Thanks to Michael Reeve for this second post documenting the War Through Other Stuff conference. Michael is a second-year doctoral researcher based at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull, with secondary supervision from Leeds Beckett University. He obtained BA and MA degrees from Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Michael’s research interests are primarily the expression of urban cultural and social identities over time in Britain, with a particular focus on the effects of war on local and civic identities. He recently published ‘Special Needs, Cheerful Habits: Smoking and the Great War in Britain, 1914-18’ in the journal Cultural and Social History and is currently co-editing a forthcoming special issue of the International Journal of Regional and Local History, focusing on Northern identity, history and heritage. He also currently teaches history theory and practice at Leeds Beckett University.
Civilians and the ‘other stuff’ of war and conflict
During a period when images of war – particularly its impact on civilians – are a constant presence on our television screens, it seemed more timely than ever to attend a conference focused on, among other things, the ‘non-military narratives’ of conflict. Despite only being able to attend the first day – of a jam-packed three – I came away feeling buoyed by my experience. It was fantastic to meet so many researchers (and not just historians) with an interest away from the conventional ‘battle front’, and with papers focusing on such a wide range of conflicts. As the recent conference report reminds us, most of the presenters and attendees were ‘not counting musket balls’ when it came to discussing our ongoing work.
Though the span and diversity of papers featured was astounding, WTOS really underlined for me the increasing importance placed on the histories of civilians during conflict. More and more work by historians and heritage practitioners is contributing to the idea that the ‘home front’ should be seen as a theatre of war in itself. Recent work related to the First World War, in particular, reiterates the manifold links between the fronts, making a dichotomy increasingly difficult to maintain. The ephemera and material culture of conflict also underlines this, as these were very often the traces left behind in the wake of destruction and the mass movements of people this often entailed.
The latter is a vital point to grasp as, despite the disruptions enacted by war, people have always needed to continue to live as best they can. Ephemera and mundane aspects of everyday life during wartime – be the subject clothing, postcards, letters, cigarettes, food and drink – contribute a richness to historical research that cannot be obtained by relating troop movements and analysing strategy. In many ways, researchers focused on the ‘other stuff’ of war are a spoilt breed. Though we may argue that military and naval narratives are old hat, we must also be grateful for the scaffolding they provide our work, by allowing us to build on their ‘nuts and bolts’ narratives of technology and military organisation. Nevertheless, without looking at the more mundane ‘stuff’ of war and conflict, something of the lived experience of historical actors is lost. Buildings, homes, businesses and identities were shaken and broken by all the conflicts explored at WTOS: material, social and psychological landscapes covering every constituency, not just combatants.
In addition to my own paper, arguing that depictions of urban war damage enabled civilians to work through traumatic experiences, others approached war through the lens of representation and identity. Indeed, it may be said that, while material culture was a primary source for many colleagues, the representations that enabled many contemporaries to maintain their self-identities during war was a central theme to the whole conference. For me, this is the way we can ensure that historical perspectives on war maintain a semblance of humanity, always underlining the fact that ordinary people make war, as much as generals and politicians
The cementing of the ideas shared, and connections made, between researchers of the non-military ‘stuff of war’ is to find form in a WTOS society: a development we must all welcome. I look forward to meeting colleagues again to discuss further developments in our work, hopefully leading to new ideas, collaborations and, of course, robust debate across disciplines. The ‘stuff of war’ is actually ‘out there’ to find, very often taking us beyond the dusty papers of the archive. Our task is to corral these traces and bring them to the forefront of war and conflict research. Most importantly, this broad area of work implores us to remain mindful of the impacts of war on civilians: that the stuff used to maintain life, culture and identity, should always be included in writings and outputs. This resonates with the conflicts that still blight communities around the world today.
 I am thinking, particularly, of Michael Roper, Pierre Purseigle, Helen McCartney, David Monger and Jessica Meyer; writers who all stress the connections and continuities sustained during war. Of course, this is still a growing area of research.
This post was originally shared on the Scottish School for Arts & Humanities blog in April 2017. https://sgsahblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/civilians-and-the-other-stuff-of-war-and-conflict-conference-review/