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Author’s Note

The Dominion of Newfoundland, which included mainland Labrador, was independent of Canada; it did not join the confederation until 1949. During the First World War, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment/Royal Newfoundland Regiment was raised, and distinctly maintained, from Canadian divisions and the Canadian Corps. The unit fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front independent of Canadian formations and government. Although Newfoundland–Labrador’s indigenous history, including that of the First World War, is now generally allied to that of Canada, it will be excluded from this analysis. Given its small and remote population (an estimated 1,700 in 1914), Newfoundland did not formulate any specific military policies towards indigenous peoples. Through Canadian and Newfoundland–Labrador archival records, I have confirmed only twenty-one men of indigenous heritage who served in Newfoundland forces during the war.

Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that the scattered Yupik, Iñupiat and Inuit populations of Canada, totaling roughly 3,450 in 1914, were given any consideration by either the Ministry of Militia or Indian Affairs as a source of military manpower. In fact, they were wholly ignored in both policy and practice. Accordingly, these peoples are generally excluded from this synopsis, as are the Métis. The Métis were not legally bound to or defined by the tenets of the Indian Act, and they were able to enlist in the same manner as Euro-Canadians. The experience of First Nations peoples is, therefore, the focus.

Introduction

From a population numbering 7.88 million, over 620,000 Canadians served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) between 1914 and 1919. This number included over 4,000 First Nations individuals from a total 1914 population of 103,774 (excluding non-status individuals). This enlistment figure represents 35 percent of First Nations men of military age, roughly equal to the percentage of Euro-Canadians who enlisted. According to a 1919 Indian Affairs report of the Great War, “it must be remembered, moreover, that there were undoubtedly cases of Indian enlistment which were not reported to the department.”[1] The exact number of Canda’s indigenous population to serve in the First World War cannot be decisively tabulated. Most Status Indians were not recorded as such upon enlistment, as attestation papers did not record race. Likewise, Indian Affairs lists compiled through the “Return of Indian Enlistments” form by agents for individual reserves in 1917, and again in 1919, rarely included those from the Territories, and, most conspicuously, Non-status Indians.[2]  Nevertheless, through these lists it is certain that at minimum 4,000 status Indians were enrolled in the CEF.

Although embarrassingly under-prepared at the outbreak of war, Canada was able to deploy an expeditionary force much larger than could have been imagined.  With Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August 1914, most First Nations communities and leaders openly declared their loyalty and sought avenues to exemplify their allegiance and worth to both Canada and the Crown. The majority of treaties and military alliances were fostered with Britain, not with Canada. Many communities offered support of men and money directly to the king, or the “Great White Father.” The majority believed that by entering and engaging in Canadian society as Indians, they could participate on equal terms and win the respect of the dominant non-Indian society in order to gain rights for their own peoples. Accordingly, many viewed the First World War as an extension of this approach.

Canada had a long history of British-First Nations alliance throughout the settler-state experience. First Nations groups had been British (and French) allies during the colonial wars, as Britain and France vied for North American hegemony. Following the 1817 Rush–Bagot Treaty and the American Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which nullified future American and external European threats, they lost their importance as military allies. However, while First Nations peoples lost their military importance as a collective, individuals continued to support British military campaigns after the War of 1812 when mustered by imperial/Canadian authorities. Given this pattern of allegiance to the British Crown, enthusiasm towards the First World War was not historically unfounded.

The 1904 Militia Act also identified those Canadians eligible for military service. Section X stated, “All the male inhabitants of Canada of the age of eighteen years and upwards, and under sixty, not exempt or disqualified by law and being British subjects, shall be liable to service in the militia; provided that the Governor-General may require all the male inhabitants of Canada capable of bearing arms.”32[3] The act, however, made no specific mention of indigenous peoples even though they had consistently been called upon to assist in Canadian or imperial ventures.

Unofficial Exclusion

With the initiation of hostilities, the majority of British and Canadian politicians and senior commanders, believed that the “war would be over by Christmas.” Within this general atmosphere, Canada initially promulgated an unofficial exclusionist policy regarding enlistment of indigenous peoples. The war, however, was not short-lived, and contributions by First Nations individuals, overseas and on the home front in support of Britain, increased dramatically over the course of four-and-a-half years of horrific warfare.  Although the majority of people offered their immediate support to the war effort, their active participation remained dependent on the existing 1904 Militia Act or, in the absence of any clear policy, on the whims of the federal government. Throughout 1914 the general policy towards service remained one of exclusion or limited involvement.

On 8 August 1914, four days after the British declaration of war, the minister of militia, Sir Sam Hughes, received a query from Colonel W.E. Hodgins asking, “Is it intended that Indians who are anxious to enlist for service Overseas are to be taken on the Contingent?”  Hughes replied on the same day: “While British troops would be proud to be associated with their fellow subjects [First Nations peoples], yet Germans might refuse to extend to them the privileges of civilized warfare, therefore it is considered … that they had better remain in Canada to share in the protection of the Dominion.”[4] Many historians have incorrectly applied Hughes’s statement to represent an official policy of exclusion, while others inaccurately argue that this passage was not widely disseminated. First, although the Ministry of Militia tried to dissuade indigenous enlistment in 1914 and 1915, no official policy of exclusion was ever promulgated. Secondly, this passage was identically reproduced, and extensively circulated, in correspondence concerning Indian service, from its first usage in August 1914 until December 1915, when official authority was finally given to enlist Indians.  Hodgins, who received the initial reply from Hughes, became the adjutant general of militia shortly thereafter. When replying to enquiries concerning his ministry’s Indian enlistment policy, Hodgins simply quoted the passage relayed to him earlier by his superior. Eventually, this passage was frequently used by officials in the Ministry of Militia and the Departments of Indian Affairs and Justice. It became the unofficial policy surrounding Indian service until December 1915.

There was also apprehension that including Indians in an expeditionary force could violate treaties.  During the negotiations of Treaties 1 through 6 (1871–86) — covering roughly the southern half of the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and western Ontario — Indian chiefs specifically asked about military service. In October 1873, during the discussions of Treaty 3, governmental representative Alexander Morris was asked by an Ojibwa chief from Fort Frances, Ontario: “If you should get into trouble with the nations, I do not wish to walk out and expose my young men to aid you in any of your wars.” To this Morris replied: “The English never call Indians out of their country to fight their battles.”  Morris echoed this sentiment to Cree chiefs at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, in August 1876 during consultations over Treaty 6A: “I assured them, you will never be asked to fight against your will; and I trust the time will never come of war between the Queen and the great country near us…. My words, where they are accepted are written down, and they last; as I have said to others, as long as the sun shines and river runs.” [5] Treaties were signed collectively, not by Canada, but in the name of Queen Victoria; thus, Indian nations saw treaties as an alliance with the Crown through Canada, not with Canada itself. Indians often related more to the British Crown than to Canada, because treaties signed on behalf of Queen Victoria signified sovereignty in partnership with Britain.

Throughout 1914 Indian men rushed to recruiting depots for reasons other than loyalty to the British Crown. Although the warrior ethic had stagnated as a result of residential schooling, religious education, and isolation on reserves, it had not been completely repressed. While many joined for money, adventure, and employment, as did their white comrades, scores of others enlisted to revive the warrior tradition and gain social status within their communities.[6]  War in Europe seemed a feasible means to circumvent governmental policies and the Indian Act, and it offered freedom and escape from reserve life. In summary, unofficial policies of exclusion and inclusion were operating conjointly until December 1915, although exclusion remained the dominant premise. This dichotomy led to great confusion within departments and among Indians and their agents as to the regulations pertaining to Indian service. Correspondence from agents, chiefs, and individual Indians asking for clarification of policy flooded into both the Department of Indian Affairs and the Ministry of Militia throughout 1914 and 1915. Most, but not all, replies were consistent with an exclusionist policy. However, under the frantic “call to arms” units recruited directly from their regions, without interference from the Ministry of Militia or the DIA.  Local recruiting officers, therefore, had absolute discretion over whom they enrolled, provided recruits met the medical standards. Although race was not recorded on enlistment documents, some recruiting officers listed “Indian” under the section entitled “Description of [Name] on Enlistment — Complexion” on the attestation form.

The war was generally met with a jingoistic outpouring in the British segments of Canada in 1914, and support for the imperial government was given in the form of men, material, and money. The outward support for the war given by most Indian leaders did not in all cases reflect the opinions of those whom they purportedly represented. Many Indians did not endorse the recruitment of their men for a European war. This was no different from the divisions within the Euro-Canadian populations and should be viewed as such. Most French-Canadians, and some Irish-Canadians, did not back the war effort either. For many Indian leaders seeking full and equal sovereignty, support offered directly to the Crown was viewed as a means to lobby the imperial government to pressure Canada to alter oppressive laws.  As the war progressed and Canadian forces expanded and accrued the horrific casualty rates of modern trench warfare on the Western Front, Canadian policies regarding Indian service were substantially altered to provide for greater inclusion to meet the pragmatic requirements for manpower. Britain increasingly looked to her dominions as a source of men and materials.

Indian Service

Within this general atmosphere, in October 1915 the British War Office issued the most important imperial documents of the war pertaining to indigenes of all dominions. Official inclusion of Indians in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the clarification of policy in December 1915 were directly linked to the requests of the imperial government.  On 8 October 1915 all governors general and administrators of British dominions and colonies received a confidential memorandum from the Canadian-born colonial secretary, Andrew Bonar Law:

The [War] Cabinet have asked for a report as to the possibilities of raising native troops in large numbers in our Colonies + Protectorates for Imperial service. What is wanted is an estimate of the numbers that could be raised; the length of time needed for training; an opinion as to their fighting value; and any pertinent remarks on such points as climatic restrictions on their employment, the influence of religion…[and] the difficulty of officering.

A second request was sent on 18 October. War exigencies now required the military inclusion of indigenous men.  In the British interpretation, the loyal service of Indians during the colonial period still resonated and was again requested in aid of the empire. A third, albeit not as direct, call was written by Bonar Law, on behalf of the king on 25 October. [7]  

A November 1917 report from the Ministry of Militia replied to the question of “whether there was any General Order of the Department by which Indians were not allowed to enlist. No Such General Order was issued. Towards the latter part of 1915, the number of Indians who volunteered to enlist was continuously increasing, and representations were made from the Crown … that they should be allowed to do so, and the following circular letter was issued on December 10, 1915. This regulation has never been altered since that time.”[8]  The aforementioned circular from the Ministry of Militia promulgated “that owing to the large number of applications for enlistment of Indians, authority is hereby granted to enlist Indians in the various Units for Overseas Service.” The response to the change in Indian enlistment policy was overwhelming. A number of battalions formed after December 1915 had a high percentage of Indians, although none rivalled the 107th and the 114th which 50% to 75% Indian in composition. Most were dispatched overseas in 1916, although all, save for the 107th were broken up as reinforcements, many boosting the Indian complexion of the enduring 107th.  In November 1916, roughly one year after the official sanction, the distribution of known Indian enlistments (1,187) was released by the DIA and was widely published in newspapers across the country.  The same report stated that Indians had donated $24,679.30 to various war funds.[9]

Canadian recruitment policies at the outbreak of war and into 1915 could not sustain national formations in the face of mounting casualties, a decline in voluntary enlistment and an expanding expeditionary force. Pragmatism required policies be altered to allow for the inclusion of Indians, and eventually for their conscription. Canada introduced conscription with the controversial Military Service Bill on 11 June 1917, to the indignation of most French-Canadians. Confusion and capricious policy concerning the position of Indians was immediate and pronounced. On 29 August the Military Service Act (MSA) legally sanctioned conscription.

The act applied to all male British subjects in Canada, including Indians, Asians, and blacks, between the ages of twenty and forty.  Driven by the necessities of the war, Canada’s policy towards Indian military service had reversed since 1914. Ottawa was now demanding, under law, Indian participation.  Before the closing registration date of 1 February 1918 arrived, however, Ottawa passed legislation exempting Indians (and Japanese) from the terms of the MSA based on the tenets of prior treaties.

The need for manpower, however, drastically influenced the military position of Indians during 1917 and 1918, and voluntary recruitment drives were undertaken on reserves across the country.  In addition to serving as snipers and scouts, Canadian Indians were employed in every other branch of the combat arms and auxiliary formations except for the Royal Tank Corps.  They served in both the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve, and the Royal Navy. Three members of the defunct 114th Battalion served as pilots in the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force.[10]  One, Lieutenant Oliver Milton Martin, went on to serve in the Second World War, attaining the rank of brigadier general, the highest position ever attained in the Canadian Forces by an Indian.  In total, at least seventeen Indians were commissioned officers in the CEF during the First World War.  For the majority of men who served in the Great War, the camaraderie created by the horrors of trench warfare transcended race. From the historical record available, it appears that the age-old adage of relying on the man beside you in combat, and in turn fighting for him, held true for most men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, regardless of race, colour, or creed.

Legacy

For all nations, the sacrifice of the First World War was measured in blood and the staggering number of dead. This was no different for the Indian nations of Canada. They shared equally in the burdens of war, and they still remind the government of their sacrifices for king and country. Indian casualty rates, however, cannot be precisely calculated, since race was generally not recorded on military records.  Based on nominal roles and soldier-specific details submitted by individual Indian agents (or reserves), it is known for certain that at least 4,000 status Indians served in the CEF and that they suffered roughly 1,200 casualties. These numbers exclude non-status Indians, Inuit-Yupik, and Métis, and are based on the 1914 status-Indian population of 103,774, which increased only slightly during the war years. (The 1917 population was 105,998.)  While the number of Canadian Indians awarded honours is not officially known, Veterans Affairs states that “at least 50 medals were awarded to aboriginal people in Canada for bravery and heroism.”[11]  Indian women also formed patriotic and Red Cross societies on their reserves. They made bandages, knitted various items of clothing, and raised funds by selling traditional crafts. The Canadian Red Cross Society stated that the articles made by Indian women were the finest quality of knitting and sewing they received.  By the end of the war, Indians had donated almost $45,000 to war funds.[12]

Nevertheless, significant Indian participation in the war effort both on and off the battlefield did little to alter governmental policy. Indian veteran Private Daniel Pelletier remarked: “The army treated us all right … there was no discrimination ‘over there’ and we were treated good.”[13] This relative equality, however, was not manifest in government veteran programs and benefits, and Indians remained wards of the state under the paternalistic Indian Act.  Indian veterans also did not receive equal consideration for pensions, disability or War Veterans’ Allowance, despite the promises.  Following the war, with their service no longer required, Indian soldiers returned to the position of unwanted peoples and did not receive equitable treatment as veterans.

The inclusion of Indians in the Canadian Expeditionary Force was a pragmatic decision on the part of the Canadian government, one based on the necessity for manpower to meet national war aims and in response to requests from British authorities. This inclusion was not intended to transcend contemporary social, political, or cultural norms within Canadian society. The elevated and unprecedented participation of Indians during the First World War, however, was a potential catalyst to accelerate their attainment of equal rights. This did not happen. Paternalistic and authoritative policies prevailed, and the recognition of Indian military contributions was fast forgotten. War service, both on and off the battlefield, did not alter their socioeconomic or political realities within Canada, nor did it hasten the attainment of equal rights or enfranchisement. Following the war, veterans were also denied access to most veteran programs.

Conclusion

In late 1917 Arthur Meighen, minister of the interior and superintendent-general of Indian Affairs, summarized the relationship between Indians and Canada during the Great War: “It is an inspiring fact that these descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of a continent so recently appropriated by our own ancestors should voluntarily sacrifice their lives on European battlefields, side by side with men of our own race, for the preservation of the ideals of our civilization, and their staunch devotion forms an eloquent tribute to the beneficent character of British rule over a native people.”[14] No better statement represents the negligible impact Indian participation in the war had on the broader social and political realities of Indians within Canada. Indians were willing, through the bonding experience of a common war, to enter into Canadian society as equals. Canada, as evidenced by Meighen’s declaration, rejected this offer, refusing to acknowledge the shared experience of the First World War and, more importantly, the benefits that could have been derived from it. The sacrifices of Indian soldiers and communities shaped the eras that followed. These experiences challenged notions of Indian identity, as well as their appropriate place in national orders. Although the Great War began 100 years ago, for the indigenous peoples of Canada the war for cultural, territorial, and socio-economic equality and recognition is still being fought today.

 


 

[1] Duncan Campbell Scott, 1919 Report of the Deputy Superintendent General for Indian Affairs: The Indians and the Great War—House of Commons Sessional Paper No. 27 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1920), 13.

[2] LAC, RG 10, Vol. 6767, File 452-17. Return of Indian Enlistments, 1917; LAC, RG 10, Vol. 6771, File 452-29. Return of Indian Enlistments, 1919; Duncan Campbell Scott, 1919Report of the Deputy Superintendent General for Indian Affairs: The Indians and the Great War—House of Commons Sessional Paper No. 27 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1920), 13.

[3] LAC, RG 24, C-1-a, Vol. 6564-Part I. Revision of the Militia Act, 1904.

[4] LAC, RG 24-c-1-a, Vol. 1221, Part 1 HQ-593-1-7. Hodgins to Hughes, with Reply, 8 August 1914.

[5] James Dempsey, Warriors of the King: Prairie Indians in World War I (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1999), 38–39.

[6] Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914–1916, Vol. 1 (Toronto: Penguin Group Canada, 2007), 28–30.

[7] House of Lords Records Office/Parliamentary Archives (London, UK), Andrew Bonar Law Papers, BL/55/16. Memorandum Colonial Office to Governors General and Administrators of British Dominions, Colonies and Protectorates, 8 October 1915; Cabinet Memorandum to the Dominions: The Question of Raising Native Troops for Imperial Service, 18 October 1915 (also contained in Harcourt Papers-445).

[8] LAC, RG 24-c-1-a, Vol. 1221, File HQ-593-1-7. Letter from Ministry of Militia to A.G. Chisholm (Lawyer, London, Ontario), 26 November 1917.

[9] For example, these numbers appear in the Ottawa Citizen, “Red Men on the Firing Line,” 19 November 1916, and the Regina Leader, “Indians are doing their bit in the Great War,” 18 November 1916.

[10] Duncan Campbell Scott, 1919 Report of the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Sessional Paper No. 27: The Indians and the Great War (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1920), 15, 27.

[11] Veterans Affairs Canada, athttp://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/pdf/cr/pi-sheets/Aboriginal-pi-e. pdf.

[12] LAC, RG 10, Vol. 6762, File 452-3. Native Contributions to War Funds; Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Report of the DIA, 1917 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1918), 18.

[13] LAC, RG 10, Vol. 3211, File 527, 787. Various Correspondence on Loft and the League of Indians of Canada, 1919–1935.

[14] Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Report of the DIA, 1917 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1918), 17.

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Wilfred Owen from Poems (1920)Wilfred Owen was in France 1914, though not near the battlefields that his war poems would memorialise. He had been teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux since the autumn of 1913 and took up the post of tutor to Madame Léger and her daughter Nénette in July 1914. The Legers owned the Villa Lorenzo, near Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the La Gailleste valley at the foot of the Pyrenees, an idyllic location that impressed Owen from the time he stepped off the train on the 31st of July. “What luck!”, he wrote to his closest confidante, his mother Susan. His hosts were also enchanting. M Léger was a former engineer who had given up the profession for a career in the arts. Nénette was “perfectly a child” with “more than her fair share of intellect”. and she made her tutor “immensely happy”, declaring “Monsieur Owen est trés-joli garçon, n’est-ce-pas?” (Owen 1998, 116) Madame, he tells Susan, is “elegant rather than belle [...] with shapely features luxuriant coiffure, but is much too thin to be pretty” (Owen 1998, 116). But he has to reassure his mother that although Madame “has a considerable liking for me, both in a physical and intellectual sense”, he does not reciprocate “the former liking” (Owen 1998, 116).

After 4 August, war began to rage in Europe. By the time Owen was fully ensconced at Villa Lorenzo, Bagnères was overcome by the news: “Women were weeping all about; work was suspended. Nearly all the men have already departed.” He had “to declare” himself to the authorities and “get a permit to remain” (Owen 1998, 109). Yet he continued “to be immensely happy and famously well” (Owen 1998, 110), immersing himself in French literature and making the acquaintance of the poet Laurent Tailhade, who guided him to the work of Paul Verlaine, Gustav Flaubert and others. As the war carried on around him, Owen found that it “affects me less than it ought”, and argued that he could “ do no service to anybody by agitating for news or making dole over the slaughter.” He felt his “own life all the more precious and more dear in the presence of this deflowering of Europe” and commented that “the guns will effect a little useful weeding” (Owen 1998, 119). There is no poet of pity here. While he was not entirely oblivious to press rhetoric about shirking young Englishmen, he told his mother that the real reason he would go to fight — “what would hold me together on the battlefield” — was “the sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!” (Owen 1998, 130) It was only after his horrendous experiences on the Western Front in 1917 and his recovery from shellshock, that the Owen with whom we, in the early 21st century, are most familiar would emerge: “I came out here to help these boys — directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly by watching their suffering that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first.” (Owen 1998, 351)

Thus Owen’s letters of this early period of the war, and through most of 1915, reveal him weighing many options (including joining the French or the Italian army), as he continued to tutor in Bordeaux and attend courses at the University. It had been mooted that he accompany Madame Léger on a business trip to Canada, but instead, in December, he took up the post of tutor to two English boys, Johnny and Bobbie de la Touche at Mérignac. The boys were meant to return to their public school, Downside near Bath, but the threat of submarines in the Channel continually delayed their leaving until September 1915. After accompanying them back to England, Owen, in mid-October, enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles at its headquarters in London: “I don’t want the bore of training, I don’t want to wear khaki; nor yet save my honour before inquisitive grand-children fifty years hence. But I now do most intensely want to fight” (Owen 1998, 153).

Owen, Wilfred. 1998. Selected Letters. Edited by John Bell. Oxford: OUP.

 

About Dr. Jane Potter

Dr. Jane Potter is Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University. Her monograph Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women's Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918 (OUP 2005; paperback 2007) was joint winner of the 2006 Women’s History Network Book Prize and she has published widely on many aspects of war literature, book history, and women's writing. Her current research is a collaborative project with Dr Carol Acton (St. Jerome's, University of Waterloo, Canada) entitled Working in a World of Hurt: Trauma and Resilience in the Narratives of Medical Personnel in Warzones (forthcoming, Manchester University Press, 2015). A Trustee of the Wilfred Owen Literary Estate, she is the author of Wilfred Owen: An Illustrated Life (Bodleian Library Publishing, 2014) and is currently working on a new edition of Owen's Selected Letters for Oxford University Press, due to be published in 2015.  

 

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WWI_Propaganda_-_Royal_Navy.jpgAs we mark the centenary of the Great War this August it reveals just how much this episode of our history continues to interest and influence our understanding of the past. However, the Great War continues to be studied primarily as a land-based conflict despite the Royal Navy’s crucial role. Ask someone about Jutland and they will probably look perplexed. Much remains to be done to put the navy back into the public memory of the war, and my own research is working towards this. It considers the personal experience of British sailors during the war as expressed in their diaries, particularly the collection held by the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth.[1] This blog will give a brief insight into my findings so far.

The poignant image of the Great War is of young men rushing to the colours full of patriotic fervour. Surprisingly, little research has been done on sailors’ displays of war enthusiasm. This is especially interesting as many sailors were not volunteers: the navy was a career in those days, and men joined at a young age.[2] Yet sailors’ diaries reveal excitement and celebrations amongst seamen when war was declared. Ships left port cheered by other vessels, and men proudly recorded their first encounters with German ships.[3] Further, diaries repeatedly refer to the “long awaited scrap” with the enemy.[4] When they did meet, British sailors boasted of the Germans’ poor gunnery in comparison with their own, and clearly there was a distinct belief in the Royal Navy’s superiority, which reflects the latent imperialistic sentiment in British society at the time.[5] Yet, not all were caught up with war fever; Walter Dennis recorded that he knew of a number of sailors who were relieved to get posted overseas away from any real action.[6]
However, prolonged warfare, understandably, had a noticeable effect upon sailors. Despite the distancing effect of technology, sailors remained part of the killing machine which some enthusiastically embraced, becoming numb to the brutalities of war.[7] Interestingly few historians have considered this. One sailor - known as Wood - recorded shelling Turkish forts at Gallipoli as “amusing”.[8] This is further demonstrated by the practice of collecting war souvenirs. Seamen often served in support of the army which allowed them ready access to items such as helmets, rifles and bullets.[9] The impact of curios has been widely considered amongst soldiers but, again, sailors have so far been overlooked.[10] Their obvious engagement in this practice suggests a desire for immediacy. It would be interesting to compare the diaries of artillerymen serving at the front, and see whether they encountered similar experiences.[11]

Yet, despite sailors’ interaction with killing, not all became numb to the brutalities. Witnessing the sinking of ships or even hearing about losses was traumatic. For example Walter Dennis recorded being ‘rather concerned’ as to the fate of one of his friends lost at sea.[12] Sailors were acutely aware that if their ships were sunk then death was likely, which made moments such as these particularly sobering. It is not surprising that some succumbed to psychological stresses, or in their words had ‘a tile loose’.[13] Sailors had to develop their own coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of everyday life; these were similar to those developed by soldiers, such as humour. Reflecting on battles many became flippant about the dangers they experienced. One diarist, Henry Welch, recalled: ‘One shell burst on the water’s edge… Ye gods! it was lovely – only a trifle further and there would have been a few gaps among us.’[14] Coping with pressure was essential.

It is clear that personal histories of the Great War continue to find a receptive audience as more people become interested in their own history. The opportunity is there for the navy to make up lost ground. The NMRNP’s on-going project, Hear My Story, is a step in the right direction and forms a new twentieth century exhibition collating personal memories and public interaction.[15] Another interesting project is the AHRC funded Gateways project which provides centres to encourage public interest through organized lectures and study days.[16] These projects show that there was much more to the Great War than mud, blood and the trenches. It is time to put the navy back in the picture and, as the diaries of Dennis, Fletcher, Welch and Wood show, each diary tells its own unique story, and there are many more to be uncovered.

Simon Smith read History at the University of Portsmouth followed by an MA in The History of War, Culture and Society. He is currently doing a PhD on Sailors and the Royal Navy c.1870-1939 as part of the University of Portsmouth's Port Towns and Urban Cultures project.


[1] The NMRNP holds approximately 200 diaries in its collection. Other comprehensive diary collections include the Imperial War Museum which has just re-opened with a new WW1 exhibition.
[2] For more information see Christopher McKee, Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy, 1900-1945, (London: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Brian Lavery, Able Seamen: the lower deck of the Royal Navy, 1850-1939, (London: Conway, 2011).
[3] RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[4] RNM 1980/115: Diary of Edwin Fletcher; RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood; RNM 1980/82: Diary of W Dawson; Diary of Walter Dennis.
[5] RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[6] Diary of Walter Dennis. Diary digitalized by McMaster University, Ontario Canada and available at http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca.
[7] See Edgar Jones, “The Psychology of Killing: The Combat Experience of British Soldiers during the First World War”, Journal of Contemporary History, 41, 2, (2006), 233; Joanna Bourke, An intimate history of killing: face to face killing in twentieth-century warfare, (London: Granta Books, 1999), 7.
[8] RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[9] Diary of Walter Dennis; RNM 1984/467: Diary of Wood.
[10] See Jones, “Psychology”, and Bourke, An intimate history, for further information of the study of soldiers.
[11] The Imperial War Museum does hold artillerymen’s diaries but these have not yet been considered.
[12] Diary of Walter Dennis.
[13] Diary of Walter Dennis.
[14] DOC: Diary of Henry Welch.
[15] See http://www.nmrn.org.uk/explore/hms-hear-my-story for further information on this project.
[16] The Arts and Humanities Research Council – see www.kent.ac.uk/ww1 for further information on this project.

 


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Adam_Hochschild.jpgRenowned author Adam Hochschild’s most recent work To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) presented a heartbreaking tale of the mass slaughter of the First World War and a sympathetic portrayal of those who opposed the conflict. In this Q&A, he gives his thoughts on the book and offers his perspective on the role of the publicly engaged historian. 
 

Stephen Jackson: What was it about the subject that inspired you to write it, and what would you argue was your most important contribution to the historical discussion on the First World War?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always been deeply fascinated by those who resisted the First World War, ever since I read a biography of Bertrand Russell as a teenager, and then later Sheila Rowbotham’s work on Alice Wheeldon. To have had the courage to speak out so boldly when there was such jingoism in the air deeply impressed me. I also found a very strong echo in those times of something I had been deeply involved in: the movement against the Vietnam War here in the United States. Then, too, a war divided members of families from each other; hence I was intrigued to see the divided families of Britain in 19141918, and used that as a narrative structure for my book. In the Vietnam era, too, we had an epidemic of government spying on citizens—when much later, using the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get the records of surveillance on me by the FBI, CIA and military intelligence, they amounted to more than 100 pages and I was a very small fish in that movement. Hence it fascinated me to read the government surveillance records from Scotland Yard and military intelligence on the UK dissenters of 19141918. I felt I was seeing at work the same mindset as that of the FBI agents who reported on me.

I’m by no means the first person to write about those brave British dissenters. I certainly hope my book, and those of others, helps put them in the foreground as we remember the war. Paradoxically, most people today would agree that the First World War remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way, yet all our traditional ways of remembering it parades, monuments, museums, military cemeteries celebrate those who fought and not those who refused to fight.

Stephen Jackson: In the years since the publication of the work, what sort of feedback from the scholarly community and the general public did you receive? How do you think that contemporary events, especially a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped the response to your work?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always believed that you can write for a general audience and at the same time meet the highest scholarly standards for accuracy and the documenting of sources. This book got good reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; at the same time many university history departments have been kind to me. I was writer-in-residence at the history department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this past spring and will be doing a speaking tour of some half dozen campuses in the US and Europe this fall, talking about the war.

I’ve also heard from several descendants of people mentioned in the book one of the great pleasures of writing history, I’ve found. And sometimes, unexpectedly, I’ve heard from other people as well who are connected to this patch of history. After the book came out, an American mining company official whom I’d met a few years before in a godforsaken village in eastern Congo, wrote me that in 1917 his grandfather, a conscientious objector, had been hanged in effigy in his home town in Iowa.

And yes, I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show what tragic mistakes one can make by not studying history more closely. How similar the illusion of President George W. Bush when he landed on that aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of the sign “Mission Accomplished” to the illusion of Kaiser Wilhelm II when he told his troops in August, 1914: “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” 

Stephen Jackson: This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. What do you think is or should be the place of conscientious objectors and leftist anti-war activists in the public memory of World War I?

Adam Hochschild: None of these people were perfect, but on the central issue of their time, they were essentially right, and should be honored. Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the war to die 5 years ago, at 111 said it best: the war “was not worth it. It was not worth one life, let alone all the millions.” 

Stephen Jackson: How can scholars teaching undergraduate or graduate courses in British History or Modern European History incorporate non-traditional themes such as anti-war activism into lessons on the Great War?

Adam Hochschild: There are rich primary sources: the writings and speeches of outspoken war opponents, like Bertrand Russell and E.D. Morel in Britain, or Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs in the United States. Periodicals that these anti-war movements published. Letters and memoirs by war resisters who went to prison, not just in the U.S. and Britain, but in other countries as well. I hope someone is thinking of pulling a collection of material like this together into a reader! And there are fine secondary sources as well. That list could be a long one, but I’ll just mention Jo Vellacott’s Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, a careful, well-written book I learned a lot from. 

Stephen Jackson: The 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke famously said historians can “merely tell how it really was,” and should not judge the past nor attempt to give moral guidance for the present.  To End All Wars, and your work more generally, compellingly does just that. How would you describe your underlying philosophy for writing history? What role do you think that the historian — as an historian — should play in engaging in contemporary political and ethical discussions?

Adam Hochschild: Well, I’m certain in favor of telling it how it was and with the highest possible standards of accuracy. In real life, seldom are one’s heroes totally heroic or one’s villains totally villainous. In To End All Wars, for instance, the fiery pacifist Charlotte Despard had a kind of knee-jerk far-left reaction to everything that would have made her difficult to talk to, although I agree with her about the war. But her brother, Field Marshal Sir John French, though he exemplified the worst type of unthinking generalship in the field, seems to have been a warm-hearted person of great charm whom it would have been delightful to spend an evening with. One should enjoy such paradoxes and not try to deny them.

But beyond that, I think sometimes an historian can provide something that’s relevant to contemporary political discussions without having to hit people over the head with it. In my book, for example, I don’t talk about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. But whenever I give a talk about the First World War, the first question anybody asks is: do you see an analogy? 

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August
12
2014

World War I and the British and Irish Studies Intelligencer

Posted by jaskelly under Announcement, BISI | Tags: blog, WWI | 0 Comments

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BISI-Logo.pngThis week, the North American Conference on British Studies will begin publishing the British and Irish Studies Intelligencer (BISI).  BISI, with H-Albion, will become a central forum for discussions about the state of the field, methodological approaches, teaching, reports on conferences and symposia, videos, podcasts, and editorials focused on British Studies across the disciplines.   

Our inaugural series of posts focus on the history and historiography of World War I.  Upcoming posts include

--an interview with Adam Hochschild about history, memory, and activism
--an examination the Imperial War Museum’s crowdsourced project, “The Lives of the First World War”
--a story about Wilfred Owen and the early months of WWI
--a history of Canada’s First Nations and the course of WWI

Our blogging team and editorial board are looking forward to hearing from you, and we encourage you to engage with the blog posts using the comments boxes at the bottom of the pages.

 

About BISI

As a blog, BISI will include discussions about the state of the field, methodological approaches, teaching, reports on conferences and symposia, videos, podcasts, and editorials focused on British Studies across the disciplines.  BISI will host discussion forums, and it will provide a space for scholars to share their current research in a format that is accessible to the non-specialist.  

BISI has its origins in the British Studies Intelligencer, first published by the society in 1962 (a searchable digital archive is available through IUPUI).  The new platform marks a divergence from the Intelligencer's earlier newsletter formats, and it will allow NACBS members to engage with each other more regularly.

The BISI team encourages the British Studies community to submit blog posts (and re-posts) as well as offer suggestions for special projects or themes.

If you would like to contact BISI to discuss a potential blog post, make a submission, or offer to organize an online forum, please contact us at nacbsblog@gmail.com

 

The BISI Editorial Board and Bloggers

The BISI editorial board consists of

Elaine Chalus, Bath Spa University
Craig Hanson, Calvin College
Jason M. Kelly, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Isaac Land, Indiana State University

The BISI bloggers are

Caroline Boswell, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Stephen Jackson, University of Sioux Falls


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