Well, this was hardly the DPhil Diaries update I was expecting to write. It was also not particularly my intention to take a month (or more) off of blog writing, but with my trip to Israel cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my plans and priorities quickly shifted and with it I lost motivation to write.

At the moment it feels like everyone is hunting for historical precedent, reaching for moments in history that can help explain or comfort our present situation. As the coronavirus pandemic erupts around the world, the "Spanish" Flu of 1918 is the obvious comparison, at least for historians whose periods include the First World War. For motivating the British spirit to endure and come together as communities, the 'Blitz Spirit' is almost instantly dredged up.

Maybe it's because I study modern history, and particularly history of war, yet these examples currently seem to be everywhere, as people reach for imperfect comparisons with points in the past. The comparison with the influenza pandemic of 1918/19 is clear, yet the circumstances of a century ago, with the world emerging from total war and with a far poorer understanding of virology, make it difficult to draw similarities in societal responses. Weaker still is the Blitz Spirit comparison, not only because of its tendency not to be tied to the historical truth, but also in that communities could literally pull together at times of bombing - not so in a crisis in which social distancing is all-important.

So far, I've resisted the urge to join the comparisons. In the last few weeks I've tried to keep ticking along with work, despite all the uncertainty of the virus and moving out of Oxford, coupled with the usual shift of the end of term. Progress with writing has been somewhat lackluster, although I have been trying to make up for this by focussing instead on getting more reading done.

However, one thing I have noticed in my recent reading is that I look on things in a bit of a new light. Not to be too dramatic, for I know isolating in a comfortable house, continuing my studies and friendships online is very privileged and a world away from the experiences of the First World War, but reading about morale and enduring war with the pandemic in mind has definitely made me look at things differently.

Take, for example, the letters of Warrant Officer John Hetherington. Feeling particularly down in November 1916 after fighting on the Somme with 2nd battalion AIF, he lamented that 'one gets so tired of talking about war and there is so little else to mention about here that I hardly know how to begin'. While my experience could in no way compare to his, there's definitely that feeling that although I want to spend lots of time keeping in contact with my friends while we're apart, what do we say? The big global news feel everywhere: it's impossible to ignore it, but there's also nothing I can add to it or worth me saying that people don't already know.

This is something I've been trying to unpick in the soldiers' letters I've been reading recently. As front line soldiers, there is not much they can say of the war's overall situation, often because they don't know enough (although they were also subject to censorship which further restricted this). They also often don't give much detail of their day-to-day activities, usually because they were seen to be repetitive or unexciting. Then thirdly, they also didn't wish to write anything that could unsettle their families or unduly worry them.

Elements of all these criteria can be sensed at the moment. There's nothing I or any other ordinary person can add to the overall situation; I'm not doing anything particularly exciting to share day-to-day, and I don't want to be a downer who compounds everyone else's fear over the situation.

So, what do you say or write? For many soldiers, a large section of each of their letters was taken up with the admin of letter writing itself: describing the place where they located the paper, the postal deadlines, and most significantly, updating on which letters they received and expressing their hope that recipients had received their previous letters and parcels. This touching base indicates that often it was the presence of communication itself and especially the receipt of the physical letter that was the most important, rather than anything that was expressed within.

Other letters were filled with hopes for the future, both short and long term. Soldiers would look forward to their next period of rest or leave, which could have been many months away, writing to their families that they hoped it could come soon. There was also the inevitable hope for the end of war and a return to normality - something we can all sympathise with while life is put on hold. The biggest frustration to soldiers was that they didn't know how long they were waiting for these things, often writing they hoped leave would 'come soon'. In some ways, however, this worked as a benefit. With the tantalising prospect that leave may not be too far away, they could keep a sliver of optimism, rather than becoming dejected by a far off date.

In truth, I will never be able to fully understand what it felt like to be a First World War soldier, writing letters to loved ones while the world appeared to fall apart. And frankly, I don't think I much want to. What we're experiencing in 2020 could never truly approximate 1918 or 1940, despite whatever historical precedents people are reaching for. But maybe that is the true value of such comparisons; maybe they are our beacons of hope, proof that not only has the world survived similar events in the past, but also that society has made it through far worse.

I'm hoping now to return to my usual schedule of posts, but please do bear with if that doesn't happen.



  1. Keep your head up --- love your research and the article. History rocks!
    (Added note: Years ago I read the autobiography of Daniel A. Poling whose son was one of the Four Chaplains of WWII. Poling wrote "Huts In Hell" about World War One where he was a chaplain on the front. There's probably nothing you haven't seen, but the book is available on Project Gutenberg in digital form. I did a search for "Young" & found several references to the YMCA on the battlefield and off.