My War Gone By: I Miss it So 

Not much to report here. I’ve been occupying my spare time with various summer projects, and reading. Sarah Waters is one of my favourite novelists; I just love the way she uses history as a setting, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading her most recent book, The Paying Guests. I was struck by a few passages where the main character Frances and some of her contemporaries are discussing the war:

It was every kind of hell, at the time. It was real, stinking hell. But the queer thing is, I sometimes find myself missing those days. There were things to do, you see, and one did them. That counts for a lot, I’ve discovered. Back here, now it’s all over — well, there isn’t a great deal for one. Lots of one’s friends dead and so on….

Eventually, Frances (the protagonist) responds to her fellow dinner-party guest:

I miss the war too. You’ve no idea, Mr Crowther, waht it costs me to admit that. But we can’t succumb to the feeling, can we? We’ll fade away like ghosts if we do. We have to change our expectations. The big things don’t count anymore. I mean the capital-letter notions that got so many of our generation killed. But that makes the small things count more than ever, doesn’t it?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, 137-8.

Photo 09-08-2016, 20 14 59This is an idea that rarely crops up in popular culture portrayals of the First World War. The war was terrible, the idea that it might have had some good aspects, that there might be some people who enjoyed their wartime experiences, is something almost unrecognized  in the cultural narrative about the war. And yet here it is. The war, so wide sweeping, it’s affects in every part of society and every aspect of culture, can hardly be reduced to one narrative. If it seems that’s what’s happened over the course of the twentieth century, I’m pleased to say that tide is reversing in the twenty first. Of course there were some who found pleasant, even pleasurable experiences during the war. There were some for whom the war provided purpose, and structure.

But wait, there’s more! Frances was a pacifist activist, Mr Crowther was in Mesopotamia (“Generally when ladies learn that one was anywhere out east of Suez they rather lose interest. They want the romance of the trenches and all that.”) No predictable VAD or NCO as lazy backstory; thanks, Sarah Waters, for as ever broadening our horizons.



Belgrade Ghosts

While the UK was imploding, I was enjoying a very sunny weekend in Belgrade and trying not to think about the political situation. I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be a member of the public during such a momentous, disastrous occasion as a declaration of war. In the course of little over a week, the world as you know it seems to crumble, and yet everyday life carries on very much the same. Okay, so hopefully (I’m not ruling anything out here) Brexit (or the threat thereof) doesn’t precipitate total war in Europe. But uncertainty over the political situation has me paralyzed with anxiety, and the news from distant climes (many of which places I’ve never heard of) is almost unbearably tragic. I feel helpless; I want to do something, but I don’t know what. And I’m a historian, so I see parallels everywhere.

It’s been ten years since I first heard the call and made my way to Serbia, following the footsteps of my heroines from ninety years earlier. A lot has changed over those ten years. The hipsters have arrived, and more tourists, too. Belgrade looks cleaner, tidier, more commercial. Memories of the “NATO aggression” seem more firmly relegated to the past, less a part of the living memories of the city. But I can’t be the only one seeing ghosts of European wars everywhere I go. Walking beside me through the streets of Belgrade are not only figures from history but characters of my own imagination, as they lived, loved, and (some of them) died. And a lot of things feel the same to me. I love the monument to France in the Kalemegdan fortress, though it’s looking a bit worse for the wear. Whatever else has changed, I’m drawn to it every time I go to Belgrade.


Also relatively unchanged in the military museum, a dungeon full of relics in Kalemegdan. Though some parts of the museum have been updated here and there (a poorly functioning app invites us to step inside Serbian military history for ourselves), it begins with a dusty, practically indecipherable display on Belgrade in pre-historic times and stops rather abruptly after the Second World War, with an added, modern bit on the so-called “aggression” (offset by a section on Serbia’s military contributions to the UN; passive-aggression at its best).  So much to read into, with the museum’s communist undertones showing through the more modern “lick of paint” interpretations and spotty English translations. Excellent value at 150 RSD.

Photo 25-06-2016, 12 41 54Photo 25-06-2016, 12 42 24Photo 25-06-2016, 12 43 10

I can’t help but love the museum. Studying such an obscure part of history, it’s rare to find someone else who cares as much as I do, and the First World War galleries of full of interest. Here are some of my favourites:

Ooh, what’s that, in the far right of the last picture? American flags? Could this be the US diplomatic mission, in Belgrade 1919?

Photo 25-06-2016, 12 55 03

The story goes on, as ever, and I wonder what will happen next.

Not in my name: Hackney’s FWW Conscientious Objectors

On Saturday I went to visit a little exhibition at the Hackney Archives on local Conscientious Objectors. There’s been a lot of interest in COs lately; possibly because the politics motivating many of them are coming into fashion.
Photo 28-05-2016, 16 13 25.jpg

Hackney had a history of radical political and much of the population were Jewish refugees from Russia who refused to be allied with the country that has persecuted them. Others were motivated by their Christian belief in the commandant “thou shalt not kill.” As always at these local history exhibits, I found it fascinating to see the streets and buildings I’m familiar with taking an active role in a history I’ve also studied.

Photo 28-05-2016, 16 21 22.jpg

I was especially pleased to see featured one William Knott, who also pops up in my research! Though this placard doesn’t mention his service in Salonika…
Photo 28-05-2016, 16 23 52.jpg
Photo 28-05-2016, 16 12 22.jpg
“Not in my name” is running until October at Hackney Archives in Dalston. It’s a great little exhibition to pop to during your lunch break if you work nearby, or it’s open on Saturdays for those with a special interest in Hackney history or Conscientious Objectors.

Art and War in East London

On Saturday I went on a little outing to the Hackney museum (a bite-sized gallery attaching to the library at Hackney central) to check out a free exhibition on Art, Propaganda and the First World War.

The propaganda aspects of the exhibition were fairly standard, but I did spot a few posters I’d never seen before.

What interested me the most was seeing photographs and artifacts about the war in Hackney. I’ve lived in East London nearly the entire time I’ve been in the UK, so seeing these places I know so well is a special way of connecting the past I study with my own past and present. Here’s a picture of the opening of the  war memorial hall in Stoke Newington Library, where I spent many afternoons in the early days of my PhD: 

Flag (above) and badge (below) artifacts from North Londoners

Crowds outside one of the first sites to be hit by Zeppelin raids in London, around the corner from where I used to live.

Allotments in Clissold Park, which I have run through countless times:

I was especially interested by this panel about my favourite East London bakery, Percy Ingles!

The exhibition is on until 28 May with slightly anti-working people hours, but it is open on Saturdays and late on Thursdays. It’s worth a special trip if you’re interested in propaganda or East London and the First World War, or it’s the perfect lunchtime stop if you work near Hackney Central.



Serbian postage stamps honoring British heroines of WWI

I was so excited to see these stamps announced on Twitter, especially when I saw on of the women featured was Dr Isabel Emslie Hutton, who I’ve been researching for a long time and who is a subject of the group biography project I’m working on now. I just had to get some for myself, so I enlisted the help of a Serbian publisher I work with in my day job, and she was kind enough to track them down. Ask and ye shall receive.

There’s been a lot* of buzz in the media about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals because there’s an art exhibit in Edinburgh at the moment (which I’m really sad I won’t be able to go to – maybe it will come to London next! Ask and ye shall receive?). In the meantime, I’m having my own exhibit as part of the “gallery wall” I’ve just created on my stairwell.

*by “a lot” I mean more than usual: it occasionally comes up in my saved searches on Twitter.

Historical WWI Dogs in Salonika

Men of the 22nd Divisional Ammunition Column RFA, with their unit mascot 'Ginger', watch other members of their unit wrestling on horseback during a horse show outside Salonika, 20th Febrauary 1916. © IWM (Q 31765)
Men of the 22nd Divisional Ammunition Column RFA, with their unit mascot ‘Ginger’, watch other members of their unit wrestling on horseback during a horse show outside Salonika, 20th Febrauary 1916. © IWM (Q 31765)

In honour of National Dog Day, which is taking twitter by storm (at least among ‘twitterstorians’ who have been posting nice pictures of historical dogs all day), here’s my favourite WWI Balkan dog story from the IWM archives:

In his 1970 memoir, C R Hennessey recalled how he and his regiment had acquired a mascot, a small black and white terrier trotting along side their march, “so we dubbed him “Mick” and took him on the strength of the Platoon for rations and billeting.”

There is no doubt that one can cope with things under very adverse conditions when one has the old familiar faces about him. Which thought reminded me that we hadn’t seen anything of our terrier “Mick” since the pervious afternoon. It seemed to us that he couldn’t have survived the cold and wet, but to our great surprise and delight he suddenly appeared with his tail erect, and looking the perkiest member of “C” Company. We learned that Will’s groom, one Cpl. Parker, had taken pity on him and carried him on his saddle under cover of his ground sheet… we thought that Mick, being only a civilian as you might say, was entitled to more comfortable quarters than the Army could provide at this time. So we hunted around and managed to find him a very good home at the neighbouring base camp where, in a Q.M.Stores, his future comfort would be assured.

C R Hennessey, “Papers,” IWM 03/31/1, 132,141.

First World War Hospital & Troop Ships: exhibition in central London

HQS WellingtonI love working in London! Yesterday during lunchtime I met a friend down at Temple steps for an exhibition on WWI troop ships and hospital ships on the HQS Wellington. It was a really interesting exhibition about life and work on the ships, complete with interesting props, first-hand accounts, and a short film about the role of troop ships and hospital ships during the war.

Troop ships and hospital ships

I particularly enjoyed the atmospheric propaganda and the historical picture of a cat. It’s a perfect lunchtime jaunt (though not really long enough to get your “sea legs” as I found. It’s only open for the next two weeks, so hurry and see it if you can!