Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

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Of historians and politicians

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has decided that the best way to start off the centenary years of the First World War is through an article in the Daily Mail which attacks the ‘myths’ of the war and the ‘left-wing academics’ who he accuses of being ‘all too happy to feed those myths by attacking Britain’s role in the conflict’.  The response has been predictably excitable, with various blog posts from a variety of researchers into the history of the First World springing up over the weekend (a fair representation can be found here, here and here), as well as several articles in the print media and from the BBC giving the views of everyone from Tristram Hunt to Margaret Macmillan to Tony Robinson

For me, however, one of the most interesting interventions was one of the earliest, a discussion between Sir Richard Evans (held up by Gove as the prime example of a ‘left-wing academic’ intent on discrediting British national pride) and Gary Sheffield (cited by Gove as a historian engaging in ‘proper study’ for his work on Douglas Haig) on the World At One on Radio 4. These men had been invited to contribute because they were named in Gove’s article, but what emerged most clearly from the debate was the difference of perspective offered by two different types of historical approach, the internationalist analysis which allowed Sir Richard to make an argument about Russia’s lack of democracy, and the national (but by no means nationalist) military history that informs Gary’s views on why the British Army (as an entity) fought the way it did.  These differing approaches expose the many-layered complexity of trying to understand the historic realities of why British men fought in the First World War.

From my perspective as a social and cultural historian, however, there was an important methodological perspective that was missing from this discussion, namely that of the personal or individual history.  This is an explicable, but nonetheless interesting omission, given that personal and family histories are the most common way into a discussion of First World War history for the non-specialist.  This is evidenced by the rash of ‘my grandfather told me’ tweets in response to the discussion of Gove’s article, as well as longer, more thoughtful discussions of individual motivations from researchers such as John Lewis-Stempel and David Underdown.  In my own work, there are plenty of examples of men with equally complex motivations for enlisting initially, as well as those whose ideas about what they, personally, were fighting for changed over the course of their service.

My current favourite example of this is David Randle McMaster, whose papers I read at the National Army Museum last year. McMaster was a bank clerk who enlisted in the RAMC in August 1914 and served with 24th and 2/1st Wessex Field Ambulances throughout the war.  McMaster’s motivations for enlisting were both patriotic and self-interested.  From the outset, he expressed his belief in the necessity of defending the country from invasion and his personal willingness to do so. The son of a Congregationalist draper, he was clearly aspirational and initially enquired about enlisting as an officer, something that, without a medical degree, he was unable to do in the RAMC, the unit he favoured because its non-combatant status could be squared with his religious qualms about killing and violence.  Later, in 1917, McMaster contemplated transferring to a combatant unit in order to attain the social status of officer.  He only decided against doing so when it became clear that he would only be offered a commission in an artillery regiment, rather than an infantry regiment which he viewed as having higher social status.  It is clear from the letters to his parents in which he discusses this decision at length that, in the two and a half years since his enlistment, McMaster’s belief in the justness of the cause he was fighting for had not been eroded.  If anything, it had been enhanced by his experiences under fire (as a stretcher bearer he came under fire and in contact with the extremes of what bullets and shrapnel could inflict on the human body on numerous occasions) to the point where he was willing to compromise the religious teachings with which he had been raised.

Yet McMaster cannot be defined as simply a patriotic jingoist either. At no point does he claim to be fighting for ‘democracy’ as an abstract ideal.  Rather, like so many others, he declared himself to be fighting in defense of home and freedom, in his case embodied in the figure of his mother.  The values he is fighting for aren’t those of politicians but far more concrete ideas about a very particular way of life and the freedoms, from conscription, for example, that it offered. From a 21st-century perspective, these freedoms may appear severely limited, being hedged about by restrictions of class, gender, race and social convention but they nonetheless had value and were deemed worth fighting for by many in 1914.

Why is the personal history of an individual like David Randle McMaster significant?  Partly because he fits part of a pattern with other men, mostly of similar social background and education, who were willing both to enlist and to continue fighting because of a belief in what they were fighting for grounded in an individual and concrete reality, rather than a series of abstractions.  And partly because he is not necessarily representative of all the 5 million British men who served, many of whom enlisted, for instance, because of a desire for glory, because they needed the work, or because, as Regular soldiers, it was their work. Nor is he representative of men who were conscripted, who fought because they had to, rather than because they either wanted to or were misled about what they were fighting for.  The reasons that men enlisted and served were mutiple, complex and contigent upon their personal circumstances and should not be simplified into narratives of either patriotism (as presented by Gove) or ‘lions led by donkeys’ (as suggested by Hunt).

So individual stories are important, giving a much-needed nuance to arguments about why the war was fought. At the same time, individual stories cannot stand alone as representative of every experience.  They need the context of the broader picture for their significance beyond the personal interest of their descendants to be properly evaluated. The benefits of this can be seen in such excellent social histories as Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War and Catriona Pennell’s A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland, both of which locate individual experience clearly in the contexts of geography, class and change over time. The letters of David Randle McMaster help explain why concepts of ‘democracy’ could still be used to justify a nation fighting a war as an ally of imperial Russia and why Haig could remain an enormously popular figure among servicemen (and later veterans), while a knowledge of the structure of the British military helps to contextualise his attitude towards different regiments.

Taking all three perspectives, the international, the national and the personal, together we may be able to start to understand the immensely complex and often contradictory period of history that is the First World War.  What has been encouraging in the past year of working with educators from outside of academe is the extent to which there is a willingness, even an eagerness, to engage with this narrative complexity rather than resort to the crude caricatures that seem to be informing the political debate.  On one level, Gove and Hunt, from their oppositional perspectives, have done a huge disservice to the centenary commemorations by their insistence on reducing the debate to a question of party politics and attempting to divide those researching the subject into camps that fit with their stereotyped ideas. But at least in creating the debate they have made some space for more nuanced discussion among educators and the much maligned Great British Public, a discussion many on both sides seem to want to engage in.

Finally, a brief thought on the word ‘myth’ which has been bandied about pretty freely in a lot of these discussions.  Both sides seem to take the word to mean something equivalent to ‘fiction’ or even ‘a lie’.  Yet, as Samuel Hynes points out, a myth is ‘not a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it, the story … that has evolved, and come to be accepted as true.’ (A War Imagined, ix).  So the myths may be challenged, but they are worth studying too, for what they tell us about the historic societies in which they were developed and came to represent truth.  Even if that does mean showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom.

The Myth of War Literature

‘veterans did not start to produce war novels until the later 1920s’

This quotation comes from Fiona Reid’s Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-1930  (2010), a book I am thoroughly enjoying (more on which later) but which has raised a couple of issues relating to the sort of assumptions we make about the war.  Reid’s book is about the myths that have grown up around shell shock as a symbolic image of the First World War in British culture, a condition that has moved from being historically specific to being cultural shorthand for what we think we know about the experience of war as a whole.  Yet, despite much excellent work on examining myths related to shell shock and placing the condition in a clear historical and cultural context, she can still come out with this statement which, despite being widely repeated in both academic and popular histories of the war, simply is wrong.

Veterans of the First World War began publishing novels about the war and its aftermath as early as 1919.  H.C. McNeil (better known as ‘Sapper’) published Mufti that year.  It is not a good book, to be sure, nor did it sell particularly well (19,636 copies by 1939 compared with 162,432 for The Lieutenant and Others, his most popular collection of short stories and 396,302 for Bulldog Drummond, the novel which he remains best known for), but it is a novel about the war and its aftermath that found a publisher and an audience in the early 1920s.

And there were plenty of other, more popular novels, published in the early 1920s.  Rosa Maria Bracco, in Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (1993), identifies three out-and-out bestsellers: The Way of Revelation (1921), Simon Called Peter (1921) and Tell England (1922).  R.H. Mottram published the first volume of his Spanish Farm trilogy in 1924 and Warwick Deeping’s best known novel, Sorrel and Son, was published in 1925.  Bracco notes that ‘After a spate of novels in 1919 there was a sharp decrease in numbers during the following years (from thirty-nine in 1919 to seven in 1925)’ but this is a decrease, not a silence, as Reid’s statement implies.

Reid is not alone in her assumption about publishing patterns of novels about the war.  The general belief is that no one wrote or published ‘war books’ until the boom of 1929-30.  Why?  Partly, I suspect, because of a general oversimplification of an actual phenomena.  There was a war books boom in those years, much of it literature of the ‘disenchantment’ variety, although Bracco argues persuasively that there was also a great deal of popular, middlebrow literature in circulation at the time which presented a view of war that can’t be classified as disenchanted.  It is easier to understand and explain this fairly dramatic cultural shift (and to underline its dramatic nature) by arguing that there was no significant literature being published beforehand.

‘Significant’ gives a hint as to the other part of the explanation, the extent to which our understanding of war literature (like our understanding of the war) is dominated by our interpretation of what is ‘good’ literature.  All Quiet on The Western Front, Goodbye to All That, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, Parade’s End (first published between 1924 and 1928) are all classed as literary classics.  Tell England, Simon Called Peter and Sorrell and Son, are not, despite being bestsellers in their day.  Many of the war novels published in the early 1920s are bad books, or, more properly ‘good bad books’, the classic definition of the middlebrow.

Should they still be read and studied today?  Possibly not, although they can be great fun to read and the field of middlebrow studies is a growing one in its own right.  But scholars of the cultural history of the First World War cannot simply write them out of existence because they do not fit comfortably with a narrative of post-war veteran silence that we have come to accept and aren’t very good in literary terms.  Veterans were not silent; whether the public wanted to hear what they were saying is another matter entirely.  To ignore the existence of these novels and their popularity in the 1920s is the equivalent of ignoring the cultural impact of The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Gray in commentaries about Anglophone culture in the early 21st century.  They may not have a great deal to say, they may not be very good books, but ignoring them entirely is intellectually dishonest.

So this is a plea that we finally start laying to rest the great myth of First World War literature. The books of the war books boom and the literature of disenchantment are hugely important parts of our understanding of the cultural legacy of the war in Britain, but they are by no means the whole story.

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.