‘Après Moi, Le Déluge’ [1]: Redressing the Wartime and Postwar Mythologization of Operation Chastise in Britain

‘Germany started a foul war, and we’ve got to show them we can be as foul and a lot more foul.’

Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s blunt reflection on the culmination of Operation ‘Chastise’ – better known as the ‘Dambusters’ raid – perfectly encapsulates its most sparkling achievement: reinvigorating Britain’s fighting spirit as the tide of war began to turn. Undertaken in the tense early hours between 16-17 May 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, based at R.A.F. Scampton in Lincolnshire, cracked open the Möhne and Eder dams located within Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley (Ruhrgebiet) in North-Rhine Westphalia. This ‘disaster in the West’, as Adolf Hitler put it, unleashed 336 million tonnes of water from both dams onto the communities below.  Reconstructing the two major reservoirs required the diversion of 20,000 Organization Todt labourers away from building the Atlantic wall – a German coastal defence system closing off occupied Europe from the Allies – and halted the production of electricity within the Waffenschmiede des Reiches (‘armoury of the Reich’) for two weeks.  This constituted a considerable militaristic victory for the weary British, but more importantly shook the Nazi leadership to its core and substantially boosted Britain’s home-front morale.


Fig 1: Zerstörte Möhnetalsperre: The Möhne dam and surrounding areas lie in ruins after being destroyed by 617 Squadron, 17 May 1943 (Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons)

Its protagonists were quickly immortalised in the wartime press and became firmly stitched into the fabric of British mythology. The story of 617 Squadron’s astounding low-flying prowess, combined with Sir Barnes Wallis’ ingenious Upkeep mine (‘bouncing bomb’), proved exceptionally popular when the nation harped back to its wartime identity during the Cold War. An emergence of gripping personal histories recounting the raid – such as Gibson’s posthumous autobiography Enemy Coast Ahead (1946) and Paul Brickhill’s lively narrative account The Dam Busters (1951) – particularly captured the post-war public’s imagination. The Times even described the latter’s work as having ‘endowed a single air raid with a mythological status it has never lost’ in his obituary.  Brickhill’s best-selling account soon inspired Michael Anderson’s cinematic portrayal of the operation in The Dam Busters (1955). Purporting to recount the raid ‘as it happened’, the historical inaccuracies peppered throughout the classic film do not appear to have diminished its continued popularity among the British public.  Its iconic ‘Dambusters March’ has featured in everything from Proms in the Park to the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, and the media hype which surrounds Peter Jackson’s recent pledge to re-make the 1955 film illustrates our country’s enduring fascination with the Dambusters.

The main historiographical debate on the raid revolves around its genuine impact on the Nazi war machine. Intriguingly, its most vocal critics have often been men of airpower. One of the R.A.F.’s official historians, Noble Frankland – a former Navigator with 50 Squadron during the war – described its results as having been ‘neither of ‘fundamental importance nor even seriously damaging’.  His reasoning pointed to the delay in customising the earmarked Lancasters with Wallis’ Upkeep technology; the restriction of the force to twenty bombers; and, most crucially, the disregarding of the Ministry of Economic Warfare (M.E.W.)’s advice to prioritise the Sorpe dam over the Eder.  Wing Commander Tim Webster suggested that wartime propaganda ‘may have led to overstatement of [the raid’s] success’, and the retired U.S. Air Force colonel Doug Dildy deemed the loss of 53 men to have been ‘prohibitively high’.  The nation’s immediate perceptions of the raid, however, are often rooted within the work of military enthusiasts and popular TV historians. Dan Snow has claimed that the failure of ‘Chastise’ to stop German war production indefinitely was its only drawback, whilst James Holland asserted that critiquing the significance of ‘Chastise’ is ‘absolute nonsense of the first order’.

Nevertheless, a lack of academic moderation has arguably elicited several historiographical issues to be addressed. Firstly, ‘Chastise’ historians rarely engage with the arguments of their colleagues. Holland, for instance, simply claimed that there have been ‘only two significant works on the Dams Raid in the past thirty years’ without specifying them.   Secondly, the raid’s cultural history remains barely discussed: from satirical cartoons to humorous adverts, many fascinating post-war sources documenting how the mythology of the raid was established have been underutilized. The raid’s social repercussions are also often forgotten, with historians having overlooked the immense distress of the families of missing or killed Dambusters caused by post-war rumours that the Nazis had murdered them.  Thirdly, the neglection of German historiography has meant the disagreement of certain German historians on how many drowned in the resulting Flutblitz (flash flood) has gone undiscussed: 1,579 according to Ralf Blank, 1,069 (and 225 missing) for Helmuth Euler, and 1,300 dead for Jörg Friedrich.  Rarely do British historians note that the German newspapers which claimed that ‘Jews [were] behind the attacks on the dams’ –another opportunity for Joseph Goebbels to justify ‘taking [the] Jews into custody’ – stemmed from an English newspaper’s false claim that a German-Jewish engineer was behind the raid.

Yet even German historians have critiqued the less palatable aspects of ‘Chastise’ whilst retaining admiration for- as even Friedrich, a highly vocal critic of Allied bombing, has claimed – ‘the most brilliant operation ever executed by an air force’.  So, what has prevented their British counterparts from doing the same thing? My research does not venture too far into the long-standing debate regarding the raid’s militaristic value. The continued national fondness towards the operation is testimony to its success in boosting British morale, whilst the fact that Albert Speer’s post-raid report ‘made a deep impression on the Führer’ illustrates that ‘Chastise’ lived up to its name.  Rather, it aims to determine whether the wartime and post-war mythology of Operation Chastise has hindered the objectivity and research interests of its British historians. Jonathan Falconer, for instance, noted that Brickhill’s narrative history instilled ‘a passion for the exploits of Guy Gibson and his dam busters’ within him and many other boys of his generation.  Yet it appears that focussing solely on its operation minutia has simplified the complex – and often tragic – repercussions of this legendary raid. I wish to ask, as a proud “Bomber County” native myself, whether it is time to set our selective memory straight.

Victoria Taylor

MRes History student, University of Hull.

For any questions or feedback, you can find me on Twitter at @SpitfireFilly or e-mail me at v.e.taylor@2013.hull.ac.uk.

[1] ‘Après Moi, Le Déluge’ (‘After Me, The Flood’) was chosen by King George VI to be 617 Squadron’s official motto after a Royal visit to R.A.F. Scampton on 27 May 1943.



Playing the Numbers Game

Maths has never been my strong point. Since leaving school, and beyond the basics required to get by in life, I have done everything possible to avoid the subject and its baffling world of logarithms, algebra and the dreaded trigonometry (the mere mention of the terms sine, cosine and tangent still brings me out in a cold sweat). So it may seem strange then that the methodology I adopted for my history PhD thesis required me to play the numbers game once again.

One of the key objectives of my research was to evaluate perceptions of, and reactions to, crime and criminality in Hull and East Yorkshire during the interwar period. My primary resource was the local newspapers produced throughout this period, specifically the Hull Daily Mail. My plan was to carry out a detailed content analysis of articles, features, editorials, comment pieces and letters to the editor in these newspapers. But the period under analysis was 21 years long and featured approximately 6,500 editions. As is often the case with media content analyses, the solution was to select a sample from the whole – but the sample, of course, needs to be as ‘representative’ as possible. And this was where the fun (and sleepless nights) started.

As anyone who has tackled sampling in research knows, there is no shortage of techniques out there. You can use simple random sampling, stratified sampling, convenience sampling, cluster sampling etc. etc. But it is your source material, as well as your research objectives, that will determine which is the most appropriate technique to use. After extensive research into all the options, I came across a methodology called ‘constructed week sampling’ that had been tested and used successfully in the content analysis of newspapers and a range of weekly and monthly publications. For this technique you need to identify all Mondays in the population and select one randomly, followed by all Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays etc. until a full week has been ‘constructed’, ensuring that every day of the week (Monday to Saturday in the case of the Hull Daily Mail as no Sunday edition was produced) has been selected equally and no bias has been attributed to a specific day.

Building on earlier investigations into similar sampling techniques, such as those by Davis and Turner (1951), Stempel (1952), and Jones and Carter (1959), Riffe et al. carried out research into the efficacy of this type of stratified sampling – both in terms of optimum sample size for reliability, and efficiencies for time and resource limitations – and tested against simple random sampling methodologies.[1] They discovered that constructed week sampling was more efficient than either random sampling or consecutive day sampling (which starts at a given point and includes each day of the week but may fail to sample across the whole period under investigation).[2] Riffe et al. concluded that using constructed week sampling in newspaper content analysis can provide reliable estimates of the population mean – i.e. the sample would be reflective of the whole, and significantly more reflective than simple random sampling.[3] Furthermore, their study found that one constructed week was as efficient as four in an examination of six months of editions of a daily newspaper (exceeding basic probability theory expectations), the significance of which is immeasurable to the researcher with limited time and resources.[4]

Of course, I had to test this for myself. For the purposes of consistency, January was selected for the test month, and the years, which were at regular intervals throughout the whole period, were chosen to reflect and capture changes in newspaper size across the years. The number of incidences of crime were counted and the mean calculated for each of the four months and for the population as a whole. In total, 106 editions of the Hull Daily Mail were analysed for the sample. To test both the effectiveness and efficiency of the constructed week sampling technique, 20 samples of a 6-day (one week), 12-day (two weeks), and 18-day (three weeks) were selected. The days were chosen by assigning each a number and then using an online random number generator to select each corresponding day. The mean for each sample was then calculated. So far, so good.

Then things got a little tricky, as I was confronted with formulae, calculations and statistical terminology that sent me into a spin (and brought back all those terrible memories of confusing maths lessons). The Riffe et al. study had used a 95% confidence interval to calculate the efficiency of constructed week sampling. This meant that the results were within two standard errors of the mean population (the internet helped with the explanation). So I constructed my test to try to do the same. Where the population mean was 14.1, the population standard deviation stood at 4.88, and calculations were made for the standard error ranges (again, the internet was a lifesaver here, and so too was an academic in the Mathematics department). It took hours of reading and re-reading to grasp the essential elements of these calculations. The findings, however, did make the hard work worthwhile.

The test sample results echoed those by Riffe et al., with all three constructed week samples (6-day, 12-day, and 18-day) meeting the 95% confidence interval, making them a suitable sampling technique for a content analysis of the Hull Daily Mail. Moreover, the three constructed week samples also fell within one standard error of the mean, well above the 68% predicated by the Central Limits Theorem for random samples.[5] Again, following the examples of Riffe et al., it is safe to conclude that as little as a 6-day constructed week would provide a reliable representative sample for four months of the Hull Daily Mail. Extrapolating these findings means that three constructed weeks would cover each of the 21 years under investigation. In the end, 378 editions of the Hull Daily Mail were analysed for crime-related content, which proved to be a challenging but ultimately achievable figure. A larger sample size for the quantitative (and subsequent qualitative) analysis would have required additional time and resources and, as the test findings reveal, may not have yielded a more representative or reliable sample.

It was a hard slog to get to the final results, and it will no doubt take years for the psychological scars to heal, but the exercise did prove useful. In my case, stepping out of my comfort zone and confronting my fears of mathematics should yield better results for my overall research. It may also prove valuable to other researchers who are about to tackle sampling techniques and have a similar phobia of numbers.

Just don’t ask me to do it again…

Ashley Borrett

[1] D. Riffe et al., ‘The effectiveness of random, consecutive day and constructed week sampling in newspaper content analysis’. Journalism Quarterly, 70, 1 (Spring 1993), 133–139: F. J. Davis & L. W. Turner, ‘Sample efficiency in quantitative newspaper content analysis’. Public Opinion Quarterly, 15, 4 (Winter 1951), 762–763; G. H. Stempel, ‘Sample size for classifying subject matter in dailies’. Journalism Quarterly, 29, 3 (Summer 1952), 333­–334; R. L. Jones & R. E. Carter, ‘Some procedures for estimating “news hole” in content analysis’, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 23, 3 (Autumn 1959), 399–403.

[2] Riffe et al., ‘The effectiveness of random, consecutive day and constructed week sampling’, 139.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid, 138.

Following the Arrows: Discovering the English Archer in Medieval Communities during the Hundred Years War

In 1337, the Hundred Years War began. A conflict that would plunge England and France into a war that would last for over a hundred years and radically change the nature of these two Medieval societies. In the beginning, this rivalry of these two monarchies culminated in the Battle of Crecy in 1346 – a battle in which it saw victory pass to the English. France, the great military power of Medieval Europe, was beaten and humbled by a much smaller English Army – an army with a less prestigious military history and yet, on the battlefield in Picardy this smaller and technically weaker force beat the flower of the French Army and raised the military prowess of England significantly. The secret to the English success was the English longbowman: an English Archer armed with a six foot long bow stave, with a draw weight within the region of 100 to 170lbs that could fire up to ten arrows in a minute, accurately, up to 200 yards. Though documentary figures vary, conservative estimates suggest that the English utilised 7000 longbowmen at Crecy which was enough to defeat a French army at least twice as large as the English force. With further victories at Neville’s Cross in 1347 against the Scots and Poitier in 1356 against the French again, the longbowmen dominated the battlefield and brought the English archer to a mythical status.

Elliot's blog post

Archery practice depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, 1325. (Wikimedia Commons).

Yet despite the longbowman’s importance to the English Army, information regarding who these archers were, where they came from and the lives they had before, during and after war is remarkably vague. This is not to say that it is impossible and non-existent. Research by Matthew Strickland, Robert Hardy and Richard Wadge has managed to paint a picture of the type of person an English archer was and the sort of society they lived in. There is also the question of the ‘professional soldier’: research conducted by Andrew Ayton and others indicate that during the Hundred Years War, there was a Medieval Military Revolution in which the Medieval English Army transitioned from a conscripted Commission of Arrays force into a ‘professional’ army whereby the men who fought in it were serving and fighting as a professional occupation. This is exemplified by the rise and prominence of the Mounted Archer and his incorporation into the English Army at this time. This rise in ‘professionalism’ also coincides with the changing social status and reputation of the Medieval Archer as his military importance in English Armies became more apparent – this indicates that not only was the English Archer important to military affairs but that the increase in reputation indicates an increase in wealth as English nobles and commanders were willing to pay for the very best. This is supported by the taxation records. However, there are gaps in this research. Information regarding English archers are primarily drawn from the documentary record in the form of legal proceedings, decrees, rolls, tax records and chronicle and literary record. This is all highly useful but also limited. During the Hundred Years War, the tax records – the main source for accessing wealth during the Medieval period and the main indicator utilised by military historians for accessing the rise of the professional soldier – are scant and in poor condition. For the latter part of the period, the records are more complete and it is from this that historians, like Gary Baker, have been able to assess the increased wealth and social status of the English Archer as well as identifying individual archers. It is, then, argued that an assessment of the rise of the professional soldier for the earlier period is too difficult a subject to hypothesise. However, this may not be the case. It is possible that the archaeological record can reveal what the taxation records do not.

Strictly speaking, an increase in personal wealth – from an increase in pay to serve as a soldier as well as accumulated wealth on campaign from chevauchees, looting and pillaging from battlefields – would have an impact on life back home in England. After a campaign season was over and after garrisons were placed to defend new acquisitions, the army would be discharged and return to the communities they came from. Though there is documentary evidence to suggest that not every retinue and soldier did this when a campaign was over, there still would have been a proportion of archers and men-at-arm that would return home to continue the lives they had before. The question is: what would an archer do with his money? From studying the social backgrounds and military behaviour of archers and soldiers from across history, the conclusion can be drawn that no matter the time period, soldiers act and respond the same way regardless. An example would be a comparison of the Siege of Caen in 1346 and the Siege of Badajoz in 1812 – first-hand accounts for both sieges show the soldiers in both sieges performing the same way: in a wild manner, looting, raping and causing chaos. The same can be said for their recruitment into the army and how they perform during battle. It could be concluded that soldiers would have spent money in the same way ergo, money would have been spent on food and drink but money could have potentially been spent on their homesteads. From this, is it possible to show an increase in wealth and social status in the archaeology of medieval peasantry homes and can they be directly linked to longbowmen who served in the English Army during the Hundred Years War? Essentially, can archers be identified based on what physically remains? In correlation with this, an examination of the archaeology of churches may prove useful. During the medieval period, it was common practice to donate to the church in order to save your soul in the afterlife. To which end, extensions and renovations were usually paid for by those who could afford it. From this, is there any evidence of churches undergoing renovations in the fourteenth century and can they be linked to a wealthy archer endorser?

A main feature of this research will be investigating medieval villages and communities and using them as an archaeological case study to find any evidence of medieval archers. A prime case study will be Wharram Percy: a thoroughly excavated medieval site that shows evidence of social and economic change during the fourteenth century, but also has evidence for archery in the form of arrowheads. By investigating this site and its potential connection with archers, it is hoped that these methods can be transferred to the researching of other medieval sites in order to find more evidence that will enable more conclusive answers to these questions.

Elliot Brindle

Reading for Pleasure during a History PhD

Studying for a PhD in history requires a lot of reading. This statement will surprise no-one, least of all those of us who languish in the dungeons of the doctoral enterprise, buried under an ever-growing pile of secondary literature. We are required to read an enormous volume of material in the course of primary source research and historiographical reconnaissance. And rightly so. The problem is that this work is open-ended. It can just take over, and before you know it you are reading around your subject for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and the chance of reading for pleasure seems a distant memory. If I possessed one, I would wager a small fortune on every history PhD student being a fan of reading in the wider sense of reading for pleasure, if only the opportunity would present itself. Academic reading and less serious reading are cousins, albeit cousins from a disjointed family. Most people invested in the former are doubtless fans of the latter. The chance to read non-academic books is, however, limited by the strictures and expectations of modern-day doctoral life. Walking the corridors of the Larkin Building, or venturing into the post-grad room in the library, leads to various encounters with research students whose standout characteristics are blank staring eyes and expressions of dull, numb panic. ‘There is SO much to do!!!!’

So reading for pleasure is, or so I have found, one of first things to fall before the rising tide of research, manuscripts and historiography, along with cooking and sport. It seems a waste a time, or a guilty pleasure. Surely, if I am reading, I should be reading about the minutiae of local law-enforcement in the middle ages, or the latest tiresome debate over a loosely-related topic in an academic journal? This problem has, I think, grown exponentially in the last few decades, if only because of the increasing number of academics and early career researchers and the increasing ‘outputs’ required of them. The sheer volume of historiography has grown at an enormous rate, and we should read everything germane to our topic. Faced with such pressures, weekends and evenings become a space not for picking up the latest novel of choice, as I would have done when I was at school if no better call on my time offered itself, but for catching up with all the articles and monographs I haven’t been able to read yet. I will give an example which will resonate with many: in my first year of doctoral research, after spending nine hours at the library looking at manuscripts online, I got back to my room and found myself reading G.R. Elton’s The Tudor Revolution in Government, because I convinced myself that that is what I ought to be doing. As those who have encountered Elton’s formidable volume will know, it is not bedtime reading. As a work of academic history: marvellous, provocative, profoundly influential. As a piece of evening reading: ill-advised.

It was not always thus. Before the later decades of the twentieth-century, I believe that lighter academic pressures combined with the relative paucity of published studies to allow far more time to pursue pleasurable reading. It is extremely hard to conceive J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, spending decades drafting and re-drafting The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings whilst holding full-time academic posts at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford in this day and age. But he managed it.[1] Similarly, the great medievalist K.B. McFarlane (d. 1966) found time for reading books other than those which revealed the working of later medieval society to his penetrating mind. McFarlane’s history library can be seen still in Magdalen College, Oxford. It is majestic, an awe-inspiring collection enlivened by his savage marginal annotations. McFarlane worked as hard on his history as anyone can be expected too. It contributed to his frequent bouts of ill-health and probably to his early death.[2] His English library, however, was just as large and just as impressive, and in his letters he discusses works of literature as well as works of history.

We can learn something from this. If McFarlane of all people found time to read for pleasure, then so should we. And it is not simply a question of relaxation, although that is extremely important and a worthy end in itself. Reading fiction or whatever can help with prose, with style, with inspiration. Modern academic books are saturated with information, weighed down with footnotes, burdened with the crushing pressure of meeting academic standards. This has to be the case. But they are not fun to read, on the whole. Their purpose almost invariably nullifies the possibility of writing a page-turner. One way to try to combat this, thus perhaps preventing the reader’s mind from collapsing in on itself at the thought of 250 more pages of closely argued converted doctoral-thesis, is to read books which do have wonderful prose. This provides both a break and a subconscious lesson. My second fictional small fortune will go on the wager that the writers of wonderfully written history books read a lot of non-academic books too. Good writers read good writers. Maurice Keen’s Chivalry, for example, is an academic book of tremendous importance that is written in such an engaging style that it cannot have been created purely from a mind whose sole focus had been to read as much academic history as possible for the last four years, until his funding ran out. For myself, I have made a concerted effort in the last few months to read things outside of the academic history. I am currently reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, which recalls his travels through Europe (mostly on foot) as a young man. Passages like the following, on walking through a snowstorm to an inn on the Danube, abound:

‘In cold weather like this,’ said the innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, ‘I recommend Himbeergeist.’ I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost – this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it homoeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns – or so it seemed after a second glass – like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the utmost fimbria. Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes: Kümmel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh for a thimble full of the cold north!’


Enjoyment of such a passage is, of course, a question of taste but the point is that reading books like that make me want to write, in a way that very few academic books can match. Generally, reading is about relaxation and about inspiration. Both are integral to writing a satisfying thesis. That is why we should try and carve out a small part of our weeks to read books for fun. On this small matter, we should feel justified in re-winding the clock and putting aside the stacks of journals, databases, drafts and plans for a good book, if only for a few minutes. Both we and our work could reap the benefits.

Matt Raven

PhD Candidate at the University of Hull: ‘The Earls of Edward III, 1330-60’

[1] Indeed, to judge from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter (London, 1981), I am inclined to conclude that more time was spent on the world of Middle Earth than on Gawain and the Green Knight or any of his other academic ventures.

[2] See Letters to Friends, 1940-66 by K.B. McFarlane (Magdalen College, 1997) for an intimate portrayal.

Dress Codes: What to Wear in Academia

As the inaugural session of the Student Led Seminar Series, it was decided that we should kick things off with a discussion on a general topic that affected and was relevant to everyone within the postgraduate community. The question of what to wear at conferences, and other formal academic events, has been a constant worry for many of those hoping to enter the professional world of academia. Along with the now out-dated stereotypes of the unkempt professor, ‘Dress Code’ became an obvious first point of discussion for our seminar series.

Before the discussion, Juliane Schlag circulated some articles that would serve well to stimulate discussion as well as provide some background reading (see links below).

“Dressing for Academia” by “Tenure, she wrote”

“Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels- and no flowing hair allowed”, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou

 Whilst Juliane had provided this recommended reading, which was interesting in itself, many in attendance had gone out of their way to locate additional reading that was both written by a male academic and aimed towards a male readership. This naturally led to the opening conversation of our session – the issue of gender. There was much discussion as to why there were more posts to be found online considering the issue of what women should wear in academia than considering the dress codes for men. One might observe that women tend to be critiqued more severely, more frequently, and more blatantly than their male colleagues, creating greater anxiety for women around this particular issue resulting in more posts about it.
Female academics are writing about appropriate dress codes in academia for a variety of reasons. Articles, blogs, and subsequent comments range from anger that their dress should be questioned and analysed in the first place to helpful, good-willed advice for what to wear at different academic events. The sheer volume of and diversity across the writing on female academic dress codes mirror the minefield that is professional female dressing – there is so much to think about.

Male academics, it must be said, seem to have a far easier time of things as far as dress codes are concerned. We spent some time discussing the significance of the tie – when and where a tie is appropriate, the origins of male formal and professional dress, and what the tie, as an item of dress, is even really about. A discussion surrounding the phallic symbolism of the tie (literally, a strip of fabric pointing towards the most obvious sign of masculinity and virility) led to us reaching out on Twitter to try to find some answers …





This online interaction really added to our overall discussion, and demonstrated the power of a supportive, virtual community. It also confirmed what we, as a seminar group, had been considering – modern day men can wear ties to indicate formality, professionalism and superiority. Other than that, the standard of academic male dress code is basically, certainly comparatively, simple and easy to understand.

Further points of conversation continued to develop, for instance, whether or not working in comfortable clothes was a good idea – when at home working, is it jeans or pyjamas? But what our discussion ended up circling was a question that stood out in particular of one of the articles we read in particular – why do we even care what other people are wearing? It has no impact on the quality or integrity of academic research, and how is it any of our business anyway?

In truth, this question is a lot more difficult to answer than one may initially think. A very strong part of me wants to believe that everyone has the right to wear whatever they like and feel comfortable in at any and every event; academia is not like other professions. Women are not expected to wear a pencil skirt and heels. We have all been to conferences where a speaker dressed in suit and tie is followed by a speaker in a t-shirt and flip-flops. There is no ‘uniform’ – which, I suppose, is why everyone is so confused about what is actually appropriate. Yet, there are rules. Unspoken, unexplained, and occasionally ignored rules that dictate how we react to another person in the professional world.

Ultimately, however, academia is a profession that depends on the expression of personal opinion. One’s dress sense is very much an extension of this, and in an environment of intellectualism that thrives upon creative thought and communication, it seems somewhat counterproductive to impose upon academics what they should or should not wear. We concluded that a professional space that brought flip-flops and heels together in one space was, on balance, a very good thing indeed.

Charlotte Garside & Edward Mair


Medieval States and the Modern State: Some Reflections on Then and Now

My paper was entitled Medieval States and the Modern State: Some Reflections. As such, it was quite wide-ranging and I hope it covered a substantial topic of interest not just to specialists in my own field (later medieval history) but also to those in attendance whose areas of specialism were widely divergent from my own. That, at least, was the plan: graduate seminars like the ones organised by the Hull Graduate Committee should be fun, inclusive and thought-provoking, without some of the detail required for a conference paper delivered to an audience of specialists. It was with such considerations in mind that I thought I would give an indication of some of the considerations framing my own doctoral work and juxtapose these ideas against the rise of the modern states and the place the modern state has in our world today. This essentially meant that I wanted to give something of a genealogy of the state as the concept moved from a medieval one fused with the person of the ruler to the modern one of an abstraction, separated from both the person of the ruler and the people being ruled. This allowed me to bring several highly relevant and interesting comparisons into the second half of the talk (namely the looming issued of the recent EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump).

We began a fun seminar by sorting out who wanted red wine and who wanted white (it is with pride that I can claim to have suggested the ingenious idea of wine beforehand). After this important business was concluded, I began the paper proper by outlining some of the historiography of medieval states. In particular, I looked at the influence of modern notions of the state and the impact modern definitions of the state and its purposes have had on the study of medieval polities and their structures. One of the most important figures here is the great German sociologist Max Weber, whose thoughts on the state have been very influential because he was clever enough and convincing enough to provide a common language for both modernists and medievalists. Weber thought that states should be defined by territoriality, legitimacy and a monopoly on the use of physical force. These parameters have dominated the search for what can be termed ‘The Medieval Origins of the Modern State’. I raised the point that medieval states could fundamentally differ from the criteria put forward by Weber (and indeed, other modern notions of the state) in a number of ways. Building on this, I concluded that medieval states were fundamentally different because a) the exercise of public authority rested unavoidably on networks of private power and b) notions of statehood were inextricably linked to the person of the king. Medieval people spoke not about The State, as we do, but about the state of the king and the kingdom. Together, these two key areas of contrast suggest that we need not look for the The State, in the modern sense of the word, but for the medieval state with all its dynamics and complexities, even if that state does not correlate to ideal-type modern states. Furthermore, I suggested that, for a small, elite section of the population, medieval states were a co-operative exercise between the landowning classes and the crown, who depended on each other for legitimacy and order and for intention to be put into action in the localities. A great land-owner in the fourteenth century might reflect that he or she was part of the state; state and society collapsed into each other, and one could see itself represented and reflected by the other.

This brought us onto the issue of modern states. I began this section by briefly summarising the development and spread of modern ideas of the state that can be seen in the ‘early modern’ period, especially from the mid-sixteenth century. The state came to be seen as an abstraction separate from the king and from his people and its preservation became the primary duty of politicians. Reason of State developed. Along with the spread of these ideas of the state as an eternal abstraction, changing methods of enforcement (for example the creation of standing armies and police forces) meant that modern states moved away from the interdependence with the landed elite groups that characterises medieval states. The main object of this section was to provide background for a remarkable feature of the Brexit campaign and of the US election. This was essentially the use of classic Reason of State arguments as an integral part of both campaigns. The triumph of the Leave campaign and of Trump testifies to the continuing power the nation-state has as a saleable commodity. The slogans for both campaigns were very illustrative: Take Back Control, and Make America Great Again. In these powerful messages, people are sold the idea of the state. Take Back Control of what, from who? Take Back Control of the state, of course, from a European Union encroaching on Britain’s sovereignty and thus on the state. Through the language of reason of state, powerful notions of the modern state had provided an important tool for these campaigns.

I ended with a comparative reflection that attempted to link the consecutive sections of the talk. I suggested that, as a co-operative venture in which public authority rested on a series of private networks and ‘bottom-up’ processes, medieval states reflected the society they served, because they had too. This ‘political society’ was a small one comprising landed and mercantile elites. In our modern democracy, the state should reflect all of us: the voters, those with a say in the shape and composition of government. As the recent Brexit result and Trump’s victory have shown, this is clearly not the case, and large parts of society feel ostracized and are pushing for change, while other parts of society are disengaging from political processes altogether. We opened discussion by talking about why this might be the case and what we (or, indeed, anyone) might do to try and make the frameworks in which we all live more inclusive and less divided. I greatly enjoyed the ensuing discussions, which lasted for about 20 minutes before the seminar finished. We talked about various problems and observations; for example, the role of the media in selling an idealised state was raised, considered and analysed. I feel that we raised a number of issues, both historical and contemporary, and that people enjoyed comparing the medieval and the modern and talking about where we fit into the state.

Matt Raven

Report on a paper read to the Hull History Postgraduate Seminar on 24th November 2016

America’s Bloody Past: Memory and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864

On a bitterly cold morning in November 1864, the windswept plains of South-eastern Colorado were the scene of a brutal and bloody massacre. Seven hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho woke with the rising sun to the distant thud of hooves heading to their village. The women cried out: “The buffalo are coming!” In fact the thunderous roar was U.S. Colonel John Chivington and 700 volunteer soldiers on the warpath. Alarm spread through the village and Chief Black Kettle raised both a white and a U.S flag as signals of peace. Chivington ignored him and his men indiscriminately opened fire on the encampment. When the firing ended 165-200 Cheyenne and Arapaho had been brutally slaughtered. While the warriors fought back, escapees dug pits to hide along the banks of Sand Creek, but their attempts to flee were no match for the guns and ammunition of the soldiers. Chivington and his men returned the next day, looting, scalping and mutilating the dead, taking Indian body parts as trophies of their conquest. Before they left, the militia set fire to the village, leaving the surviving Cheyenne and Arapaho, who were hiding in freezing conditions, to make their way to other Cheyenne villages in the north.


Image courtesy of the author


This is the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, an event that has haunted Colorado’s memory for over 100 years and has only recently been memorialized as a National Historic Site. My PhD research makes a comparison between three Native American Massacre Sites – Bear River (1863), Sand Creek (1864) and Wounded Knee (1890) – and explores how the collective memory of these massacres has been shaped and constructed in both Euro-American and Native American culture from the occurrence of the atrocity until the present day. These sites are the grounds of highly contested memory and attempts to memorialize and remember each massacre collectively has been a fraught process.

Collective memory theory was founded by the French sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs, in the 1920s. Halbwachs argued that it was individuals as group members who remembered as opposed to memory being an individual construct. Halbwach’s legacy has been taken up by American scholars such as David Thelen whose seminal article, Memory and American History (1989), posits that American historical memory explores how people search for a common memory together to meet their present needs. Myths, legends and formalized expressions of collective memory are formed as Americans negotiate memory. The Euro-American mythical memory of the frontier is often evoked to encourage support for contemporary political concerns. Native American massacres were a horrific part of the creation of these myths and remembering them reminds Euro-Americans of terrible moments in their shared past. Attempts at collectively remembering Native American massacres mean old animosity between the massacre descendants and Euro-American cultures have resurfaced, impacting upon a national process of healing, and reminding us that memory is always culturally specific.

I was recently given the opportunity by the British Association of American Studies to travel to the United States to research these massacre sites. I was able to conduct some fascinating archival work on this trip but here I want to focus on my visit to the Sand Creek Massacre Site. Sand Creek is the only site of the three I am studying that is now a National Historic Site, meaning there has been an organized process between the National Park Service (NPS) and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to collectively remember the massacre. Cultural differences, a justified mistrust of government authorities from the massacre descendants, as well as concerns over land ownership often slowed the memorial process. Sand Creek is therefore an excellent example of how cultures engage in the social construction of memory.

I began my journey travelling to Eads, a remote town in the south-eastern corner of Colorado, the landscape of the massacre. The day of my visit the rain was falling heavily and there was a thick mist covering the plains. I was directed to the site by an international brown tourist sign and proceeded down eight miles of dirt road before reaching a small cabin with a sign welcoming the very few tourists on that rainy day to the “Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.” As I stepped inside the cabin, Jeff Campbell, the Park Ranger, was providing two other visitors with a detailed and knowledgeable account of what happened at Sand Creek. Having read about Jeff’s work on the history of Sand Creek in Ari Kelman’s excellent book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, I was very excited to meet him. Campbell has worked closely with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, gathering oral histories in order to clear up misrepresentations of that bloody day. Once Campbell’s talk was over, we zipped up and headed out to the site. Guided tours were usually offered but they were making an exception that day because of the dreadful weather.



Image courtesy of author


Earlier perceptions of Sand Creek had referred to the slaughter as a battle but there was no mistaking that the current memorials leading to the site regarded this atrocity as a massacre. The first marker referred to the attack as a ‘national tragedy,’ using the words of George Bent, a Cheyenne Warrior: “We ran up the creek with the cavalry following us…. The dry bed of the stream was now a terrible sight: men, women, and children lying thickly scattered on the sand, some dead and the rest to badly wounded to move….” Once I had reached the bluffs overlooking the site the visibility was very poor so it was hard to see the 50 miles of usually arid plains that the massacre site encompassed. However, there was an immediate sense of the importance of this ground for the Cheyenne and Arapaho massacre descendants, with specific areas fenced off from tourists as sacred ground. In the center of the dedication ground was an old memorial from the 1950’s that read: “Sand Creek Battle Ground: Nov 29 & 30.” Randomly placed around the sign were pieces of stone, rope and coins, dedications left by tribal descendants. The old naming of ‘battle’, combined with these offerings, demonstrated conflicting portrayals of memory.



Image courtesy of author


The Cheyenne and Arapaho have since worked in conjunction with the National Park Service to erect their own memorials detailing their perceptions of that day. The massacre descendants were involved in an oral history project. Often with the help of tribal translators, they interpreted their stories of the massacre to the NPS. This was a fraught process as many worried that the meaning of their stories would be lost or reinterpreted by the NPS, especially as many of the stories had remained within Cheyenne and Arapaho families for many generations. The most apparent difference between Euro-American memorials and the tribal markers was the descendants’ focus on cultural continuity and healing. One marker entitled, “Returned to Sand Creek,” read: “Many years have passed. The land is still here. We lived here, our clans lived here. The land here is our home-we have come back home.” Another sign entitled “Healing,” stated: “Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site reminds us not only of the atrocities that occurred here, but those that continue to be inflicted on cultures throughout the world.” For the massacre descendants, memory is part of a continuous process that is closely linked to their recognition of the past.

I left the site that day with a greater sense of the meaning that the memorialization of Sand Creek had for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, having previously regarded it as a Western preoccupation that had limited significance for Native Americans. Through memorialization, Cheyenne and Arapaho are able to reclaim their past and create memories that are deeply rooted in healing and cultural survival. Importantly, the memorials give the descendants the opportunity to inform us of their perceptions of their history; a history that has been dominated and constructed by Euro-America. However, I was also aware of the lengthy, conflicting and aggravated process that had gone into trying to create a collective memory of such a contested and shameful area of American history. Memory is difficult and is, of course, constructed to reflect current concerns. It became unacceptable to call the events at Sand Creek a battle considering current American racial and cultural overtones, nor was it appropriate to ignore the Cheyenne and Arapaho voices. As demonstrated at Sand Creek, the past remains very much part of the present and perhaps this is something Euro-America can learn from Native Americans when memorializing and commemorating America’s past. Collective memory, however conflicted, should offer lessons and warnings that can be of value in present circumstances. The struggle to remember Sand Creek collectively challenges the American use of glorified myth to formulate a united American collective memory.

Susannah Hopson

This post originally appeared at: http://www.baas.ac.uk/usso/americas-bloody-past-massacre-memory-and-native-american-history/ (January 10th 2015)

How to contribute to the History Postgraduate Blog

One of the key aims in creating this new web space for postgraduate students studying History at the University of Hull was establishing a student-written blog. The aim of the blog is to showcase the fantastic research being undertaken, explore the diverse methodologies being used and to celebrate the achievements and experiences of the students. This means we would like to offer the opportunity to all current MA, MRes and PhD students as well as postgraduate alumni of History to write a post for the blog. Writing for the blog is not only interesting for the other postgraduate students at Hull, but also is great to publicise the work you are doing and increase your online presence, which is becoming more and more important in the world of academia.

We are looking for posts of approximately 700 to 1000 words in length, on any of the following aspects of research:

  • Introduction to your topic/research
  • Introduction to your research methodologies, and any problems you may have come across or any advice you can share
  • Highlighting specific achievements, such as a report from a research trip, placement, conferences or similar

We are hoping to publish blog posts at least fortnightly, but even more would be brilliant, so there is plenty of opportunity to get involved across the year.

If you would like to send something in, or would like to ask any questions, please contact us at hullhistorypostgrad@outlook.com. We really look forward to publishing your posts on the website and celebrating the great research taking place at Hull!

Lizzie Rogers

Social Secretary & Social Media Admin

Inaugural Blog – Welcome to the new Postgraduate Committee!

I think it is fair to say that student representation has played some sort of role, large or small, in the life of anyone who has been a part of the education system of this country in recent years. At my own school we had School Council, and, once we got older, all the usual positions such as Head Boy and Head Girl, Prefects, and more. Student representation, at least in my school experience, was taken very seriously. I remember, when my secondary school was looking for a new head teacher the Head Boy and Girl were part of the board that made the final decision as to which candidate to hire. They held real influence.

Student representation and student politics at University level is certainly taken seriously. The Student Union at the University of Hull is very active. Our SU alumni have gone on to participate with student politics at a national level. On a departmental level, however, I never really knew much about student representation. As an undergraduate from 2010, I knew we had course representatives, but cannot recall ever really hearing much more about it other than a circular email informing us who our representatives were near the beginning of each academic year. During those early years though, it has to be said, student representation was not high on my list of priorities. Studying, cheerleading and generally having a good time took top billing up until 2013.

In 2013-14 I undertook my masters degree in Historical Research. All of a sudden my cohort of hundreds of students shrank to what can have been no more than 20. In terms of academia, my MA experience was a good one. My research was fascinating, I gained confidence, I continued to build an already strong working relationship with my supervisor, and decided that a PhD was definitely something I wanted to pursue. But it was a lonely year. Other than one core module in the first semester, there was no occasion for all the MA students come to together. We were without a course representative to turn to, other than a general ‘Postgraduate Representative’, and had little chance to integrate with and get to know the PhD students (who this representative was mainly for). It was during this MA year that I began to understand the true significance of student representation. Not having adequate representation definitely had a negative impact on my first year as a postgraduate.

When I found out that I had been offered a PhD I decided that the next three years of my postgraduate career would not be like my MA year. There was no change in the inadequate representation at first, so I decided to take initiative in other ways. I made a conscious effort to get to know some of the other PhDs. I organised an Interdisciplinary Historical Workshop to try to build and foster cross-departmental working and social relationships. But the first really big change came at the beginning of my second year.

At the beginning of the academic year 2015-16, a room was made available on campus to act as a shared office for PhD students, and a group of us applied to have desk space. Gaining workspace where postgraduates could work together in the Larkin building, the hub of the History department, was nothing short of a game changer. I made friends for life and established cooperative working relationships. More significantly in terms of a wider postgraduate community, however, I was able to identify the shared problems of the students. There were universal issues that were not being dealt with in any real way.

I consequently organised a careers workshop, aimed at providing valuable skills and discussion sessions. We covered not only what was needed in order to pursue a career in academia but also other potential career avenues for those in possession of a PhD in History. I also took over the organisation of the Annual History Postgraduate Conference, aiming to make it a more inclusive and better-publicised event.

Some of the other PhD students around me were also making positive changes. Edd and Juliane, for example, started a postgraduate reading group where they encouraged students to come together to read about and discuss historical theory. Not only was it clear that there were shared issues within the postgraduate community, but there were lots of people looking for way to better the situation. What we all really wanted, when it came down to it, was representation. We wanted to have someone fighting our corner in student-staff meetings. We wanted to have someone who cared about ameliorating the position of the postgraduate students within the department. We wanted someone to argue our case for teaching experience, more chances to present our work, and the creation of a more cohesive community.

When Jenny Macleod (who was appointed new Postgraduate Director for the academic year 2016-17) approached Edd, Lizzie and myself with an idea to create a History Postgraduate Committee to represent the needs of PhD and MA/MRes students we were thrilled. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to work together to better represent the postgraduate community of the new History School. Together we came up with a list of potential roles and started circulating information.

The resulting committee, I am very proud to say, is a group of experienced and committed postgraduate students who have already started working together to create some changes on behalf of the wider student community. Ultimately, we want to work for you – the postgraduates of The University of Hull History School. If you have a problem, get in touch with us. If you have an idea for the community, let us know. If there are some skills you need that are not being addressed by the training scheme offered by the University, ask us to put on a workshop. Need to de-stress with people who understand the pressures of academia? We will arrange a postgraduate social event. As President of the History Postgraduate Committee I want to make sure that we, as students, all benefit from full and adequate representation. My number one goal in this position is to ensure that the postgraduates, current and continuing, feel like their voice is being heard and that they are a part of a wider, supportive community.

So, to end this inaugural blog post launching the History Postgraduate website and, in a sense, the new committee itself, good luck! Have a fantastic year everyone, and please do not hesitate to get in contact with us if there is anything we can help you with. Take advantage of the representation we offer. To echo a campaign of the truly brilliant, yet sadly fictitious, Leslie Knope: ‘No Problem Too Small’.

Charlotte Garside
President of the History Postgraduate Committee