Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Other Combatants, Other Fronts: Competing Histories of the First World War
reviewed by Bryan Alexander


Other Combatants, Other Fronts: Competing Histories of the First World War

by James Kitchen, Alisa Miller, and Laura Rowe
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011


This is a book for World War I scholars and students. It is not for the general reader or WWI newbie, since it presumes the reader is very familiar with the conflict at a global scale.

Other Combatants, Other Fronts is an anthology of articles presented to the Fifth International Society for First World War Studies conference. As such, the contents are very diverse, ranging geographically from Sicily to eastern India, Canada to Turkey. Topically the articles are grouped under headers of alternative mobilizations, neutrality, race and nation, and the legacies of violence; all are really best described as cultural, rather than military history (xv).

Wartime Cartoon Showing Some of the Complications of Neutrality for the Netherlands

Each piece is well researched, grounded in primary and secondary literatures, a deep dive into one particular, often obscure corner of the First World War. This is especially noteworthy since the majority of authors are not established scholars, but grad students and postdocs (xiii, 319ff). As such Other Combatants, Other Fronts previews the next generation of WWI scholarship.

The introduction by Kitchen, Miller, and Rowe is excellent, both as a way into the rest of the volume, as well as a fine precis of recent WWI historiographical issues. I would recommend it to any graduate student or undergrad considering the field. Kitchen et al begin by lamenting the Anglo-centrism of much writing, calling instead for moving scholarship "towards a total history" of the war (xix). They see the British "myopia" as a problem echoed in other accounts, which tend towards a national focus when the war really was transnational (xxii). (This agrees with my reading so far.) An emphasis on total war is one way forward (xxiv ff). So is micro-history, looking at small, sub-national stories. Combined, the approach is "both beyond and below the level of the national approach to war" (xli).

That totality includes taking the colonial background much more seriously. The editors argue that European and American powers applied lessons from the experience of their imperial wars to WWI, bringing colonial war home to Europe. In many respects total war was thus simply "colonial war writ large," with the conflicts of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 incrementally taking on elements of earlier imperial struggles (xxxiv). If they are correct, Kitchen, Miller, and Rowe conclude that "this...gives the First World War its novelty within the history of total war" (xxxi). Personally, that gives me a new way to think about not just 1914–1918, but also the post-1815 century of imperialism. That also argues against the sense of August 1914 as a break in history.

Let me touch on each article by section, too quickly, though, for the good work every one represents:

A. Alternative mobilizations

"From Peacetime to Wartime: The Sicilian Province of Catania..." tracks one piece of Italy's responses to war, from 1914 (when Italy was neutral, shockingly) onward. Very useful glimpse of the war's issues in microcosm, with a fascinating look at a neglected bit of Europe.

"The Aims of Science Are the Antithesis to Those of War" compares British and French scientists and scientific institutions as they scrambled to mobilize for war in different ways. Very useful context for and complement to the famous German Manifesto of the 93 (October 1914).

Jack Cornwell, VC
"'Faithful Unto Death'" describes the creation of heroic myth around Jack Cornwell (left), a British casualty of the battle of Jutland (1916).

B. Neutrality

"'A Wonderful Something'" probes the Netherlands, who remained neutral throughout the vast war raging all around them.

"Government by Committee" zeroes in on the way the Dutch tried to maintain their commercial relations through blockades and U-boats, emphasizing administrative history. Useful context for the food war fought between Britain, France, and Germany.

"La Suisse Pendant La Grande Guerre..." (which appears in both French and an English translation, alas only partial and summary) draws out details of Swiss neutrality. This is a worthy focal point, given how many intellectuals visited Switzerland — think of Lenin and Einstein, for starters. Charrier makes a case for Romain Rolland being a social network hub.

C. Race and Nation

"Challenging European Colonial Supremacy" delves into the details of how colonial powers (Germany, Britain) used racial rankings to humiliate prisoners. There were plenty of tactical, even minute ways to treat internees in racially relative terms.

"'Racial' Mixing of Prisoners of War in the First World War" returns to Europe and the Franco-British use of colonial troops against Germany, arguing that WWI institutionalized racism as a prisoner of war tactic, "the first articulation of the notion that integration of prisoners of war of different races contravened civilized norms regarding the conduct of war". This led to postwar legal recognitions of race, which obviously went on to help drive mentalities for the Second World War (195).

"The Recruiter's Eye on 'The Primitive'" looks at an Indian labor unit and how the British organized them, from recruitment to return home. Personally, I was introduced here to the Kuki-Chin rebellion, which I hadn't known about (210ff).

"Beyond the Bonhomme Banania" focuses on how France acculturated Senegalese troops, largely through reviewing two books about these Africans by Lucie Cousturier. There's another pointer to WWII in a fascinating and disturbing account of how French and German citizens responded to the presence of these black troops over the Rhine after WWI's conclusion (230-233).

Annanese Troops from Indochina Arriving on the Western Front

D. The Legacies of Violence

"From 'Skagerrak' to the 'Organization Consul'" traces the emotions of German sailors from their reactions to the Battle of Jutland through the revolution and postwar period. This article links their frustration from lack of combat and fury at the scuttling of their ships at Scapa Flow to the violence of postwar irregular groups.

"Perceptions of the First World War in Turkish Autobiography" does exactly what it says, working through a series of memoirs to see how their authors addressed certain aspects of the war in the Ottoman theater. I found this especially fascinating, partly from unexpected details, like the operation of a Montessori school in Lebanon (281; I thought this was a European-only thing at the time). Wirtz displays a fine literary sensibility in addition to his historian's approach, drawing attention to powerful scenes in these texts (for example, 282).

"Fighting the Alien Problem in a British Country" examines how Canadian veterans became politically active once they returned home. Specifically, they often became xenophobic, even violent, towards other nationalities, going so far as to be seen "alien hunting" (302, 310).

Despite the richness outlined above, Other Combatants, Other Fronts has many limitations. I won't criticize its miscellaneous nature, since it's a conference volume, after all. But the absence of America, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, not to mention East Asia, is a glaring omission; to their credit, the editors admit some of this (xli).

The lack of visual media (photos, maps, charts, illustrations) beyond the awesome front cover is another problem, leaving the reader to Google a variety of topics which the book could have addressed. This is especially annoying when certain articles explicitly discuss specific paintings and photographs, like the Banania ad or the postcards assembled by Likosky.

Moreover, many authors are reticent about the implications of their research beyond how they might challenge historiography. It's up to the reader to apply conclusions and findings to WWI and beyond. Nevertheless, Other Combatants, Other Fronts overall is a useful volume for anyone seriously examining WWI. It's a kind of technical collection, with each component addressing a small piece of the larger puzzle. Many of the articles shed light on interesting and/or obscure issues. At a meta-level, the book gives a glimpse into some forthcoming WWI scholarship.

Bryan Alexander

4 comments:

  1. Bryan,
    Thanks for the thorough review, very informative.
    Pete

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is the best short review of a dense, scholarly book that I have read. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete