Armistice Day in France

This past Sunday was Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War in 1918. France celebrates 11 November each year with a series of ceremonies commemorating the dead of La Grande Guerre, as the First World War is often known. This commemoration is arguably much more important in France than it has ever been in the United States, where it is now celebrated as Veteran’s Day, since France suffered many more deaths, in addition to the occupation of parts of northern France and the devastation of the Western Front.

This year’s celebration of 11 November is different, however. Last year, the Nicolas Sarkozy government decided to expand the celebrations « en hommage à tous les morts pour la France ». So, the ceremonies will now commemorate all French veterans killed in any wars, not just the fallen of La Grand Guerre. The new François Hollande government has chosen to continue with this new model and celebrated 11 November with the expanded symbolic format more similar to the American Veteran’s Day.

Libération and Le Monde report on the 11 November ceremonies.  Some commentators and politicians have criticized the new ceremonies as obscuring the importance of the First World War and its horrifying legacy of trench combat and attrition warfare.

In addition to the controversy surrounding this year’s ceremonies, questions have been raised about amnesties for French soldiers who were executed during the war, especially during the army mutinies of 1917. Some individual soldiers’ cases have been reviewed, leading to rehabilitations, but some want a general amnesty for all French soldiers. Le Monde reports on one of the soldiers.

The French Armistice Day commemoration reminds us how important it is for historians of war and society to look beyond the history of American involvement in warfare. European and global perspectives often offer strikingly different understandings of the experience of war.

Armistice Day also highlights an important scholarly debate over the historical memory of the First World War has been raging for over a decade, since the publication of Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The current controversies over 11 November in France will certainly add to this expanding debate, which has been dominated by historians using cultural methods. Historians of war and society could be more active in contributing to our understanding of the historical memory of the First World War and other past wars that continue to be commemorated.

What’s This “Early Modern” of Which You Speak?

So where does someone who self-identifies as an “early modern European military historian” start? Ah yes, “early modern.” (Don’t you worry, Clausewitz and Trenchard, you’ll get yours eventually.)

How to define “early modern”? Not easy. Historians necessarily divide up the past into discrete-ish periods for convenience, and hopefully we have some reason behind our madness. But historians can’t agree on what’s the best kind of madness, which means there are competing interpretations of what ‘early modern’ means. Heck, historians have been arguing over periodization since at least the Renaissance and Petrarch’s “Dark Ages” As it turns out, in a recent ‘open peer-review’ online article Newton Key points out that the very term “early modern” really only caught on c. 1970, and then primarily among English-speaking historians. Despite its subsequent recognition in the U.S., few can agree on when exactly it was.

It doesn’t help that the sub-periods which “early modern” is supposedly composed of themselves overlap in confusing ways: Italy’s artistic Renaissance might have begun in the mid-14th century, England’s Renaissance is said to extend well into the 17th century, while women may not have had a Renaissance at all. Reformation historians, for their part, feel comfortable looking back into the 15th century and some argue the Counter-Reformation continued well into the 18th. The forlorn 17th century generally lacks any kind of modern designation whatsoever, other than the vague appellation of “Baroque,” or a generalized period of “crisis.”

How far back the Ancien Régime (or Old Regime) extends is up for debate; the extent to which it coincides with the Enlightenment is yet another question I’ll bring up only to ignore. Fortunately, there’s a bit more consensus as to when the early modern period ends, with the dawn of the French Revolution. But historians are an argumentative lot, which means that they frequently ignore these artificial boundaries: some scholars insist on the early modern parallels with the ‘modern’ era of revolutions, while other scholars talk about the long 18th century (c. 1688 to 1815/1830). With so many countries and so many subjects of study, feel free to draw your own boundaries. Somebody will undoubtedly disagree with you.

So I hope I will be forgiven for not insisting on too strict of a time frame when describing early modern European military history. Anyone familiar with the standard narrative presented in History of War 101 (and the wars of the period 1450-1800 in particular) already knows the traditional time frame: from Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 to the eve of 1789 and the momentous changes ushered in by the French Revolution. Inevitably, recent historians have sought to breach the walls between the periods, insisting that neither Charles VIII nor Napoleon were all that revolutionary. We can leave that discussion for a later day – for now it’s just worth remembering that there are many different understandings of when ‘early modern’ was.

The result, as I see it, is a field of early modern European military history segmented into three broad eras, usually grouped around the constellation of wars at their center:
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The Cultural History of War

“The cultural history of war, then, is here to stay.”  So concluded Rob Citino in an impressive historiographical essay, which can be considered the first major article of military history to be published in a generation by the American Historical Review, the flagship academic journal in the historical discipline in the United States. [Robert M. Citino, “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction,” American Historical Review 112 (October 2007): 1070-1090.]

Citino cites John A. Lynn’s Battle, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton’s The Dominion of War, and Isabel V. Hull’s Absolute Destruction as providing exemplary new histories of warfare utilizing cultural history approaches. [John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, Colo., 2003); Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500–2000 (New York, 2005); Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca, N.Y., 2005).]

The same year that Citino published his AHR article, Wayne E. Lee similarly underlined the importance of cultural approaches to warfare. Lee has gone on to publish two fascinating collective volumes on the cultural history of war. [Wayne E. Lee, “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field,” The Journal of American History 93 (2007): 1116-1142; Wayne E. Lee, ed., Warfare and Culture in World History (New York: NYU Press, 2011); Empires and Indigenes: Intercultural Alliance, Imperial Expansion, and Warfare in the Early Modern World (New York: NYU Press, 2011).]

As a practitioner of the cultural history of warfare, I am certainly glad to see the outpouring of cultural histories of warfare in various time periods and geographic regions. But, I also wonder why it has taken so long for historians of warfare to embrace cultural approaches to the study of war, an all too common human activity.
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