Sunday, 18 October 2015

Britain Goes To War: Introduction. The Prologue, The Pitch and The Plan.

Well, that was tense. After much stress and concern over how you would all react, the very first few actual episodes of the series have been released, with the third one out tomorrow. What did everyone think? I would like to believe that even though we started by looking at Queen Victoria and didn't look much deeper than that, that you are still at least somewhat intrigued as to where we're going to go next. In this post here I'm basically going to run through the points that I mentioned in the three intro episodes, mostly so that it feels more condensed to you guys and so that you get another insight into why I did what I did. So without further ado...

A) The Prologue

No, we're not becoming the Twilight Histories Podcast, and although I really did appreciate Jordan Harbour's kind words, I would like to address the feelings and worries I'm sure some of you had when you listened to the very un-WDF prologue episode for this project. The entire episode itself was meant to startle you, from the shocking revelation at the end, that it really was me who in fact had been guiding you through the gallery this whole time, to the beginning rendition of Auld Lang Syne that ended so abruptly in a gunshot, and was designed to resemble you awaking from a bad dream. Did you understand the metaphors? That gallery was essentially my podcast; that gallery was When Diplomacy Fails, and each of its episodes was represented in that gallery by a painting, a statue or a piece of furniture. Some episodes were more weighty or were composed of multiple parts, so I like to imagine that if you'd seen the larger episodes visualised in the gallery they would have more items there to represent them, while the smaller, or perhaps older episodes would have less. Anyway, so you were that person, you were the guy selected by me, the curator of the gallery, to go on this journey. Why? You don't know yet, in fact the episode ended without it being revealed exactly why it was that the curator cared so much to do all this and involve so heavily in the first place. Perhaps he never will, or perhaps your interactions with the curator have not yet come to an end? Watch this space...

If you felt as though you could imagine the society of 1897 then I will consider it a job well done. I completely appreciate that such a narrative wasn't what you were expecting to start you off. Perhaps you expected something that would jar you, but still give you all of the facts. Perhaps you anticipated something with less flair and more substance. Perhaps you wished you were in the Palace of Versailles, about to meet Louis XIV in person and not about to reside in the era you feel you know so well already. Whatever your feelings after listening to it, I am of course open to tips, opinions and other helpful nuggets to improve any such episodes I attempt in the future.

Everything, even down to the voices of the curator and 'you', were lovingly recorded numerous times for proper pitch and feel. While that might sound incredible considering how awful that accent was, I feel like it was a necessary thing to do, or else you would surely have been far too confused over the whole thing's direction. Your transportation to London in 2012 as well as 1897 was meant to feel like a strange experience. Though it wasn't as atmospheric as I might have liked, it still felt far different to anything I had made before. Even while I was recording and editing it - heck even while I was writing it, I knew that this prologue had to be a very different thing to the rest of the project. It just seemed like the right thing to do, to introduce our project with a bang, but a somewhat vague bang that would leave you wanting more afterwards.

The incredible contrasts between the reigns and world of that of Victoria and Elizabeth II warranted comparison or at least mention, I felt, because it would help to understand, by seeing their major differences, just how much Britain had really changed. While it might sound obvious to us that Britain would change so much in 115 years, what is important to remember is that to Britons of 1897, theirs was not an Empire that suggested changing into what we know it to be now. How could Britons possible have known that the next time a diamond jubilee occurred, Britain would be without her Empire and would be, for all intents and purposes, just another power in the world. It seemed an unimaginable climbdown from what had characterised the British experience in the years gone by.

Queen Victoria at her Coronation, 22nd June 1837. 

Queen Victoria photographed after the parade and celebrations of her diamond jubilee had come to an end on 22nd June 1897. Even the very fact that both portraits were taken using vastly different technologies serves as a testament to the era that Victoria ruled in.

By contrast, here is the photograph of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1952. The regalia is mostly the same as before, but few could have predicted just how different she would be from her predecessor. 

Ruling in a different age meant that Elizabeth II will likely be remembered for her calm control and handling of the breakup of the Empire across the world in the 50's, 60's and 70's. Hers was a necessary conviction: that Britain's time for rule in foreign lands had come to an end, but had she possessed such convictions in the time of her great-great grandmother then posterity's view of her would likely be very different. Here she is pictured at her own diamond jubilee. Since writing she has surpassed Victoria's record for longest serving monarch.

Why is it important to denote the differences between 1897 and 2012? Place yourself in the shoes of the character you played in the prologue episode. If you had been transported through time, into a future where buildings you recognised and a history and culture you felt was familiar was still in place, but that its apparatus, its power and its influence was dramatically different, then you would want to know why. Anyone would. To reach the answer we are met with a number of challenges. These I conveniently skirted around by taking the obvious route - since the curator was me, I could state that the 'curator' had described a method by which we could basically place the course of British history from 1897 onwards into boxes. That involved defining a peak, a stagnant period and a decline. Since you were merely "listening to the curator" I was allowed to make such assertions without having to defend myself. I was able to state that, of these three periods, it was the peak, from 1897 to the outbreak of the First World War, that is the most critical to explain Britain's decline and fall from the top of the world's food chain.

Am I wrong? I would challenge anyone to define a period that had more impact on the fall of the Empire than this one. Of course the obvious solution is to simply say that the war was to blame for the decline. Yet, when firefighters arrive at the scene of a disaster, they don't simply note that fire was to blame and carry on with their lives. For the most part investigators are called in to determine why the fire started and who was to blame for the catastrophe. It is much the same with history - I am bombarded with information about wars and how they changed civilisation. But I wouldn't be much good at my passions and my hobby if I simply noted that war was to blame for such changes. There is more to the fire than just the flames, just like there is more to history than just the wars. I could launch into another narrative of the First World War and examine therein how Britain showed signs of declining here, here and here, or how after this battle it was never the same etc. You don't want that because it is mostly leading you to an obvious conclusion: that it was a great war which dramatically transformed the British Empire and its place in the world. Instead, you want to know why Britain insisted on fighting the war, how  it reached such a desperate decision and where peace no longer became an option. You would want to know who had made the decisions, pulled the levers and created the problems. You would want to make sure that you began your investigation at the right place. That is where I come in.

Essentially, this project is one great work of investigation. We are investigating what Britain was like before WW1. We are investigating why Britain traversed the path that it did. We are investigating who placed Britain towards the path that led to the war and its ultimate collapse. We are investigating if things could have taken a different course; we will also examine the more controversial debate over whether they should have. In short, the prologue was a taste of what's the come. I won't be confronting you with galleries and mysterious curators - not exactly - instead I'll be confronting you with questions, with characters and issues that you did not know where relevant, but which you'll come to see as critical to establishing a true understanding of the era of 1897-1914. Hopefully I didn't scare you off taking the journey with me!

B) The Pitch

Is this the most important question in early modern history? Is it the most important question in all of British history? Is it something you give very little thought to yourself? Would you define British history as more directly impacted by the events of the Second world war, and the events that occurred beyond that? Have you ever spared a thought for what might have been had Britain not entered the First World War? Was Britain's participation in the war worth it in the grand scheme of things, for European civilisation, or was it a terrible mistake? Did their participation in the end make any real difference to the outcome, or would WW1 have progressed exactly as it did even without British involvement? Was there a better path Britain could have chosen in summer 1914; did it ever had the option to choose or was it simply under the influence of fate? Would any option have lessened the decline any moreso than the path Britain did take?

I could go on. These are all questions which flare up again and again when studying the period. Taken individually, I feel they are all of critical importance because they help us look at the whole subject objectively and from the point of view of an investigator, who has to use the evidence he has on hand to decipher the clues and acquire the answer. Some historians have suggested that, as individuals that investigate the period, we're still too close to it emotionally to be capable of making clear and unbiased judgments about its origins, impact or value. It is only in a few more generations, when the final vestiges of the remembering generations are long gone, that we can truly examine the period from an objective pedestal. Whatever your opinion on that, you at least have to consider the era in question: 1897-1914. It is a period which, in my view, contains the most important figures, events, issues, ideas and changes in British history. Perhaps because we still can feel and point to its effects today, I genuinely believe that this overstudied era remains critically important - not just to understand our history, but to understand human behaviour and the complexities and concerns that constitute it.

So this podcast is justified; it will tackle the questions raised in the first paragraph like you've never seen before. It will place you in the era in a way you've never experienced before. It will grab you, challenge you, astound you and make you hungrier to investigate the era moreso than ever before. Furthermore, it will hopefully satisfy you; it will make you feel as though you understand and appreciate what went on a century before. It will make you care, care like you never thought you could, about people and issues that no longer have any apparent relevance, but which, whether you live in Britain or Bolivia, in actual fact shaped your life from the ground up, because you were born into this - this post-war era that your ancestors helped to create. You cannot change what they have done, but you can wrap your head around why they did it. That is my hope.

So this is a window into the era of 1897-1914, though we will certainly be backtracking a tad for the sake of setting the scene. For example, you can't very talk about the Boer War of 1899-1902 without looking at the First Boer War of 1881-82. You can't talk about British politics without looking at the major figures of the mid-19th century that established its founding principles. You can't examine the nuances of the Anglo-Russian relationship without first looking at why it came to be so. All roads to do not lead to WW1, far from it, yet, unless you have walked along these roads with me, I feel the war itself is nearly impossible to explain. So many aspects of the era require understanding, and unless I place them in context, there's very little point in looking at the actual war at all.

Time to put faces to the names of the historians that I regularly consult. This is Christopher Clark, author of the incredible Sleepwalkers and a great man for changing the way we think about the era.

This is William Mulligan, Irish author of numerous WW1 origins articles and my thesis supervisor. It was his idea for me to examine the code of honour and how it impacted Britain in 1914.

John Charmley, author of Splendid Isolation and a major reason why I began this project. His aforementioned book is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the field.

This is Max Hastings, who you'll remember as the author of numerous WW2 books, but who more recently has dabbled in some WW1 history. He passionately argues that Britain's entry into the First World War was a necessary evil, and that the results which came from it were worth the cost.

Niall Ferguson, well-known author of numerous British history books. His book The Pity of War was a major reason why I felt revisiting WW1 was necessary in my own way.

Sean McMeekin, author of July 1914 which I heavily utilised during my research for the July Crisis Project in summer 2014. His other work The Russian Origins of the First World War is also, as you can tell from the title, massively revisionist and has drawn many notable responses as a result.

Thomas (T.G.) Otte, whose works on July 1914 and varied articles really changed the game over the origins debate. He also writes extensively on British history.

So yes, I am the curator of this gallery. This gallery is my podcast, and all of the photos and paintings represent the varied episodes in which we examined other stories of wars. Within all of those I gave you a beginning, middle and end. I armed you with the knowledge you needed to make sense of the era in question. The First World War, because it is so significant, so defining and so important in human history, requires the repetition of this formula, but on a grander scale. That's why I'm doing this whole project, really. But of course, I have more selfish reasons for undertaking it too...

C) The Plan

I don't feel like the era has been properly appreciated. I also don't feel like I've given it the coverage I'm capable of. These two factors, combined with the fact that I recently completed my MA and am thus armed with the recent resources I had access to and immersed myself in, I feel like this is the best time to revisit the era I only last year brought you to. If I leave it behind now I feel like I will forever regret it. As much as love all shades of history, WW1 and the world that housed it will always possess a certain appeal to me. While it may be well and good to say that I, myself, enjoy the era will very much enjoy this project, I can appreciate that looking back at it even closer than before isn't necessarily something you want to see or hear. You don't want to sound ungrateful, but you were, after all, promised Louis XIV last spring - something that hasn't been offered in podcast format yet and something that you were very much eager to experience.

Louis XIV, as I keep having to remind myself, isn't going anywhere. The reason why I felt obliged to jump into this project, on the other hand, is because I have the advantages of thinking and feeling as though I'm still in MA dissertation mode - this means the era is fresher in my head than it would've been if I'd gone back to it in a year or two's time. What that means for you is that the project itself should flow and listen better than most. You should feel like it's better structured, better realised, than previous efforts. The benefits of having done the dissertation is that I had to really immerse myself in the era to understand the code of honour properly; while doing so I came across so many great stories, so many frankly hilarious people and characters, as well as many under-explored and underrated issues - the code of honour itself for example - that I felt history itself as a discipline necessitated me revisiting it.

I accept that you may be reading this now and thinking 'well that sucks, guess I'll give WDF a break for a year then', but I would implore you to stick around. The last thing you should do is leave because you feel like it'll be more of the same. So much of this is newly researched, newly developed content. I'd say about 10% of it will be stuff that you can directly remember from the July Crisis Project, since even the way I'll be approaching that in #3 will be different. So, what are my aims?

Well, as I said in BGTW #1 A) III; number 1 is to get you more interested in the era, so that you feel for the characters and can better understand their struggles, number 2 is to rebuild the era in your minds, so that you understand the genesis of its issues and problems from a contextual standpoint. Number 3 is closer to my heart, I want you all to be able to experience Britain’s political and diplomatic crises from 1897-1914 as the British statesman himself experienced them; this means we won’t be giving much attention to other states unless I feel it’s necessary for background info, but that instead the British Empire will be our lead protagonist. Number 4, I want to give you a fresh interpretation of why Britain went to war, since I have heard and read many accounts of that event since the July Crisis Project, and I feel revisiting one of the most pivotal actors within it is not just justified, it is necessary. Finally, in number 5  I want to show what might have been, and this feeds into the layout of the project that I’ll explain in a minute, but I want to demonstrate that Britain’s entry into the war was neither necessary or beneficial to the British, and that the other avenues they could have taken may have landed their empire in a far better position for the rest of the century.

Of course this is ambitious, some might even say crazy and unrealistic. But just as before, and with nearly everything else I do here, I ask for you patience and support. It has already been fantastic. Thanks so much to all of you for the donations; you know who you are, whether it's a one off donation or you availed of the newer monthly payment options, all of it goes a long way. While I would love to work less and podcast more, reality means that I cannot give this podcast all the time I want. Though I'm simply not as brave as Jamie Redfern, who recently announced that he'll be becoming a professional podcaster to fund his PhD, the financial assistance I get from you guys is an important pillar of support, because it helps me believe that I can do this and make enough money to perhaps ask for less hours in work. It all makes a difference. You may also notice that the FB page has been a tad quiet, and that aside from the actual episode being diligently released every Monday, Zack seems suprisingly quiet as of late. All will be revealed soon enough my history friend, but suffice to say I have been rather busy!

As always, if you have any question, please don't hesitate to contact me. I do my best with replying to emails, but I always love seeing them appear in the inbox regardless. Please continue to rate us and review us on iTunes, we're doing well at the moment on the History category. Also your support for the FB has been swell too! So keep spreading the word; that despite everything, Zack just hasn't got the hint and continues to torture his listeners with WW1!

Thanksssss! :)

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