Category Archives: writing

What is Military History Now?

I’ve been watching some of the debates centred on military history with great interest. The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres (or is it Paschendaele?!) and the release of the film Dunkirk have inspired much navel-gazing and hand-wringing from military historians.

I think it’s fair to say that my thoughts on military history have evolved somewhat over the years. My interest was piqued at a very young age by my family history. Of course I went through the watching-war-films phase, and the button-counting and badge-checking and predictable-self-righteous-indignation-when-something-was-wrong phase.

But over time I think – and hope – that my motivation for ‘doing’ history has grown up somewhat. Accuracy is great, but what does it achieve? Yes, it is misleading if things are wrong, but is it possible to worry far too much about things that are details, and completely forget about the bigger picture? That is, what people are thinking and feeling, and what the bigger lessons of conflict are?

I guess I am quite lucky in that I have been ‘doing’ my history in quite a public way, and I get to interact with a lot of ‘normal’ people (even if that has involved writing books that are longer than a PhD thesis but most ‘proper’ historians would not lower themselves to cite as a source…)  But it has reallt reinforced my belief that preaching to the converted on the minutiae is one thing, but making a real difference to people who are not enthusiasts is the real coal face of history.

The more I have worked in public history, the more I have become more and more convinced over time that echo chamber history is virtually pointless – what purpose does it really serve? Recent events – Brexit, for one – suggests to me that history, and especially military history – has failed in terms of its broader role in society. Or, at the very least, history has not exactly covered itself in glory.

If the most important thing about a war film, for you, is that one of the cap badges is wrong or the repro battledress is the wrong shade of khaki, personally I think that you’re kind of missing the point. Anal retentiveness really will have overtaken the bigger issues. It reminds me of an account I read of the BEF in 1939-40. Apparently Lord Gort issued numerous orders regarding uniforms and standards of dress, perhaps unsurprisingly for a Guardsman. Yet sartorial elegance did not stop the debacle that led to Dunkirk.

I think the crux of all history is that what you do is affected very much by why you do it. If your primary interest is checking cap badges and counting buttons and then getting smugly outraged when not everything is completely right, chances are you’re probably less worried about what effect your work is going to have on people. Which does lead me to wonder if some historians really aren’t all that fussed about what effect their work has. After all, there are plenty of supposedly influential academic tomes that retail at £80 and have probably sold four or five copies, and can only be found in impenetrable libraries somewhere. What effect is that kind of history really having on anyone? Yet I have also seen plenty of sneering posts on twitter bemoaning arts projects, interpretive dance, and well, anything that isn’t either a book or a lecture. Aside from showing a complete lack of understanding of the modern world and the potential to reach new audiences, it seems possible to me that many enthusiasts would not be unhappy if militaty history stays in a position where they could bemoan the lack of interest of the general population, but they can also also smother the field so that said population are less likely to become interested in it. Schrodingers geek, you might describe it as.

To put it quite bluntly, I started out on the path of military history because of my family history. That family history tells me quite unequivocally that war is pretty awful, and really, isn’t that the whole point of military history, letting people know that war is a god-awful business? To be quite blunt, aside from making sure that something does not look completely ridiculous, I’m really not all that fussed about counting badges. However, if something I write or a display that I put together makes people go away and think something or feel something, that’s an outcome I can feel proud about.

The centenary of the Great War does feel like a missed opportunity in some respects. Not, I hasten to add, to just re-energise interest, but for military history as a concept to take a deeper look in the mirror. Maybe the nature of military history in 2017 is the problem. Caught between the ivory towers of academic military history on the one hand and the geekier end of the spectrum, there is more than ever a need for a middle way that takes into account the nature of the world we live in today, and the needs of the people who live in it.

For that to happen all parts of the field would need to take a hard look at themselves. It would require less factionalism between sectors, and academics, museum professionals, enthusiasts, tour guides and broadcasters. Getting away from secret societies and closed shop conferences and journals that won’t acknowledge your existence if you are not a PhD. Ironically, I think these kind of factors that have been in evidence during recent debates, are also part of the problem. And, even more ironically, military historians are showing signs of fighting todays problems with yesterdays tactics.

But most of all, thinking long and hard about why we do military history, and what it is all for.

 

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Filed under historiography, Uncategorized, writing

Working on Portsmouths World War One Heroes

Ive spent the past month or so working hard on writing my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

Somehow I’ve managed to write almost 27,00 words in less than a month, which is certainly a record for me and I suspect it’s probably a lot quicker than many a historian writes! All this, of course, while working a day job and you can probably see how I only really have time for sleeping and eating besides.

Writing aboutr WW1 is quite a lot different to writing about WW1, more so than many of you would probably imagine.  For two reasons. Firstly, there are a lot more records available – war diaries, rolls of honour, more detail on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and so on. Yet at the same time, it was so long ago – nearly 100 years ago – that there are very few – if any – descendants around who have information about their relatives who were killed in the Great War. When writing Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes I was fortunate enough to hear from many children of people I wrote about; I doubt very much whether that will happen with this book.

I’ve done a lot of secondary reading – I would not be surprised if the bibliography contains 100+ books by the end – but I still have a lot of primary research to do. In particular, sources such as the Portsmouth Evening News on microfilm, Portsmouth Military Service tribunal records, records of corporation employees such as tram workers and policemen, and also official documents at the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum.

I won’t give too much away about the book, but I am writing about:

  • Lt Col Dick Worrall DSO and Bar MC and Bar
  • The Royal Flying Corps
  • Emigrants and Immigrants
  • The Military Service Tribunal
  • The early Tank men
  • Boy soldiers
  • Gallipoli, Salonika, Mesopotamia and Palestine
  • Brothers
  • Royal Naval Division/Royal Marines
  • Submariners
  • Jutland
  • The first day on the Somme
  • The Portsmouth Pals
  • Prisoners of War
  • 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Brickwood

With the wealth of sources available, I have been able to go into a lot of detail about many of the men I am writing about, in particular I have been able to give a fresh insight into the social history of Portsmouth in the period 1914 to 1918, and indeed before and afterwards.

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Filed under western front, World War One, writing

Public Lending Right

Did you know, that as an author you can earn money when your books are borrowed from public libraries?

To qualify you have to register your books with www.plr.uk.com. Signing up doesn’t cost a penny. Payments are made on an annual basis, based on loans data supplied from a sample of public libraries in the UK. There is a minimum threshold of £1, up to a maximum of £6,000. Out of more than 23,000 recipients, only 313 authors received more than £5,000, and more than 16,000 authors did not meet the £1 threshold. The vast majority of recipients received less than £100. Your PLR rights carry on for the rest of your life after you have registed, and for your estate or descendants for 70 years after your death.

Over 23,000 writers, illustrators, photographers, translators and editors who have contributed to books lent out by public libraries in the UK receive PLR payments each year. But compare that 23,000 to the amount of books published, and it seems that there are plenty of authors unaware that Public Lending Right exists! It might not seem like much, but it’s money that you are entitled to for your hard work, and it doesn’t cost you anything to apply for it.

 You can also register for other payments for use of your work from the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society. For a one-off joining fee of £25 – deducted from any future royalties – you can collect payment for various secondary uses of your work, such as photocopying, scanning and digital transmission, and also foreign public lending rights from Austria, Holland, Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Estonia and Ireland.

It might not work out at much, but if you’re entitled to it then why not? It’s just recognition for the contribution that writers make to public culture. It’s hard enough trying to make it as an author – only people like Anthony Beevor or Max Hastings are making millions – so anything that you can get to cover your costs can’t be a bad thing.

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