The difficult part of blogging is not in the writing. Believe it or not having something to say has never been a hard thing for me to do! Rather it is to find (a) the time and (b) the right thing to say to you, my readers and followers.
Military history is an interesting area. Some historians see the word ‘military’ and immediately get turned off by the genre as a whole, as (personally, I believe) they remember their secondary/high-school education of battles and death and killing. And dates! The amount of times I have heard the ‘man/woman-in-the-street’ bemoan the abundance of dates in history and how they’d love to have studied it, only for all those numbers! Anyway I digress…
Military history is not just about battles and wars. Indeed from my vantage point, the battles and wars are quite often secondary to the main themes, perhaps even irrelevant, or only of tertiary importance. Rather for me, perhaps the genre should be renamed ‘social military history.’ Through my own area I am examining a relatively small organisation, which had a disproportionate effect on the course of a country’s history and exploring how the men who served in said unit, interacted with each other and their wider society. That sounds like social history to me! There are battles and fights, but they are secondary to the effects and behaviour which they produced and provoked in the men themselves.
As historians, we should allow ourselves some time for detachment from the bigger questions in our field. I have research questions, which act as a guide for me as I write my thesis (hence the title of this reflective piece). Yet I sometimes wonder am I being too restrictive in my scope? Am I becoming shackled by my (necessarily) narrow interpretation of the facts, in an effort to create my narrative. I realise that my 120,000 words (and counting) thesis cannot address everything, nor can it go on forever, yet I still feel like I am cutting out on some important characteristics of society and societal changes at that time. The men I’m investigating were not all a bad bunch and though I try to make that point, I wonder will anyone who has not invested time and effort into detailed research, ever really fully understand that point. It doesn’t keep me up nights (that would be the fact-checking), but it does make me pause and consider.
I sometimes speculate, would I be better off by exploring British and Irish society as a whole at this time, rather than having adopted (and adapted) a chronologically linear approach to mapping out the corps’ interactions with the society. The latter approach is somewhat more ‘user-friendly’, in that it presents events and occurrences as ‘this happened, then this happened, which resulted in THIS happening’, the classic tropic ‘lightbulb’ moment. However, is that a bit twee? Is it a bit patronizing for the reader and intended audience, especially after my self-avowed penchant for presenting the social-military aspect to the reader?
Thematically, military behaviour could be expected to produce profound changes and interaction with any civilized society. The British postwar society had begun to embrace the counterculture poetry and literature expounded by men such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, etc. and had begun the inexorable move away from the staid Victorian and Edwardian values it had so prized just a a few short years before. Yet many of the veterans of the Great war who sought to express the continued mental torment which they suffered (some on a daily and nightly basis) as a result of their wartime service, often found their home to be a cold house for them. It is curious that the society which so values a soldier’s contribution at the time of war, then shuns their need for support after the event, and yet thinks nothing of asking for that support again when the soldier is needed again.
Perhaps as historians and scholars we have been approaching matters in a contrary fashion. Perhaps instead of focusing on military matters influence their society, rather we should focus on society and how that influences the military?