Archive for the ‘First World War’ Category

Elvis vs evils

17 February 2012

Following a link on twitter this week, I discovered the Google Ngram Viewer, which lets you search for how much certain words appear in books that google have scanned. Through it we can prove that Elvis was a force for good in the world.

If you’re geeky and like graphs, there is a bit of fun to be had with this function of google books. For example, it can be seen that good and bad have both declined in the last 50 years but put in a strong recovery since 2000. Similarly Heaven did not have a good 20th century, but has recovered a bit since the 1980s.

More importantly, we can make spurious conclusions about correlation and causation. For example, see how the increase in mentions of Elvis since 1970 mirrors the decline of evils:

This is clearly evidence that Elvis was a force for good in the world, especially in the years after his death in 1977. Look at how evils increased when mentions of Elvis declined from 2002!  Sure proof if ever I saw it.

Proved beyond all reasonable doubt, I’m sure.


Having argued in print and on the radio (blatant plug, sorry) about how the idea of people expecting the First World war to be ‘over by Christmas’ in 1914 was largely a later construction, I enjoyed this graph

It clearly shows that the peak in the First World War was in 1918 (if you look at the books it appeared in they generally assign the belief to 1914).  Notice also the peaks in 1930 at the height of the myth-reinforcing ‘war books’ boom, 1940 when it looked like the Nazis would win the Second World War, and 1945 when the Allies actually did win it. Of course the sample is not necessarily representative and – as my Elvis example above shows – you can’t really prove anything with these graphs alone. In the case of this myth, the graph is limited because it is only printed books, but together with the general absence of the phrase in newspapers and other written sources in 1914, it is an interesting additional piece of evidence.

The trend in the ‘British English’ books is even more WW2-heavy, but the number of books is very small so I don’t know that it’s much use:


Missed opportunities at Downton

31 October 2011

I suspect I’m not the only person who having done post-graduate research who then shudders at the prospect of a new popular cultural representation of the time and place they studied.  As it turns out, I have quite enjoyed Downton Abbey – more so the first series than the second, but that is mainly down to better plots than the historical mistakes.

It would be all too easy to carp on about these mistakes (the most obvious ones being the bizarre timings of the start and end of the war); instead I thought that I would run through a few storylines I’ve thought of this evening that I think would have been more interesting than, or at least differently interesting to, those they chose. If I ever wrote a fictional book, film or play about the war it would probably involve one or more of these plots ideas.

  • The Earl forces young men in his employ to enlist in 1914 or face the sack and is racked with guilt for it when several are killed (apparently 30 of their staff died, but only one is ever mentioned by name).
  • The Earl (also) becomes a member of the local Military Service Tribunal and thus has to decide the fates of men who do not want to enlist, possibly including (but please, please, not exclusively) Conscientious Objectors. Again potential for guilt, but also a chance to portray the difficulties of deciding one man’s case against another’s.
  • A member of staff or the family is seriously wounded in a way that actually leaves a physical trace – e.g. loss of limbs, or facial disfigurement that the family struggle to deal with (the P. Gordon character almost did thisbut seems to have disappeared again). There is a French film called The Officers’ Ward that deals with this well.
  • One of the daughters becomes a nurse and doesn’t still live at home!
  • One of the maids who go on about leaving service actually does and she works in munitions or something.
  • A character is lauded as a hero (perhaps after winning the VC) but knows in his heart that he did not deserve it.
  • A central character goes missing and doesn’t suddenly turn up at the end of the episode. (Surely tension should be part of a drama!) Or a character is ‘missing presumed dead’ and the family seek information about it. My Boy Jack depicted this very well (along with the guilt of a pro-war father who suffers bereavement – Rudyard Kipling) so maybe that wasn’t allowed, but they could certainly have been missing for longer.
  • German prisoners of war come to work on the farm land to make up for the loss of labour. Good opportunity to let loose some of the visceral anti-German feeling many Britons felt but none of the characters seem capable of; they could also warm to the Germans, or at least come to accept them (as people did). Also an opportunity for a really controversial will-she-won’t-she romantic interlude for one of the daughters.
  • A significant character is suspected of being a spy. Perhaps Mary after her prewar escapade with a man from one of the enemy powers, or maybe the Irish driver because he is clearly anti-British (after 1916) and a bit of a rebel. Or maybe Carson, overheard saying peculiar things on the telephone.

I’m sure there are others, but I think that will do for now, otherwise I risk running into the territory of seriously geeky. Suffice to say, they missed out on a bunch of interesting plots.

Remembrance: War Memorials

11 November 2010

Today, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I submitted my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the last of three about commemoration and remembrance.

At 11 o’clock this morning, I attended a short remembrance ceremony next to the war memorial in my college.  Like many across the country, we marked the two-minute silence for the anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Since 1945, the main official remembrance has been held on the closest Sunday to Armistice Day – i.e. Remembrance Sunday. Despite the revival of the November 11th observance, this Sunday will see the main remembrance events across the country, from Whitehall to village squares.  These events will largely focus around the local (or, in the case of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, national) war memorial.

What exactly are these war memorials for?  What do they tell us?

In his excellent play/film The History Boys, Alan Bennett has one of the teachers delivering this line:

It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

In a way, the teacher Mr Irwin is right, war memorials and commemoration are about forgetting.  Since the character is clearly based on a certain Professor Ferguson , it is not too surprising that the case is stated slightly more cynically and iconoclastically than is justified, though. It is not about ignoring the reasons for the war, but about moving on.  The idea of a site and a time in which the memory of the war and the war dead are focused in about both remembering and forgetting.
War memorials and commemoration serve to remind people who might forget about the sacrifices made for the freedoms we enjoy in this country, and the (unfortunately still present) need to provide for those who fought and fight for those freedoms. The also give those (and, more importantly, gave those in the 1920s) who struggle to get on with their lives in the wake of bereavement in war the chance to focus their grief in one location and one day, hopefully leaving them free to live their lives.

What do war memorials tell us? In France, which suffered far greater losses in both world wars, the war memorials are ‘monuments aux morts’ – monuments to the dead – whereas  French historian Annette Becker has suggested that Anglophone ‘war memorials’ are monuments to the war more broadly. Similarly American historian Jay Winter has referred to commemoration as telling the war story in its local, familial and parochial form.

This is not what war memorials as most people would understand them (i.e. war memorial monuments, or ‘useful’ memorials like cottages, playing fields and hospitals) do.  What they do is serve as a ‘surrogate grave’, a focal point for memories of the war years and of the war dead.  They do not tell us much about those years other than that this group of (usually) men did not return.  They do not tell the story of the war, but rather warn that we should not forget it, and express hope that it will not happen again (how depressing it must have been to add a second generation’s names to these monuments after 1945!). The vast majority of war memorials simply list the war dead, some list all who served (and some churches still display their wartime lists of local men who were serving, alongside their memorials to the war dead).  Beyond the death and less commonly the temporary absence of local servicemen, they do not tell the local story in most cases – although exceptions are out there, such as Colchester’s acknowledgement of the civilian war effort.  They also only rarely express what the war was fought over (or at least the wartime narrative of its purpose) – defending ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘honour’, and saving Britain from the ravages of a ‘frightful’ foe that had killed thousands of Belgian and French civilians and sent others to labour in Germany.  Our war memorials are monuments to the dead, they tell us of the men who did not return to tell their own war stories or to continue their civilian lives.  Now the war story to most people (particularly the local war story of a town or village) is these men and their deaths.

Does this matter?  Isn’t it right that we should remember these men over those who returned.  In one sense, yes, we should – they were not able to become civilians again and live out their days, so we should remember them.  There are two problems with this though. First, we forget those who fought and returned, many of them wounded physically or mentally. Second, by reducing the public story of the war to the deaths of a handful, a few thousand, or a million dead men from the local village or town or from the British Empire, we lose sight of why they fought and why those deaths were felt – at the time – to be acceptable. Without the sense that the Great War was an existential conflict fought for the future of Britain and of freedom and democracy, it seems incredible that so many lives could be sacrificed. Seeing the war as futile is a justified position, particularly since the 1920s and 30s failed to bring world peace and domestic prosperity and a Second World War followed soon after.  We should not project these ideas back to 1916 or 1918, though. The war had a very real meaning for the people who fought then, one strong enough that enormous sacrifices could be justified to win it.

Remembrance: the War Dead

9 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the second of three about commemoration and remembrance.

Anthony King (sociologist at Exeter University, not the politics professor Anthony King) appeared on Thinking Allowed in June talking about changes in the way that the war dead of the ‘Afghan War’ (i.e. Op Herrick, the British mission in Afghanistan since 2001) are presented to the public in contrast to earlier wars.  This was based on his research for an article of his (pdf).

The article is interesting, looking at how soldiers are presented as human beings (and family members), as heroes, and as professionals doing their jobs.  It was based on (a fairly small number of) the websites that the MoD puts online whenever a British serviceman or servicewoman is killed.  Among the insights are comments that I definitely agree with about the public display of intimate relations and personal life that has changed in the last 50 years (since the Korean War, which he talks about) or 90 years (since the Great War, which I know about).  Where I question his findings is about the level of attention given to dead soldiers, sailors and airmen, and their treatment as individuals.  He rightly comments that the way that the state presents the war dead has changed substantially, but I think he downplays or ignores very important aspects of the history of commemoration.

First, the rate of casualties is very low by the standards of the ‘big wars’ of the past.  Really, Herrick is not a big war other than in cost and, importantly, public attention.  342 service personnel have died on active service in Afghanistan since 2001, that is roughly three per month – since the deployment to Helmand the number is 329 and the rate is 6.5 per month. In the Falklands, 258 died in three months, in Korea 1,109 died in three years (37 per month, although actually most were in 1950-51).  In the First World War, 582 servicemen from the British Empire died every day! This is a major part of the reason that the dead of those earlier wars (and especially the Great War) were not given the national and personal treatment that modern war dead are – there would have been nothing else in the newspapers! Added to which, the internet provides an unprecedented arena for the public display of commemoration and appreciation of the war dead, one in which people can take in as much or as little as they wish, without the information crowding out other news.

Second, the dead of the Great War were treated as individuals with personalities in the public notification of their deaths. It is true that national notification came only in lists of casualties (he talks specifically about lists of Korean War casualties), but this was not the only medium for them to be displayed. I have written before about the fallacy that British casualty figures were withheld from the public. The prime medium for this was the local press – local communities were much more important to life in 1918 than in 2008. As well as published casualty figures and ‘war shrines’, there were various ways in which the war dead (and, indeed, other casualties) were reported in local newspapers: King talks about the use of photos and personal details on the MoD page (his examples include the pages for Michael Smith and ‘Tony’ Downes). The passages from comrades and superiors are very similar to those written to families in 1914-18, many of which were reproduced in the local press. Photographs and personal details were also published  locally  during the Great War (see examples on this website). Although often the reports were short (as quoted on this web page) some were longer (see A.B. Machray on this page) . There were also attempts to make a permanent record: local, like the “King’s Book of York Fallen Heroes” at York Minster, with information about 1441 men associated with the town and photos of all but 19 ; and national, such as Du Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour (see an example entry).

The prevalence of local notification and dissemination of information about war casualties shows how important these men’s identities were to those who mourned them and in their local communities.  Rather than presenting the way that men are remembered on the MoD website now as especially novel, I would say that they reflect three main changes: 1, the much lower number and rate of British war deaths in Afghanistan compared to other wars; 2, the increasing importance of individuals and their lives (and deaths) in modern Britain; 3, the increased levels of intimacy in what can be (and is) told in the press; and 4, a change from local identification with the war dead to a national one. Where in 1916, one might read of a the death of a man who went to the local school or worked for a local business, now one reads of people who have similar tastes, interests and concerns to civilians of the same generation, another way of identifying with the dead and bringing their loss home to civilians.  It is important to be aware of the costs of war, both in general terms and in the personal losses suffered by all sides (one change has been increased, but obviously not equal, attention paid to civilian war deaths in war zones).  In terms of the local war dead they did this in the First World War through local newspapers, we do it now nationally through the internet.

Remembrance: Poppies

7 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010 is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the first of three about commemoration and remembrance.

The British Legion’s Poppy campaign has been in the news again this year. Yet again, there has been criticism of Jon Snow, who has rightly proclaimed that part of the freedom for which the World Wars were fought is the freedom to wear his poppy when and where he chooses.  His choice of the word ‘fascism’ in relation to the idea that all (especially on TV) must wear poppies was perhaps a little extreme, but then perhaps not – it really should be up to the individual as he says. (See this piece in the Guardian for reasoned commentary on the matter).

Beyond the poppy-enforcement campaign, there has also been criticism from veterans about the style and aims of the poppy appeal. Some veterans of Britain’s wars since the 1960s have written this letter to the Guardian:

The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year’s campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.

The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of “our Heroes”. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.

Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment “Never Again”.

They certainly have a point, the ‘showbiz hype’ for the launch of the campaign (apparently this year is was launched by the Saturdays singing and some aerobatics (not by the Saturdays) in Colchester – can’t say I noticed either) has very little to do with the horror and futility of war.  Equally, it is indeed hardly ‘heroic’ to be blown up.

On the other hand, though, the whole point is to raise awareness and money for the British Legion and charitable efforts to support veterans.  Would it not be just as insulting not to bother with any kind of launch?  If charities want to raised awareness, don’t they need to take on modern marketing strategies (the poppy was very much in the mould of wartime and prewar charity campaigns, such as flag days). Quite how elderly men and women (or local cadets) selling poppies from a cardboard box does more to highlight the horror and futility of war (the latter surely a matter of opinion) is not clear. In fact, I think this years posters with an amputee and the message ‘It only takes a second to put on a poppy’ are quite effective. Amputees tend not to make the cause of their wounds look sexy and exciting, and these posters will been seen by more people than the showbiz launch.

The British Legion state that their campaign is apolitical and is designed to support the veterans and widows of Britain’s wars, not to promote support for those wars. Fundamentally, this will always be a matter of opinion. Does the campaign accept that wars happen and deal with the consequences, or does it give the government the message that it is okay to launch wars because the BL will pick up the pieces (in this country at least) afterwards? Quite possibly it does both.  Should the campaign and prominent fundraising stop in an attempt to stop the wars?  This line of thought is rather circular, and is (in part) the critique behind the White Poppy for peace.

The glitzy launch for the Poppy Appeal does seem rather crass to me, but then it is for a good cause and is only once a year (and I hadn’t really noticed until reading about it today).  Back in the early post-WW1 years, it was not clear what 11 November should be – there were Balls on Armistice Day at the Albert Hall and drunkenness among ex-servicemen, but these were forced out by the perceived needs of the bereaved for a more sober (literally and metaphorically) reflection of the nation’s losses.  I would like to think that the showbiz launches of poppy appeals recall this, but they do not – they are part of the charity campaign, not celebrations of hard-won peace and freedom.

People will always disagree about the aims and methods of the Poppy Appeal, as with anything to do with wars, and indeed welfare provision.  That people feel strongly enough to argue about it is a good sign, although the enforcement of poppy-wearing is antithetical to what British soldiers have fought most of the major wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for.

(Anyone interested in the early histories of Armistice Day and the British Legion should read Adrian Gregory’s The Silence of Memory, Niall Barr’s The Poppy and the Lion and Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home)

Learning to bear losses

12 August 2010

Earlier this summer, the Prime Minister commented that the nation should expect a spike in casualty numbers as the summer ‘fighting season’ begins, just as Sir Jock Stirrup said last summer in the build-up to operation Panther’s Claw. These are perfectly sensible comments, the number of casualties does increase in the summer in Afghanistan – and, of course, when coalition troops carry out offensive operations.

One such statement at the start of this year struck me as very reminiscent of warnings about casualties in the First World War.  Bob Ainsworth, warning of casualties in Operation Moshtarak, said that

“Of course casualties are something we have to come to expect when we’re involved in these operations and people have had that brought home to them. This is not a safe environment and it doesn’t matter how much kit and equipment we provide for them, we cannot entirely make these operations risk-free…We shouldn’t deny or pretend to people that we can provide security and that casualties are not a very real risk on these kind of operations and people have to be prepared for that.”

Compare that with this memo, issued to the press in 1916:

Together with patience, the nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of officers and men, no superiority, however great, of arms and ammunition, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. […] The aim for which the war is being waged is the destruction of German militarism. Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in such a cause.

The writer was the new commander-in-chief of the army in France and Flanders, Douglas Haig.  These days, Haig is seen as the quintessential callous butcher of the Western Front.  This comment can be read as a heartless disregard for the lives of his men, suggesting that 2 million war deaths would not be too high a price.  Actually, though, it is a recognition – like Ainsworth’s – of the need to link the costs of war to its aims and scale. The war’s are of vastly different scales (Britain’s losses of Afghanistan being similar to those of a small town in 1914-18), but reaction to war deaths is still vitally important.

Work by American academics looking at public opinion have concluded that support for wars is affected by ‘elite cues‘ (whether those politicians/parties with whom one agrees with on other issues support the war), identifiable objectives (or reasons for fighting) and perceived likelihood of success. In their view, casualties are less important – they add to disillusionment if these other factors are lacking.

In the Great War, great losses were largely accepted because the aims were seen as just and important – the defence of the nation and men’s homes and families from an apparently barbarous enemy. The idea that people did not know the level of casualties (repeated, for example, by Walter Lippman) is, frankly, rubbish – at least in terms of the UK.  Lists of the dead were published in national and local press, as were total national casualty figures from 1916. While people believed in eventual (or imminent) accepted the reasons for the war – basically national defence – people continued to support the war.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, it is far from clear to most people why our troops are there. A recent yougov poll for Chatham House showed division between staying the course, coming out in a year or two and withdrawing immediately.  In Iraq, of course, support was partial from the start.

Wars cost lives. It’s an inescapable truth.  The public can cope with it if they think that the war is just and winnable.  If those key beliefs are lost, public support for the war falls away and casualties bring opposition to the war.