War cultures

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The British Academy is holding a two-day Landmark Conference in London on 12-13 November 2014, The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity.  The conference is convened by Santanu Das and  Kate McLoughlin:

A hundred years after the war’s outbreak, this conference brings together some of the world’s leading experts and emerging scholars to reassess its literary and cultural impact and explore its vexed relationship to modernity. Was the war a ‘crack in the table of history’ or did it reinforce deep continuities? What is the relationship between artistic form and historical violence, and between combatant and civilian creative responses? What are the colonial and transnational dimensions of First World War literature? Spanning across literature, the visual arts and music, the conference will adopt an international perspective as it investigates the war’s continuing legacies.

Registration is required; full details here.

In association with the conference, there will be an evening of music and readings at King’s College Chapel (London) on 11 November, Terrible Beauty: Music and Writing of the First World War, and an evening of poetry reading at the British Academy on 12 November, The Past Hovering: An Evening of War Poetry; both events are free but registration is required.

Following the colours

WWI Mobile carrier pigeon-loft

The Open University has just released online a series of ‘colourised’ photographs from the First World War.  My favourite is shown above: a mobile pigeon-loft so that messages could be carried back to GHQ (more on pigeons and the war effort here and especially here; their military service did not end with the First World War).

These were all originally black and white photographs, but Taschen has recently published a much more extensive collection of original colour (‘autochrome’) photographs – you can view some of the images online here – edited by Peter Walther, The First World War in Colour (384 pp).

Verdun

In an online announcement the publisher explains:

The devastating events of the First World War were captured in myriad photographs on all sides of the front. Since then, thousands of books of black-and-white photographs of the war have been published as all nations endeavour to comprehend the scale and the carnage of the “greatest catastrophe of the 20th century”. Far less familiar are the rare colour images of the First World War, taken at the time by a small group of photographers pioneering recently developed autochrome technology.

first_world_war_in_color_fo_gb_3d_05794_1406031040_id_813622To mark the centenary of the outbreak of war, this groundbreaking volume brings together all of these remarkable, fully hued pictures of the „war to end war“. Assembled from archives in Europe, the United States and Australia, more than 320 colour photos provide unprecedented access to the most important developments of the period – from the mobilization of 1914 to the victory celebrations in Paris, London and New York in 1919. The volume represents the work of each of the major autochrome pioneers of the period, including Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Léon Gimpel, Hans Hildenbrand, Frank Hurley, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud and Charles C. Zoller.

Since the autochrome process required a relatively long exposure time, almost all of the photos depict carefully composed scenes, behind the rapid front-line action. We see poignant group portraits, soldiers preparing for battle, cities ravaged by military bombardment – daily human existence and the devastating consequences on the front. A century on, this unprecedented publication brings a startling human reality to one of the most momentous upheavals in history.

A-Terrible-Beauty-246x348And for an altogether different rendering of the First World War – often but not always in colour – I recommend Paul Gough‘s magisterial account of 15 artists (many of whom saw active service,  A terrible beauty: British artists in the First World War.  You can download the first chapter here, sadly without the illustrations: but Paul’s commentary is incisive, and I found his work really helpful in working on ‘Gabriel’s Map’, especially his essays on military sketching which considerably enlarged my sense of the ‘cartographic imaginary’ on the Western Front.  Gerry Corden has a fine account of the book here, and includes many excellent images including the work of my favourite C.W.R. Nevinson.  Finally, Paul’s own website is here: click on Vortex 1 through 5 at the bottom.

Not a pigeon in sight, though.

All white on the Western Front?

Indian troops at Ypres

There is a telling anecdote in Lyn Macdonald‘s account of The Somme:

Climbing on to the firestep, the Staff Captain cautiously raised his head above the parapet and looked across. ‘Good God!’ he exclaimed. ‘I didn’t know we were using Colonial troops!’ Pretor-Pinney made no reply. Hoyles and Monckton exchanged grim looks. ‘Dear God,’ muttered Monckton, when the Colonel and the visitor had moved away to a safe distance, ‘has the bastard never seen a dead man before?’ It was a rhetorical question. Lying out in the burning sun, soaked by the frequent showers of a week’s changeable weather, the bodies of the dead soldiers had been turned black by the elements. The Battalion spent the rest of the day burying them.

In fact, it’s doubly revealing.  On one side, it confirms the (I think simplistic) stereotype of the General Staff and their distance from death; but on the other side it also speaks to what Santanu Das, writing in the Guardian, calls ‘the colour of memory’:

In 1914, Britain and France had the two largest empires, spread across Asia and Africa, and an imperial war necessarily became a world war.

More than 4 million non-white men were recruited into the armies of Europe and the US. In a grotesque reversal of Joseph Conrad’s vision, thousands of Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders were voyaging to the heart of whiteness and far beyond – to Mesopotamia, East Africa, Gallipoli, Persia and Palestine. Two million Africans served as soldiers or labourers; a further 1.3 million came from the British “white” dominions. The first shot in the war was fired in Togoland, and even after 11 November 1918 the war continued in East Africa.

A South African labourer said he went to war to “see different races”. If one visited wartime Ypres, one would have seen Indian sepoys, tirailleur Senegalese, Maori Pioneer battalions, Vietnamese troops and Chinese workers.

Today, one of the main stumbling blocks to a truly global and non-Eurocentric archive of the war is that many of these 1 million Indians, or 140,000 Chinese, or 166,000 West Africans, did not leave behind diaries and memoirs. In India, Senegal or Vietnam there is nothing like the Imperial War Museum; when a returned soldier or village headman died, a whole library vanished.

Moreover, as the former colonies became nation states, nationalist narratives replaced imperial war memories. Stories that did not fit were airbrushed. In Europe, communities turned to their own dead and damaged.

WWI Sikhs Bagpipes

In ‘Gabriel’s Map’ I began in East Africa in 1914 with an Indian Army contingent – whose staff officers included, in William Boyd‘s An Ice-Cream War,  the young Gabriel Cobb – sent to seize German East Africa defended by the local Schutztruppen under German command.  But as I travelled back to the Western Front the colonial troops who also served there slipped from the record.  Yet by the end of September 1914 two Indian divisions and a cavalry brigade had already arrived in France (see above), and in October the first sepoys were sent into battle at Ypres.  If British, French and German troops were shocked at the devastation of a European countryside that was, in its essentials, once familiar to them, what could the freezing cold, the endless mud and the splintered trees have meant to these men (who usually arrived unprepared and ill-equipped for the winter)?

sepoysinthetrenches_0_1I suspect a satisfying answer has to wait for Santanu’s next book, India, Empire and the First World War: words, images and objects (Cambridge University Press, 2015). But in the meantime the whitening of the Western Front (and other theatres of the War) can be resisted through other sources. Some of them are listed in his brief essay on ‘The Indian sepoy in the First World War’ for the the British Library (and you can find ‘Experiences of colonial troops’, adapted from his Introduction to Race, empire and First World War writing [Cambridge University Press, 2011] here).

In addition Christian Koller‘s ‘The recruitment of colonial troops in Africa and Asia and their deployment in Europe during the First World War’, Imigrants & Minorities 26 (1/2) (2008) 111-133 [open access pdf here] provides a helpful context and more references (including French and German sources), and Gajendra Singh‘s The testimonies of Indian soldiers and the two world wars: between self and sepoy (Bloomsbury, 2014)  is a wider, though inevitably selective account of the fabrication of Indian military identities under the Ra (the chapter on ‘Throwing snowballs in France’ is also available in Modern Asian Studies 48 (4) (2014): it’s an artful discussion of the (mis)fortunes of a chain letter – this is the ‘snowball’ in question – that ran foul of the military censor).  The Round Table 103 (2) (2014) is a special issue devoted to ‘The First World War and the Empire-Commonwealth’.

http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/3770?CISOBOX=1&REC=3

Finally, I’m working my way through Andrew Tait Jarboe‘s excellent PhD thesis, Soldiers of empire: Indian sepoys in and beyond the metropole during the First World War, 1914-1919 (Northeastern, 2013): during my current research on military-medical machines 1914-2014 I’ve found a number of references to the treatment of wounded Indian troops on the Western Front – their evacuation on hospital trains and their treatment in segregated hospitals – and Andrew’s third chapter (‘Hospital’) provides an illuminating reading of what was happening:

‘Between 1914-18, the British established segregated hospitals for wounded Indian soldiers in France and England… [T]hese hospitals were not benign institutions of healing. Like hospitals that repaired the bodies of English soldiers, Indian hospitals played a crucial role in sustaining the war-making capacity of the British Empire. Indian hospitals in Marseilles or Brighton also served an imperial purpose. As sites of propaganda, they reaffirmed the ideologies of imperial rule for audiences at home, abroad, and within the hospital wards. Yet even while the British Empire succeeded to a considerable extent in exploiting the manpower of India, … wounded sepoys were rarely ever mere pawns on the imperial chessboard. Hospital authorities were committed to two policies: returning sepoys to the front, and protecting white prestige. Wounded sepoys found ways of resisting both. In this way, Indian hospitals readily became what British authorities hoped they would not: spaces where imperial subalterns contested the policies and ideologies of imperial rule.’

Sikhs WW1

For imagery of non-European troops on the Western front and elsewhere, try this page at the Black Presence in Britain.  More wide-ranging is the exhibition organised by the Alliance française de Dhaka, War and the colonies 1914-1918, that you can visit online here (I’ve taken the image above from that collection).

All of this, clearly, adds another dimension to Patrick Porter‘s lively discussion of Military Orientalism: Eastern war through Western eyes (2009).  But it’s not only an opportunity to reverse (and re-work) that subtitle.  The Times of India reports a campaign to change ‘the colour of memory’ by instituting 15 August as a Remembrance Day in India:

“This will be our Remembrance Day. We have attended such memorial functions in France where heads of different states converge and the civilian turnout is quite big. But we don’t see a single Indian face there—quite an irony, given the fact that 1, 40,000 Indians defended French soil from German aggression in the Great War, and many never returned home. That’s why we, NRIs from France, came up with this project,” says a representative of Global Organization for People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), France.

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Corpographies

I’ve been scribbling some notes for a short essay Léopold Lambert has invited me to write for his Funambulist Papers.  The brief is to write ‘something about the body – nothing too complicated’, so I’ve decided to say something more about the idea of corpography I sketched in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab), which will in turn – so I hope – prepare the ground for the long-form version of ‘The nature(s) of war’ for a special issue of Antipode devoted to the work of Neil Smith [next on my to-do list].

In ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (and in a preliminary sketch here) I contrasted the cartographic imaginary within which so much of the First World War was planned with a corpography improvised by soldiers caught up in the maelstrom of military violence on the ground; unlike the ‘optical war’ that relied, above all, on aerial reconnaissance, projected onto the geometric order of the map and the mechanical cadence of the military timetable – a remarkably abstract space, though its production was of course profoundly embodied – this was a way of apprehending the battle space through the body as an acutely physical field in which the senses of sound, smell and touch were increasingly privileged in the construction of a profoundly haptic or somatic geography.

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This is hardly original; you can find intimations of all this in classics like Eric Leed‘s No Man’s Land, and once you start digging in to the accounts left by soldiers you find supporting evidence on page after page.  What I’ve tried to do is show that this constituted more than a different way of experiencing war: it was also a different way of knowing and ordering (or, as Allan Pred would surely have said, of re-cognising) the space of military violence.  These knowledges were situated and embodied – ‘local’, even – but they were also transmissable and mobile.

On the Western front, corpographies were at once an instinctive, jarring, visceral response to military violence –

‘When sound is translated into a blow on the nape of the neck, and light into a flash so bright that it actually scorches the skin, when feeling is lost in one disintegrating jar of every nerve and fibre … the mind, at such moments, is like a compass when the needle has been jolted from its pivot’ [‘A Corporal’, Field Ambulance Sketches (1919)]

– and an improvisational, learned accommodation to it:

‘We know by the singing of a shell when it is going to drop near us, when it is politic to duck and when one may treat the sound with contempt. We are becoming soldiers. We know the calibres of the shells which are sent over in search of us. The brute that explodes with a crash like that of much crockery being broken, and afterwards makes a “cheering” noise like the distant echoes of a football match, is a five-point-nine.The very sudden brute that you don’t hear until it has passed you, and rushes with the hiss of escaping steam, is a whizz-bang… The funny little chap who goes tonk-phew-bong is a little high-velocity shell which doesn’t do much harm… The thing which, without warning, suddenly utters a hissing sneeze behind us is one of our own trench-mortars. The dull bump which follows, and comes from the middle distance out in front, tells us that the ammunition is “dud.” The German shell which arrives with the sound of a woman with a hare-lip trying to whistle, and makes very little sound when it bursts, almost certainly contains gas.

‘We know when to ignore machine-gun and rifle bullets and when to take an interest in them. A steady phew-phew-phew means that they are not dangerously near. When on the other hand we get a sensation of whips being slashed in our ears we know that it is time to seek the embrace of Mother Earth’ [A.M. Burrage, War is war]

National Library of Scotland (Tom Aitken)

This was not so much a re-setting of the compass, as the anonymous stretcher-bearer had it, as the formation of a different bodily instrument altogether.  As Burrage’s last sentence shows, corpographies were at once re-cognitions of a butchered landscape – one that seemed to deny all sense – and reaffirmations of an intimate, intensely sensible bond with the earth:

‘To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her, long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security…. ’ [Erich Remarque, All quiet on the Western Front]

And corpographies were not only a means through which militarised subjects accommodated themselves to the warscape – providing a repertoire of survival of sorts – but also a way of resisting at least some its impositions and affirming, in the midst of what so many of them insisted was ‘murder not war’, what Santanu Das calls a ‘tactile tenderness’ between men.  This, he argues,

‘must be seen as a celebration of life, of young men huddled against long winter nights, rotting corpses, and falling shells. Physical contact was a transmission of the wonderful assurance of being alive, and more sex-specific eroticism, though concomitant, was subsidiary. In a world of visual squalor, little gestures – closing a dead comrade’s eyes, wiping his brow, or holding him in one’s arms – were felt as acts of supreme beauty that made life worth living.’

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A hundred years later, I have no doubt that much the same is true in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and so my interest in corpography is also part of my refusal to acquiesce to the thoroughly disingenuous de-corporealization of today’s ‘virtuous war’.

In fleshing out these ideas I’ve been indebted to a stream of work on the body in human geography. Most of it has been remarkably silent about war, even though Kirsten Simonsen once wrote about ‘the body as battlefield‘, but it’s now difficult for me to read her elegant essay ‘In quest of a new humanism: Embodiment, experience and phenomenology as critical geography’ [Progress in human geography 37 (1) (2013): open access here] – especially Part III where she discusses ‘Thinking the body’ and ‘Orientation and disorientation’ – without peopling it with bodies in khaki, blue or field grey tramping towards the front-line trenches, clambering over the top, or crawling from shell-hole to shell-hole in No Man’s Land.

That is partly down to the suggestiveness of Kirsten’s prose, but it’s also the result of my debt to the work of Santanu Das [Touch and intimacy in First World War literature], Ken MacLeish [especially Chapter 2 of his Making War at Fort Hood; the dissertation version is here] and Kevin McSorley [whose introduction to War and the body is here] which directly addresses military violence.  I wish I’d been able to attend the Sensing War conference that Kevin co-organised in London last month; I had to turn down the invitation because I was marooned on my mountaintop in Umbria, but the original Call For Papers captured some of the ways in which the materialities and corporealities of war in the early twentieth century continue to inhabit later modern war:

War is a crucible of sensory experience and its lived affects radically transform ways of being in the world. It is prosecuted, lived and reproduced through a panoply of sensory apprehensions, practices and ‘sensate regimes of war’ (Butler 2012) – from the tightly choreographed rhythms of patrol to the hallucinatory suspicions of night vision; from the ominous mosquito buzz of drones to the invasive scrape of force-feeding tubes; from the remediation of visceral helmetcam footage to the anxious tremors of the IED detector; from the desperate urgencies of triage to the precarious intimacies of care; from the playful grasp of children’s war-toys to the feel of cold sweat on a veteran’s skin.

Thus far, like most of the writers I’ve drawn from here, I’ve been thinking about corpographies in relation to the soldier’s body, but as the (in)distinctions between combatant and civilian multiply I’ve started to think about the knowledges that sustain civilians caught up in military and paramilitary violence too. Some of them are undoubtedly cartographic – formal and informal maps of shelters (the images below are for Edinburgh during the Second World War), camps, checkpoints and roadblocks – and some of them rely on visual markers of territory: barriers and wires, posters and graffiti. Today much of this information is shared by social media (as the battle space has become both digital and physical).

Guide to Edinburgh Air Raid Shelters WW2

 

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But much of this knowledge is also, as it has always been, corpographic.  Pete Adey once wrote – beautifully – about what he called ‘the private life of an air raid’, drawing on the files of Mass Observation during the Second World War to sketch a geography of ‘stillness’ even as the urban landscape was being violently ‘un-made’.  ‘Stillness in this sense,’ he explained,

‘denotes apprehending and anticipating spaces and events in ways that sees the body enveloped within the movement of the environment around it; bobbing along intensities that course their way through it; positioned towards pasts and futures that make themselves felt, and becoming capable of intense forms of experience and thought.’

This was a corpo-reality, and one in which – as he emphasised – sound played a vital role: ‘Waves of sound disrupted fragile tempers as they passed through the waiting bodies in the physical language of tensed muscles and gritted teeth.’  But, as he also concedes, this was also a ‘not-so private’ life – there was also a social life under the bombs – and we need to think about how these experiences were shared by and with other bodies.  These apprehensions of military violence, then as now, were not only modalities of being but also modes of knowing: as Elizabeth Dauphinée suggests, in a different but closely related context, ‘pain is not an invisible interior geography’ but rather ‘a mode of knowing (in) the world – of knowing and making known’  [‘The politics of the body in pain’, Security dialogue 38 (2) (2007) 139-55]. During an air raid these knowledges could be shared by talking with others – the common currency of comfort and despair, advice and rumour – but they also arose from making cognitive sense of physical sensations: the hissing and roaring of the bombs, the suction and compression from the blast, the stench of ruptured gas mains or sewage pipes.

London air raid shelter

Steven Connor once suggested that air raids involve a ‘grotesquely widened bifurcation of visuality and hearing’, in which the optical-visual production of a target contrasts with ‘the absolute deprivation of sight for the victims of the air raid on the ground, compelled as they are to rely on hearing to give them information about the incoming bombs.’  Those crouching beneath the bombs have ‘to learn new skills of orientating themselves in this deadly auditory field without clear coordinates or dimensions but in which the tiniest variation in pitch and timbre can mean obliteration.’  What then can you know – and how can you know – when your world contracts to a room, a cellar, the space under the bed?  When you can’t go near a window in case it shatters and your body is sliced by the splinters?  When all you have to go on, all you can trust, are your ears parsing the noise or your fingers scrabbling at the rubble?

Air raid drill in children's home WW2

Here too none of this is confined to the past, and so I start to think about the thanatosonics of Israel’s air strikes on Gaza.  Sound continues to function as sensory assault; here is Mohammed Omer:

‘At just 3 months old, my son Omar cries, swaddled in his crib. It’s dark. The electricity and water are out. My wife frantically tries to comfort him, shield him and assure him as tears stream down her face. This night Omar’s lullaby is Israel’s rendition of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, with F-16s forming the ground-pounding percussion, Hellfire missiles leading the winds and drones representing the string section. All around us crashing bombs from Israeli gunships and ground-based mortars complete the symphony, their sound as distinct as the infamous Wagner tubas…. Above, the ever-present thwup-thwup of hovering Apache helicopters rock Omar’s cradle through vibration. Warning sirens pierce the night—another incoming missile from an Israeli warship.’

And, as before, sound can also be a source of knowledge.  Here is Wasseem el Sarraj, writing from Gaza in November 2012:

In our house we have become military experts, specializing in the sounds of Israeli and Palestinian weapons. We can distinguish with ease the sound of Apaches, F-16 missiles, drones, and the Fajr rockets used by Hamas. When Israeli ships shell the coast, it’s a distinct and repetitive thud, marked by a one-second delay between the launch and the impact. The F-16s swoop in like they are tearing open the sky, lock onto their target and with devastating precision destroy entire apartment blocks. Drones: in Gaza, they are called zananas, meaning a bee’s buzz. They are the incessant, irritating creatures. They are not always the harbingers of destruction; instead they remain omnipresent, like patrolling prison guards. Fajr rockets are absolutely terrifying because they sound like incoming rockets. You hear them rarely in Gaza City and thus we often confuse them for low-flying F-16s. It all creates a terrifying soundscape, and at night we lie in our beds hoping that the bombs do not drop on our houses, that glass does not shatter onto our children’s beds. Sometimes, we move from room to room in an attempt to feel some sense of safety. The reality is that there is no escape, neither inside the house nor from the confines of Gaza.

The last haunting sentences are a stark reminder that knowledge, cartographic or corpographic, is no guarantee of safety. But military and paramilitary violence is always more than a mark on a map or a trace on a screen, and the ability to re-cognise its more-than-optical dimensions can be a vital means of navigating the wastelands of war.  As in the past, so today rescue from the rubble often involves a heightened sense of sound and smell, and survival is often immeasurably enhanced by the reassuring touch of another’s body.  And these fleshy affordances – which you can find in accounts of air raids from Guernica to Gaza – are also a powerful locus for critique.

Gaza Hands and Grave

So: corpographies.  I thought I’d made the word up, but as I completed ‘Gabriel’s Map’ I discovered that Joseph Pugliese uses ‘geocorpographies’ to designate ‘the violent enmeshment of the flesh and blood of the body within the geopolitics of war and empire’ in his State violence and the execution of law (New York: Routledge, 2013; p. 86). This complements my own study, though I’ve used the term to confront the optical privileges of cartography through an appeal to the corporeal (and to the corpses of those who were killed in the names of war and empire).

And I’ve since discovered that the term has a longer history and multiple meanings that intersect, in various ways, with what I’m trying to work out.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it also serves as a medical term: cranio-corpography is a procedure devised by Claus-Frenzen Claussen in 1968 to capture in a visual trace the longitudinal and lateral movements of a patient’s body in order to detect and calibrate disorders of the ‘equilibrium function’.  More recently, corpography has also been used by dance theorists and practitioners, including Francesca Cataldi and Sebastian Prantl, to describe a critical, creative practice: a ‘dance of things’ in which the body is thoroughly immersed as a’ land.body.scape’, as Prantl puts it.  Meanwhile, Allan Parsons has proposed a ‘psycho-corpography’ – explicitly not a psycho-geography – as a way of ‘tracing the experience of living-a-body’.  Elsewhere,  Alex Chase attends to specific bodies-in-the-world, those of cultural ‘figures’ (Artaud, Bataille, Foucault, Genet, Jarman and Mishima among them), that resist normalization – hence emphatically  ‘queer’ bodies – and which figure bodies as events.  ‘I hope to develop a methodology of “corpography”,’ he says, ‘which would write between biography and textual analysis, material lived bodies and fictional work, life and representation, in order to work through other queer concepts such as temporality, space, and ethics.’

It would of course be absurd to summon all of these different usages onto a single conceptual terrain. But they do take me back to Kirsten’s essay (and to long-ago memories of an enthralling seminar in Roskilde which she introduced through her dance teacher), to ways of apprehending the danse macabre on the Western Front as both a cartography and a corpography whose junction was to be found, perhaps, in a choreography, and to think about the ways in which the sentient bodies of soldiers were at once habituated to and resisted the forceful normalizations of military violence.  They also make me wonder about civilian corpographies – about the multiple ways in which violence is inflicted on the body and yet may be resisted through the body – and in doing so they direct my steps from the past to the present and to the fragile bodies that continue to lie at the heart of today’s conflicts.  If that is to speak with Walter Benjamin, I want to insist that the ‘tiny, fragile human body’ does not only lie ‘in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions’, as he wrote in 1936: for the body is a vector as well as a victim of military and paramilitary violence.  And it can also be a means of undoing its effects.

I suspect that these ideas will eventually thread their way into my new project on the evacuation of combatant and civilian casualties (and the sick) from war zones, 1914-2014, where it’s already clear to me that cartography and corpography are tightly locked together.  All of this is highly provisional, as you’ll realise, and as always I would welcome comments and suggestions.

Writing the wounds of war

ramc-ypres-1915

Apart from trying to keep up with developments in Syria and Iraq – on which more shortly – I’ve also been continuing my reading on medical care on the Western Front.  I’ve now finished The Backwash of War, and what a bleak little book it is.  There’s very little about medical care – largely because in many respects there seems to have been very little of it in Ellen La Motte‘s field hospital – and much of the discussion is a deeply disturbing account of the cynicism of military violence: the generals who visit only to pin medals on the blankets of the dying, the contempt between medical orderlies and patients (who have no time for those who are not serving on the front lines), and the seemingly endless, agonising deaths of patients.  But that was precisely what gave the author her title:

The sketches were written in 1915 and 1916, when the writer was in a French military field hospital, a few miles behind the lines, in Belgium. War has been described as “months of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense fright.” During this time at the Front, the lines moved little, either forward or backward, but were deadlocked in one position. Undoubtedly, up and down the long reaching kilometers of “Front” there was action, and “moments of intense fright” which produced fine deeds of valor, courage and nobility. But where there is little or no action there is a stagnant place, and in that stagnant place is much ugliness. Much ugliness is churned up in the wake of mighty, moving forces, and this is the backwash of war. Many little lives foam up in this backwash, loosened by the sweeping current, and detached from their environment. One catches a glimpse of them—often weak, hideous or repellent. There can be no war without this backwash.

In some part, perhaps, La Motte’s account reflects differences between British and French medical provision.  Lyn Macdonald‘s The roses of no man’s land (which contains all sorts of insights into the geographies of medical evacuation and provision en passant) suggests that ‘Lying wounded on the battlefield [at Verdun] a French soldier was as good as dead, for there was little chance of his being brought in, and if he had the good luck to be rescued and taken to a hospital there was only one chance in three that he would leave it alive.’   By the end of the war, she continues, of France’s 1,300,000 war dead more than 400,000 had died of their wounds: ‘a proportion that was larger by far than those of any other nation and was due in considerable measure to the makeshift conditions and lack of skilled care in all but a few of the hospitals.’

The politics of wounds

This isn’t to romanticise the experience of those wounded in other armies, of course, but it adds another dimension to what Ana Carden-Coyne calls ‘the politics of wounds’.   Her new book, due out in the fall, The politics of wounds: military patients and medical power in the First World War (Oxford University Press), is high on my reading list for my new research project:

The Politics of Wounds explores military patients’ experiences of frontline medical evacuation, war surgery, and the social world of military hospitals during the First World War. The proximity of the front and the colossal numbers of wounded created greater public awareness of the impact of the war than had been seen in previous conflicts, with serious political consequences.

Frequently referred to as ‘our wounded’, the central place of the soldier in society, as a symbol of the war’s shifting meaning, drew contradictory responses of compassion, heroism, and censure. Wounds also stirred romantic and sexual responses. This volume reveals the paradoxical situation of the increasing political demand levied on citizen soldiers concurrent with the rise in medical humanitarianism and war-related charitable voluntarism. The physical gestures and poignant sounds of the suffering men reached across the classes, giving rise to convictions about patient rights, which at times conflicted with the military’s pragmatism. Why, then, did patients represent military medicine, doctors and nurses in a negative light? The Politics of Wounds listens to the voices of wounded soldiers, placing their personal experience of pain within the social, cultural, and political contexts of military medical institutions. The author reveals how the wounded and disabled found culturally creative ways to express their pain, negotiate power relations, manage systemic tensions, and enact forms of ‘soft resistance’ against the societal and military expectations of masculinity when confronted by men in pain. The volume concludes by considering the way the state ascribed social and economic values on the body parts of disabled soldiers though the pension system.

But all this is about military patients: what of civilians who are wounded or become ill in war zones?  The BackWash of War provides one vignette that is worth reporting in full.  It’s titled ‘The Belgian Civilian’:

‘A big English ambulance drove along the high road from Ypres, going in the direction of a French field hospital, some ten miles from Ypres. Ordinarily, it could have had no business with this French hospital, since all English wounded are conveyed back to their own bases, therefore an exceptional case must have determined its route. It was an exceptional case—for the patient lying quietly within its yawning body, sheltered by its brown canvas wings, was not an English soldier, but only a small Belgian boy, a civilian, and Belgian civilians belong neither to the French nor English services. It is true that there was a hospital for Belgian civilians at the English base at Hazebrouck, and it would have seemed reasonable to have taken the patient there, but it was more reasonable to dump him at this French hospital, which was nearer. Not from any humanitarian motives, but just to get rid of him the sooner. In war, civilians are cheap things at best, and an immature civilian, Belgian at that, is very cheap. So the heavy English ambulance churned its way up a muddy hill, mashed through much mud at the entrance gates of the hospital, and crunched to a halt on the cinders before the Salle d’Attente, where it discharged its burden and drove off again.

Medical Provision, Ypres, 1915

‘The surgeon of the French hospital said: “What have we to do with this?” yet he regarded the patient thoughtfully. It was a very small patient. Moreover, the big English ambulance had driven off again, so there was no appeal. The small patient had been deposited upon one of the beds in the Salle d’Attente, and the French surgeon looked at him and wondered what he should do. The patient, now that he was here, belonged as much to the French field hospital as to any other, and as the big English ambulance from Ypres had driven off again, there was not much use in protesting….

‘A Belgian civilian, aged ten. Or thereabouts. Shot through the abdomen, or thereabouts. And dying, obviously. As usual, the surgeon pulled and twisted the long, black hairs on his hairy, bare arms, while he considered what he should do. He considered for five minutes, and then ordered the child to the operating room, and scrubbed and scrubbed his hands and his hairy arms, preparatory to a major operation. For the Belgian civilian, aged ten, had been shot through the abdomen by a German shell, or piece of shell, and there was nothing to do but try to remove it. It was a hopeless case, anyhow. The child would die without an operation, or he would die during the operation, or he would die after the operation….

‘After a most searching operation, the Belgian civilian was sent over to the ward, to live or die as circumstances determined. As soon as he came out of ether, he began to bawl for his mother. Being ten years of age, he was unreasonable, and bawled for her incessantly and could not be pacified. The patients were greatly annoyed by this disturbance, and there was indignation that the welfare and comfort of useful soldiers should be interfered with by the whims of a futile and useless civilian, a Belgian child at that. The nurse of that ward also made a fool of herself over this civilian, giving him far more attention than she had ever bestowed upon a soldier. She was sentimental, and his little age appealed to her—her sense of proportion and standard of values were all wrong. The Directrice appeared in the ward and tried to comfort the civilian, to still his howls, and then, after an hour of vain effort, she decided that his mother must be sent for. He was obviously dying, and it was necessary to send for his mother, whom alone of all the world he seemed to need. So a French ambulance, which had nothing to do with Belgian civilians, nor with Ypres, was sent over to Ypres late in the evening to fetch this mother for whom the Belgian civilian, aged ten, bawled so persistently.

‘She arrived finally, and, it appeared, reluctantly. About ten o’clock in the evening she arrived, and the moment she alighted from the big ambulance sent to fetch her, she began complaining. She had complained all the way over, said the chauffeur…. She had been dragged away from her husband, from her other children, and she seemed to have little interest in her son, the Belgian civilian, said to be dying. However, now that she was here, now that she had come all this way, she would go in to see him for a moment, since the Directrice seemed to think it so important….

‘She saw her son, and kissed him, and then asked to be sent back to Ypres. The Directrice explained that the child would not live through the night. The Belgian mother accepted this statement, but again asked to be sent back to Ypres. The Directrice again assured the Belgian mother that her son would not live through the night, and asked her to spend the night with him in the ward, to assist at his passing. The Belgian woman protested.

“If Madame la Directrice commands, if she insists, then I must assuredly obey. I have come all this distance because she commanded me, and if she insists that I spend the night at this place, then I must do so. Only if she does not insist, then I prefer to return to my home, to my other children at Ypres.”

‘However, the Directrice, who had a strong sense of a mother’s duty to the dying, commanded and insisted, and the Belgian woman gave way. She sat by her son all night, listening to his ravings and bawlings, and was with him when he died, at three o’clock in the morning. After which time, she requested to be taken back to Ypres. She was moved by the death of her son, but her duty lay at home. Madame la Directrice had promised to have a mass said at the burial of the child, which promise having been given, the woman saw no necessity for remaining.

“My husband,” she explained, “has a little estaminet, just outside of Ypres. We have been very fortunate. Only yesterday, of all the long days of the war, of the many days of bombardment, did a shell fall into our kitchen, wounding our son, as you have seen. But we have other children to consider, to provide for. And my husband is making much money at present, selling drink to the English soldiers. I must return to assist him.”

YPRES 1915

‘So the Belgian civilian was buried in the cemetery of the French soldiers, but many hours before this took place, the mother of the civilian had departed for Ypres. The chauffeur of the ambulance which was to convey her back to Ypres turned very white when given his orders. Everyone dreaded Ypres, and the dangers of Ypres. It was the place of death. Only the Belgian woman, whose husband kept an estaminet, and made much money selling drink to the English soldiers, did not dread it. She and her husband were making much money out of the war, money which would give their children a start in life. When the ambulance was ready she climbed into it with alacrity, although with a feeling of gratitude because the Directrice had promised a mass for her dead child.

“These Belgians!” said a French soldier. “How prosperous they will be after the war! How much money they will make from the Americans, and from the others.”‘

It would obviously be absurd to generalise from one vignette, but there’s clearly a different politics at work in this narrative,  and a complex set of political geographies too.  For a careful reading of La Motte’s account, in parallel with Mary Borden‘s The forbidden zone, you could do no better than Margaret Higonnet‘s introduction to her Nurses at the front: writing the wounds of the great war.  I’ve now started on a series of accounts about the work of field ambulances, and one which resonates with the events described in La Motte’s vignette is William Boyd‘s letters from 7 March to 15 August 1915 published as With a field ambulance at Ypres (1916), which you can download free here.

But all this – important – talk about writing the wounds of war should not blind us (me) to the role of visualising the wounds of war, and to the work done by artfully composed (and surely sanitised) images like the one that heads this post…

Behind the lines

I’m sorry for the long silence – I’ve been in the UK, giving a new presentation on the Uruzgan air strike of February 2010, and learning much en route in Lancaster, Lincoln and Bristol.  I’ll try to post extracts from the (developing) presentation in the next several weeks as I think about turning it into an essay, but I’ll still be on the road – or, more accurately, on vacation, so things will be irregular for some time to come.  I expect regular postings to resume in early July, when I’ll be back in Vancouver.

POPERINGE railhead

I’ve also spent several days in Flanders, visiting some of the major sites associated with the First World War.  We based ourselves in Poperinge, which was sufficiently far from the devastated and levelled town of Ypres to serve as a major staging post for munitions, supplies and men arriving at its station [see the image above], and for casualties being shipped back to the coast or to Britain (a slower and much more difficult journey).  It was also the place (known to the British as “Pop”, supposedly the Paris of the Front, at least around Ypres) where soldiers on leave from the Ypres Salient went to have as good a time as possible, in the shops, bars, restaurants and brothels.

Poperinge Tommy Supply

All of this has made me start to explore even more closely the military-civilian interactions behind the lines.  There’s surprisingly little work on this, but waiting for me at home is a new book by Craig Gibson, Behind the Front: British soldiers and French civilians 1914-1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which despite the subtitle appears to include the war in Flanders too:

Until now scholars have looked for the source of the indomitable Tommy morale on the Western Front in innate British bloody-mindedness and irony, not to mention material concerns such as leave, food, rum, brothels, regimental pride, and male bonding. However, re-examining previously used sources alongside never-before consulted archives, Craig Gibson shifts the focus away from battle and the trenches to times behind the front, where the British intermingled with a vast population of allied civilians, whom Lord Kitchener had instructed the troops to ‘avoid’. Besides providing a comprehensive examination of soldiers’ encounters with local French and Belgian inhabitants which were not only unavoidable but also challenging, symbiotic and uplifting in equal measure, Gibson contends that such relationships were crucial to how the war was fought on the Western Front and, ultimately, to British victory in 1918. What emerges is a novel interpretation of the British and Dominion soldier at war.

GIBSON Behind the FrontThe Contents List is topical and – to my regret – doesn’t seem to include anything on the overlapping and sometimes confounding geographies of military and civilian medical care, but it still looks like an excellent survey:

Part I. Mobile Warfare, 1914:
1. The first campaign
Part II. Trench Warfare, 1914–1917:
2. Land
3. Administration
4. Billet
5. Communication
6. Friction
7. Farms
8. Damages
9. Money
10. Discipline
11. Sex
Part III. Mobile Warfare, 1918:
12. The final campaign

And while I’m on the subject of medical-military machines, Britain’s Arts & Humanities Research Council has a new website, Beyond the Trenches, which is devoted to recent research on the First World War.  One of its opening (short) essays is by Jessica Meyer on The long trip home: medical evacuations from the Front, which coincides with the first phase of my new research project.  It’s a skeletal account of the casualty chain, or rather chains, and doesn’t flesh out these precarious journeys like Emily Mayhew‘s marvellous social history, Wounded: from battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918 (see here).  But it’s an interesting introduction to some of the logistical issues.

Diagram-of-evacuation-plan-Messine

The essay has been prompted by a new BBC drama series, The Crimson Field, set in a British field hospital, which in its turn was apparently inspired by Ellen Newbold La Motte‘s first-hand account of a French field hospital, The backwash of war: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse (1916).  This is now sitting on my Kindle (and you can also download it free from Project Gutenberg here): its ‘warts-and-all’ portrayal was so vivid that it was banned by the American government when the United States entered the war in 1917.  La Motte worked under Mary Borden, incidentally, who recorded her own experiences in The forbidden zone (more on the two women here, you can read the book here, and there is a helpful essay by Ariela Freedman, ‘Mary Borden’s Forbidden Zone: women’s writing from No Man’s Land’ in Modernism/modernity 9 (1) (2002) 109-124).

unloading-the-wounded-mary-borden

The book is organised in 14 vignettes, which were published regularly in the Atlantic Monthly, and at one point La Motte includes this observation:

“These Belgians!” said a French soldier. “How prosperous they will be after the war! How much money they will make from the Americans, and from the others who come to see the ruins!”

Having just returned from doing just that, I have to say that I saw remarkably few signs of crass commercialisation or opportunism: I was struck again and again by the dignified way in which the hideous events of those years have been recovered and commemorated.  There was refreshingly little jingoism too: just a quiet sense of the enormity of it all. One of the most poignant exhibits I saw was a photograph of families visiting the war graves shortly after the Armistice, trying to find the site where a husband, a brother or a son was buried or, failing that, the place where he had been killed (since the graves of countless thousands were unknown).  By then, the graves were being systematised and the cemeteries organised (see here), but the surroundings were still hauntingly raw: there had been no time for the ravaged landscape to recover, the blasted stumps to be torn out, and the trenches to be ploughed over.  It was sobering to imagine families, already burdened with grief, seeing for themselves a landscape which must have revealed, at least in part, something of the horror of the war that had been for so long hidden from them.

lillegatecem

‘The land of rotting men’

No man's land

Noam Leshem and Alasdair Pinkerton have embarked on a fascinating new project, Re-inhabiting No Man’s Land: from dead zones to living spaces here:

Nearing the centenary of the First World War, this project explores the ongoing relevance of no-man’s lands in the 21st century. Rather than merely empty, divisive spaces, the project considers the material substance of no-man’s lands, their changing social-cultural meaning and their relevance as productive political and geopolitical spaces.

As a figure of speech, No-Man’s Land is applied to anywhere from derelict inner-city districts and buffer-zones to ‘ungovernable’ regions and tax havens. But what is no-man’s land? What are the conditions that produce it? How is it administered? What sort of human activities do no-man’s lands harbour? These are the questions that prompt us to think about the no-man’s lands not as dead zones, but as living spaces.

WWI consulting a map

News of this arrived from Noam just as I finished the long-form version of Gabriel’s Map: cartography and corpography in modern war, which you can now find under the DOWNLOADS tab (scroll down).  Most of the essay is about the First World War on the Western Front (I explain the title at the start of the essay; it comes from William Boyd‘s Ice-Cream War and, in particular, the First World War in East Africa, and the title of this post comes from Edward Lynch‘s Somme Mud: the experiences of an infantryman in France, 1916-1919), but I also end with these reflections on the 21st century:

In this essay I have been concerned with the First World War but, as we approach its centenary, it is worth reflecting on the ways in which modern warfare has changed – and those in which it has not. Through the constant circulation of military imagery and its ghosting in video games, many of us have come to think of contemporary warfare as optical war hypostatised: a war fought on screens and through digital images, in which full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers allow for an unprecedented degree of remoteness from the killing fields. In consequence, perhaps, many of us are tempted to think of the wars waged by advanced militaries, in contrast to the First World War, as ‘surgical’, even body-less. These are wars without fronts, whose complex geometries have required new investments in cartography and satellite imagery, and there have been major advances in political technologies of vision and in the development of a host of other sensors that have dramatically increased the volume of geo-spatial intelligence on which the administration of later modern military violence relies. All of this has transformed but not replaced the cartographic imaginary.

And yet, for all of their liquid violence, these wars are still shaped and even confounded by the multiple, acutely material environments through which they are fought. In Sebastian Junger’s remarkable despatch from Afghanistan, he notes that for the United States and its allies ‘the war diverged from the textbooks because it was fought in such axle-breaking, helicopter-crashing, spirit-killing, mind-bending terrain that few military plans survive intact for even an hour.’ If that sounds familiar, then so too will Kenneth MacLeish’s cautionary observations about soldiers as both vectors and victims of military violence:

‘The body’s unruly matter is war’s most necessary and most necessarily expendable raw material. While many analyses of US war violence have emphasized the technologically facilitated withdrawal of American bodies from combat zones in favour of air strikes, smart bombs, remotely piloted drones, and privately contracted fighting forces, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not carry on without the physical presence of tens of thousands of such bodies…

In consequence, the troops have had to cultivate an intrinsically practical knowledge that, while its operating environment and technical armature are obviously different, still owes much to the tacit bodily awareness of the Tommy or the Poilu:

‘In the combat zone there is a balance to be struck, a cultivated operational knowledge, that comes in large part from first-hand experience about what can hurt you and what can’t… So you need not only knowledge of what the weapons and armor can do for you and to you but a kind of bodily habitus as well – an ability to take in the sensory indications of danger and act on them without having to think too hard about it first. When you hear a shot, is it passing close by? Is it accurate or random? Is it of sufficient caliber to penetrate your vest, the window of your Humvee or the side of your tank?’

In the intricate nexus formed by knowledge, space and military power, later modern war still relies on cartographic vision – and its agents still produce their own corpographies.

The notes contain various references to No Man’s Land in the First World War, though I’m increasingly interested in what lies on either side.  One of the reasons so many commentators seem to think that ‘war among the people’ is a recent development is that the imagery of the Western Front draws the eye again and again to No Man’s Land, but behind the front lines on either side were farms, fields, villages and small towns where people continued to live and work amongst the shelling, the gas attacks, and the billeted troops.

As usual, I’d welcome any comments/criticisms/suggestions on the (I hope near final) draft of the essay: an extended version will appear in War material.

Digital trenches

banner

I’ve mentioned the opening skirmishes for the centenary of the First World War before, and recommended europeana‘s curated website devoted to untold stories and official histories of World War I.  I’ve since also become entranced by the extraordinarily rich website developed by the University of Oxford:

World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings is building a substantial collection of learning resources available for global reuse. A rich variety of materials, including expert articles, audio and video lectures, downloadable images, interactive maps and ebooks are available under a set of cross-disciplinary themes that seek to reappraise the War in its cultural, social, geographical and historical contexts. Many of these resources have been specially created by the University of Oxford and partner academics for this website.

It’s an Open Educational Resource, so that everything is released under an open content/commons licence.

The site is organised around a series of themes, including Body and Mind (read the brilliant Santanu Das on ‘The Dying Kiss‘, revised and extracted from his Touch and intimacy in First World War literature: ‘It is a great irony that the world’s first industrial war, which brutalized the male body on such an unprecedented scale, also nurtured the most intense and intimate of male bonds’) and Machine (for those of us interested in the administration of military violence, in the double sense of that term, Christopher Phillips has an insightful vignette about General Haig: ‘Far from being a ‘donkey’, he was the centralizing force responsible for overseeing the entire ‘business’ on the Western Front…. the ‘General Manager of War’’.)

And there is also a section entitled ‘From Space to Place‘ that includes Das again on ‘slimescapes’ (which is what triggered my work on ‘The natures of war’, soon to be completed for Antipode) and Matt Leonard on the war underground.

Many of the contributions come from PhD students, which gives the whole project a remarkable freshness.

Headings

I’ve changed the header for this site; the original was cropped from a famous Frank Hurley image – perhaps the most famous Frank Hurley image – showing Australian infantry moving up to the front near Hooge in October 1917:

forward

I’ve written about Hurley before, and it turns out that this may be one of his many manipulated images: see Bob Meade‘s detective work here (though see the cautionary notes in the comments too).

While I was doing some image research for my presentation at the Association of American Geographers in Tampa, I discovered the parallel, contemporary  image I’ve substituted.  Here is the uncropped image, taken by Mark Doran, which shows soldiers from the 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment at sunset at Tarin Kot (Uruzgan, Afghanistan) in 2013:

Sunset shadows in Uruzgan