Legacies of War – Women, Engineers and the Fangs of Material Science

Over the past term I have been helping produce (curate, perhaps?) a lecture series for the University of Leeds ‘Legacies of War‘ project, commemorating the First World War. My co-organisers Jessica Meyer and Chris Phillips were both already working closely with the project while I was head-hunted thanks to my considerable expertise in the area. Though the depth and importance of my intellectual contribution is naturally incalculable, I have also completed the more  prosaic task of recording and uploading these lectures to a YouTube account. The theme this term has been ‘Civil and Military Relations’ and I hope in future to put together one or two series relating to science, technology and medicine. Below I give each of these lectures an HPS spin, not because I think them uninteresting in their own right, nor because I think HPS types need this kind of flag before they’ll bother with something, but because there are some real gems inside that those of you interested in the First World War might not otherwise take time to explore. Consider it my Christmas gift to you; warm the Mulled wine, pile up the mince pies and settle in for  a little trench warfare.

Our first paper was given by Krisztina Robert  on the topic ‘Local Patriots, Public Enemies, National Heroines and Comrades-in-Arms: Military and Civil Relations of the Women’s Corps, 1914-1919’. She describes how competing conceptions of femininity were used and abused by the supporters and detractors of the Women’s Corp and later the Women’s Army Auxilliary Corp. As it turns out, the army formed one of the strongest bodies of support for these groups, the majority of which did not consider the issue of suffrage as synonymous with women’s war work. By the end of the war Roberts even argues that the general national mood had switched to one of friendliness towards these women, where only a few years before they had been more likely thought of as prostitutes in men’s clothing.

In our second paper ‘By the Leave o’ the Ground’ – The Engineers at Third Ypres’ Rob Thompson explored the vital (perhaps even THE vital) role of engineers in fighting the war on the Western Front. Those familiar with the chemist’s war and the physicist’s war can now add another discipline to the list of those that were served by, and made important contributions to, the war. Thompson initially sets out some of the historiographical changes that have occurred in his field, and how the ‘cultural’ New Military History tends to hold the older more traditional sort in contempt. Historians of science listening to his description of how traditional military historians tend to consider battle as a separate and distinct phenomenon from society, while he wishes to better integrate societies and the wars they wage, might find these developments particularly familiar. Come for that historiographical discussion, stay for the detailed account of how an Edwardian battle ethic was replaced with one of manufacture and supply.

Finally, Simone Pelizza gave us some highlights of his PhD thesis in his paper ‘Pour la Victoire Intégrale’: Halford Mackinder and the Challenges of Global War, 1914-1918′. Mackinder is a thoroughly intriguing figure, rubbing shoulders with the likes of H.G. Wells, Lord Selborne and Joseph Chamberlain. It was particularly interesting to here how Mackinder, a global political theorist/economist and numerous other things, while working with the Empire Resources Development Committee (of whom I have never heard) would often come into conflict with the Colonial Office (of whom I certainly have). There is plenty here worth exploring from an HPS point of view, not least the origins of Mackinder’s rather esoteric take on Darwinism, and his laying of the blame for the First World War at the feet of material science.

Finally I’d just like to once again thank all our speakers, and Jessica and Chris, who all made this first term of talks a real success.

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2 thoughts on “Legacies of War – Women, Engineers and the Fangs of Material Science

  1. Pingback: Hütchenspiel going Nobel | Hans Hütt

  2. Pingback: Hütchenspiel going Nobel | Hans Hütt

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