A Part of History

A Part of History is rather an odd book. It’s a collection of essays about the Great War, but I defy anyone to guess what the criteria for selection were. Some essays are strictly academic; others are chatty. Some give a detached overview; at least one is pure furious polemic. Some essays seem a bit too short; the longest could definitely have done with some strict editing. No wonder Hew Strachan gave the book a very snooty review in the TLS the other week.

Despite all this, I’ve been enjoying the book greatly. As a collection, it’s a bit of a mess, but it gives an idea why academic study of the war is fun.

First of all there’s variety.  Gary Sheffield gives a succinct account of the war from a revisionist perspective, explaining in seven pages exactly why military historians have gone beyond describing the war as an essay in futility. Two chapters later, and Julian Putkowski is making the case for the pardons granted to executed deserters, and doing so by rubbishing the whole revisionist enterprise. A casual reader (an A-Level student, say, or a foreigner unprepared for the passions that this war arouses among the British) might well be confused by the contradictions here – but would certainly come away with the impression that Great War studies are lively.

Some of the essays are very good indeed. Stephen Badsey on ‘Press, Propaganda and Public Perceptions’ cuts through a lot of mythologising about the power of propaganda in the war.  Dominic Hibberd gives a very clear history of the ways that anthologies of Great War poetry have reflected the times in which they were compiled. Jane Potter is good on women, Brian Bond on C.E.Montague, and Dan Todman (another victim of Putkowski’s anger) on Remembrance.

Ian Bostridge writes just four pages on Britten’s War Requiem, and  made me want to read more. Tony Pollard on trench archaeology makes me want to know more, too.

These are good introductions to their subjects, but Terry Castle’s essay is really just an introduction to herself, as she natters away about family history,  Vera Brittain and running up escalators. She is surprised that Kipling showed compassion for deserters, and claims “there must be a lost baby picture of me – at my father’s perhaps? – in which I look just like Mel Gibson in Gallipoli. Glug, glug, glug!” What on earth is this doing in a book of academic essays? Or am I just being old-fashioned.

Dan Todman has called attention to the fact that when Julian Putkowski attacks his work, this is in large part based on comments from Trench Fever, Dan’s blog. Dan objects to “selective and out of context quotation” as well he might, but of course academics have been quoting each other’s books selectively and unfairly for years. The trouble is that blogs make this easier. Just cut’n’paste. And it raises the question of the status of a blog post. Are they considered formal discourse or chatty conversation? Is it fair to quote them against the author in print when you probably wouldn’t quote an unguarded comment that someone made in a pub? On the continuum between public statement and private chat, I guess they’re about half-way.

It’s made me think about my own blogging. Some things I write down in an attempt to get them straight in my head. Others I note because they’re topical. Occasionally I just type away because I feel like it, having had a couple of glasses of Rioja (you can generally tell these posts by the spelling errors).

I get things wrong; I change my mind. I occasionally look back to the first posts two years ago, and think, “I wouldn’t write that now, being older and wiser.” Occasionally though, I find something else, and say, “Yes, of course! How could I forget that?”

Since, unlike Dan, I’m not on the verge of a glittering academic career, I don’t really mind if some people read the blog and think it’s rotten – I can live with that. The advantages (making academic contacts, being put right when I’ve got things wrong and – best of all – hearing from  descendants of the novelists I study) easily outweigh the disadvantages. Maybe things would be different, though, if I was trying to sell my skills in an academic market, where dispproving professors might want to seize on unguarded comments.

As for the Putkowski-Todman debate, I’m on Dan’s side about pardons. And looking back on the time when Des Browne granted the pardons,  I remember thinking that the online debate about the subject was  more interesting and wide-ranging than anything I saw in the newspapers. When historical controversy collides with public policy, the Internet comes into its own.



  1. Posted November 18, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I agree that the book demonstrates the vitality of some First World War studies, but by no means all, and I think it would be disappointing if it got stuck down in a largely fabricated ‘revisionist vs traditionalist’ framework. And it’s for that reason that I’d take issue slightly with being cast as the alternative view to Putkowski (although that’s certainly how he portrays me too). From one point of view, there’s probably less that separates us than he might like to think. We’re both irritated by the misuse of history. That was the point of my post that he quotes in mutilated form – not that I object to these men being pardoned, but that I object to the ahistoric way in which it was done. Although history tends to be presented in the media as about oppositions, often it’s more about fruitful interactions. That’s one of the best things about a lot of First World War studies now, and I’m not sure how clearly that got across in the book.

  2. Posted November 18, 2008 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    When Julian Putkowski began his work on the “Shot at Dawn” question, he opened up some extremely interesting and challenging historical questions. The problem is that the essay in this book does not show him at his best, since it gets bogged down in answering back at his critics. Another reason for thinking the book poorly edited.
    An objective history of the campaign for pardons would be incredibly interesting – an excellent Ph.D. topic, maybe – for what it shows about memory, official and private, and about attitudes to history of different governments.
    One thing I’m doing is collecting together early descriptions (fact and fiction) of executions, from the war years and the twenties. Very revealing about attitudes to the war, and to what was expected of soldiers.

  3. Julian Putkowski
    Posted November 24, 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m uninterested in a Phd but gimme a decent advance and I’ll happily write about the Shot at Dawn campaign.


  4. Posted November 24, 2008 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    If there are any publishers reading this, I hope they take up Julian’s offer – it could be a best-seller.

  5. Posted November 27, 2008 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Indeed: one of the things that Julian pointed out in his comments on my work was that The Great War, Myth and Memory lacks a detailed analysis of the representation of those shot at dawn, and the campaign for them to be pardoned. He’s absolutely right, and this would be a great angle into investigating the complex and various means by which myths of the war developed (not myths as untruths, but myths as widely shared beliefs) and have been used by subsequent generations. Some of this is hinted at in Nicolas Offenstadt’s Les Fusiles de la Grande Guerre et la Memoire Collective (1914-1999), (Paris, 1999), but this is quite a wide ranging book and definitely doesn’t cover all the ground. Whatever stance one takes on pardons, the topic of the campaign is definitely worthy of much greater study.

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