firstly, a quick word about those deadlines that got in the way of posting my blog for most of January.

The biggest of these was a mid-January interview at the Wellcome Trust for a University Award, a hugely prestigious award which would fund five years of research and ensure me a permanent job at the end of it.  The interview was friendly but very, very tough.  At least one question caught me on the hop and I answered it to the best of my ability although not, as it turns out, terribly well.  Because the following week I found out that I had not succeeded.

This news flattened me, almost entirely literally.  I lay on the table in my office and howled about it for a good three minutes.  Over a year of effort, involving two two-part applications (one a detailed revision) had gone into getting to the interview stage.  This was a project I believed in passionately.  The criticisms of my project were directed at what I felt were two of its fundamental elements.  I was left wondering whether or not I had any sort of future as a professional historian.

The prospect was terrifying. My current grant from Wellcome enabled me to return to academia after a five-year break.  Given that this was my second act already, I knew there would be no comeback if I was forced to leave academia now.  But reverting to the status of temporary lecturer at this point in my career seemed equally unthinkable. I am, as my by-line states, a wife and mother as well as a historian. Two young children make me much less flexible than when I finished my PhD, in terms of time as well as geography.  The sort of commuting to make ends meet discussed by Cath Feely simply isn’t an option for me any more.

The problem was that there was no time for me to assimilate any of these emotions of grief or fear.  Because more deadlines loomed – a resubmission to the European Research Council and an all-day interview for a prestigious academic fellowship at Leeds – both on the same day.  Both in their different ways were equally vital. Both required very different things from me in terms of communicating my research plans coherently and, above all, with passion and conviction.

So, while the previous 15 months of applications might have felt like something of a tunnel, they were nothing to those last three weeks of January.  My life was haunted by these two projects – the written application and the oral presentation and interview.  I ate and slept them. On the Sunday before the deadline my husband and I went for a three-hour hike; I rehearsed answers to interview questions the whole way up and revised the role of the postdoctoral research assistant on the ERC proposal the whole way down.  I rehearsed and revised my presentation daily, explaining slides to imaginary audiences as I pounded the pavement on my morning run.

And in the end…

Reader, I got the job.

As of 1st May I will be University Academic Fellow in Legacies of War.  It is (subject to probation) a permanent position as member of the School of History. It is, in all sorts of ways, my dream job and, in obtaining it, I have not only established that I have an academic career but finally, definitively made that transition from early to mid-career. I have come out of the tunnel and into a landscape at once deeply familiar and strangely new. I am delighted, terrified, exhilarated. And no, the reality, the permanence of it all, and what that means for both me and my family, still hasn’t quite sunk in yet.  I still keep getting small shocks of amazement and happiness, at a comment from a colleague, at the sight of my library card.

So there you have it. Now I too have my own particular story of the path I took as a young academic.  It has not been an easy path so far, although yes, unequivocally, it has been worth it to get here.  I am profoundly grateful, to more people than I can possibly say without sounding like a very bad Oscar’s speech, that it doesn’t end here. So I repeat what I have been saying, if occasionally through tears and gritted teeth, since December:

Onwards! And this time, upwards as well!

Now, about that book I need to write…

On no longer being an early career researcher

I haven’t published anything on this blog for over a month. However, I wrote the following post in the first week of January but never got around to posting it due to the pressures of various deadlines. Since writing it, some of the points raised have been overtaken by events, but I am posting this now as it is relevant to what has happened to me over this past week, which I am still digesting. I will write more about that next week, when I have had a chance to reflect further.

Before Christmas I wrote a post looking back over the past year, attempting to take stock of the range of activities and opportunities that the centenary of the First World War presented to an early careers fellow researching the period. In the end, the post ended up being as much a moan about the exhausting, prolonged nature of applying for research funding as a celebration of concrete research achievements. Nonetheless, I was able to end my working year on a reasonably positive and hopeful note, even if one which brought with it rather a lot of work over the Christmas holidays.

So now, at the start of the new year (and having done only about a third of the work I set myself over the break), I pause again, this time to look forward to what the new year has to offer. And with this pause comes the realisation that, for me, 2015 will, above all else, bring the end to the ‘early’ phase of my career. As of July, it will be ten years since I was awarded my PhD. Even taking into account the generous 18-month allowance that many grant-making bodies now give as credit for each of my two periods of maternity leave, there are no early career grant schemes that I am aware of which accept applications from candidates with that amount of time elapsed since the award of a PhD. From this summer onward I am no longer an ECR, at least as an applicant.

So what will I become this year? Well, as it stands, possibly unemployed as of the end of April, although enough opportunities are still outstanding that I am hopeful this won’t be the case. But the possibility, presented just on the cusp of this loss of career-progression identity is rather terrifying. While I can now lay claim to a number of publications and a wealth of experience that I have accrued since I was last on the job market, the limits that no longer being able to define myself as an ECR place on my ability to apply for specific grant schemes make me a potentially less attractive candidate. With two small children, one happily settled in his school, and a mortgage, the fallback of temporary teaching contracts at whatever university will hire me looks even more unattractive than it did at the outset of my academic career (and that is before you factor in the growth in the use of zero-hours contracts in academia).

And yet, for all the fear that this change in status induces in me, I remain hopeful. Because if ceasing to be an ECR means anything it means that I am not starting afresh. Whatever my new identity will be as of July, it will be backed up by the experience I have accrued over the past ten years and the confidence that that experience brings. This is more than the items listed on my CV, although reading through it can give me courage, even after the twelfth revision in as many months. It comes from the good working relationships with colleagues I have developed, the esteem expressed in grant referee reports for my ideas, the invitations to speak, the requests to supervise. These are all things I have achieved as an ECR, things which will stand me in good stead as I embark on becoming whatever it is I am yet to become.

Imposter syndrome is rife in academia and yes, most of the time I remain incredulous that I should be taken seriously as an academic, a situation exacerbated by the rather convoluted route I took as an ECR which saw me taking a five-year break from academic employment. But right now, for this moment of looking forward, I do so with the belief that, wherever my career eventually ends up, I have made that most of the ‘early’ stage of my career, and the hope that, whatever the next steps may turn out to be, the next stage will be as fruitful and productive.

Bring it on!