Conflict and violence are themes that form the subject of a huge range of historical research. From cultural and social history to military history, peace studies, and international security, and from ancient and medieval through to the early modern, modern, and contemporary periods, conflict and violence cut across disciplines and periods perhaps more than any other comparative historical theme. Traditionally focused on warfare (as the clearest and most influential form of historical conflict), more recent scholarship has considered violence in a much broader sense, as an ever-present and highly-varied feature of human society.
Though this chapter identifies three broad source categories that can be used to good effect (diaries and memoirs, political cartoons, and popular fiction), there are few restrictions on the sort of primary material one could harness when researching and writing histories of conflict and violence. Nor is it essential to follow the analytical framework towards sources that this chapter outlines. Rather than acting as a series of rules or regulations, this chapter offers loose guidelines on how to approach any form of primary material relating to conflict and violence.
The story of humanity, from its earliest prehistory to the upheavals of the modern period, has been heavily shaped by the experience of conflict and violence. Indeed, from a pessimistic perspective the history of humankind is a sorry record of conflict and enmity; a bleak, chaotic path from one violent episode to another. Ancient imperial expansion, crusading ideology and wars of religion in the medieval period, the scramble for resources and influence of early-modern Europe, the twentieth century advent of total warfare – conflict has been an endemic yet ever-changing feature of our time as the planet’s dominant species. Even more central to the human condition is violence, a phenomenon that has never been bound by the formalised experience of war. Slavery and institutional racism, colonialism, religious violence, corporal and capital punishment, gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse – such examples only scrape the surface of the impact of violence on human society.
It could be argued that the historical significance of conflict and violence has remained relatively consistent. Yet this chapter’s focus on the First World War is in some ways indicative of a common historiographical view, that the twentieth century was a uniquely violent age. Citing an estimate of 187 million war related deaths during the period, Eric Hobsbawm describes his ‘Age of Extremes’ as ‘the most murderous in recorded history’. This unenviable distinction was in the large part thanks to the changing relationship between combatants and non-combatants. The twentieth century heralded the start of a now familiar trend, whereby ‘the burden of war shifted increasingly from armed forces to civilians’ (Hobsbawm, 2002). Beginning with the mass slaughter of conscript armies on the Western Front and the aerial bombardment of major European cities, this process arguably reached its peak in the Holocaust. Though subject to much debate among scholars, the Nazi genocide has been framed by some as a failure of the civilising process. As social and political norms collapsed or were deliberately suspended, humanity appeared to regress to primal urges of conflict and violence. By such a reading the Holocaust is proof, should it be needed, that violence continues to dictate (and challenge) the path of human progress (Bauman, 1989). The advent of atomic weapons following the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 heralded a further shift in the nature of conflict, in which the intimate experience of violence was now superseded by huge and indiscriminate weapons that have the potential to end all life on earth (Hogg, 2016).
Conflict and violence, however, are not constants. Nor are they always all consuming. To fully understand their historical importance, conflict and violence have often been approached alongside their apparent antitheses – peace and harmony. It is important to stress that accounts of violence and conflict are often dependent on an abstract concept of peace (Barash, 1999). This dynamic raises a series of important conceptual issues. If peace in its crudest sense is the absence of war, and war is a form of ‘organised violence’, is violence in peacetime inherently disorganised (Bull, 1977)? Can peace truly exist if episodic violence such as violent crime remains common? Are war and conflict synonymous (Dower, 2009)? From a soldier’s point of view, is the focus of war to avoid death, or is it to kill one’s enemy (Bourke, 1999)? Such questions emphasise the complex relationships at the root of conflict and violence, and should be kept at the forefront of your mind when conducting research and writing essays on the subject.
Taken separately, the title terms of this chapter offer an insight on the way in which historical practice has evolved in the modern period. Conflict has traditionally been treated by historians on the grandest of scales, usually with the aim of exploring why wars have broken out, how they were conducted, and why the victors triumphed. Though examples of this approach are legion, a suitable case in point for this timeframe is The Struggle for Mastery in Europe by A J P Taylor (1954). Analysing the political and military ‘Balance of Power’ between the revolutions of 1848 and the 1918 Armistice, and generally praising its effectiveness, Taylor’s book is celebrated as a seminal work of diplomatic history. Yet the work is very much a history of war, rather than an analysis of the brutal, violent experience of individuals in modern conflict. Taylor’s cast are statesmen and generals, not civilians or privates. When such individuals appear in Struggle, they are typically cogs in the military machine, or figures in casualty lists. The personalised experience of violence, as such, is marginalised.
Yet in recent years - particularly following the great theoretical challenges posed by ‘postmodern’ scholarship across the humanities – historians have begun to approach violence as a distinct social and political force, not simply the necessary accompaniment of war and conflict. Grand narratives of conflict have gradually been supplanted by works that explore violence from the bottom up, in which the personal, individual experience of violence takes centre stage. One interesting and influential example of this shift in focus is Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. Exploring the cultural history of eighteenth-century France, the work aims to investigate ‘the way ordinary people made sense’ of their ‘harsh and dangerous’ world. Darnton’s chapters cover a range of unusual areas and bizarre incidents, from the torturing and killing of cats by factory workers to protest over working conditions, to the dark humour and highly sexualised violence of folktales common among the French peasantry (Darnton, 1984).
A more contemporary example of this trend is Katarzyna Person’s article ‘Sexual Violence during the Holocaust’. Focusing on cases of forced prostitution with a particular focus on the Warsaw Ghetto, Person argues that historians have selectively ignored ‘the more objectionable aspects of their [women’s] Ghetto experience’. In exploring the ‘choiceless choice’ women often faced in order to survive and provide for their families, Person warns against treating such figures as ‘symbol[s] of moral decline and opportunism’, and criticises the post-war tendency for holding women accountable ‘for actions which they were forced into by horrific circumstances’ (Person, 2015). Though varied in focus and approach, these works are both illustrative of an important change in approaches to academic research. Historians are now less inclined to limit themselves to the broad concept of war and conflict, and are increasingly interested in the individualised experience of violence.
One final element to consider in this brief historiography is the emerging importance of the history of emotions. Striving to know ‘how history felt to those who lived through it’, scholars of the emotions have tried to shift part of the traditional dynamic of historical study. To use Barbara Rosenwein’s words, the discipline of history ‘has never quite lost its attraction to hard, rational things. Emotions have seen tangential (if not fundamentally opposed) to the historical enterprise’ (Rosenwein, 2002). Yet by studying emotions, scholars have gone some way to dismantling this principle, highlighting that historical actors are influenced by the whole gamut of human emotion, not simply ‘calculating self-interest’ (Matt and Stearns, 2013). The influence of these trends on studying conflict and violence is potentially enormous. Conflict evolves from a detached geo-political event into something that is both feared and craved. Similarly, violence is no longer something that simply happens to unfortunate people, it is an experience that elicits a series of emotional states, from anxiety and horror to anger and disgust. As Joanna Bourke’s book Fear: a Cultural History (2005) has demonstrated, the fear of conflict and violence is an extremely important historical agent. In studying the history of these terms, it is important to understand both the threat and the actual experience of conflict and violence.
The breadth of this field is such that there are few limitations on relevant source material. Parliamentary debates, diplomatic memos, casualty lists, newspaper articles, oral interviews and personal recollections, cartoons, film and photographs – there is clearly little material that is irrelevant or inappropriate for the study of conflict and violence. The challenge for the researcher, as such, is to locate sources that can enrich the specific focus of the analysis at hand. This chapter has chosen sources from three deliberately diverse categories – diaries and memoirs, political cartoons, and popular fiction – in an effort to illustrate the varied approaches one can take to the study of conflict and violence. The eclectic nature of these categories is emphasised by the detailed source examples explored in the fourth section of this chapter. Understanding how these challenges inform research is crucial for producing coherent academic writing, as the next section will explore.
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section focuses on three broad categories of sources that can be harnessed for studying conflict and violence: diaries and memoirs, political cartoons, and popular fiction. Providing a brief overview of these broad groupings, the section will suggest ways in which such material can be used, and introduce methods of recognising and selecting sources that match the specific goals of the researcher.
Diaries and memoirs
As records and recollections of an individual’s life, and often of the significant historical episodes they lived through, diaries and memoirs offer researchers a valuable insight on the personalised experience of a given period in history. One of the most famous examples in this regard are the diaries of Samuel Pepys, whose detailed account of London in the 1660s continues to represent an important primary source for historians of the English Restoration. Unfortunately, the analytical value of such sources is naturally variable, and often depends on the diligence of the author. While a committed diarist can produce an invaluable historical record, the majority of diaries are more inconsistent, and as such, more difficult to conduct research from.
The distinction between diaries and memoirs, though extremely important, is not always straightforward. In their purest form diaries act as a record (daily or otherwise) of personal experiences, observations, and opinions. Memoirs, by contrast, are reflective narratives written from personal experience, usually in an autobiographical mode, and shaped (to a greater or lesser degree) by hindsight. Yet it is rare that either a diary or a memoir conform to these narrow definitions. Unless one conducts archival research of unpublished sources, diaries are almost always heavily edited. This process can range from comparatively minor changes to a wholesale overhaul of the original document. Either way, editorial influence is a crucial factor in the shape and form of published diaries. Memoirs, in turn, vary enormously in style and purpose. Though some are written in order to cement a political legacy, others are more modest in scope, and in passages can resemble the immediacy and record-keeping quality of a diary (Bell, 2011).
Working with diaries and memoirs raises some practical problems common to most sources based on personal recollection (oral interviews, letters, and the like). One key example is the issue of inconsistent volume and length. The work of prolific diarists, such as Vera Brittain or the late Tony Benn, can prove frustrating for those who seek to confirm or ratify specific historical details (Benn, 1996; Brittain, 2000). At the opposite end of the scale, the inconsistencies of shorter accounts, particularly common among the soldiers and first time diary-keepers of the First World War, offer a far more general historical record (Sutcliffe, 2014). With relatively few stylistic conventions or rules, furthermore, diarists and memoir writers are not obliged to devote equal focus to all events or subjects. You may find, as such, that an issue crucial to your own research is covered in far less detail than matters of less direct relevance.
Despite these challenges, diaries and memoirs represent some of the most widely used primary sources among historians. These written accounts are regularly harnessed to provide valuable local detail and perspective on ‘national’ events, such as the public reaction to the outbreak of war in August 1914. In some circumstances, notably the accounts of politicians and diplomats during the pre-war ‘July Crisis’, diaries and memoirs can provide important evidence to shape understandings of disputed events. Perhaps most importantly, diaries can help historians to gauge a sense of popular opinion. Though naturally imperfect – one person’s account is hardly an accurate measurement of the national mood – diaries are a crucial element of assessing this complex historical concept.
It can be difficult to identify the perfect collection of diaries or memoirs to use in a research project. This is particularly true for early-twentieth century British history, as there is a wide array of available material, much of which is published. Narrowing down your search, therefore, is an important first step. One useful initial research task is to try and establish the ‘view’ or ‘perspective’ you are searching for in utilising diaries or memoirs. Are you searching for the diary of an armaments worker of the memoir of a cabinet minister? Think about some key factors or categorisations - such as age, gender, class, occupation, and nationality – and decide on the sort of source that best suits your needs. One this broad focus is confirmed, there are numerous research guides, reference works, and digitised catalogues that can significantly aid the research process. The Imperial War Museum Archive, for example, has a vast range of published and unpublished diaries than can be easily identified through their online catalogue. Another useful resource is the Mass Observation Archive, which contains nearly 500 personal diaries written between 1939 and 1965 which were sent to the organisation in monthly instalments.
The continued popularity of cartoons in contemporary newspapers and magazines highlights the great longevity of this form of satire. Yet aside from offering cheap laughs or gallows humour, political cartoons are equally important as vehicles for social and political commentary. The work of the prominent Edwardian cartoonist William Haselden, for example, covers a broad range of pre-1914 foreign and domestic controversies. Appearing primarily in the Daily Mirror, Haselden drew cartoons on themes as diverse as house building and food prices, Anglo-German relations and constitutional reform. Usually based on an issue of comparative political significance, and shaped by a specific political leaning, cartoons offer historians a valuable snapshot on both popular attitudes and media influence.
Though the nature and focus of political cartoons varies enormously, caricatures of notable political figures represent an important and commonplace subcategory. The Liberal statesman David Lloyd George was a popular subject for the cartoonist’s pen, appearing in hundreds of illustrations across the Edwardian press, usually with a comically enlarged head and extra-bushy moustache. This element of cartooning is an important one to bear in mind during your research. Such cartoons are less likely to deal in abstract concepts than they are to represent well-known political figures. These figures, in turn, are unlikely to be portrayed in a sympathetic light. Political cartoons are predominantly a method of critique rather than celebration, a status as true today as it has been historically.
Utilising political cartoons in historical research always relies on a degree of personal interpretation. Though not comparable to fine art or literary criticism, in that the artist’s ‘message’ is usually relatively clear, it is nonetheless easy when analysing cartoons to miss alternate issues or layers of subtlety. The best way to avoid such problems is to ensure you are as well-grounded as possible in the history (and if necessary, historiography) of the subject satirised by the cartoon under examination. It is also important to appreciate that cartoons rarely represent an objective or straightforward historical record. Michael McCarthy has warned historians of the ‘seductive nature’ of cartoons: ‘…exactly what do cartoons really prove? Because they are the creations of an individual artist, they may or may not reflect the views of others. And do cartoons really mould public opinion?’ (McCarthy, 1997). While these problems are not terminal in nature, such questions rightly highlight that cartoons are complex sources that need to be treated with a measure of circumspection (Scully, 2009).
Approached with this due caution, political cartoons are regularly utlised by historians. They can be particularly useful for capturing opposing sides of a political disagreement. Many of the major political debates during the pre-1914 period, including over the issues of Free Trade economics and compulsory military service, were played out in part by cartoons in the popular press. Cartoons have also been used as an effective way of measuring shifts in public opinion (though not without controversy, as discussed above). The treatment of Germany in political cartoons in the years approaching war, for example, helps emphasise the growing strains placed on Anglo-German relations in the run up to the First World War (Scully, 2012). For some historians, moreover, cartoons represent one facet of an historical phenomenon worthy of study in its own right, namely the ever-increasing importance of ‘visual culture’ in late-Victorian and Edwardian politics (Thompson, 2007).
Thanks to the recent digitisation of the major organs of the pre-1914 British media, there is now an increasingly valuable range of political cartoons available electronically. Newspapers including the Daily Mail, the Manchester Guardian, and The Times can all be accessed online. The database British Periodicals incorporates weekly and monthly titles, many of which, such as the Pall Mall Gazette, regularly printed satirical cartoons. Though not fully digitised, there is a wide selection of cartoons available from the famous magazine Punch. By far the best online resource is the British Cartoon Archive website. Based in Canterbury at the University of Kent’s Templeman Library, the archive holds over 150,000 examples of British cartooning, a significant proportion of which has been digitised. Before beginning the process of research, it is important to remember that you may not find the ‘perfect match’. Despite the huge range of material outlined above, there is no guarantee that an appropriate cartoon exists to accompany every line of inquiry.
It may seem unorthodox to approach popular fiction as a historical resource. Literature, after all, is inherently fictional rather than factual. Novels, short stories, and serialised books have no obligation to truth or accuracy. They are written primarily to entertain rather than to teach or inform. For historians, however, such sources often provide an extremely useful insight on cultural trends, popular tastes, and social change. Often this can be little more than a passing reference, such as quoting from the fiction of Charles Dickens to summarise the poverty of Victorian London. Other analysts have engaged with fiction far more directly, notably the historian Samuel Hynes in his cultural survey The Edwardian Turn of Mind. It is important to stress that fictional sources can be of significant historical value. Creative works form one part of ‘[the] tapestry created by a period’s economic, social, and political beliefs and values’ (Pasco, 2004).
Approaching literature as a historical resource relies on a significantly different approach to that of traditional literary criticism. This split is best understood as one between ‘text’ and ‘context’. Rather than focusing on the symbolism, imagery and subtext within a piece of writing, historians are more inclined to explore the historical circumstances from which the work emerged, and to assess how it was received. This process involves a keener focus on authorial biography, on publishers’ records and sales figures, and on book reviews and other reader accounts. When the text is analysed, moreover, historians tend to isolate the representation of particular issues or controversies (such as the fear of invasion in Edwardian Britain) before grounding these themes in the social and political debates of the period under examination. It is also important to recognise the difference between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction. This is particularly important for the pre-1914 period in Britain, as late-nineteenth century education reforms had helped create a hugely expanded market for literature. Though heavily criticised by literary scholars and historians alike, these categories loosely distinguish between books that were directly aimed at this new popular audience (which usually sold in much higher numbers), and works aimed at a smaller audience of ‘literary’ intellectuals (Carey, 1992). The work of authors’ celebrated as literary greats of the era, such as Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and D. H. Lawrence, tends to sit in the latter category.
Despite its value as a historical resource, popular fiction is a challenging source material to work with for a number of reasons. Firstly, as works of imagination, fictional texts are naturally subjective and open to interpretation. Drawing firm conclusions from such works (e.g. using a novel to corroborate knowledge or to ‘prove’ a historiographical position) can be a dangerous game (Harvey, 2013). Speculating on the goals of the author, in turn, is no less controversial. For many historians (particularly those influenced by postmodernism and the ‘linguistic turn’), gauging authorial intentions is an impossible task that undermines understanding of fictional and non-fictional texts. Finally, assessing the reception of popular fiction is no less problematic. Even when contemporary reader accounts can be accessed, it is notoriously difficult to establish the way in which works of fiction influenced individual readers. These reception dilemmas often take the form of viscous circles – did the British fear invasion because they read invasion fiction in large numbers, or did they read this literature because it appealed to an already-present invasion anxiety?
These conceptual questions are not unsubstantial. Yet rather than undermining research, such challenges have helped shape a series of progressive and theoretically rigorous historical studies. Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre (discussed above) is one such example, an eclectic cultural history of eighteenth-century France which includes an extended analysis of peasants’ folk tales. More recently, London’s Burning by Anthony Taylor explores the representation of the capital in nineteenth and twentieth-century popular fiction, particularly its regular destruction by invaders, terrorists, and various other violent forces. Taylor sees ‘pulp fiction’ as a way of charting or measuring ‘the course and direction of popular fears’. One of the aims of the study is to ‘re-evaluate’ the importance of popular fiction ‘for historians working on local, regional, national and imperial identities’ (Taylor, 2012). Taylor’s work is an excellent model for how historians should approach fiction as a historical resource.
Establishing a style of literature to focus on is an important first step in conducting this sort of research. All eras of modern British history have produced their own array of genres and subgenres, from Boys’ Own adventure novels in the late-Victorian years to post-1945 Cold War espionage fiction (typified by Ian Fleming’s numerous James Bond stories). They all express, in their own way, the hopes and anxieties of their age, and enjoy unique (albeit often overlapping) readerships. There are some excellent bibliographic and reference works that help introduce researchers to these broad outputs, and some of the best have appeared in the Oxford Companion series (Kemp, Mitchell and Trotter, 1997; Humphrey and Prichard, 1999). Digitised newspapers and periodicals are excellent for finding contemporary book reviews. For those interested in broader readerships, the Reading Experience Database is an unparalleled resource. With over 30,000 records of reading experience, the database can prove valuable in gauging a sense of popular reception.
This section explores three examples of sources that fit into the categories outlined above. Each example will be explored in detail through a range of methods, including image interpretation, textual analysis, and biographical cross-referencing. The straightforward analytical framework adopted here is intended as a basic model, one which can be adapted and evolved for most forms of primary source research.
The first detailed example is a passage from The Invasion of 1910 [A], a novel by the British author William Le Queux that has become synonymous with the Edwardian fear of invasion. Le Queux was a prolific writer and noted eccentric. Born in London in 1864, he worked as a journalist during the 1880s (notably at the Globe), before devoting himself full-time to novel writing. Deliberately fostering an air of mystery around his persona through unreliable autobiographical accounts, it is notoriously difficult to separate the reality of Le Queux’s life from the unreality of his literary output. This is well-illustrated by the reaction to his death in 1927. According to his obituary in The Times, Le Queux was a writer, journalist, British agent, and Consul-General of San Marino; had studied art, criminology, and ‘the secret service systems of Continental Powers’ and counted ‘monarchs and other celebrities’ among his close associates.
The Invasion of 1910 was as much a publicity drive and political campaign as it was a work of popular fiction. First serialised in the Daily Mail, it was written with the advice and cooperation of Lord Roberts, a Victorian war hero and President of the National Service League. Envisaged as a way of promoting the campaign for compulsory military service by outlining the horrors of a foreign invasion, Le Queux’s work enjoyed powerful backing, and as such, received an unprecedented degree of publicity. This included printing detailed invasion maps in various newspapers (including The Times), and dressing Daily Mail sandwich-men in Prussian military uniforms. The story itself imagined a successful German invasion of Britain, and a brutally violent siege around central London. When later published as a book, The Invasion of 1910 sold over a million copies and was translated into twenty-seven languages, including a controversial edition in German (Clarke, 1993).
Despite speculating on the nature of future war, The Invasion of 1910 is best understood as a comment on the defence policies of Edwardian Britain. The novel uses the spectre of conflict, and regularly the threat of sensationalist violence against soldiers and civilians, to persuade readers of the dangers of certain government policies. The passage under examination here begins by referencing Lord Roberts’ resignation from the Committee of National Defence over the issue of compulsory service. Unlike comparable forces on the continent, Britain’s small professional Army relied exclusively on volunteers. In Le Queux’s imagined future, it is this failure to enact major military reform that encourages the Germans to invade: ‘A deaf ear had been turned to every appeal. And now, alas! the long prophesied blow had fallen.’
This passage also reveals the dynamics of Le Queux’s imagined invasion. As the accompanying map illustrates, Le Queux identifies the German North Sea coast, and specifically the area around the Frisian Islands, as the most likely embarkation point for a German invasion force. Subject to high tides and shifting sands, this area appeared to offer an ideal location for secretive military and naval preparation:
from every canal, river, and creek had been assembled a huge multitude of flats and barges, ready to be…filled with troops…Hamburg, Altona, Cuxhaven, and Wilhelmshaven were in excited activity, and almost before the inhabitants themselves realised what was really in progress the embarkation had well commenced (Le Queux, 1906, p.167).
While this plot appears plausible in Le Queux’s account, it was in reality an extremely risky strategy. Indeed, a similar proposal had been criticised by German strategists as early as 1896 (Seed, 1992). The Invasion of 1910 thus provides valuable insight on this important gulf in understanding, between the practicalities of offensive operations on the one hand, and the pervasiveness of popular invasion anxieties on the other. This passage can be cited as evidence that invasion scares rarely depend on rationality or plausibility. Even the most implausible of rumours can generate widespread panic (Bourke, 2006).
Le Queux’s novel is also notable for its heavy use of geographical verisimilitude. Referring to a quality or statement that has a false appearance of truth, Le Queux sets events in familiar locations to create a sense of realism and legitimacy. This is particularly apparent in his descriptions of German landings in East Anglia:
The landing at King’s Lynn on Sunday morning had been quite a simple affair…All provisions were seized at shops, including the King’s Lynn and County Stores, the Star Supply Stores, Ladyman’s and Lipton’s in the High Street, while headquarters were established at the municipal buildings, and the German flag hoisted upon the old church (Le Queux, 1906, p.169).
A product of great preparation and research, The Invasion of 1910 contains numerous passages describing locations across Britain in similar detail. This was a radical method of appealing to the provincial localism of readers, and it directly contributed to the great popularity of Le Queux’s fiction. His approach added to a growing panic over the prospect of German invasion, as it provided readers with an imaginary blueprint of what was to come. This quote could be used in essay work to illustrate the diverse and imaginative methods utilised by authors in order to make German invasion appear realistic.
It would be wrong to suggest all readers responded to The Invasion of 1910 in this manner. Reviews of the novel, for example, were extremely mixed. For the Saturday Review, Le Queux’s style was ‘redundant and cheap’, while his portrayal of a then friendly country invading Britain was ‘distinctly objectionable’. Yet there are several reader accounts that emphasise the influence of Le Queux’s novel in shaping contemporary fears of invasion (Green, 1971). As a primary source, the work offers insight on the nature and depth of Edwardian invasion anxieties. It highlights the ever-present gap between military capabilities and popular fears. Furthermore, the book acts as an intriguing record of how popular literature is received, and the influence works of fiction can bring to bear on their readership.
Diaries and memoirs
The second detailed example is The Backwash of War, a book published in 1916, written by the American nurse and writer Ellen La Motte. Educated and trained at the John Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses in Baltimore, La Motte became an expert in tuberculosis nursing. Her controversial views on tuberculosis prevention were set down in her first book, The Tuberculosis Nurse (1914). Active in the campaign for women’s suffrage in the United States, La Motte moved to Paris in 1913, and volunteered with the American Ambulance on the outbreak of war. The Backwash of War is based on her experience of working in a French military hospital established by the American novelist Mary Borden (Williams, 2014).
Subtitled ‘The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse’, La Motte’s account is a brutally frank record of the violence of conflict, and the physical and mental impact of war on the human body. The Backwash of War [B] covers incidents as diverse as attempted suicide, the effects of gas attacks, civilian casualties, and the soldiers that suffered terrible facial disfigurements known as les gueules cassées; the men with smashed faces. La Motte was keen to capture what she referred to as the ‘ugliness’ of modern conflict:
‘We are witnessing a phase in the evolution of humanity, a phrase called war – and the slow, onward progress stirs up the slime in the shallows. And this is the Backwash of War’. As the unavoidable victims of these wider forces, the injured soldiers of La Motte’s account are ‘the slime in the shallows’.
As discussed in the ‘Selecting and Interpreting Sources’ section, diaries and memoirs are rarely straightforward as a primary material. This is certainly true of The Backwash of War. La Motte’s book has been described by Williams (2014) as ‘a series of fictionalised sketches based on her experiences on the front lines’. These ‘sketches’ vary in subject and circumstances. While some are likely based on La Motte’s firsthand account (such as the opening chapter ‘Heroes’), others are more obviously semi-fictional in quality (notably ‘A Surgical Triumph’). This status raises some interesting questions as to the veracity of La Motte’s account. Is it a diary, a memoir, or a work of fiction? Was the writer a direct witness to the events, or is she simply reframing stories and urban myths? Arguably, The Backwash of War is best approached as somewhere between a memoir and a work of fiction. Clearly recording thoughts and immediate observations, La Motte also displays ‘a self conscious concern for artistic craft’, something that heavily influences the text (Higonnet, 1991).
The Backwash of War could be used in written work that seeks to explore diverse accounts of violence in warfare. Within the text, the impact of such violence often appears straightforwardly physical. Patients suffer from grotesque shrapnel wounds, paralysis, and infection. They are often cast as repellent figures, ‘filthy, bearded, dying men upon the beds’ staining sheets ‘with the blood that oozes from their dressings’. Yet other elements explored in The Backwash of War are more subtle, touching upon issues of emotional detachment, emasculation, and dehumanisation. This is particularly apparent in ‘The Interval’, a chapter in which La Motte addresses the stage between mortal injury and subsequent death:
We see them in this awful interval, between life and death. This interval when they are gross, absurd, fantastic. Life is clean and death is clean, but this interval between the two is gross, absurd, fantastic (La Motte, 1916, p.86-7).
The impact of violence in this case is the indignity of prolonged death, an ‘interval’ in which even doctors and nurses struggle to relate to their charges. Soldiers clearly suffered from more than physical pain, and this source could be used in written work to illustrate the personal, individualised nature of violence in armed conflict. Where official sources might deal in abstract casualty figures, La Motte’s book addresses the very real impact of violence, both on the body of the injured patient and on the medical staff that surround them. Moreover, the politicised concept of war is largely absent from this account. Questions of strategy, political expediency, or victory are so rarely touched upon as to be irrelevant. This is conflict in is rawest sense, as a threat to the physical health and well-being of those directly involved.
Finally, we will explore a cartoon by David Low printed in May 1919 by the Bulletin, an Australian magazine based in Sydney. Known as the ‘Bushman’s Bible’ during its pre-1914 heyday, the Bulletin was a current affairs magazine first published in 1880. Like many comparable titles, the Bulletin was heavily shaped by editorial influence, regularly shifting its topical thrust and political allegiance. Initially appearing as a republican, pro-independence and anti-British publication, by the First World War it had morphed into an imperially-minded pro-British magazine. This shift was not popular with its readers, and arguably triggered its gradual decline (Thompson, 2013).
In this instance the cartoonist is of more note than the publication. Described in a Guardian obituary as ‘the most vigorous, independent, and outspoken political caricaturist since the middle of the nineteenth century’, Low spent many years working as a contributor to the Evening Standard, and was famous for his caricatures of Hitler and Stalin. Valuing ridicule, or what he termed ‘the criticism of the grin’, Low is said to have featured on a Gestapo priority list for arrest in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain. Born and educated in New Zealand, Low moved to Australia in 1911 having been offered a contract by the Bulletin. Drawn in May 1919, this image was one of his final contributions to the magazine before moving to London.
‘Peace, Perfect Peace’ is a critique of the Paris Peace Conference - shortly to be ratified as the Treaty of Versailles – and a warning over the growing threat of Bolshevik Russia. In the foreground stand the ‘Big Four’ key negotiators, French President Georges Clemenceau, US President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando. Depicted as angels clutching an olive branch, both symbols associated with peace, the caption strikes an optimistic tone: ‘Signor Orlando has returned to Paris, and the Big Four are in harmony again’. Orlando had withdrawn from the conference in mid-April in protest at the council’s failure to meet Italian territorial demands. His eventual return, as such, is facetiously represented by all four figures singing in ‘harmony’, moving Europe towards a ‘perfect peace’ settlement (Sharp, 1991).
Key to this cartoon, however, is the dominating figure in the background. Modelled on Mars, the Roman god of war, the figure’s enormous size and demonic facial features imbue it with a mythical, other-worldly status. Around its neck hangs a broken sword symbolising a vanquished foe – in this instance Prussia, the dominant state in Imperial Germany. Yet the figure is brandishing a much larger and unbroken sword of ‘Bolshevism’. As he menacingly approaches the foreground, testing the sharpness of his blade, the ‘Big Four’ are clearly oblivious to this new and pressing threat.
The message of Low’s cartoon is that the Paris Peace Conference will do nothing to solve Europe’s biggest existential problem: the rise of the Soviet Union. Still guided in 1919 by Trotsky’s concept of ‘permanent revolution’, Bolshevik Russia was an expansionist state with ambitious aims, as the ongoing Polish-Soviet War was proving. Moreover, 1919 was characterised by spreading domestic political upheaval across Europe and North America. Some of this upheaval was directly influenced by financial and political support from Moscow, although the fear of this sort of intrigue was greater than the reality (Read, 2008). In focusing on the defeated German, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires, the dominant forces at Paris had failed to recognise that post-war geopolitics had rapidly evolved. As with the angels in the cartoon, they were looking the wrong way. After the great suffering of civil war, military setbacks in Poland, and the failure of revolution in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere, the Soviet Union eventually chose to consolidate its gains. Though it continued to be linked with various acts of intrigue and espionage (such as through the spurious ‘Zinoviev Letter’ in 1924), Russia did not court open military aggression against its Great Power neighbours in the aftermath of Versailles.
‘Peace, Perfect Peace’ is a fascinating example of how individuals related to and interpreted conflict and violence, highlighting the important recognition among some commentators that the talks in Paris were unlikely to produce a lasting peace settlement. This was a contemporary fear that proved prescient, and has been analysed at length by historians. Rather than establishing peace, Versailles arguably created the conditions for future conflict (Boemeke, Feldman, and Glaser, 1998). In this sense, Low’s pessimism was misdirected, and, in written work, his cartoons could now serve as evidence for popular frustration with the Paris Peace Conference and the priorities of the ‘Big Four’. Such a cartoon is also a useful source to analyse when writing about the emergence of ‘Red Scare’ anxieties, as Bolshevik Russia replaced Germany as the chief enemy in the minds of many.
This chapter has identified a small selection of primary sources that can be used to write about conflict and violence in modern British history. Exploring the virtues and challenges of using diaries, cartoons, and fiction as historical records, the chapter has emphasised the great breadth and variety of source material that can be harnessed when researching and composing written work. It has also aimed to stress the importance of a carefully considered analytical framework. Despite the central position of primary material in scholarly research, such sources cannot be approached in total isolation. When studying conflict and violence, it is crucial to understand the context and the afterlife of a given source before addressing its context. Finally, the chapter has tried to illustrate historiographical trends by highlighting the different ways in which conflict and violence can be approached. In the same way that conflict does not begin or end with warfare, violence is not always physical, nor is its influence limited to the group or individual under attack. Rather than thematic limitations, conflict and violence should be seen as broad headings through which a huge range of historical experience can be accessed and interrogated.
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