The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

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Lest We Forget

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Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory, Cannongate

This year I have noticed that several of my contacts on social media have used the phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ as part of their remembrance practices in advance of Armistice Day.  I’m not sure if this is a new trend or if I am just more aware of it this year. As this year’s definitely more vociferous debates over the politicization of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance indicate, the words and symbols through which we commemorate wars and their legacies are nothing if not mutable across time, responding to changing social and political contexts. As someone who wears a poppy to commemorate the disabled men for whom the manufacture of poppies formed their employment in war’s aftermath as much as the men who died in the war, the multiple meanings of any given object or phrase in relation to this emotive subject have always been a source of fascination.

At the same time, I know that this particular phrase has an association with Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday because I am aware the my emotions in encountering it in this context are familiar. Once again, I am struck by the oddity of the use of this phrase outside the wider context of Kipling’s ‘Recessional’, the poem with which it is so strongly associated. My awareness of the phrase’s ubiquity this year sent me back to that poem, written not to commemorate wars but Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. And for many reasons the 120-year-old poem struck me as more apposite than ever, in ways far beyond those the poet could ever have envisioned.  Today it seems to me worth quoting in full:

Recessional
God of our fathers, known of old,
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

(1897)

Women, Gender and Sexuality visit Women, Work and War.

A guest post from Laura Boyd, a second-year PhD student in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. Laura is researching the work of non-combatant male medical caregivers in Britain and France during the First World War, and is a postgraduate member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster.

On 8 March 2017, the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster at the University of Leeds had the fantastic opportunity of a guided tour of the Women, Work and War exhibition at Armley Mills, followed by coffee and a chat. We were a mixed group of academic staff and postgraduates, from MA to Ph.D level in the Faculty of Arts. Guiding us was Lucy Moore, the Project Curator for First World War and member of the Legacies of War Project.

The visit began with the guided tour. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, and gave a real insight into the lives of the women working in and around Leeds during the Great War. These women came from all around Leeds and indeed much further, and took over the jobs in factories that were left by men who had gone off to war. Though it started in Armley, the factory expanded to the Barnbow site and employed large numbers of women.

Not only did it portray the ‘general’ or ‘bigger picture’ of the lives of these women who worked at Armley and Barnbow in the munitions factories, but was interspersed with personal stories. Lucy showed us around the different exhibits, including munitions and clothing, and shared other anecdotal tales that were not on display, taken from the writings of the ‘Canary Girls’ themselves. The exhibition featured personal accounts of the 1916 Barnbow explosion, which really brought home just how dangerous this behind-the-lines war work was. We even had the chance to have a sneak-peek at an original medal press that is currently awaiting restoration!

We then sat down for coffee and a chat with Lucy, and we began by asking about her own career progression into becoming a curator. Her answer? Refreshingly honest! And by that I mean that it wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression, as these things rarely are. A few of the postgraduates in attendance were interested in hearing about how to get into her line of work and Lucy gave us some great tips on how to get started.

This led to a discussion of the academic buzzwords ‘impact’, and ‘partnerships’ between academics and the community. Though these words tend to scare people like me, it was actually a really insightful and interesting discussion. Both Dr. Jessica Meyer and Lucy Moore are part of the Legacies of War Project here at Leeds, which they were delighted to talk about. Lucy was open about how the academic world has helped create interest around exhibitions such as Women, Work and War. Not only through organising trips such as ours, but by spreading the word among colleagues and at other academic events such as conferences and seminar series. She also said that she is happy to have connections to which (and whom) she can turn for information and help. Jessica was also keen on this point, telling us how the museum had also helped greatly in terms of ‘impact’, by helping the academic world bridge the gap between us and the public, leading to some fruitful and fascinating interactions. She also noted that often independent researchers involved in projects such as this come with knowledge and sources often unknown to academics!

So, to sum up, it was invaluable. Academic-community partnerships can help to get the public interested in what we do, and in turn can, through these partnerships make our research available to all. I would wholeheartedly suggest that if you have not yet been to the exhibition – GO! It will be well worth it, I promise.

A (belated) report from the wilds of Borsetshire

A recent post on Twitter asked if we are starting to witness the demise of the personal academic blog, at least in the field of history. Reasons put forward for the decline in the number of posts being written were pressures on time, developments in the research cycle (implicitly related to the increased imminence of the Research Excellence Framework) and variations in the teaching cycle, as posited by George Gosling.  Concern was also expressed that blogging was coming to be viewed as a requirement of postgraduate and early careers scholars, rather than more established ones.

I didn’t respond, all too aware that it has been months since I posted anything here, and even more since I directly posted anything related directly to either of my research projects.  This is due to all of the above reasons. I am teaching this term, not much but a new module that requires a certain amount of additional preparation and organisation.  I have committed myself to a large number of speaking engagements and forthcoming publications, as well as helping to organise two conferences.  On top of my research commitments and administrative obligations, this leaves me little time for writing the remaining chapters of the book, let alone reflections for the blog. And then there is the question of what I write about.  While I agree that blogging should not be the sole responsibility of PGRs and ECRs, I am becoming increasingly aware that it is easier to blog about searching for a job than it is about applying for promotion.  Similarly, blogging about ideas at the start of a project enabled me to work through key themes in ways that now seem to have less utility as I actively incorporate them into the book. If I am going to write about these ideas, I need to do it as part of my manuscript, not as a shorter reflection.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have things to write about (beyond my despair at the current political situation).  There are stories emerging from the new research project, although as this has its own blog now, I tend to reserve them for that forum.  And the number of speaking engagements I have undertaken means I am regularly coming into contact with the work and ideas of others which is giving me much food for thought and which is worthy of putting on record.

Which brings me to the Academic Archers conference, possibly one of the oddest but also  among the most interesting academic experiences I have had since I spent two days up to my ankles in mud talking about medical care on the Somme last summer.  This was the second annual conference organised to bring together academic analysis subjects based on or inspired by Radio 4’s long-running rural soap opera and the immensely knowlegable ‘Research Associates’, the long-term listeners whose knowledge of the world of Ambridge and Borsetshire is unrivalled in terms of breadth and depth.  Papers presented range from sociological analyses of familial relationships among prominent family groups, and the wider social implications of the resulting (matriarchal) power structures through an examination of the programme as an exemplar of rural theology to a discussion of the social standing of male characters and the relationship to perceived penis size (a phrase I never thought I would type on this blog or, indeed, anywhere else).

Arguably this was all tongue-in-cheek good fun, something not to be taken very seriously but to be played predominantly for laughs.  Certainly the most popular papers, such as the ones picked up by the press looking at negative aspects of competing in village flower and produce shows, and the ‘Ambridge Paradox’, or why all the characters don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes, involved much laughter along with the learning.  But there was very serious scholarship being undertaken here as well.  The session focussing specifically on the Rob and Helen story line of domestic violence and coercive control was sobering not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in relation to the information conveyed, whether on the forensic analysis of blood spatter patterns or the cost per day of food for women in prison.  Additionally, my understanding of my own work has been enhanced by a number of papers.  I have come away with a long list of recent sociological texts on masculinity, disability and violence taken from Katherine Runswick-Cole and Becky Wood’s paper on the use of the stoma bag in representing Rob’s disability and Jennifer Brown’s keynot on using Rob to understand the antecendents of domestic violence perpetration. Amber Medland’s concept of culinary coercion, while derived from the domestic context of Rob’s control of Helen, has opened up questions for me about the regulation of food in the institutional setting of the military hospital.  And I am looking forward to learning a lot more about masculinity in post-Second World War literature, particularly as it relates to birdwatching, in the on-going work of Joanna Dobson.

As for my own paper, I’m not sure I got the balance between humour and scholarship quite right.  ‘Erudite’ was one description of it, and I can only apologise to the tweeter whose brain apparently hurt when I finished speaking.  But the opportunity to explore how this particular artefact of British popular culture has memorialised the First World War – and to use the title ‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field/That is Forever Ambridge’ – was too good an opportunity to miss.  Among other things, it provided me with the opportunity to design an academicMeyer Poster poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues. [1] I will, I hope, be publishing an extended version of the paper in the forthcoming edited collection (the one from last year’s conference is a beautiful object, available to buy from Amazon).  Writing it up will enable me to engage more fully with debates around imagined communities and invented traditions than I have done since I was a post-graduate, a useful exercise that will enhance my other academic endeavours.

And, in a sign of just how stimulating and welcoming the conference was, I’m already considering the topic of next year’s proposal. Leading the field is a plan to recreate the Ambridge War Memorial using the information from English Heritage uncovered by Laurie MacLeod, one of the attending RAs.  I’m even thinking about putting together an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, if any of the Academic Archers community would like to form a group to work on this.  And I know there are several other First World War historians, many more eminent than I, who might be persuaded to trace the progress of the Borsetshire Regiment on the Western Front, analyse the minor poetry of Lt. Rupert Pargeter, explore the records of the Borsetshire Military Appeals Tribunal or discuss the impact of the use of women and prisoners of war in agricultural labour on wartime Ambridge.  I hope they will consider putting in a proposal when the call goes out.  The experience, both intellectual and social, will be well worth it.

 

[1] My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.

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.

Doing history across space

This forms the third of a three-part series of posts reflecting on conferences I am have attended in recent months.  The previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

I am writing this on a train on my way to London where, tomorrow, I will attend a workshop before meeting with a potential collaborator.  I have done this journey in one day, getting up to catch the 6 am train and arriving home, bone weary at some time after the rest of my family is in bed.  The second half of the programme will remain the same this trip, but I am taking advantage of having the opportunity to stay with my cousin overnight, which should mean I get at least an hour’s more sleep (although possibly not more, given that she lives in Dulwich and I need to be in central London by 9).

Although this trip feels as if I have found the right balance between productivity and calm, it is nonetheless undertaken with a bit of regret.  In an ideal world, I would have been on this train two days ago, preparing to spend yesterday at a study day on First World War nursing held at the Wellcome Collection. The demands of family life meant, however, that I instead had to follow what looked like a fascinating series of talks, delivered by a number of colleagues whom I hold in very high regard via Twitter.

The dilemmas that this weekend has presented me with are something of a distillation of my experiences of travelling for work and conference attendance over the past few months.  In both February and March I dedicated a week to traveling to conferences, attending two or three within a seven-day period, a schedule which while exciting and often inspiring, was also exhausting and occasionally confusing.  While staying within Britain, I moved intellectually around contintal Europe and the British empire, as well as travelling from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries.

And even as I did all of this, absorbing and communicating information and ideas, I was still missing out. I did not go to Valencia, where what felt like the entirety of my Twitter feed spent a sun-drenched week at the European Social Science History Conference, nor, for the second year running, did I make is to the Social History Society Conference the wee before.  The latter took place at the same time as other conferences I had committed to; the former during a week when my young children desperately needed me around to remind them that they have a mother as well as a father to care for them and help structure their lives.

Such conflicts are, of course, an embarrassment of riches.  It is exciting to have so many possibilities for intellectual contact and cross-fertilisation available.  But there are drawbacks too.  Modern technologies, particularly Twitter and podcasting, mean that conference papers can be communicated and followed from a distance, but this is reliant on the good will, dedication and skill of presenters and live tweeters whose interests and priorities may or may not overlap with your own. In addition, following a Twitter hashtag or a podcast requires a certain amount of time and concentration on the part of both  the reader/listener and the communicator.  Trying to follow one conference while attending another, I have found, is incredibly difficult, while if I am live tweeting a panel, I have given up on taking my own notes, relying on my tweets as a form of note-taking.  Also tough is trying to follow a conference while getting a four-year-old’s lunch.  And ‘attending’ a conference at a distance does not allow for discussion, whether the back-and-forth of a question and answer session or the potential serendipities of coffee and lunch break discussions.  This last point was brought home to me when a live tweeter pointed out to his followers that he coudn’t actually put any of their questions to the panellists.

Then there is the question of cost.  I am in the fortunate position of being able to pay for conference attendance out of my current grant, but even that is not limitless, any more than the departmental budgets available to colleagues are.  For students and early careers researchers, the situation is even more parlous. Even when organisers try their hardest to keep registration costs reasonable (and not all do), travel and accommodation costs can make attendance at even one, let alone multiple events impossible.

Despite these problems, the sheer amount of intellectual activity happening around history, particularly the various types of history which I do (First World War, gender, social, cultural, British), is, as I say, immensely exciting and stimulating.  Which brings me to one of those conferences that I did manage to jam into my week of March madness, the Globalising and Localisng the Great War Graduate Conference on Stories, Spaces & Societies in Oxford. (I also attended the final day of the Resistance to War 1914-1924 conference in Leeds that weekend. A report on second day of that conference will be posted next week.) The scope for this conference, as the title indicates, was immense, and in terms of approach the two days covered military, social and cultural history in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.  Casualty statistics were deployed alongside diary entries and poetry, and discussion was enlightening and enlivening.  For my own part, I came away with a number of nascent ideas, two concrete references to follow up on, and the hope of recruiting another member to my research team at some point in the future.

One of the most interesting sessions was the roundtable discussion which concluded the first day during which current Oxford postgraduates reflected on their explicitly transnational approaches to researching the First World War, before discussion broadened out to a wider discussion of the transnational history of the war in the centenary period.  What struck me was the extent to which definitions of the transnational were defined, in the British context, by the British empire and dominions.  While the subjects of historical study were extra-European, the identity of historical actors from India, Africa, Canada, Australia, was inevitably intimately bound up with their understandings of themselves as imperial subjects, so that studies of these varying cultures and their participation in and memory of the war remain rooted in British history in complicated ways. This paradox was further reflected in the wider discussion, particularly Jane Potter’s point about the difficulties of editing a scholarly handbook of First World War poetry.  With all the good will in the world towards including as many national and supranational cultural perspectives as possibles, the limits of space, expertise and time, as well as the complexities of intellectual debate around definitions, inevitably mean that ambitions for comprehensiveness have to be reigned in, usually at the cost of the lesser known national literatures.

What the discussion highlighted for me is the extent to which we remain bounded by space in our work, whether analytically or physically.  Transnational history is shaped by historically constituted definitions of the nation, itself defined by borders both concrete and ephemeral. Location shapes our perspective, what archives we have access to, which scholars we encounter who influence our own scholarship, who we talk to and in what language.  Collaboration is, of course, a route to transcending boundaries, which are in turn enabled and enhanced by modern technologies.  But, as with conference attendance (that prime space for the development of collaborations), modern technologies cannot overcome every barrier or make space immaterial to the way in which we work.  As frustrating as the limits of space (and the inability to be in two places at once) may be, reflecting on them may, in a small way, help us in our understanding of the significance of space and its limits in the past.

The senses of history

History is textural (as opposed to textual), something I was reminded of while reading a recent blog post from the always articulate and evocative Matt Houlbrook. It reminded me of another post, this one by Will Pooley, which similarly thinks about history in terms of the tactile. The interactions of history become as much about touch as intellectual comprehension.

This post, then, forms my own contribution to this mini-genre of historical thought, inspired by the coincidence that, on the same train journey where I read Matt’s blog, I also read the recent seminar paper that Edmund King gave at the Senate House on ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’. I wasn’t able to attend the seminar, but the wonders of modern technology (well, a combination of Twitter and email) meant that I was able to read the text the following day.

Among a variety of fascinating sources quoted, one stood out in relation to this question of the textures of history, from a letter from 2nd Lt. Sanders Lewis to his fiancee:

‘So my letters smell like a tobacco store. I am glad … I have been able to give you at last some real taste of the sort of place we live in. Here out of the line the officers’ mess is one wood huts heated by two stoves. There is a long table … and on it candles flicker a shadowy light over the hut at night. A few men are writing letters at one end, two parties are playing bridge at the other … and everywhere med are smoking so that with the shadows flicked on the walls by the candle flames, and the slow columns of pipe and cigarette smoke hanging over our heads, everyone looks dim at ten yards interval.’ [1]

In this quotation, Lewis evokes three of the five senses – smell, sight and touch – to try to describe his experiences to Margaret. As King notes, ‘Describing the material contexts of writing becomes a way of bridging the sensory and temporal divides between writer and recipient.

Lewis was by no means alone in doing this, nor were the senses of hearing and taste to be forgotten. Descriptions of sound were a deeply significant element of men’s letters home in their attempts to describe their experiences to their families. [2] Taste was similarly central to the emotional power of the food parcel from home, as discussed by Rachel Duffett. [3] The senses, all five of them, then, were vitally important to the ways in which the First World War was communicated as an experience at the time.

But what struck me is that, if such evocation of sensory experience acts as a bridge between writer and recipient, it also has the power to act as a bridge between the writer and other readers, in this case the historian who has accessed the letter through an archive. As with the original reader, the descriptions in men’s letters have the potential to show us what we have not experienced ourselves, to share with us a world we do not know.

At the same time, while verbal descriptions remain potentially powerful, other sensory aspects of these manuscripts and objects have been lost. 100 years on, I doubt the smell of tobacco still clings to Lewis’s manuscript. Metaphorical evocations also start to fail. Does the comparison of a bombardment to coal being tipped down a cellar have any meaning for the historian who has never heard either? What does plum and apple jam or Machonocie stew taste like?

Attempts have been made to recreate historic materials which evoke the senses. Rowntree’s experiments with an original 1914 recipe for chocolate had mixed results, while museuological experiments with evoking the sensory nature of the trenches have attracted as much criticism as praise. [4] More successfully, my colleague Iona McCleery’s You Are What You Ate project has been recreating historic recipes as part of a long-term educational project introducing the history of food to audiences throughout West Yorkshire. Films such as The Battle of the Somme allow us to see, if not the battle itself, then the view offered to British civilians of that battle in 1916. Early recordings bring the voices and music of the war years back to life. But as historians we can only access these senses critically and from a distance. Ingredients change with farming practices, the medium deteriorates, introducing visual and aural flaws, the scent of tobacco clinging to a piece of paper fades over time, the paper itself crumbles at the reader’s touch.

History is a sensory discipline and one that is becoming more so as material histories and histories of the body increase their reach and impact. The weight of a wood and canvass stretcher loaded with three sodden blankets and the dead weight of a wounded man is vitally important to my understanding of my historical subjects, even if I have never tried to lift one myself. But, as with all disciplinary developments, this one throws up its own complications and contradictions, giving the practice as much texture and richness as the as the sources themselves. I don’t think historians would have it any other way.

[1]Saunders Lewis to Margaret Gilcriest, 6th February, 1917, quoted in Edmund King, ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’, paper given to the Paper, Pen and Ink 2: Manuscript Cultures in the Age of Print Research Seminar, London, 18th May, 2015.

[2] Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 30-31.

[3] Rachel Duffett, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, 199-205.

[4] Richard Espley, ‘”How much of an ‘experience’ do way the public to receive?”: Trench reconstructions and popular images of the Great War’ in Jessica Meyer (ed), British Popular Culture and the First World War, Leiden: Brill, 2008, 325-349.