Tuesday, 21 April 2009

On an earlier note.

My earlier rantings about Florence Nightingale are entirely supported by this wonderful comic by K. Beaton.
Nightingale vs Seacole
If you don't know about Mary Seacole you should learn all about one of the most groundbreaking women ever.
If you don't know Miss Beaton's comic I recommend that as well.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Political Ideology vs Racial Theory in explaining 20th century conflict.

Two recent samplings of 20th century history have provided and interesting discussion when taken in combination. I have watched Niall Ferguson's five part series “The War of the World” whilst at the same time reading John Lewis Gaddis' “The Cold War.” Individually each is a fine work that posits a strong explanation for the primary events of the century, together they become fascinating as a study in two different viewpoints.

Gaddis (the revered revisionist then post-revisionist Cold War historian who wrote the ground-breaking “We Now Know” in the early 90's using the recently opened Soviet records to place the entire blame for the Cold War firmly on Stalin's shoulders) finally performs almost full circle and presents the Orthodox history of the centuries conflict. In his presentation it is a matter of ideology that drove the 20th century. Most notably all conflict since 1917 can be considered as a consequence of Authoritarianism struggling with Democracy and Communism verses Capitalism. In this fundamental clash of ideology the world flowed between the poles of Moscow and Washington because each represented the epicentre of their respective political cause.

In Gaddis' view the responsibility for the many conflicts and deaths of the century can be explained by the failure of one ideology (Communism) to survive in comparison to the other.

Ferguson, in comparison, presents a genuinely exciting break with the Orthodox. His homage to H.G Wells in his title is intentional as his theory rests on the ability of mankind to view others as “Alien.” In fact he goes so far as to call Well's “War of the Worlds” as a work of stunning prescience, predicting the conflicts to come. The central struggle, in Ferguson's view, is not one of ideology but of race. In his perception the 20th century has been a matter of racial differences producing fault-lines and fissures. The battle is not between Capitalist and Communist; but more fundamentally race against race and East against West.

The nationalist movements encouraged by President Wilson after WW1 lead to a savage movement of ethnic cleansing. Even inside Russia there is evidence that much of the most brutal repression was organised on racial grounds. WW2 is easily seen as the result of Japan's ability to see the Chinese as untermensch and likewise Germany's dismissal of Slavic willingness to resist Barbarossa. (Ferguson highlights Hitler's low opinion of the American people as an explanation for his rapid, and usually seen as cataclysmic, declaration of war on the USA in 1941.) The Cold War is equally seen as the result of cultural and racial differences being played out on a grand scale.

And that is where the two theories are neatly able to dovetail of course. The Cold War is often seen in post-revisionist historian's like myself (and I eagerly await the post-post-revisionist historian's who will denounce me as wrong with some wholly new theory) as the result of continued failures to properly understand, emphasise and respect the motivations and rational of the other side. A fifty-five year saga of colossal mis-communication and poor interpretation of intelligence. For Gaddis the explanation lies in the powerful ideologies each side used to translate the actions of the other. In 1946 George F. Kennan, then a minor diplomat in the US embassy to Moscow, sent his famous “long telegram” (it was 8000 words) explaining Soviet policy. This became the backbone of USA behaviour to the USSR for the majority of the Cold War. Kennan was the product of a western capitalist ideology that made it almost impossible for him to ever really understand the Soviet mind; but equally could it be that as an American raised in the USA who was unequipped culturally and racially to understand the Russian people's motivations?

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Crimean war again - I think I might have a problem.

I was brought back to look at previous work here by a question posed to me by a GCSE pupil.

Studying medicine through time can seem remote to pupils; it is not the most gripping of subjects and so much of it can seem distant and unrelated to their lives. But when a bright enough student regurgitated 1854 as a date for Florence Nightingale's work on bringing elementary sanitation to hospitals (a contentious claim to innovation in current historical thinking but still an accepted truth at their level) he was entirely unable to connect this date to a world event that would contextualise her work.

Yes it seems the Crimean War is not only off the syllabus, it is so far off the syllabus that even events which occurred during and due to it exist in isolation of it.

I don't want to come across as the solitary cheerleader of a conflict which occurred 155 years ago so I promise my next post will have a different topic (maybe even Gin, who knows) but I do think we lack something in our education when we ignore this contextual knowledge. The only mention of the war is in passing to justify the claim that war is a factor in medical development (this being a developmental study it is essential to at least note it.) What is not covered is the crucial coming together of elements in this war that made it so important.

The circumstances of the Crimean War were such that many men were sent to hospitals not from battle wounds but minor illness. This is not an unusual state of affairs in general; illness is always a major killer in military campaigns, however the Crimean war involved long stretches of inactivity in wholly unsuitable conditions. The camps soldiers were based in were cramped, they were at the end of an extremely long supply line and the organisation was renowned as a disaster. The Crimean winter was harsh and the soldiers supplies of winter equipment were delayed. The major killers from the 18th century were alive and well in the hospitals: Typhus, Typhoid, Cholera and Dy sentry.

The advent of rapid international communication and war correspondence brought the horrors of field hospitals home to the British public who had never conceived of them. Most especially the middle classes and their growing passion for improving the conditions of the lower sorts. Far more than in the Napoleonic Wars the middle class perceived the army as drawn from “good people” as opposed to the days when Wellington described his army as recruited from the “scum of the earth.” As this morally invested middle class saw the lower orders suffering their new-found political power manifested in pressure for government intervention.

And it was government intervention that really made Nightingale's reputation. She was not the great innovator of hygiene that we teach and I feel we do public health an injustice to attribute it to her. while certainly she campaigned for better conditions in terms of diet, lighting and comfort, it was a government commission which arrived not long after her that really made a difference. The sewer system at Scolari was the source of much of the ills which killed so many soldiers; the commission had these sewers cleared and flushed clean which resulted in a dramatic decline in deaths. Nightingale documented the effects of this act and it was her detailed note taking which proved the benefits of improved hygiene not her own innovations. This co-incided with John Snow's 1854 report on Cholera in London to provide clear evidence for the Government's involvement in public health.

Without knowing the context; the terrible conditions of the Crimean war, the shift in public attitude towards the army and the moral demand for improvement, or the impact fighting a war the other side of Europe which could be read about increasingly up to date, our pupils cannot really demonstrate an understanding of Nightingale's actions.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

The Crimean War: How we overlook you.

I have been mulling over the excellent work of Paddy Griffith on the US Civil War (Battle Tactics of the Civil War, http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300084610) trying to write about it's nature as a modern war. This is a relatively common argument, some saying it is in fact the last of the Napoleonic conflicts, some considering it a precursor to the First World War. It's a lively discussion and one that I got a little caught up in.

However whilst on a short break to make a nice cup of coffee I realised something that had been vexing me. Whilst I admit that the Civil War was in many respects a landmark in the ways war was waged, but many will argue it was still fought with Napoleonic tactics, it seems that the writers choose to overlook a conflict that preceded the US Civil War by a decade. The Crimean War appears to have become an unfashionable war and it seems overlooked unjustly. Considering why this was I noted several pre-conceptions I held about the war that I wanted to examine:

The Crimean War was short.

I don't know where this came from, the war lasted from 1853 to 56, only a year and some change shorter than the US Civil War. Admittedly compared the the Napoleonic Wars that came before it this was a brief clash, but in comparison it lasted almost as long as the First World War.

The Crimean War was not as bloody as the surrounding conflicts of the Nineteenth Century.

Hardly, with around 400,000 killed between the warring nations and a far more daunting figure recorded as wounded or otherwise incapacitated it was a costly clash. The US Civil War tragically resulted in an estimated 600,000 dead, whereas the casualties from two decades of Napoleonic wars are unlikely to ever be more accurately totalled beyond a rough estimate at over 2 million. However despite being overshadowed by these more bloody wars, for three years of conflict the figure is certainly harrowing.

The Crimean War was localised.

Six different Nations took part in the war, although that does include the more minor Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (a much forgotten power prior to Italian unification) and Bulgaria which was very much a client state of the Tsar. There were also foreign legions from half a dozen other nations serving under the flags of the combatants. The war was fought predominantly on the Crimean Peninsular but conflicts also occurred on Asia-Minor and the British Fleet sailed up the Baltic and besieged Russian ports and defences the other side of the European continent. Whilst it could not be called a world war, it was fought in several diverse locations with many nations troops coming in contact.

The War was fought with Napoleonic methods.

Certainly the battle tactics employed would not have looked strange to the Napoleonic general. However many of the technological advancements that are hailed as revolutionary in the US Civil War are on display in this conflict. The rifled musket was becoming the standard weapon for the French and British, and the other nations were adopting advances in musketry (such as the Nessler bullets that improved smooth-bore muskets), in fact many of the weapons sold to the Confederate forces in the Civil War by France may in fact have been surplus from their Crimean armies. Explosive shells for artillery and naval guns became common in all but the Turkish fleets, these were a shocking development that produced a public outcry when the Russians first used them on the outclassed Turkish navy. This terrible new weapon helped sway public opinion in Britain towards the war. The British and French both used “Floating Batteries”, essentially slow moving Ironclads that were designed for sieges but which cannot help but be seen as the precursor to the Merrimac and Monitor. There were also frequent instances of the form of entrenched and defensive warfare that would dominate the early 20th century, used in the field rather than just in sieges.

So in conclusion I am struck by two thoughts: The first being how wrong my preconceptions were about the Crimean war (a period I genuinely believed I knew a reasonable amount about) and secondly the extent that the Crimean War stood as much on the cusp between two ways of waging war as the US Civil War, was this the moment where our method of waging war transitioned? And if so why has it been banished into obscurity?

Monday, 28 January 2008

The English Alehouse.

Peter Clark’s social history of the alehouse in English society raises questions about the position of the alehouse in society. Prior to the Glorious Revolution the position of the alehouse had been seen by the Elites as the home of trouble and dissent. It was frequented by the lower ends of society and the haven for violence and vice. Respectable society tended to stay away from them and targeted them for suspicion and repression.

However by the turn of the century the perception of the alehouse had undergone a change, spurred by the increasing wealth and respectability of its clientele. The workers' wages were increasing so the worker had more to spend in the alehouse, but these more financially stable workers were a less fertile ground for the dissent and trouble the elites feared and were thus a less threatening crowd. Landlords were increasingly more respected as a role in society and licensing was making them economically important figures. As wage-work became more common and regulated in society the alehouse also began to become a vital part of that culture. The popular practice of “drink tax” that existed in many work environments demonstrated the growing trend; any new purchase or happy event in a workers life would be allowed by his work colleagues only if it was accompanied by him buying drinks for them all.
The alehouse had, through social and economic change, garnered a degree of respectability.

There is an argument therefore that this respectability attached to the alehouse and its fasted growing new product “porter” (something between a Stout and a mild to today’s pallets and powerfully strong) would provide a stark contrast to the rise of gin and its less respectable retailers. If alehouses were acceptable to society then anything that subverted that would be unacceptable. There can be no argument that the main retailers of gin were of a distinctly less affluent and respected place in society and it is inevitable that they and their cheaper and courser product would lack the respectability of the alehouse. But to what extent is the disreputable nature of gin due, not to its own faults or societies dislike of its results, but due to it being seen in comparison to the more acceptable English alehouse?

Friday, 25 January 2008

“Stop thief!”

Whilst reading Robert Shoemaker’s excellent book The London Mob I was idly distracted thinking about the interaction between the public and law enforcement. On witnessing a crime we are told the early 18th century common man would get involved to apprehend the criminal. Without an external policing force there was a group responsibility to enforce law and order, the hue and cry was not just an obligation but something people actively took part in without considering not to. There was perhaps an unspoken (or possibly spoken) understanding that if a man came to the aid of another when he was the victim of crime then people would come to his aid.

By the end of the century at the very least a paid watch was in place in most large towns and cities and the City of London had something approaching a police force. There are already reports that people choose not to apprehend criminals themselves but instead seek out the authorities or even expect that they will deal with it and let crime occur. Perhaps this change is related to the sense of externality of the police. Now that there is a separate body doing the task the people feel they have lost their role within it, they are now separated from the law-enforcement process. Or perhaps it is more connected with the financial relationship, they are paying people to perform this task thus they should ensure they get there money’s worth and not perform their task for themselves.

Certainly we can all see that by the early 21st Century we are a long way from the form of community law enforcement of the 18th. Most people would not consider stepping in to stop a crime and suspect that if they did they would risk some form of lawsuit from the criminal or the state. We have become completely divorced from the process. Our relationship between that authority we put in place in the late 18th Century and the common man has changed dramatically to a point of some-time opposition.

Of course it is easier in some ways to understand that sense of opposition and oppression that the police are often perceived to represent when we compare them, not to early police forces, but to the army. After all the 18th Century tool of control and defense against unrest was the troops. Since the civil war there had been something akin to a standing army and it served as a tool to prevent the ever present dangers of the mob. The sheer speed at which troops appeared whenever Londoners rioted through the century (and there were very many) demonstrated their purpose as tools of social control. The fact this continued well into the early 19th Century (consider Peterloo) suggests it would be a long time before the police took on this role. They were the tools of law enforcement which had replaced the hue and cry, the roaming magistrate and the mob bent on securing criminals. “Stop thief!” had become a cry to summon the authorities rather than a mob.
However they were not yet the tool of social oppression they would become in some eyes, the troops still held that role and would continue to into the 20th Century.


I had a realisation the other day.

Our academic minds work so radically different from our everyday thoughts. They cross over easily but when I randomly debate historical theory on the street people look at you somewhat strange, to make matters worse half the time I’m only debating with myself and this can lead to people backing slowly away.

So it suddenly made sense to ensure I had a place to secure my everyday academic ramblings that was separate from my everyday ramblings.

“Gin and Conflict” because of a comment made that this was the content of my final year as an undergraduate. Somewhere in the ground between Eighteenth Century Gin addicts and Twentieth Century Middle Eastern Conflict is my degree and my specialty, I’m sure I’ll find it one of these days.