BBC History Magazine’s conference on “New thinking on the First World War”.

BBC History Magazine recently organised an interesting one day conference entitled “New thinking on the First World War”. The conference was held in the M Shed, Bristol’s museum dedicated to telling the history of the city. The conference was well attended strongly, I suspect, due to the impressive speaker list which included four of the leading academic experts on the history of the Great War.

The conference started with Professor William Philpott, Department of War Studies, Kings College London, who spoke on ‘Ferdinand Foch – The Man Who Won the War’. Anyone familiar with Bill’s work would have recognised the description of Foch as a pre-war military intellectual who took an active role in the early part of the war, before being “rested” in 1917 and then making a comeback as generalissimo of the Allied forces on the Western Front in 1918. While Foch’s achievements were acknowledged, the description of Foch as “the man who won the war” did receive some questioning from a subsequent speaker.

Second on the agenda was Professor Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford, who talked about the “bigger ideas” that arose in the July 1914 crisis that preceded the outbreak of war. The clashes between world civilization and German kultur or between liberalism and militarism were examined in the context of a Europe that was focused on nationality and nationalism with concepts now seen as “German” existing in many of the pre-war Allied nations. Strachan concluded with the observation that the “big ideas” arose not from national governments but from the gap created by the suppression of debate by those very state organisations.

Next up was Professor Gary Sheffield, Chair of War Studies, University of Birmingham who looked at the ‘Challenges of Command in the First World War’. Starting with the development of an operational level of command between the pre-war concepts of strategy and tactics, Gary took the meeting through the need for new communication solutions to deal with the previously unseen scale of the war and the advent of civilian/political involvement in previously military affairs. While the static nature that the war quickly came to adopt did offer opportunities to improve communications, these only went as far as the front line trenches with commanders still facing difficulties in monitoring an attack once underway. Commenting on the need for commanders to increasingly have to function as “war managers”, Gary concluded by noting that while the diversity of operation made generalisation impossible, the lessons learned in an industrial war that was without precedent laid the foundations for the command solutions that were in place by World War 2.

After lunch, Professor Mark Connelly, Professor of Modern British Military History, University of Kent looked at ‘Commemorating the War in Britain’ in a talk that moved from the street shrines that were set up during the conflict, commemorating both the dead and the living, through to the post-war memorials. Explaining how the financial backing of the locality affected the choice and style of a location’s memorial, Mark highlighted the increasing role that religious beliefs came to play as the memorial became more localized. Mark finished with the observation that as the memorials increasingly came to be “owned” by the widows and mothers, the survivors retreated to the sanctity of the Royal British Legions where, contrary to popular opinion, they did little but talk about the war – but amongst themselves.

The final lecture was given Peter Caddick-Adams, Lecturer in Military and Security Studies at the UK Defence Academy who talked on ‘Tickets and Trenches – The Story of First World War Battlefield Tourism’. Moving from the first Michelin battlefield guides that came out in 1917 before the war had ended, Peter took the meeting through the key events in the post-war development of the battlefield – the openings of the Menin Gate, Thiepval and Vimy Ridge Memorials in 1927, 1932 and 1936 respectively, through Hitler’s revisiting of his Great War haunts in the 1940s to the current time where both individuals and professional soldiers still visit the battlefields for commemorative and educational reasons.

At the end of the individual lectures, the speakers took part in an interesting Q&A session which raised the following questions from the floor:

1. Was Foch in the right place in 1918 or could Haig have handled the role?

2. Will the imminent centenary programme be an opportunity to get revisionism into the public consciousness?

3. The need to reflect on the lessons of unity that arise from the conflict.

4. How to explain to a school audience why we went to war.

5. Why didn’t we let France fall?

6. If Foch had been generalissimo in 1914 – would the course of the war be any different?

7. Was there a “lost generation”?

8. Did the Great War change British attitudes?

The consensus of the discussions around the above topics can be (somewhat ruthlessly) boiled down to: no, it had to be a Frenchman; we will have failed if we do not achieve this; the historical national separations do not sit well in the modern unified concept of Europe; they were defending their way of life; it would have irrevocably changed the balance of power in Europe if we had; no, the war would still have taken three years before the Allies were in the position required for victory; only in a very localised and social way; yes, it made war a less attractive political tool for the future.

In conclusion, the conference was well worth it – the speakers are clearly leading the development of current academic thinking about the war in this country and the opportunity to hear them all on the same platform was not to be missed.