PROFESSOR RAE FRANCES: In a series of publications, broadcasts, and documentaries, in the mammoth “Cambridge History of The First World War,” and most recently, the 100 Stories MOOC, Jay has challenged and engaged us all. To list this prize winning historian’s many achievements would take up much of this evening. Suffice to note that Jay Winter has held a string of professorial posts at Cambridge, Yale, and most recently, at Monash University. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Professor Jay Winter to the stage.
PROFESSOR JAY WINTER: Thank you, Rae, indeed. I came here, because personal and family commitments trump academic ones. And the family of scholarship that has produced the book that we’re launching this evening is exactly what the future of history ought to be. There are three reasons why I say that. The first is it’s collective. We historians, for a century, lagging long behind the physicists, and so on, have a fetish, indeed, almost an obsession with the individual authorial voice. You need to have grey hair, usually, in order to write something together with others, much less produce an online course and get the credit that individual scholars need in order to get jobs and promotion.
The second is that it’s what I call public history. We’re all in it. This is history both inside and outside the academy, and it is the future of the profession, because if we don’t step outside of the academy, there are many people waiting to take our place and to speak of war in different ways. And the third reason, I think, why this is a quite extraordinary moment is that it marks, in powerful ways, there are others alongside it, what I call the visual turn in cultural history. After 50 years of teaching and writing, I’ve reached the conclusion that what people see matters much more than what they read, including every single word that I’ve written.
It is a delight to see a book in which the visuals are the story. They’re not decorations. They’re not, in some ways, marginal. But they capture the emotion which is at the core of the history of the First World War. Memory– and history and memory overlap in important ways– is always about the future. It may surprise you to hear that, but the way we construct the past is dependent upon our vision of the future. And in my view, over the last 15, 20 years working in Europe and in the United States, I’ve seen a movement in historical scholarship which is part of a more general turn away from war.
You might not call it pacifist necessarily, but a way in which many people, not necessarily following the Iraq War, but that’s one example of it, came to see that war is no longer a legitimate part of the political life of a nation. It may be an existential part of it. Weapons of mass destruction could threaten us all. That’s why I believe that Tony Blair and George Bush had to invent the lies about weapons of mass destruction, because it’s no longer possible to argue that war is a legitimate defence of a nation’s honour or interest. You need something more.
And this movement, I think, in the history of war, is part of a much broader movement inside and outside of the academy to reconfigure our understanding of war, because even though, as the poppy I wear today indicates, in one sense, the good news is that the Great War is over. The bad news is that’s not quite true. Anyone who looks at the news about refugee camps in Syria are looking at exactly the same places where the survivors of the Armenian Genocide took refuge exactly 100 years ago. The Great War is a bit like a recurrent nightmare that refuses to go away.
That’s why I believe every generation must go back to the Great War to understand something monstrous happened on the battlefields of the whole world between those years, which is deeply ingrained in our society today. It is, in many respects, important in the sense of capturing the sense that language is constitutive of history. By that I mean there are no facts outside of the language in which they are expressed. And we, therefore, have to go and listen to the voices of the people who lived through the war and to hear their echoes. That’s why we’re so happy to hear that my brief remarks will have followed a much more poetic voice of the two musicians who preceded me.
This is not the first time I have to say this happened. The 11th of March last year in Central Hall, Westminster, I spoke to a meeting of 1,000 history teachers throughout the British Isles about how to teach The Great War. And before me spoke the playwright, Michael Morpurgo, who wrote “War Horse.” And what did he do? He sang the songs of his play. What an act to follow. And the reason why it mattered so much is that voices are still there. And I believe, I’ll return to this at the end of my remarks, that we can still hear those voices today. Those voices have, in a way, been hidden.
At 1915, on the British sector of the Western front, “The Manchester Guardian” columnist, Henry Nevinson, wanted to write about the morale of British soldiers at the front. Nevinson was not basically at odds with the war, and he certainly was less outraged by it than his soon to be famous son, the artist, Charles Nevinson, whose painting of dead British soldiers was censored in London in 1917. But two years before his dad, Nevinson père, approached a group of soldiers in London regiment and asked them whether they were fighting for the empire. And one of them said yes. That is what Nevinson reported to the readers of “The Manchester Guardian” a day later in which we can read to this day.
That was his voice. Well, we know from the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful collection of letters, which included letters from the company in which this soldier fought, we know that the archives of the First and the Second London division showed that the story didn’t end there. The day of the report appeared in “The Guardian,” and soldiers were very interested in what the press said about them and didn’t say about them. They got extremely stroppy when they weren’t mentioned. Three of the mates of the man who responded to Nevinson asked him why he said yes. They said they weren’t fighting for the British empire. He said to them that he was fighting for the empire, music hall, and Hackney.
And I think one of the great achievements of “World War One, A History and 100 Stories,” is that it brings the story down to earth, down to the language of those who fought, and suffered, and endured the war and its aftermath, down to the domestic, the mundane, the ordinary, where all of us live. Too often, historians take big words to mean big things. But sometimes, big words mean small things, no less powerful and attractive for that.
Fighting for the empire, or the nation, or the cause could very easily mean fighting for the man on the left or the man on the right, fighting for the local pub, or the Octoberfest, or the Tour De France, or a hill, or a valley in bloom in Snowdonia. I think this sense that there is a language of the First World War that endures to this day was captured by somebody who didn’t get there. But sometimes, writers and poets can hear things that we need to attend to. This is F. Scott Fitzgerald. He saw and heard that language and those places more than most who did. This is what his character, Dick Diver, said to his Rosemary.
And he’s pointing to the stream at the hill of Thiepval, separating Thiepval from Beaumont-Hamel– great, great massacres of the First World War. See that little stream, he said? See that little stream? We could walk it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it, a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front, and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward, a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation. And someone says, well, didn’t the Americans invent it in the Civil War? “No, not quite. They just invented mass butchery.
This kind of battle, the Somme, was invented by Lewis Carroll, and Jules Verne, and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseille, and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle. There was a century of love spent here. This was the last love battle. You want to hand this battle, this story to D. H. Lawrence, says one of his companions. ‘All my beautiful, lovely, safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,” Dick mourned persistently. ‘Isn’t that true, Rosemary?’” All my beautiful, lovely, safe world. That is what fighting for the empire, music hall, and Hackney meant.
Now to be sure, none of us knows the shape of our lives while we are living them. The people in the war were caught in a trap not at all of their own making. They went to war to defend one world, and by doing so, ensured it would not survive the effort. That’s why returning soldiers frequently felt odd at times after demobilisation. The world they thought they had left behind– and nostalgia always creates a world that may not have existed– the world they thought they had left behind was, in many respects, no longer there.
This wonderful collection of stories, a tapestry of national history, tell us– tells us about lives inflected by war, lives lost, lives redefined in a few short years. All these lives were set in the world of small things. Once they entered the war, a very, very big things, the small got eclipsed. And to a degree, it has remained eclipsed the longer the great national midst of war have flourished. This is as true in this country in Australia as it is in Europe. The Great War created very, very big things. The biggest casualty lists in history. The biggest guns. The largest mountain range of munitions. The biggest pile of fodder for the biggest population of mobilised horses sent to war in history.
The biggest national debt ever accrued. The biggest inflationary spirals in history. The biggest pandemic ever endured. Even, if you will, the biggest movie star of all time, Charlie Chaplin. Should anybody be surprised that big national narratives, what we term national myths, or stories which tell people who they think they are emerged from the war, as well. One of these stories, one of these myths, meaning a story that is true in a poetic sense is the story of Anzac, a story about as big as they come in the history business. This wonderful book has taken the Anzac legend and has brought it down to earth.
And to be sure, through the intervention of the God of Small Things, the Anzac legend looks bigger for being reduced in size. Less is more.
These are no superheroes, just ordinary people sustained by words from home written by other ordinary people, swept up in the tides of war. This is what I would call popular history, history of the people. And I do believe its origins are in the study of labour history, the study of people’s movements, working class movements and women’s movements which has transformed itself into what we now call cultural history. But I think the origin is in those people, and there are many who have contributed to it, which wrote about, who have written about the people, as well as about the wars they fought through. Now, this is popular history in one other respect.
The bravery and the stamina of the men who fought the Great War have never been in question. What I and many others still wonder about is the disconnect between their war, the soldiers’ war, and the war designed, and commanded, and perpetuated by their leaders, political and military alike. Most of those leaders were very, very limited men. There are exceptions, but I think this is a generally true statement. The charisma of leadership sometimes hides poverty of imagination. These people, who ran the First World War on both sides, had no idea to what extent their policies pushed thousands and thousands of men beyond the limits of human endurance.
These great men were moral midgets, sleepwalkers who could not see what was in front of their eyes, but instead sent men to fight against the big guns and were puzzled why the guns won. The editor of the obituaries of “The London Times,” he would be very upset that I’m citing him here, but it’s a true story. The editor of the obituaries for “The London Times” told me that they were meant for the moustaches of this world. What he meant were the male, military, or administrative or political elites known to be important by their important moustaches.
Once we shave them off, the national portrait, we see lots of other people who deserve our attention– men and women whose contribution to war is measured in small acts, which multiplied by millions, make up a world of war. Here is where the real Anzac tale lies. Here is where the next generation of students and scholars of history will begin. The story of stress is more visible in these 100 stories in this history than in other histories of the war. There are many ways of writing about the history of war. But to appreciate it completely, we have to use the language of sadness.
Norman Mailer once said that in writing about war, only those who were capable of using the word “shit” can use the word “honour.” And perhaps only by registering the sadnesses can we hear the joy of those fortunate enough to return in one piece to their homes and their families, because they were such individuals. Now, let me end this invitation to you to join me in celebrating this book. It is a democratic book, one which is not about the superheroes, but about the little heroes, the people whose commitment to the war freely given was, I believe, betrayed by their leaders.
Moral pygmies like Lloyd George, and George Clemenceau, and Billy Hughes among them, who did not have the eyes to see that the world they led into war and then into peace was much worse off than it had been before 1914. If you want to face the question, what price victory, have a good look at this book and the wonderful photographs that show us, that make us feel part of a generation who paid the price for that war. Now, in many respects, today is a day to recognise that war did not come to an end 97 years ago. Yes, wearing a poppy is wearing a small war memorial.
It’s carrying a site of memory on your body, and I believe it is a fundamental way of recognising something monstrous, something terrifying that happened 100 years ago. But I think we can pause and consider that if you look around, attend the exhibition, perhaps hear the voices, hear the songs, and the silences of the generation of the Great War, if you read the book, I think you’ll hear that those voices are with us still. Thank you very much.