Will be blogging (and getting future bloggery ideas) from the Great War: Memory to History Conference happening this weekend in London, Ontario. The full programme is available online here and proceedings will also be on the conference’s Twitter page. This will be the first time that a paper of mine is recorded and/or pod-casted, so if you end up listening to a streamed version of my paper, apologies in advance for some of my tongue-tying phrases. Trust me, “the plinth’s disappearance” is lethal in the spoken word.
Obviously, this conference will be addressing the theme of how to approach histories of the Great War once all participants and observers have died — in essence the transition from lived experience to historical distance. Really, there hasn’t been a moment like this that I can think of since the death of the last soldier from Waterloo… and that was in a non-information/technology age, so I tend to doubt that The Times kept a day-by-day account of ex-soldiers’ declining health; then again, maybe my cynicism is misplaced. I think I’ve just given myself a new mission for the next time I’m on Pro-Quest with time to kill…
Also, a fun factoid: the final veteran of the Crimean War (1853-56) died in 2004. How is this possible? Because the veteran in question was also a tortoise, Timothy the Tortoise, to be exact (except he was really a she), the former mascot for the HMS Queen. After being present for the bombardment of Sevastopol, Timothy lived on to the ripe old age of 165, making her not only the war’s last veteran, but also the UK’s oldest resident!
Writing about Timothy makes me think of what, I believe, is one of the most moving of all monuments: The Animals in War Memorial on London’s Park Lane. As the upcoming film War Horse will show, people were not the only casualties of the Western Front.
The question that has me thinking this morning, however, is not so much how we remember war, but how does war remember? Of all the historical disciplines, do the “lessons of the past” find their most extreme resonance in military histories? Does an education in the history of warfare add depth to future campaigns, or are the most famous (and infamous) chapters of martial lore so characterized because of their inability to learn from what came before?
When writing about battlefields, do things ever really change?
More to come, once I’m no longer in transit.
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.