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VL Q&A: Chris Ward, author of Living on the Western Front (Annals and Stories, 1914-1919)

ward_western_frontWhat I wanted to do was disrupt narrative structures and upset realist expectations by imitating an early-medieval annalist… but it proved impossible. In the first place because every sentence is a kind of narrative, and a kind of explanation, the distinction drawn between annals, chronicles and narratives is more apparent than real. We can never escape from narrative. Secondly, Western historians at least no longer operate in sacerdotal time, or anything remotely like it. We cannot recapture the honesty, freshness and attractive ambiguity of a mind and hand engaged elsewhere and elsewhen, scribing pari passu in the margins of an Easter Table whatever secular fragments came to notice and seemed worth recording. We are too knowing for that, too subtle and too demanding and perhaps too fraudulent. We want certainties about uncertainties and a certain degree of explanation. The form of this book is therefore a hybrid of annal and narrative, but the intention remains: to foreground other ways of reading the past, thereby divulging some of history’s inherent ambiguities and dilemmas. (From the Introduction, p. 2)

Living on the Western Front represents a new and unique way of writing history. The experience of British settlers in Belgium, Northern France and Germany over the course of the First World War, drawn from a vast body of letters and diaries, is parcelled into narremes: short self-contained narrative units. These can in turn be read in a variety of ways: singly and at random; chronologically; or following one of a set of thematic stories (such as Aspects of Identity, Enemy, Journeys and Landscapes). The author, Chris Ward, kindly set aside the time to answer a few questions.

This book represents quite a departure in both form and content from your previous work on Stalinism.  How did this new strand come about?

Years of supervising and thinking about history made me think about trying to, if not overcome, then at least highlight the artificial nature of history production and to draw readers’ attention to the fact that history and the past are not the same thing at all.

In the introduction, you say that you have left the stylistic and technical inconsistencies of the text intact, in order to preserve traces of how the work evolved.  This strikes me as practically unprecedented, given that the usual way(s) of writing history tend to emphasise the seamless and unified narrative.  Is this a fair assessment?

I think so, but when a text leaves its author’s hand the author has no responsibility for (though s/he may evince some curiosity about) how readers read it. I suppose I wanted it to be ‘fair’ in the way that the reader gets to see the nuts and bolts of how history is constructed: i.e., getting away from the idea of the omniscient narrator, so that readers see, right in front of them, that this is a construct.

When I was writing my Masters thesis back in 2003, you taught me to organise my work using index cards.  Here you used a computer programme to plot out the book, and you mention that this threw up new and unexpected forms.  To what extent is this book a collaboration between man and machine?

To a large extent. Letting the machine do some of the work again throws into sharp relief the point I try to make about history being a product that can be shaped/imagined in many different ways.

The voices that emerge from your treatment—that have pride of place, in fact—are varied, engaging, idiosyncratic.  Did you find you had favourites?

Not really. All of them in their different ways are interesting, and historians are (or ought to be) vulgar voyeurs, but I guess some of them (Cude, Schweder, Goodliff) would have been more interesting to chat to than others simply because they were more articulate.

As you say, the officer class (of which Schweder, who particularly stuck with me, was one) still speak the loudest in the first-hand accounts of the time; even though the majority of the participants could record their experience, and did.  Confidence and agency were on the side of the officers.  Is there also, do you think, a general fascination with the experience of the élite?  

Quite the reverse, really, I think. For nearly half a century now, British historians of the Western Front have struggled to write ‘from below’ about the experiences of ordinary soldiers. The thing is, I’m not too impressed with what’s been achieved: too much sentiment; not enough source criticism; not enough thinking about what we mean by ‘experience.’ Also, as I said somewhere, mythology has taken over so many texts. Anyone would think that it rained shells and water all the time, that there was nothing but mud and death, and that everyone lived in trenches forever.

Speaking of sentiment and the trenches, how do you feel about the beat-up to the centenary in July, and especially the public debate around the origins and legitimacy of the First World War? Where—if indeed anywhere at all—do you place your book in relation to the ongoing debate?

It doesn’t fit at all because it has nothing to do with that ‘debate’ which, by the way, to my mind is, by and large, not an historical debate at all. THE business of historians is to show the past to the present. Now, they may fail in this—in fact, they invariably will—but what they can’t do is have ‘opinions’. They have to get rid of them and be strangers to themselves. Of course, they can have ‘technical opinions’—what happened, why did it happen one way and not another, what happened afterwards (causes/processes/consequences)—but you’ll notice that these are all amoral opinions. Quasi-scientific, if you like. But once you start to argue about ‘legitimacy’ we are back with 1066 And All That: ‘good’/’bad’/’progressive’/’reactionary’. All rubbish, of course, because it’s got nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the present: mere punditry. You’d be surprised how many historians are not really interested in the past at all, but are greatly interested in themselves, and in their opinions, and in using the past for their various ends. As for the centenary itself, I think in the book somewhere I called it ‘official pieties’. Does anything more need to be said when politicians open their mouths?

I think all this applies equally well to Russian history. All those interminable 1917 documentaries…

I’ve given up watching them!

Which books would you recommend to those who want to find out more about experiences of WWI?

Since memoirs tend to be more interesting than histories, I’d go for Lewis, Sagittarius Rising and Manning, Her Privates We. Both are intelligent and reflective in unusual ways and also avoid the self-conscious, knowing irony you get in things like Graves’ Goodbye To All That.

Chris Ward is University Senior Lecturer in Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge.  For more information about his work and publications, see his Department webpage. For Kirsty’s earlier conversation with him about Trotsky’s works, click here.

Living on the Western Front, Bloomsbury Academic (June 6 2013), 296 pp. ISBN: 978-1441109309. Also available for e-readers.

6 comments on “VL Q&A: Chris Ward, author of Living on the Western Front (Annals and Stories, 1914-1919)

  1. Pingback: Living on the Western Front | Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  2. Melrose
    April 12, 2014

    “You’d be surprised how many historians are not really interested in the past at all, but are greatly interested in themselves, and in their opinions, and in using the past for their various ends. As for the centenary itself, I think in the book somewhere I called it ‘official pieties’. Does anything more need to be said when politicians open their mouths?”

    Thank you to Chris Ward for putting into words what I feel is liable to be par for the course for the upcoming centenary shenanigans. I really don’t want to be listening to, or reading articles, by the Alan Titmarsh or Laurence Llewellyn Bowen of history, putting forward their own slant on things, or some populist viewpoint. Or politicians trying to score points. Unfortunately, even trying to avoid the media occupation with such things won’t be totally successful, it still gets into your psyche.

    War isn’t something to be treated as a subject for entertainment, or to fill the pages of papers and magazines. Even though it was many, many years ago, I remember my childhood being affected by the aftermath of a commando father, who came home mentally and physically broken by the Second World War, but who was still reliving his war experiences, in his head, after I was born, and “self-medicating” to try to forget. A better outcome, though, than the man, who lived across the road from us, who came back from a Japanese POW camp, sat mute in a chair in the corner for years, then killed himself. I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors of the First World War.

    It is far better to approach a subject, I think, such as World War One, by reading the personal narrative of people who were there, or were affected by war, or by the changes to their life that period of history made, rather than be spoonfed many of the no-doubt dumbed down and/or opinionated pieces that will be on offer. As Chris Ward said “Anyone would think that it rained shells and water all the time, that there was nothing but mud and death, and that everyone lived in trenches forever. There is far more to it than that.

  3. rosyb
    April 12, 2014

    I don’t quite know what this is referring to in terms of coverage, but I’ve been watching a number of programmes on BBC four on WW1, including a drama that was about the days in run-up to the break out of war.

    I have to admit I find this post and also Melrose’s comment a little off-putting in a general sort of way about History – I’m also left unsure what Chris Ward does approve of. I was someone who would like to find out more about history, but I don’t see that it needs to be the preserve of academics only or that it need be surrounded by heavy disapproval. Surely, the nature of history has always been that it is largely propaganda written to support various regimes in the past and there is a large amount of mythmaking and storytelling within that. And a heavy dose of salt required for a lot of stuff.

    But rather than disapprove or seek to block out that element in terms of what you engage with – isn’t this actually a fascinating part of history itself and maybe just as relevant as anything else?

    And hasn’t history always been about the present more than the past? Again, isn’t this an aspect that is interesting in itself (and can tell us as much about history in a funny way). We can’t just ignore or reject all the stuff that does this.

    I can understand if you are an expert in something that it must be extremely irritating to see stuff that you think is just political posturing or engineering to put forth a particular viewpoint to support whatever it is you want to say now. And certainly there are pretty terrible history programmes out there that are little more than personal rants sometimes. I tried to watch Niall Ferguson’s series where he was going on about killer apps. I found this the most irritating and selective programme and felt the arguments all fell down and were a nonsense and it was certainly propagating some kind of viewpoint and was desperate to push this forward at all costs.

    On the other hand I have enjoyed a lot of historical programmes on BBC4. They are fairly lightweight, I suppose, but they have introduced me to different periods at least, And – for me – images are very important imaginatively, not just words.

    Something I find incredibly powerful is simply seeing footage of the two World Wars now that they have sorted the timing and in many cases they also have colour footage. Suddenly the past jumps into life and you can really see feel that past wasn’t another country (as it were). It is a simple thing, perhaps, but make so much difference in terms of imaginative engagement.

    I also found the drama about the days leading up very imaginatively engaging and powerful. I would probably not have known anything much about this either if I had not watched this programme. I’m sure it was inaccurate in many ways – but it got me interested and reading around. And how is that going to happen for the majority of people if they are never exposed to stuff?

    And Melrose, in relation to the above, reading accounts is surely as tricky a business as any other peddling of a point of view. Politicians will reinvent their motives in memoirs and present themselves in particular lights. And how do you get any overview from just reading a single account. You would need many accounts of the one situation in the case of the run-up above – and that may or may not be available. And partly don’t we have historians because we can’t all go about analysing all the raw data from these periods for ourselves?

    So, I reckon all the coverage of WW1 shouldn’t just be knocked. If there is a bias to the BBC4 coverage, I would be more interested if Chris Ward would outline a little about what he thinks it is. That would be of interest to someone like myself.

  4. Michael Carley
    April 12, 2014

    Looks like a book well worth reading. There is a tendency to assume that everything written in a diary, or a letter home, or after the war, is `true’, especially if written by someone we can condescend to, which we would not take for granted of something written yesterday. Ward seems to be bringing a proper scepticism to witness accounts, doing the authors the compliment of treating their work as evidence to be tested.

  5. rosyb
    April 12, 2014

    rereading – I realise I’ve half conflated Melrose’s comment and the piece – so excuse me. I take it that you are talking about the debate about legitimacy in terms of some politicians rather than television programme coverage?

    The big question about WW1 for me is just simply – why?

  6. Melrose
    April 12, 2014

    It sounds like Chris Ward’s book might be a good start to start your search for the “Why?”, Rosie, if you are interested in learning more about this. The format sounds attractive for a lay person, and, given the provisos that Michael Carley put forward, plus the author’s own explanation of what he is attempting to do by this format, the reader will start off well-prepared to make up their own mind on what has been presented. I can understand though what you are saying about having your interest piqued by watching lightweight historical programmes on television, and can see your point there.

    It seems to me that professional historians present, the best they can, through what they uncover, facts and theories surrounding events. Televised history dramas, or documentaries presented by “personality historians”, will be, for the most part, opinion pieces, as dry, dusty historical investigation doesn’t usually make good audience-drawing television or media articles. I’m also getting a bit jaded with the blatant non-impartiality which seems to have become rampant lately in the British media – the packaging of Hugo Chavez funeral service for UK media consumption, as opposed to BBC El Mundo, really brought it home. Over 30 Heads of State attended the service; over here, the attendees seemed to consist of the President of Iran and A.N. Other or Two, the ones we term “baddies”. In fact, I laughed out loud, when one news report went so far as to describe the event as Ahmadinejad “attending the funeral of Hugo Chavez today”, we were so focussed on Iran at the time.

    Lastly, not being a historian, or having a historical bent of any sort, I don’t want to read or watch anything about man’s capacity for blood-letting and massacre on a huge scale – man’s inhumanity to man. It makes me feel depressed and sad. So, unfortunately, I won’t be reading this book. We, as a race, seem to still be the aggressive, territorial beings we have always been, as can be seen around the world today. You’d think we would have evolved spiritually by now, but we seem to be devolving.

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