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FASS Hosted the 1st Workshop on the History of the WW1

On 10 July 2017, the Faculty hosted the first of a planned series of workshops on Civilian Experiences and Home Fronts in the First World War, organised by Annika Mombauer, John Slight and Vincent Trott. The focus of the three international speakers were civilian experiences and home fronts.

Helen Brooks (University of Kent) analysed the role of theatre on the home front during the war and demonstrated the diverse ways in which theatre across Scotland, Wales and England responded to and represented the experience of war between 1914 and 1918, drawing on extensive data from her ‘Recovering First World War Theatre’ Project – a project recording data on every new play written and licensed for performance during the Great War. In her paper ‘Not just ‘A Little Bit of Fluff': British Theatre during the Great War’, war-time theatre emerged as a space in which audiences could be entertained, but also educated about their duties during the war. Theatres became an effective propaganda tool used for recruiting soldiers and for keeping up the fighting spirit on the home front, and popular plays reflected contemporary topical concerns (e.g. spy plays, recruitment plays, atrocity plays). The paper revealed how theatrical representations engaged with both national and local experiences of, and attitudes towards the war, arguing that wartime theatre offers a valuable and long-overlooked lens through which to understand the experience of conflict.

Sophie De Schaepdrijver (Penn State University, USA) focused on civilian experiences in various occupied spaces on the Western and Eastern fronts. The First World War divided Europe into sharply delineated spaces: fronts; home fronts; and those spaces which were neither – the areas invaded by enemy armies – the focus of her paper. Close to 40 million Europeans experienced the war as civilians under military occupation. They lived in areas ranging from the highly industrialized regions behind the Western Front to the sparsely-populated Baltic; from the urban sophistication of Warsaw to the Karst mountains of Montenegro.  Her paper ‘Civilians in the Great War’s Third Space: Living under Military Occupation in Europe, 1914-1918’, explored similarities and differences in civilian experiences of occupations as they encountered the war in a ‘third space’ that was neither home front not front. She also reminded us to avoid examining civilian war experiences of the Great War through the lens of the Second World War which – with its extreme brutality - inevitably distorts our view. During the First World War, civilian experiences in occupied lands were characterised by previously unseen levels of brutality and violence in which occupation touched every aspect of civilian life. Nonetheless, this is not a story only of victimisation, but also of instrumentalisation, as evidenced for example by the flourishing nightlife in occupied towns and cities.

Oliver Bast (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3) considered the impact of the First World War on a state that was not an official combatant in the conflict, yet many of whose civilians suffered greatly as a result of the presence of foreign soldiers. Although Iran never entered in the conflict on either side, the officially neutral country became a battle ground of the First World War which had far reaching implications for the people living on its territory. In ‘Losers and Winners at the Homefront of a 'Neutral' State: The Civilian Experience of World War I in Iran’, an often overlooked region in First World War Studies was brought to life, reminding us that civilians in ‘neutral’ countries were just as likely to suffer the consequences of war as those in combatant countries. Infrastructure problems, hoarding and bad weather exacerbated the effect of the war, leading to hunger and famine, which in turn had a direct effect on the 1918 flu epidemic. The extent of the losses remains a controversial topic with historians debating the exact figures of civilian deaths, and while recent claims of 8 – 10 million civilian victims are almost certainly exaggerated it is clear that the war, with resulting famine and disease, claimed countless civilian lives in Iran.

Biographical notes for the speakers

Helen Brooks is a theatre historian at the University of Kent. Her interests span the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and she is currently researching the theatre of, and about, the First World War. She is Primary Investigator on the 'Recovering First World War Theatre' project and a Co-Investigator of ‘Gateways to the First World War’, an AHRC centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary.  

Dr Brooks also researches theatre and performance during the long eighteenth-century. She has published on the topics of women's involvement in theatre during the eighteenth-century, cross-dressing, acting theory, histories of gender and sex, the economics of the stage, amateur and private theatricals, and the theatre as a site of social engagement.

Sophie De Schaepdrijver holds the Ferree Professorship in Modern European History at Penn State University (USA). She is a historian of the First World War with a special interest in gender, class, the uses of language, and military occupations. Her most recent books are Military Occupations in the First World War (edited, 2014); Bastion: Occupied Bruges in the First World War (2014); Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War (2015); and An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp (with Tammy Proctor; 2017). She is currently (2016-2017) Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Kent, where she has given a series of lectures entitled “Enemy Rule: Seeing the First World War Through the Lens of Military Occupations.”

Oliver Bast, Maître-ès-Lettres, Dr. phil., is Professor of Iranian Studies at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. His research interests include the political and diplomatic history of Modern Iran with a particular focus on the “long” First World War, but also the interface between historiography, politics and cultural memory in contemporary Iran. Bast has edited La Perse et La Grande Guerre (Louvain: Peeters, 2002) and authored Les Allemands en Perse pendant la Première Guerre Mondiale (Louvain: Peeters, 1997). Other recent World War I related writings include “ ‘Sheer Madness’ or ‘Railway Politics’ Iranian Style? – The Controversy over Railway Development Priorities Within the Persian Government in 1919–1920 and British Railway Imperialism”, IRAN, vol. LV, no. 1 (2017): 1-17; « Les « buts de guerre » de la Perse neutre pendant la Première Guerre mondiale », Relations internationales, n° 160 (2015): 95-110; “Duping the British and outwitting the Russians? Iran’s foreign policy, the ‘Bolshevik threat”, and the genesis of the Soviet-Iranian Treaty of 1921’, in Cronin, Stephanie (ed.) Iranian-Russian Encounters: Empires and Revolutions since 1800 (London & New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 261-297.

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