Conference Report – Resistance to War

Following on (rather belatedly) from my last post, one of the conferences I was only able to attend partially in March was the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds on 18th-20th March.  In addition to Twitter, an important, and more established, way of keeping up with conferences that one can’t attend in person is via conference reports.  It gives me great pleasure to publish a report of the Resistance to War conference written by Charlotte Tomlinson, a former undergraduate and current MA student in the School of History, University of Leeds, and founder of the HUll Blitz Trail project (which can be followed on Twitter @hullblitztrail).  My thanks to Charlotte for taking the time to write and reflect on what sounds like a fascinating few days.

As the centenary of the First World War has come upon us in the last two years, scholars across fields have turned their attention to the conflict and offered new ways to look at it. As well as encouraging commemoration and highlighting traditional narratives, the anniversary has inspired fresh perspectives and uncovered previously untold (or at least under-told) stories. One such strand of new thought was recently celebrated at the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds March 18th-20th. It was a truly international event, with speakers visiting from stretches as far as Auckland, and covered an equally diverse scope of subjects relating to resistance to war. Inevitably then, the conference encouraged consideration of a less traditional approach to the First World War. However, as all papers seem to, the event had me thinking more broadly about how we, and I, approach histories of war.

The event began with a series of panels exploring different aspects of war resistance. I decided upon one which explored resistance and gender through the lens of wartime literature in France (Philippa Read), Germany (Corinne Painter) and Britain (Sabine Grimshaw and Sarah Hellawell). After four extremely interesting talks, and a few books added to my ever-growing summer reading list, it was a question on how these works were received at the time that really peaked my interest. Not in the answer, but in that it made me contemplate how we use literature in history more widely. As happens so often lately, I found myself pondering the representation vs reception debate, comparing the cultural and social approaches to sources such as those discussed. While our own readings of literature are insightful, and were hugely fascinating to listen to, the panel left me with more questions about my own research than theirs.

The following day, another question of how we approach history left me a little more excited. In a fascinating talk on two ‘gender dissidents’ of the early twentieth century, Conscientious Objectors and Suffragettes, Lois Bibbings argued for a more complex understanding of how the two groups used gender in their resistance. In doing so, she highlighted how Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU used fashion as a method of resistance, how suffragettes ‘consciously played on gender’ by maintaining a prim and proper appearance in order to defend their femininity, and oppose media representations of them as unruly and manly. In a later conversation, we discussed how the loss of control over appearance was also central to the suffragette prison experience. It was encouraging to see how the issue of fashion, so often overlooked as a trivial matter, could be integrated into an analysis of war resistance and I was left feeling quite uplifted about the potential for this research to be taken further in the future.

Another talk inspired a less encouraging but equally interesting reflection, on how collective histories continue to shape how researchers approach resistance to war. The huge success of the conference showed how far we have embraced less typically-glorified narratives of the conflict which do not place the volunteer soldier suffering in the trench as the quintessential war narrative. Benjamin Ziemann’s keynote paper, on German soldiers who refused to fight from July 1918 onwards and how these have been remembered in Germany since, did however cause me to consider how we approach war resisters who were not pacifists. Crucially, a point was raised about the likelihood that a similar project would be undertaken on British so-called ‘cowards’. While popular opinions of war resisters has undoubtedly altered in past decades and become more positive, it was rightly argued that our changing cultural memory in Britain of heroic fighters or brave COs has not yet allowed a shift that adequately acknowledges our ‘cowards’ too.

It is hardly surprising that Cyril Pearce’s paper proved thoroughly inspiring. His work continues to influence scholarly thought on conscientious objectors and encourage new work. It was not his insights into war resistance here that had me thinking though, but his approach. In using statistics and maps to explore the pattern of conscientious war resistance in Britain, the paper was undeniably unique in a historical conference. Outside of economic histories, it is perhaps unsettling for many of us to deal with such mathematically presented ideas, but by mapping COs it was easy to highlight resistance hotspots and identify interesting communities that require further study. Ultimately, it was refreshing and inspiring to see an approach many researchers, myself included, would usually shy away from and provided a visual exploration of COs that really brought the issue to life.

Finally, a paper on the infamous Alice Wheeldon left me thinking about the significance of new perspectives on war resistance beyond the weekend conference, and beyond academia. A moving paper was given by Nick Hiley and Wheeldon’s great granddaughter, Chloe Mason on how the conviction of her family for conspiring to murder the then Prime Minister Lloyd George should be overturned. Hiley and Mason unpacked the case and highlighted the secrecy surrounding it, explaining how they are now appealing for the conviction to be quashed. In doing this, rather than reflecting on war resistance as much of the other papers had, the paper reminded us that our memory of war and war resistance remains a contemporary issue that touches lives today.

Driving home after a long couple of days, my (non-academic) dad asked me, ‘so what’s the point in a conference?’ What followed was a lengthy answer which I don’t think he was quite expecting. In the first instance, the papers given offered interesting insights into many areas of resistance to the First World War, some related to my own research, some not. But more importantly, the papers, as always, left me with a number of questions and points to reflect upon, a few of which I have briefly discussed here. These relate above all to how both I, and we, approach history. So more than just gaining knowledge and enjoying papers from across the globe in a celebration of centenary research, I left the conference with a greater self-awareness of myself as a researcher. Once again I was reminded that no matter the topic, there is always something to be learned in hearing about another’s work.

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