Just last week, I visited Sir Hew Strachan at All Souls College, where he holds the University's only chair in military history, the Chichele Professor of the History of War. He’s one of the world's leading authorities on the history of the First World War, which has turned 2014 — the centenary of its outbreak — into a mad dash. Just fresh from filming a snippet with a Russian film crew, he notes four projects with the BBC, amid so many more, plus an enormous variety of national committee roles on the Centenary (English, Scottish and French) and some giant events forthcoming — such as the Westminster Abbey service that will be held on the actual centenary, August 4.
Lucky to be in front of him at all, we start by taking some portraits in the so-called Smoking Room, against the backdrop of portraits of seven fellows from All Souls who gave their lives to the conflict (All Souls has no undergraduates of course). While I allow Rob Judges, the photographer, to organise the shot, I notice T.E. Lawrence's portrait, away from the other victims of the Great War. Personally, I think of him as a victim of the war even though it didn't directly kill him. Seeing my interest, Sir Hew takes me next door and shows me an unusual Lawrence portrait by Eric Kennington; and over in the distance, hanging above a conversation between another Fellow and a graduate student, the very, very famous drawing of him by Augustus John — just hanging there, innocently and discretely. How very Oxford!
Returning to his rooms, which are suitably splendid, we settle down to a discussion of Great War scholarship and the meaning of the Centenary. Strachan has referred to 2014 as a 'third spike' in scholarship about the war. The first was the 1930s; the second the 1960s, aroused partly by the fiftieth anniversary. The second was notable for being very emotive — typically dissenting views about the point of it all — and largely unfounded in archival terms, for the very good reasons that the archives were still closed off.
For the torrent of output in 2014 — over a thousand books are being published! — you'd think that there was nothing left to be said, but Sir Hew disagrees. He says that there is lots we don't know about Russia, about the Ottoman Empire, and about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all situations where archives have not yet been systematically mined, even by local scholars. The impediment remains language: you need to have mastered over a dozen to properly crack Austro-Hungary. Very few scholars have done so, possibly with the exception of Norman Stone, formerly at Oxford and today a Professor in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara.
Sir Hew's broader goal is to connect the local up with the global. He notes a wonderful, but resolutely local, initiative in which one of so many local community war memorials had been fleshed out in digital form so school children could click on one of the names and find a whole wealth of additional information about the family, the man in question, how he died, for which unit, where, and so forth. Yet, from Sir Hew's perspective, there were a dozen further questions that went unanswered: did this or that community have a disproportionate connection to the land war or the naval conflict? How did the casualty rate compare to other UK communities and other countries? What did it mean culturally, and after the war, that these men had fought in, say, Mesopotamia, to name but one of dozens of non-trench settings?
The broad thrust of his efforts, then, both in writing and in various initiatives, is to push the need to connect up what hitherto has been an almost absurdly local, parochial view of the war, and connect it to a broader, more global understanding. In his very excellent book, also a TV series, The First World War, one chapter about the Ottoman empire's role in the war is aptly named 'Jihad'.