Interview with André Loez, author of "14-18. Les refus de la guerre. Une histoire des mutins"

Today we're delighted to offer to our readers a very special interview with André Loez, the French historian author of the book entitled 14-18. Les refus de la guerre. Une histoire des mutins (folio histoire inédit, Gallimard, 2010). After the previous post about the importance of smell during the Great War, both from real and metaphorical/polical sides, once again we try here to stay accross-the-board. Many times today we hear about a kind of "nationalism" rising from the words of politicians when they make speeches on the eve of this crucial Centenary. The risk is just around the corner and everybody knows this. We strongly believe that these across-the-board themes are the ones to chase in doing such editorial projects, also because they are by far more interesting than any other theme ascribable to a kind of veiled nationalism. One of these themes is the one connected with dissent and mutinies, something that all the belligerent armies and populations had in common. 
We want to thank again André Loez for his answers.

WWIB: Spring 1917. Can you shortly explain the crucial meaning of this date? Are the deep crisis in the French army and the emergence of a vast dissent among the soldiers to be connected to single historical events and defeats? Or is it a consequence of a long-period change in the social and symbolic understanding of the WWI also in the civil society?
A.L.:There are both long-term and short term trends that can help explain the mutinies. On the long term, the growing disillusionment with the war is perceptible as early as late 1914 or the beginning of 1915, especially among the French infantry, confronted with heavy losses. But this discontent is difficult to voice and does not lead to widespread, overt acts of refusal before Spring 1917, where several events add to one another and create a more favorable context for dissent: news of the First Russian revolution, and of the US entry into the war give soldiers an impression of instability. Of high importance is the military failure on the Chemin des Dames after the April 16 offensive: many French soldiers had hoped for a final battle leading to victory, and are angry at the high casualties while losing hope of any foreseeable end to the war. And in the aftermath of the offensive, strikes in the rear as well as political turmoil (some members of Parliament talk of sending the commander-in-Chief, Nivelle, to court-martial!) helps create a path towards collective action.

WWIB: We guess that the "mutiny" was a nuanced and patchy phenomenon. Which are the most common forms of mutiny in France? Which are its main protagonists? Can you provide a social, psychological and cultural map of it?
A.L.: Mutinies were highly diverse in the French army, and included violent demonstrations, collective desertions, and peaceful protests. It was almost impossible to refuse fighting in the front lines, as it would expose oneself and fellow soldiers to increased danger. Soldiers therefore mutinied in the immediate rear, in the villages behind the front, when they were ordered back to the trenches. Many simply refused to go and fled or hid in the countryside, others marched in protest, shouting “Down with the war!” and singing the International; some committed acts of violence towards their officers or simply took the chance for violent behavior as a release from prior discontents and tensions (drinking, breaking material, especially in train stations). Among the mutineers, some men, generally with a slightly higher education or a prior militant background, tried to shape events and to organize protest: in one regiment, such soldiers drafted a petition for peace that was signed by over a thousand of their comrades. In this case, as often, officers were not threatened, and mutineers treated them with respect, asking them to convey their many grievances to the government: rest, leave, peace, equality of hardship and sacrifices in the country and the army.

WWIB: Did you have the chance to compare the French case to other European (or American) cases?
A.L.: Indeed, 1917 was a tumultuous year for most armies: in Russia of course with revolutionary events and soldiers’ committees; these were also found in the German Navy in July 1917 and again in October-November 1918 leading to the Revolution. In Italy, infantry brigades (Ravenna, Catanzaro) mutinied in Spring and Summer 1917. The Russian expeditionary force in France also refused to go on fighting, leading to violent confrontation with the French army in September 1917. And in Austria-Hungary, along with massive desertions, naval mutinies also took place in early 1918 (at the naval base in Cattaro). In this context, the French mutinies reflected a common yearning for peace; they were also more massive than in some other armies, implicating (at least) around 50.000 men. Yet they did not lead to revolution, as in Russia and Germany, for two main reasons: such a course would have led to defeat, still unthinkable for French soldiers, and their movement had no support in the rear (in the form of strikes, demonstrations, organized political alternatives) whereas German and Russian military dissenters eventually were linked to wider groups and parties (the USPD, the Bolsheviks) that helped transform mutiny into revolution.

WWIB: Interpreting the historical sources is always a difficult and delicate task: one runs the risk to ascribe a unified meaning to personal and dissimilar convictions and behaviors. Can you describe how and in which extent the single episodes of mutiny were part of a collective feeling of revolt?
A.L.:This has been an interpretive problem for the mutinies: many scholars have studied them and selected, in the myriad documents and quotations from the mutineers, a few phrases that they used to sum up the movement: for some, it simply was a limited military protest (G. Pedroncini), for others, a kind of strike (D. Rolland), or a negotiation of authority by citizen soldiers (L. Smith). What I try to show in my work is that all these interpretations can have some truth but that historians must pay attention to the full spectrum of protest. French citizens were diverse in their backgrounds and opinions before the war, and the mutinies reflect this diversity: different individuals gave different meanings to a common event of revolt, some hoping for a revolution or an end to the war, others wanting rest and better treatment for the army, and others still expressing in a violent way their frustrations.

WWIB: Turning from the national to the international context, was the revolt movement in France connected to an international network of dissent against the Great War? If yes: to which extent? Which communication strategies were used? 
A.L.:There was no network, and even within France mutineers were isolated from pacifists in the rear. The only form of coordination that could have existed was the projected socialist pacifist conference that was scheduled (and several times delayed) in Stockholm in the Spring of 1917. Many French soldiers learned of this event and hoped it would end the war. When a French officer arrested a mutineer on a road, away from his unit, he asked him where he was going: “To Stockholm” was his answer. A major consequence of the mutinies was the refusal of the French government to grant passports for Stockholm to French delegates, on the new commander in chief’s insistence (Pétain), effectively canceling the reunion.

WWIB: We know that words are an impressive propaganda media. How were the soldiers who expressed rebellious or pacifist attitude perceived both by the army and the civil society? Which words were used - maybe even coined - to describe them?
A.L.: In the army, a major theme was the alleged drunkenness of the mutineers, among whom officers tried to look for “ringleaders”. Many were convinced that the movement had to be organized from the outside, much as, in Italy, general Cadorna blamed pacifists and socialists for indiscipline and desertion in the army. But the civil society did not have any representation of mutineers as these events were silenced and censored, and only discussed (timidly) in the years after the war.

WWIB: In Italian we can read the detailed and fascinating study by Antonio Gibelli L'officina della guerra, a book dedicated to similar themes. Any reading suggestion beside your book 14-18. Les refus de la guerre: Une histoire des mutins? We mean also novels or other essays published in other countries.
A.L.: A major work on the German army during the war is that of Benjamin Ziemann, War experiences in rural Germany, 1914-1923 (Oxford, 2007), looking at ordinary Bavarian peasant soldiers’ reluctant attitudes toward the war. In France, a recent path-breaking study by Nicolas Mariot (Tous unis dans la tranchée? 1914-1918, les intellectuels rencontrent le peuple, Paris, 2013) shows the extent of the estrangement between bourgeois intellectuals in the army, and their working-class comrades. On the literary side, there has been a huge French production in recent years, culminating with this year’s Prix Goncourt (the most prestigious literary prize) by Pierre Lemaître, Au revoir là-haut, set in the immediate wake of the war.

"L’odeur de l’ennemi. 1914-1918", the book by Juliette Courmont

Does war have a distinctive odor? What did the trenches of the Great War smell like? We know, these questions may sound senseless or at least bizarre. And we acknowledge that the sense of smell, unlike vision or sound, is hard to recreate in the history. It always demands a personal contribution in memory and fantasy, trying to connect the words that describe an odor in the past with stimulus or objects that we have directly perceived in our present life. Yet it is worth to ask such questions, since they point out not a secondary aspect of the conflict. You just have to read some war diaries, a few at random of the most renowned poems of the period or observe one of the hundreds of photos concerning WWI and the life in the trenches and you’ll probably always come across the same smell-images: the odor from the poorly maintained sanitary facilities, the mud and the stagnant water, vapors from camp kitchen and smell of wet dogs, the troops living in tiny places and not bathing for long periods, the gas and the gun powder, bad quality tobacco, the wounded, the decaying of human and animal bodies. We can imagine, mixing some personal feeling and experiences according to the principle of “similitude”, but we are at the same time almost sure that we miss the whole. Because it is impossible to find words enough effective to describe the atmosphere breathed in the trenches.

As if it was not enough the reality of the war, however, the sense of smell may be placed at the centre of the history of the Great War not only as a distinctive feature of the everyday life of the soldiers. Already before the beginning of the conflict it became a powerful instrument of propaganda, a strong argument in creating a culture of hate against the adversaries, as Juliette Courmont demonstrates in her book entitled L’odeur de l’ennemi. 1914-1918 (Paris, Armand Collin editions, 2010). This original and captivating work describes a neglected aspect of the history of WWI, offering a detailed analysis of different sources (from newspapers to private correspondences, from scientific essays to soldiers memories). So we learn that few months after the beginning of the war in France everybody appeared to be firmly convinced that the coming of German troops was always characterized by a smell so nauseating that even objects and places were subsequently filled with it. And this idea was not simply a product of the propaganda, it was much more rooted in the collective mentality, constituting a preconception that nobody could question. After all even the scientific community cooperated to support it. The French doctor Edgar Bérillon, especially, interpreted the fable of the intolerable smell of the adversaries as a consequence of a physical defect in controlling the sweating and associated then this “diagnosis” with specific “race characteristics” - ranging from the nutrition to the moral features – which found their climax with the caricature of the pig. Bérillon collected his thesis in a book – La Bromidrose, 1915 – which had an impact both in the medical discussion and in the mass media, claiming to provide a “scientific” justification to the widespread prejudice.

Besides the historical reconstruction, the author succeeds therefore in disclosing the multifaceted mechanism which combines in a dialectic way scientific (we would rather use today the word “pseudo-scientific”) arguments and unconscious cultural construction and creates so the idea of the “smell” as a central feature of the collective national identity. If we read the sources today, maybe sitting on the sofa, it’s hard to understand how such a prejudice could inform the perception of the French population and troops. Especially, if we turn back to the opening images, it’s hard to understand how one could pretend to have a “more agreeable smell” sitting in a trenches, since no matter on which side of the no man’s land, the odors were the same. And yet, in this inadequacy of understanding, we can maybe grasp how the sense of smell constantly fluctuated during the WWI between a cultural and a physical reality.

Novels of the Great War: "The Return of the Soldier" by Rebecca West

When Rebecca West came out with his first novel, The Return of the Soldier, she was only 24 year-old. It was 1918, the last year of what turned to be called the Great War. This simple personal data is somehow shocking. Many times we can encounter the “perfect” debut novel of an author. But with this book we find already displayed in front of us some of the great themes of World War I literature, already before the end of that war. What makes sense today is therefore to identify these themes popping up from the plot and the characters of the novel. The protagonist (although not narrator) is the Captain Chris Baldry. The narrating voice is his cousin Jenny, a woman living with Chris’ wife Kitty. At the beginning of the novel the two women are caught in an empty nursery. The first son of Chris and Kitty has died. The return of Captain Baldry is imminent. What kind of man are they meeting? As the plot of this short novel develops, today readers are able to detect in the story the key points of World War I literature, what still today seems to mark the main streams of war studies. Let’s go through these points with a sort of list. This might be boring, but it is preferable instead of spending new words on the summary of such a beautiful novel.

First we have the clear and important presence of those women living far from the hell of trenches (they are not the totality of women, we know that not all women live the war like Jenny and Kitty do). Secondly we meet the thorny problem of the comeback of shell-shocked soldiers and of their new hard adaptation to society. Chris suffers from a kind of loss of memory (amnesia) and he is obsessed by a summer love adventure with Margaret that goes back to 15 years before. Chris returns to his cosy estate believing of being only 20 year-old. The huge gap between his past and the renewed love obsession for Margaret and the reality of the everyday life he left before his departure to the front lines becomes the engine of Rebecca West’s narrative strategy, all built with strong contrasting couples (tranquility of  Baldry Court vs. echoes of the war in France, the beauty of the estate where the two women live vs. the sloppy look of Margaret, past vs. present, dreaming memories vs. reality). Jenny asks for Margaret’s help in bringing back Chris to his memories and his family reality. This will happen at the end of the story, but only after passing through the acknowledgement of the death of his son. Dr. Anderson, the psychoanalyst, is another “pioneering” presence in this short novel. The way Rebecca West merges the themes of war trauma and of the return of soldiers, of the relation between men and women in the marriage and the one between the “before” and the “after” of the war trauma, and even the experience of being mother/father of a dead child is the real mystery of this novel. The Return of the Soldier is able to surprise and fascinate us that we perhaps wrongly read it as a pure output of the Great War. This novel is most likely one of the first novels able to put together the decadence of bourgeoisie, the first feminist movements and the fragile social conventions that build our societies. You cannot ask more to this very short novel.

War and the Avant-Gardes. Conference at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense

We are pleased to announce another interesting international conference which will be hosted on 5th and 6th December 2013 at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense, organized by the same University and the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte with the title “1914. War and the Avant-Gardes”. 

Here a short introduction to the conference provided by the organizers:

With its origins in military vocabulary, the metaphor of the « avant-garde » ran through the art world with particular intensity at the beginning of 1914. In both Europe and the United States, contemporary arts tackled modes of conflict and rupture, the levelling of the recent past and the authoritarian conquest of an utopian future. This militant train of thought can be traced in the fine arts, as well as in other forms of visual expression, from photography and cinema to decorative arts, the arts of industry and other image technologies. These practices were as concerned with theoretical and critical discourse as they were with material production. In this context, the phenomenon of internal fragmentation – of groups, trends, inspirations – existed alongside an aim for universalism, driven by the dream of abolishing the boundaries between the arts and, more radically, between different world views. The quest for crossover and interaction between the languages of philosophy, music, dance, visual arts and literature led to the desire to interweave time and place, cultural and religious traditions, and to abolish the hierarchies between different forms of expression. Around the notions of “primitive”, “popular”, “infantile”, as well as “technological”, “rational” and “scientific”, a common psychological and anthropological horizon seemed within reach, to put an end to the fractures between nations, as well as individuals. Yet rivalries continued: national consciousness continued to sharpen in the field of the “avant-garde”, to ensure the mastery of the future. Kandinsky, a Russian living in Germany and exhibiting in France, made abstraction into the intuitive grammar of the language of “humanity”; but in homage to Matisse or Delaunay, he also denounced the “sensuality” of the French tradition.

In August 1914, real and immediate violence seized individual destinies and brutally reoriented them: foreigner and enemy, Kandinsky was forced to flee Germany to evade internment; his German friends of the Blauer Reiter-group joined the frontline, where August Macke was killed only a few weeks later. In Paris, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was preparing to give a conference in Berlin in January 1915, became the spokesman for a virulent patriotism and immediately signed up to fight. The young Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who had been living in London since 1910, moved from anti-militarism to a poetry of modernist violence in the circle of Ezra Pound, before dying in the trenches in 1915. Those such as Romain Rolland, Pierre-Jean Jouve, Maurice Loutreuil or, more briefly, André Masson who chose exile in neutral Switzerland or Italy to maintain their pacifist discourse were rare.

This international and interdisciplinary conference aims to interrogate the complex relations between the visual arts, in their largest sense, and history, at a moment where the European crisis of conscience crystallized into catastrophe. Restricting itself to strict temporal parameters – between 1st January and 31st December 1914 – it will explore the intellectual and practical circumstances of visual creation during the first six “ordinary” months of the year, whilst also seeking to understand as precisely as the possible the nature of the realizations provoked by the start of the war as well as by its first engagements. Works and objects, the orientation of taste and of the market, critical and theoretical discourse will be explored in order to dissect that which was shattered in western representation between January and December 1914.

Further information and full program here.

Europe between the world wars (1919-1939). A meeting in Lisbon (CfP)

Based in Lisbon, at the Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas of the Universidade Nova, the Association “Europe in the World” focuses on the role of the "old Continent" as an international actor and it is now planning its second annual meeting on 3rd-4th April 2014. This time the organizers wish to discuss the political, social and cultural changes occurred during the interwar period, considering so once again the consequences of the Great War on the Continent and the intimate connection between the two World War. You can find below the Call for Paper.
Further information also here.

Call for papers

At 11a.m. November 18, 1918, Europe celebrated the end of the Great War.
Four years of war had left deep marks on the European continent, transforming the international political order. Europe and the world were then different from those that emerged from the rubble of the conflict: on the one hand, major European empires, which had entered the war - the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish-Ottoman -, had disappeared, paving the way for the birth of new independent states such as Austria, Hungary, Finland, Czechoslovakia and Poland; on the other hand, Europe had been indelibly transformed with cities destroyed, ruined crops, disrupted communications and millions of people homeless. 

Across the Atlantic, the United States of America emerged as financers of a wounded Europe, assuming themselves as the major economic and financial power and consolidating the conviction that the "Old Continent" was no longer the center of the world. 

The Treaty of Versailles, signed the following year, would embody an "artificial peace", and would thereafter be a living example that European unity and the attainment of political agreements were not always synonyms and that Europe's belle époque was gone forever. 

The right to sovereignty, on the other hand, was present in the 14 points presented by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, even though without any immediate and practical application, but would, nevertheless, end by being embedded in the discourse of the Third International, which saw in it from the beginning an ally in the struggle against the capitalist economic system. By that time Jamaican Marcus Garvey began publishing in Harlem, New York, the weekly newspaper Negro World (1918-1933), extolling pride of the black race and advocating the return to Africa. 

Meanwhile, the New York stock market crash and the Great Depression enveloped the biggest crisis in the capitalist world known by then, creating a territory where multiple authoritarianisms would lead Humanity to a new conflict on a planetary scale.

The 2nd Europe in the World Annual Meeting will be devoted to the analysis, discussion and interpretation of the political, economic, social and cultural changes occurred in Europe during the interwar period.

Within this general subject, paper proposals’ topics may include, but are not limited to, the following:

- European reconstruction;
- Ideas of Europe and the first European integration projects;
- War refugees and migrations;
- The League of Nations and postwar period internationalism;
- The United States aid to Europe;
- The Great Depression and economic nationalism;
- Economic and social circles;
- Democracy and dictatorship;
- Intellectual elites and Europe: cultural representations and spaces - speeches and debates;
- War memories and European identities.

Proposals (including title and abstract with no more than 500 words in length) should be submitted, together with affiliation and a short CV (up to 250 words), to, by November 30, 2013. 

All proposals should be written either in Portuguese or in English.

If the proposal is accepted, there is a registration fee in the amount of 10€ for students or € 20 for academics and other researchers.

Maria Fernanda Rollo (IHC- FCSH)
Maria Manuela Tavares Ribeiro (CEIS20 e FLUC)
Ana Paula Pires (IHC-FCSH)
Alice Cunha (IHC-FCSH)
Isabel Valente (CEIS20)

The Italian city of Ancona and the Adriatic Sea during the First World War

Even in Italy only few know about the Bombardment of Ancona. Far from the main front, this Adriatic seaside town of central Italy became the setting of a battle between the Austrian and Italian navies immediately after Italy’s declaration of war in May 1915. This fact has something to do with a sea-factor that played an important role in the troubled process that led the Italian kingdom to the war against its former ally. We cannot forget that its 7000km coast was for sure on the top of the minds of Italian politicians while evaluating all the war options. And just to give you an idea about the total disconnection among the Italian government, his diplomatic corps spread in Europe and the highest echelon of its Army in the timeframe between the summer of 1914 and the spring of 1915 with Italy entering the war, you should consider this fact: in 1914 the general Luigi Cadorna was already preparing the war, but in the western border with France. You may read this and other important considerations about this period in the book by Gian Enrico Rusconi entitled “The Hazard of 1915” (L’azzardo del 1915), as far as we know one of the deepest analyses of Italy’s ten months of neutrality.

But let’s turn back to the city of Ancona in the years of the Great War, which is the core of a book by the military historian Claudio Bruschi, Ancona nella Grande Guerra (AE Edizioni, € 15, Even if you do not understand Italian you may be interested in this very informative book enriched with interesting photos. It gives evidence of the torpedo-armed motorboats (MAS) and dreadnoughts, of the first employment of submarines in this world war and of the use of submarines and seaplanes in the war theatre of Adriatic Sea. One of the merits of this study is to understand the delicate membrane between military history and history of civil population during the warfare in the peculiar case of a city lying close to the “water front” of the conflict. We often think about the Great War through the image of trenches in the mud and see it basically as a land war. This is true and the trench is by far the real protagonist of WWI imagery. But air and sea operations during those years demonstrate the huge potential they would have in a totally different war scenario, no later than twenty-five years after. 

(We thank Edizioni AE for giving us the permission to publish some images taken from the book).

"The Coming of the Great War": a symposium at National World War I Museum in Kansas City

Starting from the next year events, research projects and commemorative ceremonies will take place everywhere to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and we may run the risk of overdose if we do not wonder from time to time, why and how we are going to celebrate the centenary. Indeed everyone is free to shape a personal sense of the commemoration; yet it is a common wish to avoid at least all misconceptions or standardized judgment, especially regarding the historical examination of the causes of World War I, which represents even today a contentious subject and deserves therefore a new critical approach. The conflict emerged in fact from both a complex conjunction of concrete circumstances, each of which can be judged nor inevitable neither predominant, and a particular cultural climate of the prewar period. The compelling task of the modern historiography is therefore to link appropriately all these factors in a coherent canvas. 

This desideratum is at the center of an upcoming symposium hosted by the National World Museum of Kansas City on 8th and 9th November 2013, with the title "The Coming of the Great War". Organized by the World War One Historical Association, the conference considers the political, social, economical, cultural and military changes in the time-span 1870-1913. Esteemed scholars - including Gary Armstrong (William Jewell College), Ross Collins (University of North Dakota), Richard Hamilton (Ohio State University), Martha Hanna (University of Colorado), Holger Herwig (University of Calgary), John Kuehn and Nicholas Murray (Command and General Staff College), Michael Neiberg (U.S. War College), Pierre Purseigle (Yale University) and Michael Reynolds (Princeton University) - will come together to discuss the social unrest, the rising nationalism, the colonial rivalries and the rapid technological-industrial advances, which gave rise to an increasing international tension in the prewar environment and contributed then to unleash the conflict in 1914.

A detailed description of the conference and practical information can be found on the homepage of the symposium here.

Photos of animals in World War One: camel stories

Not only horses, pigeons or dogs. Also other animals were used during the First World War according to the different geographical and climatic conditions of the single fronts. If we think about the Sinai and the Palestine campaigns, for example, it is not hard to imagine that horses were not really the most suitable animals for a war in the desert. Camels were instead naturally adapted for the terrain and the climate, that’s why they were largely used during the WWI for service in the Middle East. When mentioning these animals in Great War the image that comes to mind might be that of the British Officer Thomas Edward Lawrence, in one of the sequences of the famous film “Lawrence of Arabia”. Yet, turning to the prosaic reality of the conflict, camels were the distinctive feature of  specials Corps raised since the beginning of the conflict to support the campaigns in the Sinai region. The most important one was probably the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade (four battalions from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand), who took part in different campaigns from 1616 till 1619 and even printed in Cairo its own review, entitled Barrak. But we cannot forget the Bikaner Camel Corps, a unit of the Indian Army that existed long before the WWI and was then used in warmer battlefields, especially in the region of the Suez Canal. On the other side of the front, also the Ottoman Army was provided with a Camel Regiment included in 1916 in the Hejaz Expeditionary Force.

Camels were slower than the horses, yet they required less rest on the march, were able to carry heavy loads (soldiers – the so called cameleers – including their equipments and other goods) and to walk for days without water. Camels were not only employed by the fighting troops on the front (however, only to get the soldiers to where they had to go; they usually fought then dismounted). These creatures served also in the zone behind the front, carrying water, ammunition and stores to the first line or conversely carrying the wounded from the battlefield to the hospitals, as we can see in the picture we choose today.