Why do I write about wars?

Some readers of this blog will perhaps be mystified that someone who describes himself as a ‘socialist’ and a ‘humanist’ should have spent so much time researching and writing about war. The answer is simple – I start from family history: yours, mine, everyone’s. That means engaging with the real lives and experiences of (largely) working-class people and their labouring poor forebears. It is a sad fact from the past that it is just such people who most consistently provide the cannon fodder and, increasingly in our supposedly civilised modern times, the civilian targets and victims.

The civilian victims never have the chance to volunteer, though sometimes the soldiers, sailors and airmen have done. One of my maternal ancestors, William Martin, was a regular in the Royal Marines during the Napoleonic Wars and for some time afterwards. My grandfather’s step-father, John McGlasson, joined the Border Regiment as a young man and served in Ireland, India and Burma in the 1880s. My grandfather, Thomas Bashforth, volunteered on 31 August 1914 and lost his life on 27 March 1918. His widow’s second husband, John Neary, also served voluntarily in WW1. My father, Ray Bashforth, and all his brothers were called up for WW2, though my uncle, Tom Bashforth, was already a seaman in the Royal Navy and Dad was in the Territorial Army (as was my mother’s first husband, Joe Hinnigan). My half brother served in the Air Force after being made redundant when he finished his apprenticeship as an electrician. One of my nephews had a career in the Royal Navy. It is a fairly common pattern of working-class life, so I write about it from that point of view in a relatively matter-of-fact, non-judgemental way, avoiding arcane discussions about military tactics, strategy, weaponry and international diplomacy or the lack thereof.

Personally I believe that the loss of one working-class life in any way, anywhere, for any purpose is a total waste – I’m with the late WW1 veteran, Harry Patch, on that. I can just about stomach some occasions when armed resistance is the only possible response: for example, the resistance to the military uprising in Spain in 1936 that sparked the Spanish Civil War, so I am not an absolute pacifist. I also understand to a degree why young men volunteered in 1914, much more so why there was little problem in 1939 for those wanting to oppose what was presented as a fight against fascism, and even why young men and women continue to sign up for the armed forces today. Politically I couldn’t willingly follow their example and definitely not for anything approaching ‘patriotic’ motives. That does not stop me grieving for those who continue to lose their lives and for the horrors perpetrated on, for example, the victims of gas attacks in Syria or drone attacks in the mountains of Afganistan and Pakistan. Rather, it underpins that grief and links to my own.

As someone who would wish for a very different world from the one that we live in, I want change and I want that change to come about by peaceful, non-violent means, through people becoming convinced in their minds and hearts that a better world is possible and having the confidence to strike out for it.

However, as a historian, I write about the past, not the future, though I do so conscious of the world we live in now and the world I would prefer. Don’t expect me to be ‘objective’! And that applies equally to the pursuit of other areas of historical enquiry than wars, on which I actually spend most of my time.

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4 thoughts on “Why do I write about wars?

  1. Thanks for an – as usual – thought-provoking post. Do you know where did the phrase “cannon fodder” came from? A brief google produced nothing very informative. My own first encounter with the term was my midwife mother’s description of what she had heard about her own mother’s first confinement in October 1914. Owing to my grandmother’s rickety pelvis (deformed thanks to childhood malnutrition and lack of sunlight in a very polluted industrial village), her first confinement was very prolonged and the son born to her (my mother’s elder brother) was brain-damaged as a result. My grandmother drifted out of chloroform anaesthesia to hear the doctor say “This one’ll not make cannon fodder.” I’ve wondered about the term ever since.

    • Thanks for the comment Mary. The sentiment surrounding ‘cannon fodder’ is as at least as old as Shakespeare, so it seems to have been around as long as cannon. He puts the phrase ‘food for powder’ into the mouth of one of his characters in Henry IV part 1. The French writer, Chateaubriand, is accredited with the first use of the phrase as such in 1814: ‘la chair a canon’, using the French word for ‘flesh’ or ‘meat’. Thanks to Wikipaedia for that, I have to admit, supported by a good French dictionary!

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