Conference Report

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 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.

Conference Report: 1916: The Cost of Attrition


This summer, I was fortunate to have been invited to present a paper at the Australian War Memorial’s 1916: The Cost of Attrition conference. In late July, a number of academics from the Anglophone world assembled in Canberra to explore the events of 1916, focusing on the impacts of this particularly violent year. Befitting a conference in Australia, there was considerable emphasis on the experiences of Dominion forces. The conference also brought together some talented early career researchers to present their work on the First World War.

One of the key themes that emerged for me was how differently the events of 1916 are remembered across the world. Of course, this should not have been a surprise, but having come fresh from Britain, with its prominent commemorations of the battles of the Somme and Jutland, it was a bit of revelation that battle of the Somme holds far less fascination for the public in former Dominion nations. Tim Cook, from the Canadian War Museum, highlighted this is his keynote address: In Canada, there were no formal commemorations of the battle. Public, and by extension government, interest there is firmly focused on the anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017. Glyn Harper of Massey University highlighted a similar phenomenon in New Zealand where an officially sponsored tour of the Somme battlefield scheduled for this year was canceled from lack of interest. Closer to home in Europe, for the public of Germany and France, of course, the battle of Verdun is the most significant event of 1916, while the battle of the Somme has received far less attention.

What attention is given to the battle of the Somme in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand appears to be focused on individual elements of the battle or specific events of 1916: For Australia, the ill-fated diversionary offensive at Fromelles and the attempts to capture Pozières feature. Pozières again features for the Canadians, and for New Foundlanders Beaumont Hamel is significant. This underlines the increasing ‘componency’ of the British army during the war, with each Dominion component becoming more aware of its own unique identity as the war progressed. These identities forged during the war helped shape how the war has been remembered, a point highlighted by papers from Peter Burness and Daniel Eisenberg, both from the Australian War Memorial.

However, at the same time these components were developing their own identities, speakers made clear they were also becoming more integrated into the British army as a whole. Aimee Fox-Godden from King’s College London spoke about how the lessons from the fighting in France in 1916 were disseminated and adapted in other theatres of the war. This point was reinforced by Jean Bou’s paper on the operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Meleah Hampton (Australian War Memorial), Robert Stevenson (Australian War Memorial), and Michael Molkentin (Shellharbour Anglican College) showed how the AIF relied upon the rest of the British army for its doctrine, force structure, and also for direct support in battle. Glyn Harper and Tim Cook demonstrated the same for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This point was reinforced by Andrew Simpson in his paper on the development of corps as a key level of command during the war. Jim Beach from the University of Northampton highlighted the significance of intelligence provided by the GHQ of the British Expeditionary Force for all its components.

Appropriately for a conference about the cost of attrition, another of the key themes developed over the course of the conference was the challenge of meeting the demand for manpower. Jean Beaumont from the Australian National University spoke about the often-bitter debates over the conscription referendum in Australian politics in 1916 and 1917. Tim Cook spoke about how the conscription debate as well as the wider debate about manpower highlighted the deep divisions between Anglophone and Francophone Canada. Linked to this was another issue of developing a sustainable force structure. Robert Stevenson and Michael Molkentin spoke about the difficulty the Australians faced in maintaining the units of the AIF at full fighting strength, particularly when faced with fresh demands on manpower created from the need for new types of units (e.g., heavy artillery or air squadrons).

A third theme that stood out over the conference was the experience of the attritional combat during the year. Meleah Hampton and Glyn Harper covered combat on the Somme, particularly the hard slogging for small gains in territory. The British historian Peter Barton made some excellent use of sources from the German archives to show what combat was like for both German and British troops. Ashley Ekins, the head of the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial spoke about the morale and discipline in the AIF during the war, with some striking examples of punishment routines devised to make up for the lack of the death penalty for AIF personnel. Aaron Pegram from the Australian War Memorial spoke about the significance of the idea of ‘reciprocity’ in shaping the treatment of Allied prisoners of war in German camps: The German authorities recognized that mistreatment of Allied prisoners would be used as justification of mistreatment of German prisoners, and this helped protect prisoners on both sides from abuse. In a welcome shift from the experience of the war on land, James Goldrick of the Australian National University highlighted the challenges of combat at sea in 1916, particularly the North Sea with its notoriously poor weather.

Of course, this short report cannot do justice to the breath of the papers presented or to the quality of the questions and discussions they generated. An edited volume of the paper is due to be published, which will bring these important papers to a wider audience.

Image: A view of the Somme battlefield near Martinpuich. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (H02116).


Conference Report: the First World War at Sea, 1914-1919


This was a major international conference, featuring a master-class of subject specialists and naval historians. Since the centenary of the Battle of Jutland was only a few days prior, the great naval battle was certainly the elephant in the room. Jutland was not, however, the only subject of discussion: the strategy and tactics of the anti-submarine campaign, the Anglo-American alliance, naval aviation and other technologies, the role of the dominions, the press, and recent archeological discoveries were all discussed.

Professor Nicholas Rodger provided the opening keynote, elaborating on the concept of the decisive battle and its cultural legacy for the western way of war. Professor Rodger described the influence of the expected “second Trafalgar” on the German, French, American, Japanese and Royal Navies. This traditional culture of decisive battle continued to dominate at the turn of the 20th century, but technological change had transformed the naval context, most profoundly, by the introduction of the torpedo. The focus on the new weapons, primarily the submarine and airplane, eventually defined modern naval tactics and strategy. Integrating the new technologies would become a major challenge for Britain, and the other global powers, going forward. Indeed, it remained unclear to what extent the United States Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy had moved beyond the decisive battle doctrine by the time of the Second World War. As Dr. Bob Watts would argue on day two, it seems, to some extent, that the USN is still seeking the desired “second Trafalgar” to this day.

The first panels were focused on anti-submarine warfare, the blockade, and the war in China. I presented with Dr. Alexander Clarke and Louis Halewood on the subject of anti-submarine warfare, from the diplomatic and air perspectives. I argued that, during the 1912-1916 period, the RN never successfully addressed the problem of anti-submarine warfare from the air, although, important theories and new technologies were developed. Louis Halewood examined the delicate diplomatic situation, notably focusing on the complex aspect of Anglo-American relations (a story about which we will hear more later), and also the situation in the Mediterranean. By 1918, First Lord of the Admiralty Eric Geddes proposed the creation of an “Allied Admiralissimo” to unite the diverse national naval efforts into a single force, similar to the role of Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch on the Western Front. Alexander Clarke then completed the story, describing the legacy of the First World War efforts which led to tactical and technical innovations in the interwar period and, indeed, laid the foundation for the triumphs of the Second World War. Dr. Clarke described the importance of the Post-War Question Committee (the Phillimore Committee), which reached the conclusion that reconnaissance and deterrence had, in fact, been rather effective against the submarines- the famous scare-crow tactics forcing U-boat commanders to avoid aircraft and airships, regardless of the reality of the threat.

The second panel I attended, also on the submarine campaign, was presented by Dr. Norman Friedman, Isabelle Delumeau, Michael Brandao, and Dr. Elizabeth Bruton. Dr. Friedman, bringing his renowned analytical approach to the topic, observed that ultimately the introduction of the convoys, although often heralded as the decisive tactic for the protection of Allied merchant shipping, was in fact a stop-gap. The Germans were ultimately unable to utilize the signal intelligence required to find the convoys, and thus triangulate submarine groups to attack them, as would later be done in the Second World War. As a result, while the convoys provided a means of protection, they were not capable of terminating the threat itself.

The technological scramble on the Allied side to find a way to locate and destroy the submarines clearly demonstrated that the Allies were not prepared for this aspect of the war, despite some novel solutions such as the use of aircraft to directly attack the submarine bases. Isabelle Delumeau shared her findings concerning the Bretton fishermen who experienced the blunt end of German and Allied propaganda concerning the submarines, leading to the organization of the fishing fleet along militia-like lines. Miguel Brandao followed up by discussing Portuguese efforts to subvert the Allied blockade, specifically, the fascinating case of the town of Esposende, which smuggled eggs to the U-boats along the coast. Finally, Dr. Bruton described the astonishing case of Anglo-American technological and scientific cooperation in the efforts to develop hydrophone technology. Significantly, Dr. Burton described the effort of US Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels- of whom more later- to replicate the Fisherite think-tank, the Board of Invention and Research, which was studying anti-submarine measures, amongst other things.

The final panel in the lecture theatre on day one was presented by Dr. Jesse Tumblin, Dr. Eugene Beiriger and Dr. Dennis Conrad. Dr. Tumblin discussed the failure of the dominion fleet scheme, not least the result of Sir Wilfred Laurier’s inability to finance the requisite battlecruisers. The outcome of the Boer War suggested Canada’s Army, at the expense of the navy, might play a larger role in the future. Dr. Beiriger then discussed President Wilson’s role in the negotiations that led to the US Naval Act of 1916, while Dennis Conrad provided a defence of Josephus Daniels, the latter often portrayed as the antagonist of the fiery Admiral William Sims. At the evening reception, while the academics swirled their wine, Nicholas Rodger presented naval historian John Hattendorf with the print copy of the edited volume produced from the 2014 Oxford conference held in his honour: Strategy and the Sea.

The following day started at 9 am with the first panel specifically on the American role. Annette Amerman, USMC History Division, gave the first talk, looking at USMC naval aviation. The Marine Corps aviators cooperated with Wing Captain Charles Lambe’s RNAS and RAF forces at Dunkirk in bombing raids, including against submarine bases. David Winkler, Naval Historical Foundation, described the expansion of the US Naval Reserve into a large militia-like force, the model favoured by Josephus Daniels and Assistant Naval Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Chuck Steele, USAF Academy, and David Kohnen, USN War College, both presented panels on William Sims and his significance. Dr. Steele stressed Sims’ importance as a diplomat between the Navies, while David Kohnen emphasized Sims’ role as a practitioner and ad hoc innovator.

The last two panels were on Jutland: Robin Brodhurst, of the Navy Records Society, gave a comprehensive presentation on the historiography of the battle of Jutland, establishing the intense controversy that still surrounds this battle after a hundred years. Dr. John Brooks, who has recently published a reassessment of Jutland for the centenary, described some of the technical nuances of the night destroyer action, and Dr. Stephen Huck, joining the conference from the German Naval Museum, Wilhelmshaven, then illuminated the experience of German crew members, raising the important question about how the men actually perceived the battle; a social history mirrored for the Royal Navy by the book, The Fighting at Jutland: the Personal Experiences of 45 Sailors of the Royal Navy, compiled by H. W. Fawcett.

After Jutland was the name of the third and final panel in the lecture theatre. Andrew Gordon described the importance of the command failure at Jutland, importantly the critical issue of signal failures, endemic ultimately of a culture of divineness within the Royal Navy. Bob Watts summarized the significance of the Jutland and the long awaited “decisive battle” for the thinking of the US Navy, and observed the reality that the Navy, even during the Second World War, was denied its grand decisive battle. James Goldrick summarized the situation after Jutland and the novel emergence of battlespace awareness alongside the need for superior scouting and intelligence gathering in the, always questionable, North Sea conditions. With the refocus on aircraft and the submarine, by the end of the war, the torpedo had seemingly triumphed over the gun, and the chance to refight Jutland had slipped away.

Andrew Lambert’s compelling keynote summarized and concluded the conference. Professor Lambert focused on Julian Corbett, later the official historian, as the architect of Britain’s grand strategy. Corbett acted as the brain trust for the British Supreme Command, and it was Corbett’s three-phase naval war model that became the basis for Corbett’s post-war history. First Sea Lord David Beatty, wary of the mistakes made at Jutland, tried to suppress the truth about his role, in particular the gunnery failure of the Battle-Cruiser Fleet, but the truth shone through in Corbett’s third volume, based on the Naval Staff’s suppressed appreciation. The significance of Hipper and Scheer’s achievement was, however, marginalized by the High Seas Fleet’s inability to break the blockade and thus influence the outcome of the war: this meant that in the final calculus, Jutland, like Trafalgar, only reaffirmed the naval status quo.

Image: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, via wikimedia commons.

Conference Report: 1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?


On 1 June, the Second World War Research Group held a highly successful day-long event hosted by the Defence Studies Department at the JSCSC. It was inspired in a broad sense by the desire to examine the largest war the world has ever seen and to place it within its broader context. More directly, the conference theme drew from concepts advanced by several senior modern historians about the place the war occupies in terms of the century as a whole. In a 1990 article, David Reynolds termed the fall of France in 1940 as the ‘fulcrum of the twentieth century’. Taking a similar yet subtly different view, John Darwin has claimed that the events of 1940-1942 represented the ‘great crisis of empire’ specifically for Britain, and exposed its vulnerabilities in such a manner that it was never able to recover fully after the war. For Darwin, such events thus caused a fundamental change in the international system.

The event was designed to bring together scholars to critically examine these ideas, as well as to focus in on more specialised areas of the war to assess whether or not such ‘fulcrums’, ‘turning points’ or similar concepts can legitimately be identified. We were extremely fortunate to receive a fantastic set of highly stimulating papers in this regard. Themes that were covered included tactical and operational failures by the BEF in France 1940, case studies in resistance and irregular warfare, propaganda, morale in and relations between the British and Commonwealth armies, and the Chinese response to the German invasion of the USSR, among others. Delegates were also treated to a keynote address from Niall Barr, examining Anglo-American alliance warfare during the conflict, and placing it within the broader context of twentieth century relations between the two states. The day closed with an engaging roundtable discussion on the subject of whether the retrospective identification of a ‘fulcrum’ is a legitimate exercise for historians, or if it simply represents the instrumentalisation of history to fit a desired theory.

Several presenters from the conference have graciously agreed to write posts for this blog based on their papers, and these will be published over the coming weeks. Podcasts of many of the papers from the event will also soon be made available on the Group website. This event was the second such one held by the Group, as part of its aim to bring together scholars in annual events focused on aspects of the war and its legacy. It also holds regular research seminars from individual speakers. If you would like to be involved in the Group in some manner, please use the contact form on the website, and also follow it on twitter (@SWWresearch). In the meantime, enjoy the coming posts!

Image: Stocks of rubber, held by a factory on a rubber plantation in Malaya, are burnt during the British retreat to Singapore, via the Imperial War Museum.

Conference Report: Jutland, History and the First World War

This is the fifth in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. Recordings of all of the papers from the event can be accessed for free here.


The role of sea power in the First World War was a source of disagreement and debate during the conflict itself and has remained so ever since. David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister at the War’s end, recalled in his memoirs how no less of a figure than the Allied Generalissimo Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who had played such a pivotal role in steadying the Western Front in 1918, always asked ‘What have the Navy done? Have they done any fighting?’

Foch’s question highlights one of the greatest difficulties of comparing combat on land and at sea: a highly effective naval campaign can involve very little actual combat. This proved to be the case in the First World War, where British sea power enabled her to draw upon the resources and manpower of her colonies, to trade with the remainder of the world and to isolate the Central Powers from the global economy. None of this required a decisive victory over the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, even if one may have been desirable.

Yet the lack of a focal Battle made the vital importance of the naval War difficult to compare with the casualty figures of the Western Front. From the War’s outset this created a problem for the naval leadership. Dissatisfaction at the Navy’s lack of an obvious success built in Britain from 1915 onwards, as a gloomy realisation that the warships of the British Fleet alone would be unable to affect events on the Continent set in. Thus, when an opportunity for an engagement did arise off the coast of Denmark in the summer of 1916, public and political expectations were for a readily comprehensible success.

The indecisive action that followed at Jutland was unpalatable to some in the Navy and many the country, and was quickly over-awed by the mammoth British offensive on the Somme the following month. The absence of a further major fleet action in the final two years of war thus resulted in an ongoing fixation on Jutland itself and in recriminations over decisions taken at the Battle that are out of all proportion with its genuine strategic significance. This has been reflected in the centenary celebrations, which have perpetuated the indefensible myth that Jutland may somehow have ‘won the war’, thereby reinforcing the simplistic and unhelpful notions that war is decided merely by a series of battles rather than on the fact that sea power under-pinned the British and thus Allied war effort throughout the entire conflict.

This event was conceived in order to set the Battle into its broader context, both within the history of the First World War and of the Royal Navy itself. It highlighted the extent to which a myopic emphasis on fighting can lead to a deeply misleading impression of war, making it virtually impossible to understand events in the past in anything more than the most superficial manner. By engaging with the past in a more nuanced, sophisticated and thoughtful manner, themes of far greater interest and relevance are not difficult to find.

Indeed, one of the most prominent themes of the afternoon was the fact that the Battle of Jutland itself was of relatively minor strategic importance in the context of the wider war. A decisive loss for the British would undoubtedly have been a major setback, but the pace of pre-War British shipbuilding was such that the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority over the High Seas Fleet was assured by 1916 and would only have continue to grow. Moreover, even a heavily bloodied British Fleet would have remained ‘in being’, effectively still denying Germany the ability to use her Fleet outside of the North Sea. Britain was in a commanding strategic position through a combination of her industrial and financial might and the miscalculations which under-pinned the German ‘risk fleet’ and these could not be undone if her commanders prioritised strategic effect over a chance at operational victory. These broader factors were of far greater import than tactical decisions taken at Jutland.

Yet the question remains could Britain have utilised her sea power in a more aggressive manner to exert pressure on Germany? There is a credible case that a more creative approach to her military strategy, utilising more combined operations and exploiting the benefits of seaborne manoeuvre may have produced an impact out of proportion to the forces employed. Whether these would have proven acceptable to the sceptical French high command and government is another issue, but here we see how an appreciation of history enabled a more creative approach to strategy making at the Admiralty than that prevalent in military circles.

As to the Battle itself, discussion in the media has tended to emphasize the disparity in relative losses, both of ships and men. The implication has been one of incompetence, either of the commanders or of those who designed the ships and prepared their crews. The reality was rather different. Mistakes were undoubtedly made during the Battle – Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty was particularly at fault for the mistakes he made in deploying his force during the opening phases of the Battle and his poor communication with Jellicoe. Yet the Fleet performed well, with Jellicoe twice crossing the German ‘T’ and obliging a hasty retreat. It is unlikely that any decisions taken on the day would have led to a decisively different outcome. False comparisons with the Battle of Trafalgar ignore the reality that the British gained little more in 1805 than was achieved in 1916: command of the sea.

Indeed, such was the impact of Jutland on German thinking that caution defined the use of the High Seas Fleet for the remainder of the conflict. The resulting shift in emphasis towards unrestricted submarine warfare by the German leadership proved a massive miscalculation, precipitating American entry into the conflict and thereby further isolating the Central Powers from global trade and finance. This enabled the British Empire to exploit the resources of neutral powers, to tighten its economic stranglehold on Germany and to use the sea to move resources around the globe. Men, munitions and supplies from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and across the Empire proved vital not only on the Western Front and at Gallipoli, but in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. This global war effort was ably supported by the nascent Royal Australian Navy which, in combination with French and Japanese units conducted effective trade protection, influence and counter-insurgency operations across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

So far as the Navy concerned, Jutland was undoubtedly a major disappointment. Combined with the embarrassing escape of the Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in 1914, the inability to translate numerical superiority into victory left a bitter taste in the mouths of many officers. Yet failure can only be described as such if nothing is done to address its causes. The vast majority of the Navy’s senior leadership for the subsequent four decades served in the Grand Fleet, and many witnessed Jutland. The Battle thus became key in fostering a spirit of tactical offensive and mission command in the Fleet, the benefits of which were reaped in 1939-45.

This event showed how progressing commemoration beyond simplistic judgments based upon inter-service rivalries, historical shibboleths and condemnation of the First World War as a whole can produce a far more interesting, accurate and valuable discussion. The latest scholarship can be of value of all of those interested in history, whether for personal or professional reasons, and need not be divorced from the centenary experience.

Image: Warships of the Grand Fleet at sea, viewed from the quarter deck of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th Battle Squadron, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.











Conference Report: Can Art Heal the Societal Impact of Conflict?


On 2/3 May, a symposium on “Art and Conflict” was held at Wolfson College, Oxford.  This was an interdisciplinary event that included artists, anthropologists, forensic scientists and literary, military, and cultural historians. The event was co-organised by the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Cranfield Forensic Institute at Cranfield University, The School of Art, Oxford Brooks University, and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford. The event also included a production of “5 Soldiers” by Rosie Kay Dance Company.

In the opening theme “Memory and Artistic Representations of Conflict”, presentations included Duraid Jalili (King’s College London) with a discussion of the increasingly important role of graphic novels in representing modern conflict. Of particular note was an analysis of Joe Sacco’s hard hitting graphic portrayal of the conflict in Palestine and Kosovo. This form of narrative is also being used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by the US military. Edwin Coomasaru, (Courtauld Institute of Art) spoke about “Bursting Bodies, Shattering Selves”. The focus was on skin and subjectivity and the representation of masculine bodies in paramilitary murals and posters in Northern Ireland. In examining Steve McQueen’s film “Hunger” (2008) Edwin looked at how traditional interpretations of warrior bodies become subjected to the violence and trauma of starvation and thus offer up a more realistic interpretation of how the skin is literally broken and ruptured by conflict. The presentation produced much discussion amongst delegates. The importance of memorials to the dead was discussed by Tom Hamilton-Baillie (Cranfield University). Jeremy MacClancy (Oxford Brookes University) looked at the changing place of graffiti art in the Basque conflict. Midnight “Graffiteros” had used their art to redefine public spaces and display physical valour but in recent years the role of unofficial public art has blunted the impact of this form of protest. Collective memory was also an area of research by artist and anthropologist Kazimuddin Ahmed’s presentation on “Stalingrad of the East”. Using interviews and photography he recorded the impact of the Battle of Imphal in 1944 on the local population of Manipur, India. The continuing importance of the telling of this narrative by the elderly in this community emphasised the role of memory as a collective experience. Helen Benigson (The Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford) received a very emotional response to her film documentary “Talmy”. The film told the story of a young girl whose parents were killed in the Warsaw ghetto and in order to survive had to assume a number of differing identities. The film replayed and renegotiated her narrative, through interviews with her and her daughter and by reference to the objects and paintings in her home.

The second theme “War and Civil War: Forensic Science, Art, Memory and Education” examined how forensic science and education can attempt to heal the experience of conflict. Presentations included Roland Wessling (Cranfield University) looking at the scientific investigation of mass graves whether as a result of war, civil war or crimes against humanity. Alongside criminal investigation, forensic teams can support the legal cases by excavating graves, which also assists in the humanitarian effort of identifying and repatriating victims. Layla Renshaw (Kingston University, London) discussed the impact of changing attitudes to the exhumation of the Republican dead from the Spanish Civil War. The paper looked at the impact of this change in attitude on small rural communities. The exhumation of graves elicited a large volume of memory and testimony from relatives of the dead, particularly as a result of found objects such as watches, combs and pencils which were pivotal in the identification process. Sonia Boué (independent artist) presented a film of her installation art “Without you I would not exist”. Sonia is the daughter of a Spanish exile, José García Lora, who was rescued from a French internment camp by an English Quaker, Alec Wainman, during the Spanish Civil War. The film movingly reconstructed objects referred to in his letters and diaries to create a fleeting representation of her father’s life. Presentations by Sarah Williams (University of Sussex) and Victoria Syme-Taylor (King’s College London) looked at the role of poetry, both past and current, in portraying war and as a means of coming to terms with the impact of conflict. The symposium’s first day concluded after dinner with a production of “5 Soldiers” by the Rosie Kay Dance Company. This was open to the public and was followed by an after show discussion. The Guardian 5-star review said of this production:

War is an overwhelmingly male business, but the power of 5 Soldiers derives from Kay’s female perspective. The subtlety with which she illustrates the oppositional tensions acting on Haden’s character. The way a woman in a male environment is required to suppress her femininity, whatever form that might take, and at the same time to be all women. Kay’s squaddies are believable because she has not presumed to second-guess them. Their characters and rituals are born of patient observation; as part of her extensive research, she and her dancers participated in battle exercises on Dartmoor and Salisbury Plain.In consequence, her piece is a world away from the wistful, homoerotic Sparta bequeathed to us by so many male choreographers addressing militarism, all ripped muscles and lingering glances. Instead, Kay gives us five rough-edged and very human individuals compressed with merciless efficiency into a fighting unit. She shows us the boredom, the torment of prickly heat and insect bites, the eerie silence of freefall parachute descent, the icy terror of a night patrol.

On the second day of the symposium delegates considered the theme of “The Missing”. Nicholas Marquez-Grant (Cranfield University and University of Oxford) spoke of the methods used by forensic archaeologists to identify the missing. Sejila Kameric, by teleconference from Sarajevo, discussed her art work “ab uno disce Omnes”. Commissioned by the Wellcome Collection, this presentation/film showed the role of forensic science, with regard to Bosnian society between 1992 and 1995 and the resulting missing and disappeared after the war. Carrie Reichardt and artist/craftist spoke of her work with youth communities in Argentina and Mexico, using ceramic installations as a means of memorialising the missing. Veronica Cordova de la Rosa (Oxford Brookes University) spoke of her artistic responses to the violent situation in Mexico and the desire for the missing to be remembered. Through her art their tragedy was communicated with the specific purpose of preserving their memory. In a teleconference from Lebanon (complete with power cuts and cats!) artist Dalia Khamissy spoke of how her photography seeks to document the suffering of the families of missing persons from the Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990. Ignored by official organisation, their story remains untold. Photographs of personal belongings of young men, school books, cigarette packets etc emphasise the importance of these objects in sustaining memory and belief.

Manca Bajec (Royal College of Art) began the final open session with a performance lecture combining a reading from a memory travelogue written after a trip to Bosnia and Serbia and a critical observation of the political and ethically sensitive issue of memorialisation and denial through the destruction of conflicted sites. Independent artist, Robert Priseman, spoke about the need to challenge the assumption that the only “authentic” art to emerge from the Holocaust was and can only be produced by survivors. He suggested that these were “records” rather than art and that contemporary artists have a duty to reflect such horrors over a longer time, thus acting as a meditation on the dark paths that culture can take. This was followed by a presentation by Sarah Shrimpton (Liverpool John Moores University) on how facial reconstruction in the case of “Soldier 16” from the Battle of Towton (1461) can depict the faces of those who have fallen in battle and how some soldiers have lived with long term disfiguration as a result of battle wounds. The artistic attraction of the “beautiful dead” was explored by Marcus Banks (University of Oxford). The healing power of testimony and narrative was examined by Janice Lobban (Combat Stress) and Aide Esu (University of Cagliari). Aide spoke of the project “Breaking the Silence” in which veterans of the Israeli Army found a space to discuss their experiences of conflict without a political dimension being imposed. This speech act, coupled with walking tours, framed a form of inner reconciliatory self. The session concluded with a presentation by Paula Serafini ( King’s College London). Paula spoke of the work of “Culture at King’s” and the centre’s project on interdisciplinary responses to Art, Belief and Conflict.

During the symposium artists and film makers exhibited on a number of related themes. These included work from victims of PTSD (presented by Janice Lobban from Combat Stress), “The Ballet Girls of Iraq” (Emma Le Blanc, Keble College, Oxford), “Tribute” a sculptural installation by Diana Foster and Record: 2012.09.28 (Sohin Wang, Ruskin College of Art) and by Hassima Sakhri on “The Last Testimony” and Sohing Hwang “Record 2012.09.28” on the Korean War.

In the plenary session it was agreed that, as a result of the thought provoking discussions that had followed these presentations, this first symposium should provide the platform for the launch of a network of academics and artists working in this area and that a follow on symposium would be organised next year. Of particular note was the request from artists to witness practical demonstrations on the method of identifying the bodies of the “missing” in this way emphasising the synergy between practical science and artistic representation and recording.

Image: 5 Soldiers by Rosie Kay Dance Company, Photography by Tim Cross. Dancers, Duncan Anderson, Shelly Eva Haden, Chester Hayes, Sean Marcs and Oliver Russell.