Looking Ahead

Happy New Year! I hope you have all had very merry and happy holiday seasons. Mine was lovely, marred only by sickness which struck on Boxing Day and has affected one or other member of my household ever since. Still, sore throats notwithstanding, we KBO.

Today is my first back at work since the holidays, although given the silence in the corridors, most of my colleagues have decided that this half a week is a bit pointless and have sensibly stayed away. With only one day in the office, I have mainly been concentrating on clearing my desk in preparation for the new year and, having almost succeeded (there is one proposal still to draft that is proving so intractable that I think yet another cup of tea will be needed to crack it), I thought this would a good opportunity to take a look ahead at what 2013 has to offer.

Firstly we have a great line-up of speakers for the Legacies of War seminar series. Final confirmation of titles is pending (and the full list will be posted in a week or so), but Adrian Gregory and Santanu Das have both agreed to speak, on ‘Did God Survive the Somme’ (!) and on ‘India, Empire and the First World War’. Both should be fascinating.

Before then I will be heading off to London, to the Wellcome Library where I will be on the hunt for memories of and about medical orderlies. Having had my proposal on the experiences of orderlies accepted for the Social History Society’s annual conference in March (see here for details), I am now looking for material to support the conclusions I have been drawing from reading Ward Muir’s Observations of an Orderly.  There is at least one orderly memoir at the Wellcome, plus a long list of potential manuscript sources, so it will be a busy.  I am also hoping to attend the IHR conference on open access, The Finch Report, open access and the historical community while I am there (there is a waiting list).

Also coming up is a meeting at the Imperial War Museum North for academics across the North of England to discuss plans for the centenary commemorations and I will be taking the opportunity to go round the ‘Saving Lives’ exhibition while I am there.

There are also a couple of long term plans that are starting to take shape – workshop for the autumn on the history of medicine and warfare, a journal special issue that I have been putting together for years now that hopefully will find a suitable home this year, plans for a primary school class on First World War medicine that may or may not include an accurate reproduction of a stretcher and work with some of the All Our Stories projects relating to Leeds hospitals during the war that have received funding.

And in the interim there will be reading and writing – lots of both.  There is the article on voluntary medical services and their relation to the military that I have been trying to write for a couple of months now, and the stack of books on the Territorial Army sitting seductively on my desk which will, hopefully, inform it.  There is the aforementioned conference paper on medical orderlies and the related research.  There is a beautiful (literally – the cover image is gorgeous) book from Ashgate to review.  And there is the ever-growing reading list, not including the ten books sitting disconsolate on my ‘to read’ shelf awaiting my attention.

So all in all it looks as if this will be a very busy and hopefully productive year in the annals of Arms and the Medical Man.  I will, of course, keep you updated as I go along.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I think I will.

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Commemorating War

Unlike most weekends, which are spent ferrying the children to swimming lessons and singing classes while trying to catch up with the housework, I spent most of the past weekend at a fascinating workshop on commemorating war which brought together a number of military and naval historians to discuss ideas about the upcoming commemorations for 2014-18. (And lest you think my house is now a complete tip, my husband got on with the chores, so actually it looks somewhat cleaner than it normally does on a Monday.)

There was far too much discussed to cover in one post, so I will be coming back to what was discussed over a very intense day and a half, but one of the most interesting discussions resulted from Gary Sheffield’s talk on ‘Jay Winter and the Commemoration of the First World War.’ Following a brief survey of Jay’s work, Gary then looked at the legacy of his theories and the implications for 2014-18.

Now, a small disclaimer: Jay supervised my undergraduate thesis and my MPhil and was a huge influence on my decision to pursue an academic career. One of his influences on the study of the First World War has been a concerted effort to bring military and cultural historians of the war together in dialogue, an aim that I hope influences my work. Certainly I do strive to balance my love of social and cultural history with an awareness of the military details that shaped the trends I explore, which is why I am currently going so deeply into the history and organization of the RAMC at the moment. Gary’s main point, however, was that Jay’s idea of the memory boom helps to reemphasize victimhood as central to our understanding of the war, something that, he pointed out, has been picked up on in Cameron’s announcement of national plans for commemoration. The dates chosen are those of battles that are interpreted primarily as defeats, with no mention of the final campaign (the 100 days) which one the Allies the war, a fact which prompted a letter from the Western Front Association to the Independent. (Scroll down). In addition (a point I had not picked up on before), the school visits being funded are to soldiers’ graves, not battlefields which places the emphasis not merely on victimhood but sacrifice. Gary’s point was that children won’t actually be getting a sense of what the war was like by walking the landscape of battle but it also raises the point of whether those who survived the war are to be commemorated. Having worked extensively on the history of disability and the war, I am all too aware of how little is remembered and understood of those who returned to civil society, many wounded in body and mind, and who struggled to reintegrate. The majority succeeded, but not, I would hazard, without significant cost. Their stories are seldom told.

It was fascinating to hear a critique of the announced plans from the perspective of military history, and a reminder that military and cultural historians are often trying to tell a similar story, albeit from differing perspectives, and raise similar concerns about the way in which we remember and commemorate the war. The problems that we all, as historians, face in making these concerns public was the subject of an equally interesting presentation by the historian of the South African War, Professor Fransjohan Pretorius, who was involved with the commemorations in South Africa a decade ago. But that talk was itself rich enough that I think I had better return to it in another post.

Politicians and Generals

I have spent the weekend trying to get to grips with why I feel so uncomfortable about David Cameron’s announcement of £50 million toward the centenary commemorations of the war.  On the face of it, all his announcements are self-evidently Good Things – more money for the Imperial War Museum (still one of my favourite archives if only for the irony of reading about war under a burnished 10 Commandments in the reading room that used to be part of the hospital chapel), school visits to the battle fields, additional funding for local history groups, a focus on memory and commemoration.

So why am I not embracing this announcement wholeheartedly?  I have come to the conclusion that it is mainly due to the steering committee that was announced, filled as it is primarily with former servicemen and politicians.  Yes, Hew Strachan is an excellent representative of the community of First World War historians in Britain, and Sebastian Faulks seems a sensible choice to represent the arts, although I am sure there are plenty of others who would be just as appropriate.  But they are so far outnumbered by ex-servicemen as to raise the question of what the steering group believes these are commemorations of.  Are we going to see commemoration the war as a total war, one that influenced every facet and stratum of society, not just in terms of mourning (as is usually commented on) but also in terms of changing attitudes, new forms of work and service and technological developments?  Or are we going to have commemorations limited to the Armed Services?  How much of the focus is going to be on this particular conflict and how much on the service and sacrifice of all British (and Imperial/Commonwealth) forces since then?

My other source of unease is the fact that no reference at all was made to the work that universities around the country have been doing for several years now and will continue to do for the next six years.  Yes, many of these projects come under the aegis of the IWM’s First World War Centenary Partnership but so do many of the Heritage Lottery funded local history projects that get a name-check.  I am acutely aware that the Legacies of War project, one which is partnering similar local initiatives, has taken two years of hard work to get off the ground.  A similar amount of time has been spent at the University of Newcastle developing an international network of research into children’s experiences of war in the early twentieth century.  Birmingham and Kent are both centres of research excellence for First World War studies.  And the International Society for First World War Studies, now in its eleventh year, was founded by two academics based in Britain.  There is a wealth of passion and expertise to be tapped in our research institutions in this country, equal to that of the local history groups who will, quite rightly, be contributing so much to the commemorations, passion and expertise which Cameron, in his announcement seems to ignore.  Hopefully it can be used fully by the Centenary Partnership and those of us who make our living out studying the Great War can demonstrate the leading role that British academics have played and continue to play in the study of the First World War.

Oh, and the award for most fatuous comment must go to General Lord Dannatt, quoted in The Times as saying, ‘This needs to be the start of an education programme on the history of the events that led to the outbreak of the war, to make sure it never happens again.’  Given the number of conflicts to engulf the world since 1918, I suspect that ship has sailed.