Conference Report: Two Day Conference in War and Peace Studies, School of History, University of Leeds, 15-16 June


Vanda Wilcox completed a DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2006 before moving to Rome, where she now teaches at John Cabot University. She has published on Italian military leadership, training and battlefield performance as well as the popular experience and memory of the First World War in Italy. A member of the International Society for First World War Studies since 2003, she is now working on the imperial and colonial aspects of Italy’s war experience. You can purchase her first book, Morale and the Italian Army during the First World War, here.

Although Professor John Gooch officially retired from his professorship in international history at the University of Leeds in 2011, in his Emeritus position he continues to actively research and publish. Moreover, he clearly continues to inspire the department which he twice led. With this in mind, the School of History organised a two day conference in War and Peace Studies which both highlighted the research culture there and brought speakers from further afield to celebrate his career.

The conference followed a rather traditional pattern, with the first day reserved for postgraduates and the second – the officially designated day in honour of John Gooch – for established scholars. The traditionalism was extended to the absence of a conference hashtag – this was quite disconcerting to a few of us on arrival, showing how rapidly we’ve become used to integrating social media into our conference participation! Thursday 15 June saw a good mixture of Masters and PhD students from Leeds presenting their research on war and peace, showcasing a wide variety of approaches and time periods. The opening panel on medieval warfare offered four papers which addressed a range of approaches to the topic – from portrayals of gender (Charlotte Brown) to ideas about ambush and military trickery (James Titterton) through models of heroic conduct (Jack Litchfield) to the usefulness of the idea of tournament as a model for understanding warfare (Eleanor Wilkinson-Keys); these papers also drew on a considerable range of sources, including contemporary chronicles, theological writings, material culture and poetry. Collectively the panel illustrated the great strength of medieval studies at Leeds. It offered excellent examples of the importance of a broad conception of the study of warfare, belligerence and military practices and showed how these both speak to and illuminate in their turn the social, cultural, political and even religious history of their day. It was also a pleasure to see a balanced panel in terms of gender, which was otherwise a rather disappointing aspect of the conference (with only one woman giving a paper on the second day), especially given the considerable attention currently being paid to the issue of women as historians of war elsewhere in UK academia.

After lunch a panel on ‘Total War’ was rather less cohesive, but highlighted the role of political and cultural approaches to twentieth century warfare too, alongside a more traditional military focus. The session opened with Harry Sanderson’s persuasive paper on the importance of formation-level training at the battle of the Somme, with a focus on the important role of Sir Ivor Maxse. Sanderson observed that training success, achievable at divisional level and in a highly specific local context even in 1916, was not easily scalable nor necessarily transferrable to a new sector. Scott Ramsey gave a stimulating reinterpretation of British policy towards the Spanish Civil War as a form of Appeasement, an approach which invited us to significantly reconsider the peripheral role often assigned to Spain in the European balance of power in this period. The session concluded in Occupied Singapore with a look at Japanese internment policies, which Emily Sharp analysed from a cultural perspective through personal narratives, highlighting the ways in which gendered and racial assumptions, along with class, strongly inflected experiences of internment. The final panel session of the day considered Small Wars. Sam Ellis gave an extremely informative assessment of the Gurkhas’ military and political culture, and its interaction with British army institutions, in order to offered an interesting perspective on their participation in the 1857 Rising. To conclude, Matt Lord – co-convenor of the event – tackled the difficult question of how to reward heroism and award military honours in ‘dirty’ wars: ever since British intervention in Oman, a tendency towards secrecy and silence has developed, raising interesting questions about the very nature and purpose of the honours system.

In the evening, General James Cowan, CEO of the Halo Trust, gave an entertaining and stimulating talk on the British army’s current situation and possible future development using the battle of Waterloo as a framework for thinking about leadership and strategy. Interspersed with personal reflections from his own distinguished career, General Cowan offered an excellent illustration of the ways in which military history can be used to inform contemporary debate over military policy and practice.

On Friday the invited speakers had been chosen not only from among John Gooch’s friends and former PhD students, but to reflect and highlight the breadth of his own research interests. A panel on the First World War opened the day, followed by speakers on the inter-war period and the Second World War. William Philpott (King’s College, London) opened proceedings with an enlightening look at Italo-French relations during the war, observing that French military policy towards its ally evolved through coordination, supervision, support and finally active collaboration (or, to put it another way, grew steadily more interfering!) As he observed, despite rich sources such as Fayolle’s diaries there is almost no work on this important topic either in France or in Italy – an ideal PhD, perhaps? After this, I spoke on Italy’s imperial ambitions in the First World War, before conference organiser Holger Afflerbach (Leeds) gave a thoughtful paper on the process of German defeat in 1918, which as he noted remains an arena of lively debate despite the many scholarly accounts of the end of the war which have emerged over the last century. Tracing the complex relationships between military outcomes, political leadership and international pressure, he argued persuasively that the German army was ‘defeated but not destroyed’ in the autumn of 1918 and that this nuance helps to explain many of the medium and longer-term legacies of this defeat.

Nir Arielli (Leeds) gave a fascinating paper on the role played by Italian colonial troops in the suppression of anti-Italian colonial revolt. The key forces in the brutal repression of the revolt against Italian rule in Libya were in fact Eritrean (and Somali) Ascari. The question of the part which colonial forces have played in small wars and counter-insurgency operations is one which has been little studied and which offers the potential for new insights into social and political dynamics of empire as well as military structures (as, indeed, Sam Ellis had observed the day before). Another little-known aspect of Fascist Italy’s military activities was addressed by Macgregor Knox (LSE): the role it played in state-sponsored terrorism. As an aspiring ‘Pope of anti-democracy’, Mussolini was willing to back both ideologically aligned terror groups and those whose goals happened to coincide with Italian interests; this was a form of interim measure, a prelude to direct Italian military intervention. But Knox observed that Mussolini was a poor military leader and also, perhaps, a poor terrorist mastermind, whose covert operations had limited impact.

Jürgen Förster (Freiburg) gave a fascinating account of his work on the official (West) German history of the Second World War. As the nation struggled with its own past, the task of recounting that conflict was far from simple, and Förster’s own writing on German atrocities and mass murder led to direct personal attacks on him in the press. At the heart of his account of an enormous and truly impressive endeavour of collaborative scholarship lay some important open questions: what’s the purpose of official history of war? Is it for scholarly purposes, for the general public, or for professional military education? Can or should it be for all these audiences, and what tensions are placed upon the scholars who undertake the work by these often competing interests?

Hew Strachan’s concluding remarks on John Gooch and his work were both moving and enlightening. Opening with the observation that it was a little like giving a best man’s speech but without the drinking stories, he traced Gooch’s academic career and intellectual trajectory, highlighting both the breadth of his interests and the very considerable impact which his work has had on the study of strategy and in the field of Italian military history. As Strachan said, Gooch both elevated scholarly standards in military history and took the field into exciting new areas, whether in his own research or through his role in founding the Journal of Strategic Studies, and the Army Historical Records Society. More important even than this distinguished career though is his generosity, friendship and integrity to which all the speakers present, and many military historians who could not be there, could attest. It was an honour to participate in the event and like others there, I look forward to seeing John again at future conferences.

Image: Italian forces in the Isonzo Valley in October 1917, via Bing.

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