Conference Report of inaugural Sir Michael Howard Centre Joint KCL/Oxford PhD Conference, 23 April 2018


April saw the inaugural History of War Conference organised in partnership by King’s College London and the University of Oxford. The event was organised for PhD students from both institutions, sponsored by the Sir Michael Howard Centre and held at KCL’s Strand campus.

The programme consisted of a set of small panel discussions, generally running with two panels in parallel to allow for more speakers. Presentation topics varied widely, from ‘The Identity of the Triarii in the Manipular Legions of Rome’ (Ted Szadzinski) to ‘US Electoral Politics and the Vietnam War’ (Andrew Payne), taking in a remarkable range of subjects in between.  The Panels included: ‘The Political Economy of War’; ‘Military Training & Education’; ‘War & Identity’; ‘War & Legitimacy’; ‘Raising Troops’; ‘Bureaucracies’; and ‘World War II in Asia’. The day closed with a plenary roundtable discussion with Professors Joe Maiolo and David Edgerton from KCL and Professor Peter Wilson from Oxford.

Speakers in the panels had about 15 minutes each, which possibly limited some of them in what they were able to say, but all of them rose to the challenge, without exception giving interesting and thought-provoking presentations. Anyone who has organised a similar conference will recognise the dilemma of trying to fit a lot of excellent presentations into one day while at the same time trying to avoid too many parallel sessions, but a number of the presentations would certainly have been worth a little extra time.

I was able to attend two panels. The ‘Bureaucracies’ panel explored military policy, diplomacy and law. Andrew Erhardt and Thomas Bottelier each examined inter-allied co-operation in the Second World War, highlighting just how internationalised the management of the war became, despite differences between the allies. Mark Baillie focused on British policy making during the Malayan Emergency, showing how an understanding of the ‘official mind’, as opposed to military tactics, is crucial to understanding the prosecution of the campaign. Finally, Ryan Crimmins offered a very different take on bureaucracies in war, sharing some remarkable archival finds detailing courts martial during the Thirty Years War. It was interesting to reflect on the differences in approach demanded by that narrow but very rich evidence when compared to the voluminous but rather drier sources available to historians of the Second World War!

The ‘Second World War in Asia’ panel was a good example of the scope that still exists to find new areas of research even in very familiar fields. Rowena Razak examined the British-Soviet occupation of Persia / Iran in 1941-46, describing how the division of the country re-ignited some aspects of an imperial ‘Great Game’. Further developing this theme, Matt Hefler discussed aspects of a ‘secret war’ waged by local British actors against the Free French authorities in the Levant, with the quiet collusion of Whitehall. Moving further east, Kevin Noles had uncovered some interesting new material to challenge the existing historiography of Japanese attempts to recruit Indian Army prisoners of war to create the Indian National Army to fight against the British. Finally, Woody Di Wu examined Nationalist Chinese naval operations against the Japanese on the Yangtze River, making a compelling case that not enough attention has been paid to how combat between the Chinese and Japanese was actually conducted. These latter two presentations brought home the importance of finding and using less familiar archival sources, particularly when looking at war outside Europe.

The roundtable discussion asked Professors Maiolo, Edgerton and Wilson to try to draw things together, not an easy task given the sheer breadth of the topics covered. Prof Maiolo noted that the conference had highlighted that there are still neglected areas of research to be explored even in familiar periods and conflicts, and that some well-established ‘shorthands’ are still worth re-examining in the light of previously unexplored archival sources. Prof Wilson noted the need to balance understanding of the changing character of conflict with a recognition of the continuities of war. Prof Edgerton suggested that some of the day’s presentations had shown that the history of war was perhaps more independent of traditional military and diplomatic history than we might think, and potentially more interdisciplinary in nature. But he challenged the audience to consider whether there is something specific about the military experience of war that demands a specific approach. The conversation then moved to wider topics, most notably the need to engage a more diverse range of voices and experiences in the history of war. One interesting tension that was identified was that between broadening the definition of ‘war’ or ‘military’ history to include a wider range of topics and therefore attract a more diverse group of historians – the very well-received ‘Stuff of War’ conference is a good example of this – and the need to recruit a more diverse cohort to work in what was seen as ‘core’ military history, with its continuing emphasis on the conduct and experience of military operations. In closing, Prof Edgerton suggested that what is needed is not more history, but history that challenges the ‘lessons of history’ narratives that can be so prevalent in contemporary debates.

Future events – and hopefully there will be future editions of this conference – might benefit from being promoted more proactively to a wider audience, and allowing the speakers a little more time to explore their topics in more depth. However, those were relatively minor concerns that didn’t detract greatly from what was an excellent and very worthwhile conference, that showcased some of the high quality and interesting research being done at both Oxford and KCL.

Image: Sir Michael Howard, via the Sir Michael Howard Centre.

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