Dr Tomás Irish joined the Department of History and Classics at Swansea University in September 2015. In this post, he explains his research interests….
I am a cultural historian of the First World War with a particular interest in how intellectuals and universities engaged in the 1914-18 conflict, primarily in Britain, France, and the United States. Universities are especially fascinating institutions to study in this period as they had deep connections to national, international, but also local communities, and as such they afford an opportunity to simultaneously examine the changes wrought by the Great War from a number of different perspectives.
Writing in 1917, the British historian and politician H.A.L. Fisher described the war as a ‘battle of brains’, and this was especially visible at universities, where all forms of knowledge, from the humanities to the natural sciences, were mobilized as part of the war effort. Scholarly knowledge became much sought after as the war increased in scope and by 1915 whole societies – their economies, industries, culture – were being mobilized by national governments in order to win the war. Chemists and physicists began applying their expertise to weaponry. Sociologists managed the munitions effort. Historians and philosophers wrote propaganda. Geographers and legal scholars advised their nations in advance of the post-war settlement. My makes an important contribution to debates about the changing nature of warfare and the emergence of ‘total war’.
The scholarly world was internationally networked by 1914, with scholars attending international conferences, publishing in international journals, boasting friends in foreign institutions and making – often problematic – claims to scholarly universalism. This broke down in 1914 following the German invasion of Belgium, the destruction of the library at the University of Louvain and other atrocities, and the staunch denials issued by German intellectuals of any wrongdoing by the German army. In France and Britain, where many felt that Germany was waging war on culture, formal links and exchanges ceased with German universities, and in many cases this bitterness and polarization would continue well into the 1920s, meaning that while the war itself had ended in 1918, its cultural manifestation continued at an international level. In this respect, my research addresses the tension between national and international identities, their fluctuation in wartime, and the consequences of this for scholarship.
Identity is a crucial element of my work. Scholarly identity was complex: frequently, it was a combination of national, institutional, and disciplinary affinities. This was especially apparent at individual universities, which themselves formed intimate communities. Universities were decimated by the war, with the majority of students and younger staff commissioned as junior officers, and thus suffering a higher death rate than their wider population. In wartime, universities became sites of grief and mourning, where their usual functions rendered impossible by the general absence of students and the impositions of the state.
In sum, my research shows the growing scope of warfare in 1914-18 and highlights the challenges faced by scholars at the time as they confronted the difficult and often contradictory impulses which came as a consequence of being members of scholarly communities which were simultaneously local, national, and international.