Conference Report: International Society for First World War Studies conference, ‘War Time’

Hanna Smyth (with Adam Luptak & Louis Halewood)

– War Time co-organisers, Globalising and Localising the Great War, University of Oxford.

The 9th conference of the International Society for First World War Studies was held at the University of Oxford on 9-11 November. Each year a different theme is chosen (such as ‘Landscapes’ and ‘Other Fronts, Other Wars’), but each ISFWWS conference aims to uphold the same tone of encouraging collegiality established by ISFWWS co-founders Jenny Macleod and Pierre Purseigle.

‘War Time’ was held at the Maison Française d’Oxford and organised by a team of PhD students and postdocs from Oxford’s Globalising and Localising the Great War research network. 2016, as the midpoint of the First World War formal centenary period, marked a significant opportunity to re-examine and reflect upon the ways that time has been conceptualised both during the war itself and in the hundred years of scholarship that have followed. The conference sought to reveal and contextualise new chronologies, pursued along flexible and multiple timelines, and particularly encouraged transnational and comparative work.

The conference welcomed 85 First World War academics from 11 countries, beginning with a drinks reception on 9th November followed by two days of conference proceedings and then an affiliated public engagement day on the 12th.

One of the most striking features about this conference was its format, which was inherited from the ISFWWS. No conference papers were given during the event: instead the 18 conference papers were circulated more than a month in advance. All 18 were written by PhD students and early-career researchers. 18 more senior academics were handpicked to be matched to these 18 junior paper authors to provide invited commentaries at the conference. During the event, each panel consisted of commentary and discussion on a pair of papers: each ten-minute commentary was followed by an opportunity for the paper author to respond to their commentator’s remarks, and then the floor was opened to discussion.

The encouragement and generosity of the invited commentators towards the beginning researchers they were paired with was a standout feature of the conference, praised by many. Their commentaries were incisive, full of questions and directions to explore further, and it was an interesting role-reversal to have senior academics giving précis of their junior colleagues’ work as part of their comments.

ISFWWS conferences aim to encourage interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, and War Time was no exception. The nine conference panels were titled:

  • Aerial Time
  • Endgame
  • Medical Time
  • Soundscapes of Time
  • Ideological Timelines
  • Personal Memories and Experiences
  • Materiality on the Home Front
  • Discursive Time
  • Anticipation

 

The full program can be accessed on the conference website here.

‘War Time’ was opened and closed by three keynote speakers: Professor Sir Hew Strachan (University of St Andrews), Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin / University of Oxford), and Professor Margaret MacMillan (University of Oxford), speaking on strategic planning, time-frames of the war, and moving from war to peace, respectively. These keynotes were recorded by the University of Oxford’s recording team and will be available online shortly.

At the end of the first day, the winner and runner-up of the “WWI Research Competition” were announced. This was a competition run by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), unaffiliated with the conference and with an entirely separate selection committee. It was open to all students, staff and faculty at the University of Oxford who had original ideas for engaging and accessible research projects relating to the conflict. Coincidentally, the winner of the prize was War Time conference committee member Dr. Alice Kelly (currently Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute), for her podcast ‘Remembering before the end: death and the Great War’ which can be accessed here. Runner-up was JC Niala, a Creative Writing masters student, for her podcast ‘African Soldiers in WWI: Forgotten in a global war’ which can be accessed here.

During the concluding remarks of the conference another prize was announced: the Gail Braybon Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper. This was selected by the conference committee with input from an ISFWWS representative, and was open to those of the 18 conference papers whose authors do not already have their doctorates. The winning paper was “‘It is at night-time that we notice most of the changes in our life caused by the war’: Zeppelins, Time and Space in Great War London”, by Assaf Mond of Tel Aviv University. Assaf’s paper also sparked excellent discussion during the conference, particularly on his innovative analysis of ‘child time’ versus ‘adult time’ during war.

Three of the Defense Studies Department’s researchers attended the conference in invited capacities. Dr. Helen McCartney was asked to serve as commentator for Ashley Garber’s paper ‘Age, Generations and the Life Cycle in Comradeship after the Great War’ on the Personal Memories and Experiences panel; Dr. David Morgan-Owen was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor Sir Hew Strachan; and Dr. Aimee Fox-Godden was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor John Horne. Dr. Fox-Godden also contributed by joining the conference team and a few other attendees in prolifically live-tweeting the proceedings to make them accessible to a wider audience, in what one academic following from a distance called “the best twitter coverage of a conference ever”. A Storify from the conference is available here.

Following the conference on 12th November was a public engagement day, for which the conference partnered with Oxford’s Academic IT department to run a ‘Community Collection Day’ as part of the Europeana14-18 initiative. Twenty conference delegates and organisers spent the day as part of the volunteer team staffing the event. Members of the public brought in FWW-related documents and artefacts; they were interviewed about their contributions by conference volunteers, before their items were digitised by further conference volunteers under the supervision of Academic IT digitization specialists. The event also featured a series of short talks by conference delegates and community representatives, including Liz Woolley (66 Men of Grandpont project), Sarah Wearne (Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme author), and Alison Patron (National Trust: Sandham Memorial Chapel). Volunteers from the Museum of Oxford were also on hand providing FWW-related craft activities for children.

The rationale for the public engagement day was that, although it was fantastic to bring an international cohort of 85 FWW specialists together for the conference, it was also quite exclusive and inaccessible to other interested parties; especially since this event was fully booked with a waiting list more than three months beforehand. It would have been unfortunate to have such a concentrated pool of expertise visiting Oxford and not find ways to share that with the conference’s host community, and so the organisers were very grateful for the generosity of those delegates who made time to engage with the public on the 12th.

If you would like to become a member of the ISFWWS, membership information is available at http://www.firstworldwarstudies.org/membership.php. Locations and details for the 2017 and 2018 ISFWWS conferences are still pending. The organisers of ‘War Time’ intend to publish the proceedings in due course.

On behalf of the conference organising committee, many thanks to the paper authors, keynotes, commentators, chairs, and delegates who filled War Time with such an abundance of fruitful and dynamic discussions.

Image courtesy of St Agnes Museum.

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