What are you going to teach at Birmingham?
I'm quite lucky that I got a job which speaks directly to what I find interesting or what I research, that being the social cultural issue of the First World War predominantly. Most of my teaching revolves around that. So for first year undergraduates I'm doing ‘Practising History’ and we'll be building my independent study topic around in the first term on endurance on the Western front, and looking at the ways that soldiers made sense of and endured the Great War. In popular imagination, combatants were victims lacking agency, but it would have been impossible to survive or come to terms with the conflict if they had viewed themselves that way; nobody would have survived the war emotionally or physically. Then in the second term we’ll look at the way that perspective and scale can change our understanding of the First World War. So we'll look at a series of books which kind of take that as their premise, and give us a new perspective on the conflict. We’ll look at a microhistory of the siege of Przemyśl, which took place in Galicia on the Eastern front in 1914. A book by David Olusoga, which is called World’s War, which demonstrates the importance of having global perspective because it was inherently imperial conflict, and we lose a lot if we don't remember that. And then, thirdly, a book by Robert Gerwath that demonstrates the need to extend our temporal horizons beyond 1914 to 1918. It looks at 1917 through to 1923 and the violence that came out of the war and affected the peace treaties afterwards. So yeah, just thinking about how either scale and time can transform the way that we understand an event.
I'll also be teaching Pandora's Box, a second-year optional module focused on Europe during the First World War, and I have responsibility for three weeks, which are going to focus on the Spanish flu pandemic, empires, and peace making. It might be a too prescient for the students! But we'll be thinking about the world's last great pandemic. We'll be thinking about peace-making, and how people made peace in 1918, 1919 and into the 1920s. And we'll also be thinking about the Imperial perspective of the war in particular, the Blue water Empires of Britain and France. And if you want to engage in that debate as well, the United States, what did they bring to the table? And how did it allow the Allies, in particular, to emerge victorious from the conflict?
And then I'm also going to be taking a second-year option where we investigate Birmingham during the First World War, so the Home Front during the conflict. Students will be basically driving that but I'll give them the framework to consider what aspects they want to investigate. This might range from the city’s economic and industrial contribution to the war effort; gender relations; health; recruitment and conscription; responses to the declaration of war; the treatment of Belgian refugees; or the local commemoration of 1914-18.
And then at Master's level, I'll be convening the Masters in First World War Studies, which I will also be teaching alongside Dr Jonathan Boff. I lead the modules on Research Skills: Sources and Methods in First World War Studies; Home Fires Burning: Life on the Home Fronts during the First World War; and (next year) Good-bye to All That: Experiences and Representations of the First World War.
That's it, alongside any individual dissertation supervision I may do.
It sounds like you’re teaching things aren’t covered in much depth at GCSE or A Level?
I think so. I think it the good thing about teaching the First World War is that students have a good grounding in it, because they have a knowledge base which can be built upon which isn't true of every subject. But I guess the difficulty, then, is you have to break down some preconceived notions of it, to enter the newer and more exciting dimensions of this topic. But it does really help that people have some basic facts. I’m designing one of the Special Subjects for next academic year which I’m calling Microhistories of the First World War, and we'll basically take some of the key themes in the historiography of the Great War including the conflict’s global dynamics, local experiences, the face of battle, ‘side-shows’, life behind the lines, domestic life and gender roles, or love and friendship. But we'll study them through microhistories. I'll give the student sources and ask them to create their own microhistory out of that source as we consider how can you use one event, one person, or one place, and tell a story which is more significant than the sum of its parts?
That neatly follows on from the teaching we do on ‘History in Theory and Practice’ in the second year as well?
That's the intention. I have spent a lot of time with social scientists and think that they can be too focused on methodology. Saying that, I do find the way that we approach the past an exciting thing, and thinking about our approaches or our methods. And in particular, I find this idea of scale one that's really interesting, because I think people kind of discounted local history for a long time, because it was seen to be like the passion of amateur historians. I'm not saying that we should classify people as amateur historians, because often they do really interesting work. But it kind of meant that historians, professional historians, didn't have local as their, like, primary focus of the piece of work. But what we've seen through the first studies of the local and First World War is that all of these assumptions that we have about the experience at the national level often don't filter down to the local and the way that people experience it on a street by street basis completely differed. So, having a homogeneous idea of what it was to go through the First World War is basically futile, and it's only by looking at it that way that you start to pick that up. Also, you see how crises morph and change, I don't know, the U-boat crisis in 1917 and it's easy to classify that, and see how it would lead to food shortages, but actually the experience of that crisis in one home or in one place on the Western Front doesn't necessarily feed perfectly from U-boats to food shortages, not being able to get your carrots, or whatever it might be, and actually like the way that people adapt and respond tells a really interesting story which disrupts that process, that I think you're going to see if they're just taking a top down perspective.
One of the best things about History at the University of Birmingham is that often students will be taught by lecturers who publish new research on what they teach. What kinds of things have you published, or what are you likely to be publishing in the near future
Yes. I'm scarily coming close to the end of my first big project, which, as I said earlier, looks at morale. My work up to this point has kind of pivoted around that or explored issues that are adjacent to it. As such, my first publication looked at the relationship between morale and people's perceptions of the future, and hopes for the future. And I use literature from psychology which is called Hope Theory which argues that hope is a cognitive goal, not an emotion. To think about how hope helped soldiers and individuals to navigate the conflict.
Since then I published about the use of postcards in the maintenance of relationships during the war, so those going from soldiers to the home front and those going from back to soldiers and looking at how they allowed soldiers to interact with their loved ones at home. The pictures helped individuals, many of whom were semi-literate, to really depict their lives with a vibrancy that is not immediately apparent if you only read their letters? They also reveal that these were more than just passive actors. They were tourists, and they were experiencing something they sensed was important and worth recording. It could be quite exciting as much as it was also distressing and horrible at various points. Another piece of work I've done in talking about scale is a microhistory of some vegetable shows that took place on the Western front in 1917 and 1918, and looking at how men behind the lines made sense of the war in a very different way to frontline soldiers at the sharp end of the conflict. It considers how they use the law to try and build the relationship with the land also to create some sense of agency, to make sense of time, and also to supplement that diet. This was an initiative to try and help to supplement their foodstuffs, and then was used by the military to try and actually make themselves more self-sufficient.
I've also read about national identity. I have an article which is in press, coming out in the English Historical Review about English patriotism and national identity during the First World War. It looks at how soldiers reflected upon their own sense of Englishness, and basically I’m arguing that, despite a lot of literature which argues that by 1914 there was a real sense of Britishness, and a strong like homogeneous sense of what it meant to be English or British, that actually the local and the parish and the civic identities of people at the time were far more important, and at least, at the forefront of their minds. And, strangely, that the Empire played less of a role than maybe historians have argued. That was also basically the foundation for my book which is going to come out, hopefully, in 2023, with Cambridge University Press, which is Making Sense of the Great War: Crisis, Englishness, and Morale on the Western Front. And in that I chart how soldiers made sense of that experience: from seeing the war as a journey and making sense of the landscapes that confronted them by renaming it or gardening, through to renaming trenches, or of their experience of sound and smell, their perception of the past and the future, and their relationship with home, the military. I argue that there's one moment in the war which we can really conceive of as a crisis moment it's this period from 1917 to 1918, and I try and explain why that happens, but also why it proved not to be something that fundamentally undermines the morale of the soldiers. I take that from start to finish and try to recreate the experiences of a few units, and understand why it was that it was so horrible, but also not potentially as destructive as it might have otherwise.
Can you tell us a bit about the new MA in First World War Studies?
It stems from the fact that Birmingham has a wealth of experts on the First World War, and I think the impetus was that we should make use of this expertise in War Studies. Specifically we can offer a programme that gives students different options for postgraduate study. So, firstly it's part-time, and takes place on Saturdays, so I think it really does work around people's schedules in a way that a lot of masters, even part-time masters, don't. Then I think that the other feature of it which is pretty unique, is that it's taking place in London in the National Army Museum, so it's taking place in a location which is steeped in the history of the war itself. This will give us access to some of the archival material there, and should give us the ability to do something very different with the master's programme. So we talk about research-led teaching, but we're going to be in a place where you can actually do the research itself. And I think that that really is the key focus. With that comes the fact that it's made up of a series of compulsory modules that will give students a really strong grounding in First World War Studies. It's a subject that has been so well-studied, and is so rich in primary and secondary material, that I believe it is one of the most perfect topics to really gain the grounding and history of the discipline as a whole. Because you can study how different historical Schools and different historical approaches have influenced the study of the war. There are so many different sources, too, and you tackle topics by using things as varied as material culture from archaeology through to oral history. Ultimately, the paths our students taken will depend on their interests and could lead to a dissertation in military tactics or gender relations. It is a kind of a petri dish where you can become a really well-rounded historian, explore your interests, and jump onto further studies, whether or not those are on the First World War. Once you walk away from the Masters, you'll be able to tackle any subject with some sense of authority, even if it's not the First World War. It’s something that could lead to a PhD or just doing something to do for interest’s sake as well. I think it's a masters that really speaks to that because there are a lot of people that are just fascinated by the First World War, for whatever reason it might be personal or intellectual. And it's a programme which will give you a really, really thorough perspective and understanding of it. And although it's focused on Britain it's also going to have a global scope as well.
Last, but not least, tell us how you got into this. Where did you do your degree? What got you into the subjects that you're interested in now?
I started at Kings College, London, where I did history as an undergraduate, and one of the benefits of doing your degree in London was that you have access to other universities as part of the University of London network. I had always had an interest in military history, and nearly did War Studies but decided that I wanted to do a more pure history degree. And over the course of that programme, because Kings is very focused on social and cultural history, history and memory things along those lines, those two things are kind of morphed.
When I got to my third year, and I did my Special Subject at Goldsmiths in First World War studies, and that basically snowballed. I finished my undergraduate programme thinking “I really enjoyed that”. I’d done very well on my dissertation, and I’d got this fascination with morale. But I think I thought I'd exhausted my interest in furthering my academic endeavours, and all it took was six months of working in sales to make me realize I hadn't, and so I applied for a PhD at the London School in Economics, and I was quite lucky to get my place at the LSE and my scholarship in the LSE without having to just do a masters, which was going to actually be at Kings again.
My undergraduate thesis sparked an interest in morale. I looked at the relationship between training and morale and decided that I wanted to explore that further, by incorporating issues like identity, issues like military organisation, military culture, to try and investigate what the nature of morale was in a little bit more deep and thorough manner. So that's what got me to the LSE which is where I then completed my PhD, which was interested in how morale was influenced by soldiers’ relationships with their environment. Their physical environment and also their social groups at home and in the military. I also became interested in the nature of crisis. So how do people experience and make sense of crises as they confront them. My research was brought home during Covid, because I argue that crisis takes two forms, chronic and acute, an acute crisis being something you have to respond to, but a chronic crisis being something that is almost perpetual, that you have to adapt to, because you don't have the agency or the ability to change it. My supervisor didn't agree with me! But then, when it came to Covid, they emailed me, and said now they understand that chronic crises can actually can exist. I was also really lucky that the LSE offered me the opportunity to teach social sciences. So that's the other thing that I try and do is incorporate a theory from anthropology, psychology, sociology into my work on the cultural history of warfare, just because I feel like history is very good at using old theory, but not necessarily new theory from other disciplines, but also if you're looking at mentalities which is really what cultural history is about it's very easy to assume agency because we're given narratives to people who've crafted, and they've thought through, but so much of the world is unconscious, and sometimes you need to look elsewhere to try and be able to understand how the unconscious can influence the past because everything's given to us through a filter. So yeah, that's where I where I got to over the course of my earlier career in London predominantly.
That was a really great opportunity?
Yes, I had the opportunity to go and do an interdisciplinary course and teach alongside them to anthropologists and political scientists, and sociologists, and economists, which is a really eye-opening experience. I think it gave me a sense of what we lack sometimes as historians, but also what we have and the things that are good about history. So the most important thing, I think, is that we're not overly theoretical. I think we could probably theorise a little bit more sometimes, but I think it's probably a good thing that we don't have to spend twenty percent of our dissertations or our books explaining our methodology because well, firstly, I think a lot of people talk about methodologies very effectively. But, secondly, I just don't think that you need to theorise it as far as social scientists often do. So I feel a more rounded historian having spent most of my career outside of history!