I am a historian of the First World War and was the recipient of a 12-month Visiting Professorship at the University of Kent, from August 2016 to July 2017. Mark Connelly, who invited me, is an expert on British society and the First World War who has written on the war in film, in memory and ritual; on the British Army; and on the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission.
Kent has a stellar group of First World War scholars: Julie Anderson, a historian of medicine, disability, and gender; Timothy Bowman, a scholar of the Edwardian army and the Ulster Volunteer Force; Helen Brooks, an expert on theatre; Mario Draper, who works on military mobilization; Stefan Goebel, who has written widely on German wartime culture as well as on memory, cities, and intellectuals; Emma Hanna, a scholar of the war’s memory and of music in the First World War; and others. These scholars, and their students, form a critical mass in both senses: a group that is more than the sum of its parts; and a constructively critical audience for new ideas. I could not have dreamt of a better intellectual environment.
My own work in the field of First World War social and cultural history focuses on gender, cities, the uses of language, military occupation, and memory. I have done extensive research on Belgium’s Great War experience. Belgium – in 1914 the most densely populated country in the world – experienced invasion, mass flight, a government in exile, four years of enemy military occupation, aerial bombing, and trench warfare. It was, therefore, not just the site of some of the British Army’s most terrible battles of the war, but a complex, highly industrialized society that saw an entire gamut of “faces” of the war. And yet, many Belgians – including myself! – were barely taught “their” First World War history.
This makes for a great deal of public interest in overdue scholarship. Believing public engagement to be an essential part of my work as a historian, I have written columns and essays for the daily press; I have co-written and presented a television documentary (Brave Little Belgium, 2014); and I have curated two major exhibitions. Kent is a perfect environment for First World War historians who want to reach a wider public: the School of History manages Gateways to the First World War, a centre for public engagement with the war funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Moreover, Kent’s master’s programme in First World War Studies not only equips students with the background and the skills to do original research, it also teaches them how to be public historians.
During the Kent year, I helped strengthen the University’s ties to research and memory centres in Belgium; I saw up close what a master’s programme in my chosen field entails; and I learned a great deal from long discussions with master’s and PhD students. I organized a conference, created an exhibition, published a book, and did archival research in the UK, in Belgium, and in Italy. But most importantly, I was able to advance my research into a new direction. Having long studied Belgium’s war as an experience moulded by military occupation, this year gave me the opportunity to branch out and study the military occupations of First World War Europe as a whole.
We tend to associate this war with the trenches, and military occupation with Nazi-dominated Europe. Yet between 1914 and 1918, close to 40 million Europeans in regions from Lille to Rostov experienced the war as civilians under a military occupation regime. The war essentially divided Europe into three spaces: the fronts; the home fronts; and the occupied territories. It is this “third space” of the Great War that I have set out to study, a space apart from and yet created by the hecatomb at the fronts.
My interest is in how occupying regimes operated, what occupied civilians and occupying administrators and officers lived through, how they defined their role in the war and how they remembered it. The story of the Great War’s “third space” is a story of violence, but also of interstices in the violence; of victimization but also agency; of stunted lives but also of strange opportunities; of the debris of empire; and of newly imagined communities.
I developed these ideas in a series of six Leverhulme Lectures entitled Enemy Rule: Viewing the First World War Through the Lens of Military Occupations. I was also able to present my ideas elsewhere, among others at Oxford, Trinity College Dublin, Stirling, and the Open University. Without the benefit of a year surrounded by scholars who share my focus on this war, and were always ready to discuss and criticize ideas, I could not have taken this intellectual step.
It was, in short, a very good year. “Academic community” is not just a tired phrase but a reality, and it creates fields of endeavour that matter to a public beyond the academy. I cannot thank the Trust enough.