I’ve been a Great War geek for as long as I can remember. My sense of historical awareness began with elementary school lessons surrounding Remembrance Day (that’s November 11th for you non Commonwealth types). It was all poppies and John McRae, with a healthy dose of patriotism and dash of Canadian foundation myth (a nation forged on Vimy Ridge) thrown into the bargain. As an academic historian and educator, I cringe at the kind of history instruction practiced in Ontario elementary schools in the 1970s. ‘Critical’ was not part of the lexicon; perhaps we weren’t considered capable of such high-order thinking. In any event there’s no arguing with the power of such instruction to inspire a lifelong interest in the period, at least in some cases. After all, here I am, still intrigued by the Great War and about to embark on a new research project that reaches right back to that early introduction.
What caught my interest then and holds it still was the soldier’s experience. Much more than tactics or technology (though I admit a lingering fascination with aviation in the period) strategy or diplomacy, the war’s causes or consequences, I want to understand what men experienced in the trenches, how they coped with it, and how it changed them. I have come to think that the encounter with modern, industrial warfare might be nicely encapsulated by a trinity of traumas centered on the Front: the destruction of human life, the destruction of civilization, and the destruction of the natural world. Soldiers who served in the trenches for any length of time or any major battle could not escape these manifestations of modern war’s unprecedented capacity for violent unmaking. Each warrants detailed study and indeed much interesting work has been done on the trauma suffered by soldiers’ who lived in the midst of and regularly chanced violent death and dismemberment, most commonly of course in connection with ‘neurasthenia’ or ‘shell-shock’. I think there’s probably a great deal to be said on the matter of soldiers’ reactions to the war’s ability to eradicate the moral and physical bases of civilization. However, at present, I’m most interested in how soldiers experienced and reacted to the war’s impact on the natural world and how this in turn influenced their relations with nature. I grant that these effects are unlikely to have been as intense or extreme as those arising from intimate and repeated encounters with death’s angel. But the existence of more serious traumas hardly makes lesser ones immaterial.
With this in mind I am starting a new research project – which it is the purpose of this blog to chronicle. It takes its title from a 1918 painting by Paul Nash (pictured below) depicting sunrise over Inverness Copse in the Ypres Salient. Nash managed to be at once literal and ironic. The world he depicted, the one birthed by the guns, was indeed unprecedented; but it hardly conformed to anyone’s view of a utopian future. His rendering of the ruined landscape nicely represents the shock and dismay many British and Imperial soldiers felt at the war’s impact on the natural world. My object is to discover and document the extent and significance of their reactions. The process will involve much traditional research in archives, but it begins with an attempt to familiarize myself – as far as is possible after nearly a century – with the natural environment those British and imperial solders encountered as they moved in and out of the battle zone. I will do so by walking as much of the Somme, Arras, and Ypres battlefields as possible over the next two weeks, absorbing and documenting as much as I can about the largely recovered environment while exploring those vestiges of the Great War that remain imprinted on the landscape.
P.S. At the same time I will be gathering and blogging about more general Great War materials intended for my students.