Great War Writing

Reflections on Expedition Scotland 2016

November 26, 2012. On a somewhat gloomy day, I taught a lesson on Jacobites, Scotland, and the Acts of Union (1707) in my British history survey course. The class was made up of twenty-five lively students, seven of whom were first years. By this point of the semester, we knew each other well enough to have some spirited back and forth on the topic of Scottish history and national identity. Looking over the roster and syllabus now, I remember just how excited I was to teach each class.

Last week, I was hiking the West Highland Way in Scotland with a group of ten students and (very) recent graduates as part of the GRAB program at Gettysburg College. We were on the ten-mile stretch from Inveroran to King’s House, walking on an old cobbled path,  parts of it a military road for red-coated British soldiers in the eighteenth century. This stretch was our first real day of hiking. On either side of the road were rolling hills; wet boggy mounds of heathery turf that leisurely make their way into strikingly severe mountains in the distance. We carried heavy packs laden with our shelter, clothes, and food for a week’s journey. The packs dug into our hips and shoulders, the weight causing a burning bruising feeling that eventually became a dull ache as the bruises settled and as our bodies adjusted to the discomfort. We all felt the same burden. We all plodded along together.

13335938_10154109959181271_3269830832278460404_n.jpgTwo of our party took my British history class in 2012. At that time, they were first years, but now on the trail they were graduates who saw this trip as a fitting way to end college. As we walked on the old road with ancient mountains distant, my trailmates struck up a conversation with me about the Jacobite cause, the Acts of Union, and Scottish nationalism. In between deep, slightly gasping breaths, we talked casually about the same material that we had covered together nearly four years before. But this time around it was more conversational. This time around, it was better.

When you are all sharing in the same burden, the same discomfort, you see each other as human beings. On the trail, we were nerdy comrades-in-backpacks walking and talking about history, culture, violence, and nationalism. I am tempted to say that our conversation resonated more this time around than it did when I stood in front of my power-point presentation on a gloomy day in November 2012. It certainly was more enjoyable for me to converse on a historic trail with two people that I watched grow in their short, but formative, time with us.

In our two weeks in Scotland, our merry band toured Glasgow and Edinburgh and then got on the trail from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William. As we walked, we hummed songs, told stories, and got to know one another. We groused together, laughed together, and longed for the next water break together. We worked through the physical and mental challenges of long days hiking and restless nights sleeping on the ground. We showed vulnerability and determination in equal measure. We ate improvised, unfamiliar meals. We looked each other in the eyes and spent precious little time looking at our phones. We labored up Ben Nevis together and sang the alma mater upon its summit.

If you told me four years ago that someday I would take students on a backpacking trip to Scotland, I would have probably laughed. I think I was more guarded then and insecure in my profession. But something changed as I got to know our students better and thought more about my role. I believe that what makes our model distinctive is that it is based upon relationships between people who are separated by many things, but in theory, are all here for the same purpose: to learn from one another. Learning requires trust, in part, because it is an exercise that often exposes the raw nerves of our insecurities. In order to build trust, one needs to show some vulnerability. This is something easily done on a backpacking trip when everyone is challenged both physically and emotionally by their discomfort. In the field, we see each other differently than we do on campus. In the field, we see each other as having a shared sense of our humanity in common.

I am too close to the trip today to offer the type of reflection that the experience deserves. I came home on Sunday only with a very complicated, but pronounced and powerful sense of deep gratitude for being able to go on the trip, for my family being supportive of my going, and for my trailmates for making the experience wondrous and enlightening. ‘Forever am I thy debtor,’ indeed.

Get outside!

We are at the end of the semester. You can positively feel the tension as students rush to finish their finals. I remember, not overly fondly, the feeling that came with the race to the finish line.

For underclassmen, there is a scramble to 1) get things done 2) get things done well before departing for a summer internship or paying job. For seniors, there is the same motivation, except complicated by the emotions of leaving one phase of existence and moving off to another. The last few weeks of the year are hardly an envious time.

A few weeks ago, I gave some unsolicited advice to my WWI class about making the time for walking, preferably outside. We are fortunate to be surrounded by a battlefield that is stunningly beautiful and we are reasonably close to the AT and a number of state parks that have more rigorous hiking. The point is that it is healthy to get moving outside. Preferably with trees and nature and stuff.

So I gave my advice and there was a little head bobbing, a little shrugging, and then some talk about how they simply didn’t have the time to go for walk.

“You don’t have 90 minutes for a walk?”

“No” (collective)

Knowing some of their schedules, I don’t think most were exaggerating. Between class, homework, clubs, jobs, internships/fellowships, fitness center time, social media friend time, actual friend time, email, meals, worrying about future/fretting, etc., it is easy to see how their days go by frustratingly quickly and are exasperatedly full. It isn’t all ‘work’, but even something like social media both 1) sounds like work and 2) feels like work when you do it.

Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that I think it is really important to make time for non-academic/non-college activities to clear one’s head and give perspective to the work that you are actually supposed to be doing. Taking some time away from your desk actually makes you a better worker and improves your concentration. Changing your location and moving around a bit helps to manage stress and adds perspective. These are all good things.

Mid semester reporting

We’re halfway through my Great War class. Last week we covered the military history of the Verdun and Somme battles. This week, as a bit of a literary breather before spring break and the mid-term, we are reading together Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of War.

We’ll get to Blunden in a second. First, I want to ruminate on how things are going so far. Last week we had one good and one stifled day. The good day was when we discussed Verdun. It is an unfamiliar battle to most American students and we approached the battle in a basic informational sense, but still with a degree of satisfaction, outlining its planning and execution. We left things with a good discussion on the importance of the battle to French memory, which I think will be useful when we approach the subject of war memories later in the semester.

Our discussion of the Somme was a little labored. In part, this was because they had a research paper due; some had that dazed look of too little sleep and too much worry. The Somme is also a tricky battle, I think, to comprehend. For students who are used to studying military history as a series of American triumphs – where battles end decisively – the attritional battles of the First World War seem otherworldly. I don’t think I am exaggerating this point: the casualty numbers and scale of these battles is an immense hurdle to overcome. Sure, we talked about staff learning, tactical developments, and the political and material pressures of attrition on belligerents, but the battles themselves, as well as their historiographies, do not make for tidy narratives.

So, we’re taking a break from maps and artillery concentrations by reading a war memoir. Edmund Blunden was nineteen when he went to France as a lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment. His war memoir, Undertones of War, was published to great acclaim in 1928, Blunden recalling his motivation in the preface, ‘I must go over the ground again.’ The ground was the western front, the Somme and Ypres, Blunden’s imagery expressing on every page the ways in which the war broke the beauty of pastoral landscapes (as well as their temporary inhabitants). Of trench memoirs, few have Blunden’s subtleties, and it for this reason I am somewhat anxious to teach the book. Sassoon’s rage against military authorities, Jünger’s bloody heroism, Graves’s not-so-gentle mocking of just about everyone – their books are ones that students can relate to a bit more easily, I think, because they can understand the temperaments of the authors a bit better than Blunden, whose ambiguity towards the war I suspect is harder to define. But we will see what happens in an hour.


Trying not to point at maps …

This week we covered the war in 1915 with lectures dedicated to the war in the west (Monday) and the war in the east (Wednesday). In keeping with earlier desire to break the deadlock (sorry) of map-based military history, I did several things that might prove to help in the future as we develop our own model of liberal arts college student military history.

On Monday we approached 1915 in the west from the perspective of problem solving. Students read Chapter 3 of Michael Neiberg’s excellent Fighting the Great War and then we discussed how generals and their staffs approached the combat realities and challenges of 1915. High casualties of 1914 combined with the increasing reliance on firepower to dominate the battlefield meant that the war in 1915 looked a bit different than the year before. So we discussed how commanders were adapting and trying to find a way of ending the trench stalemate that had come to be on the western front. We looked at three specific battles: Neuve Chapelle, 2nd Ypres, and Loos. For the latter, we also read together some primary source letters from our digital history project,


Sikh soldiers charging German positions at Neuve Chapelle, 1915. (Official British Military painting. First published in “The Great War” Ed. H.W. Wilson, 1916)

This approach proved somewhat successful. The conversation was sophisticated and a lot of students in the class engaged the material. I made use of the white board more than the power-point, which I think made a difference. Though I think it can be a useful tool in (very) small doses, I have been moving farther away from the power point in the last few semesters, and to be honest, I don’t really miss it (nor do I think that students are losing any content by not having me go through the slides). If anything, they seem to pay attention a bit more to what I’m actually saying and engage with it when the screen is gone, but this might be a false impression of mine.

Yesterday things were a little slow. We covered the Gallipoli campaign. The conversation about the strategy and justification for the campaign went really well. Then came the power-point map pointing and things slowed down considerably (the maps, I contend, are a necessity in this case). We then looked at some entries from Aubrey Herbert’s diary to get a feel for the campaign from the perspective of someone who was both on the ground but also in the know. I think in the future, I might give students a writing assignment based on this source; their in class source analysis hit the major points of the selection, but I think reflection would have yielded a better conversation on the material

In-class source analysis is a technique that I really enjoy. Students do a required bit of secondary reading for class and then we look at a source and workshop it. Sometimes students dive into the source and I don’t have to do much framing of the material. Sometimes, I have to really set them up for it.  There is a fine line: one doesn’t want to appear too rigid in approaching materials and I don’t want to insult them by laboriously walking through the obvious points, but we should also get a bit more specific than we do sometimes. So the next time we have a source, I might spend some time discussing the ways historians work with different types of sources and how to get the most out of them.

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