Reflecting on War Through Other Stuff: Part One

We are thrilled to share this fascinating report of the War Through Other Stuff conference by one of our speakers, Dr Martin Johnes. Martin is Reader in Modern History at Swansea University. He is the author of Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), which looks at the role of the festival in British culture since 1914. His previous books include Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012). He is currently writing a history of Cardiff during the Second World War.

There is something of a fashion amongst my colleagues at the moment for buying cheap historical ephemera from eBay. Amongst the postcards, magazines and even medieval manuscripts that have been purchased are a series of fifty 1930s cigarette cards entitled ‘Air Raid Precautions’.


The back of these cards contain sombre and serious accounts of different aspects of civil defence.  They can be interpreted as part of the growing realization of the likelihood of British civilians being attacked by enemy bombers and the increasing seriousness with which this likelihood was being treated. What the historian cannot be sure of is how the cards were consumed. They might have been studied; they might have generated fear.  But they might also have been discarded with little or no thought. For some smokers, the cards were probably laden with meaning. For others they may have been little more than clutter.

Picture2What is more certain is that cards are a testimony to the sheer variety of ways through which people engaged with both actual conflict and ideas of war. The War Through Other Stuff conference was a rich examination of this theme, taking in everything from the commemorations of conflict to its material culture, impacts on everyday life and depictions in popular culture. It was also a warning against assuming that the ‘stuff of war’ was consumed in straightforward manners.


The most entertaining paper of the conference that I heard was a reminder of this. Ralph Harrington’s study of military models showed not just the detail and care that went into the designing and construction of model aeroplanes and the like but he also questioned the relationship they had with the military hardware actually being depicted.  Even though the designers of boxes gradually became seemingly more sensitive to depicting actual combat, there was no evidence that those making the models were thinking of themselves as celebrating past warfares.  Indeed, for some modelling was about reducing the complexity of external life into some kind of manageable order.

There were plenty of other papers that encouraged people to think about the material culture of war in non-literal ways. Michael Reeve, for example, examined postcard photographs of buildings from Britain’s northeast coast that were damaged in First World War bombardments.  Rather than simply interrogate them as historical evidence of the damage, he argued they were acts of instant memorialisation that could be bought as product s from newsagents and which also helped justify the continuation of the war.

The papers on fashion were particularly insightful.  Despite the wealth of cultural histories of conflict, studies of clothing and fashion have not perhaps been as popular as they should have been.   Yet, as Lucie Whitmore showed, fashion objects are a way to examine women’s emotional responses to war.  She demonstrated how female commitment to the war effort in 1914-18 was illustrated by military styles influencing jewellery and dress, while practical concerns about rising in the middle of the night in the event of a raid led to a taste for pyjamas amongst middle-class women.

Bethan Bide similarly argued that clothes are a powerful way to think through the difficulties and experiences of war.  Using her grandmother’s clothes and family photographs, she showed how dresses could be a way of striking out against the austerity of war and how vanities and pride in appearance were not subsumed beneath the demands and strains of total war.

Another paper that was particularly noteworthy was Helen Brooks on theatres and the First World War. Working with a team of volunteers, a database is being constructed of every play approved for performance during the Great War.  Not only is this an interactive form of public engagement at its best , it is also challenging the idea that the theatre was not much concerned with the war in what it chose to put on.  There were more than 2000 new plays performed during the Great War and over a quarter were about the conflict itself. Her paper demonstrated how the cultural history of ‘stuff’ can still benefit from some counting.

The simple fact that people went to the theatre during the First World War was an example of another theme that emerged during the conference. Many ordinary concerns and activities carried on during wartime. My own paper on Second World War Christmas dinners tried to argue this but another striking example emerged during Lucie Whitmore’s paper. She discussed how women purchased lucky charms and mascots in 1914-18 and thus highlighted the persistence of traditional superstitions in what seemed at the time to be a very modern war.

War thus disrupted lives and conventions but it also reinforced people’s attachments to older ways of doing things. Indeed, the anxieties it generated – the subject of a powerful paper using women’s fiction by Lucy Hall – could make the need for the familiarity of objects and behaviours all the stronger.  As Rachel Richardson showed, even soldiers serving abroad drew parallels between the landscapes they encountered and the geographies they knew at home.

Historians of war used to be a little preoccupied by the question of whether war led to social change or not. That debate seems to have faded but the other stuff of war reminds us of its continuing importance, not least in how the influences of conflict are unstable and subject to a continuous process of remaking and rethinking.

The changes that conflict can bring about might not happen, let alone become apparent, for some time.  As several papers showed, photographs, films, songs and even toys about historic wars might have their own impacts that are separate from the conflict itself. Indeed, these objects have their own histories, however hidden they might be.

The historian might never know for sure how 1930s air raid precaution cigarette cards were ‘consumed’ but someone somewhere cared enough to keep them and nearly a century later they are still encouraging people to think about what  a campaign of bombing, now in the past rather than the future, might mean.  The ‘other stuff’ of war matters and has a dynamic and history of its own.

Stay tuned for another blog post reflecting on the conference, to follow over the next few weeks! 



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