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A Part of History

Review by: Martin Farr, University of Newcastle

Michael Howard, A Part of History: Aspects of the British Experience of the First World War, (London and New York: Continuum, 2008).

It is conceivable, as Dan Todman writes at the end of the final essay in this collection, that the Second World War will come to supplant the First in the minds of subsequent generations; until then we will still hold the Great War as the locus for so much of the modern experience, and more so in Britain than in any other combatant country. Reflections on the war remain both a scholarly and a popular preoccupation, with much cross-fertilisation; ground where A Part of History must have been intended to flourish. There are more than enough edited volumes with their dutiful subject-wide chapters for general, undergraduate, or school readerships; with an impressive cross-generational line-up of historians (and non-historians), this one might have managed something different: to have conveyed recent trends in scholarship to a wider readership, or served as a call to arms for future research for a more specialist readership. Instead, it does not consistently do either, any more than it addresses its stated objective of how “our understanding of the war is likely to change now that firsthand experience has been lost” (it had not been lost then, but, since publication, Harry Patch, mentioned in one of the essays, did die, and with him Britain’s last personal connection with the fighting).

This is a curious volume, from the title onwards. No editor is named, and one has no sense of under whose auspices or direction it was commissioned other than that its publication would coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the armistice. Michael Howard’s introduction is a perfectly serviceable one to the war itself, but not in any sense to the volume or the essays that follow, of which no mention is made. The themes, broadly defined, are military (Gary Sheffield and Trevor Wilson on the Western Front, Malcolm Brown and Julian Putkowski on the Tommy, Peter Hart on Gallipoli, Nick Hewitt on Jutland), cultural (Michael Burleigh on religion, Stephen Badsey and Nicholas Reeves on propaganda, Ian Bostridge on Britten’s War Requiem, Brian Bond and Max Saunders on prose and Dominic Hibberd on verse), gender (Jane Potter and Terry Castle on women), representations (Terry Charman on the Imperial War Museum, Gavin Stamp on memorials, Esther MacCallum-Stewart on contemporary popular culture, Todman on remembrance), and methodology (Lynn Macdonald on oral history, Tony Pollard on conflict archaeology). This is the present reviewer’s arrangement, however; the volume is no more organised than the early war effort.

The lack of clear categorisation does at least differentiate it, as unfortunately does overlap, repetition, contradiction, and omission. Some essays attempt an objective general outline, others offer a specialist revisionist interpretation; some are more concerned with historiographical currents, others emphasise what needs to be done. Yet, just as the lack of coherence undermines the volume’s value as a book, the brevity of all but two of the chapters mean they lack any real value as articles. There are threads of debate, most obviously between the ‘revisionists’ (and present are two leading practitioners, Sheffield and Bond, with Todman of the younger generation) and those who maintain that the war was as awful and pointless as it appeared, here represented by Putkowski, who single-handedly, and somewhat intemperately, engages in the kind of hand-to-hand historiographical combat that might have made for a diverting separate section. The war over revisionism is the more significant given the poppy-infused teaching of the subject in schools, based too much on the testimony of those, as Macdonald remarks, who ‘were poets and not reporters’. Bond offers an interesting contemporary comparison, of the memoirs of C. E. Montague and Charles Carrington, the latter perhaps constituting, as it were, the first revisionist.

To the aforementioned range of approaches, one might almost add a fifth: the capricious. Castle’s ‘Courage, Mon Amie’, is by far both the longest and the most original chapter, and yet embodies the wider faults of the volume. It is an extraordinary essay that touches on, inter alia, her and her mother’s sex lives, her gym, her reaction to 9/11, and what she saw at the cinema the previous week. This is not by any means to say that there should be no place for historicising Didion-esque autobiographical reportage, but it is very hard to see how its place could possibly be here. It sticks out half a mile. Castle’s trenchant observations on Vera Brittain might have been fashioned by an editor into a shorter and more coherent essay, but her self-indulgence, however engaging, is matched only by the indulgence of whoever edited the volume. Perhaps no one did, which would explain a lot.

Such concerns may be dismissed as the sniffs of academe, but the essential problem is that A Part of History is neither thorough enough to be scholarly nor balanced enough to be popular. Most essays have no references, and though most which do employ Chicago style, one uses Harvard; some chapters offer a list of items for further reading, others a mini-essay, many have neither. More substantively, given the overlap, are the omissions. Whilst there are anecdotal and autobiographical observations aplenty, there is almost nothing on Britain in an international context. No essay – other than Burleigh’s stimulating contribution, and a not uninteresting but certainly otherwise unrelated one about India by Santanu Das – seeks to situate the experience of an imperial power more widely: in a world war. As for politics, either high or low, there is nothing whatsoever. There may have been good reasons for this, but none are offered, in the way that no reason is offered for there being so many short essays without any connecting purpose. That may of course be what ‘Aspects’ has been held to mean, but the book is certainly a missed opportunity, insofar as anniversaries are opportunities. We will no doubt have to wait until 2014 for the next.

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