Friday, October 12, 2018


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Another scoop for the Patrick Finn Lecture Series in St. Mary's, Haddington Road.

At the risk of boring everyone to tears, I have to again draw attention to this series which has given us very high standard lectures over the past few years. And this is true whether you approach them from a Roman Catholic standpoint, as probably most do, or from a purely secular point of view, as I do myself.

Felix Larkin and Heather Jones

Tonight's lecture was no exception. The lecturer was Heather Jones, Professor of Modern and Contemporary European History at University College London. She is "a specialist in First World War studies and well known for her writings and occasional appearances on television programmes about the War". I learned from her that she is also very much a radio person and that by me is to her eternal credit.

Felix Larkin, who was in charge for the night, gave her a great introduction,

while she patiently waited to take the floor in this magnificent building. I gathered afterwards that she was suitably impressed by its magnificence and I can confirm that she did it justice with her lecture.

Her thesis was that World War One changed the pre-existing norms of war and she chose three areas in which to illustrate this.

First, Prisoners of War and how they were treated. The allies put their German POWs to work at the front instead of simply holding them in camps. The infuriated Germans went one better in their retaliation. They not only kept allied POWs at the eastern and western fronts but worked them hard and used them to deter allied artillery.

On top of that they got them to write home and explain that this treatment was in retaliation for how their own POWs were being treated by the allies. This led to pressure on the allied civil authorities to see that the practice was discontinued and the Germans then responded in kind.

Heather pointed out that not only can norms be transgressed but transgressions can, on occasions, be pulled back.

Second, the use of chemical weapons. This was the first war in which chemical weapons were used on an industrial scale. In fact everything about this war seems to have been on an industrial scale, including the casualties.

Heather pointed out that there were norms in relation to the use of chemicals, particularly in projectiles. Hence the use of canisters to get round this. She pointed out that actual deaths from gassing were "relatively modest" but many more were affected, some for life. And the use of gas horrified the civilian population, particularly after the war was over. This led to great efforts to get chemicals banned altogether. However, as we will see, developments on the third front tended to blunt this somewhat in the subsequent war.

Third, blockades. Heather's point here was that the blockades effectively opened the gates for the targeting of civilians in wartime.

The scale of these operations in WWI meant that whole populations were targeted. Attempts could be made, and were, to justify the scale and extent of the blockades.

With the introduction of conscription, every male of conscriptable age was a potential combatant, and the age range was continuously extended as supplies of manpower ran out.

Then there was the whole industrial scale thing. Anything feeding the "war industries" was a legitimate target for blockading and collateral damage to the "civilian" population was inevitably widespread.

And against all this background, why not specifically target the civilian population as well. And we all know where that led in WWII.

The above will hopefully give you an idea of what the lecture was about but it is only a crude teaser for a wide-ranging and nuanced presentation. I hope the lecture gets into print/online and we can all read and reflect on it at our leisure.

On to the Q&A and the second treat of the night. The questions were short and to the point, provoking extensive and nuanced answers, which when you added them all up, were the equivalent of a follow up lecture.

Themes picked up ranged from how deserters were dealt with, through Irish republican prisoners in Frongoch, to sure hadn't we always got blockades in history, so what's new here?

We were treated to the distinction between insurgents and traitors (hint: a foreign hostile state). We touched on the demands of internees for political status. We nuanced shell-shock into PTSD. And we reflected on going in tough to shorten the war and save more lives in the long run.

As you will gather, a very animated Q&A. And, having mentioned animation, I have to confess to having more photos of Heather in full flight but I can't use them. The are blurred. Not from bad focus but from not being able to capture Heather's animation in the available lighting. The consolation prize was Heather's enthusiasm for her subject and the reflections this provoked among the attendance.

At the end of the day, this lecture is an evergreen. It is dealing with ethics which are still relevant today both in theatres of "war" and outside of them.

I have to confess that my mind wandered from time to time, not from boredom, but from resonances of WWII, Vietnam and Iraq.

In this case, my not paying proper attention in class was actually a compliment to teacher.

Heather and Felix - again

A great night. Thank you Heather.

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