Category Archives: research

Reports on research, new or with particular relevance to the Oxford World War 1 Centenary programme.

First World War competition

Guidelines for exciting new First World War competition- launching this summer! 

Supported by the Van Houten fund, TORCH and Academic IT Services we would like to invite students, early career researchers and college, library and museum staff to enter our WW1 research competition. Here are our guidelines for entrants:

How to enter

Album cover for the popular ‘New Perspectives’ podcast series where select competition entries will be added.

Album cover for the popular ‘New Perspectives’ podcast series where select competition entries will be added.

  • To enter, you should submit a proposal for a blog post or short (audio/video) podcast which presents a new perspective on the First World War and its impact – to the University and beyond.
  • Proposals should be submitted to the ‘Oxford Ideas’ website by the submission deadline (midnight on 1st August 2016) and sum up the key points you will make in the blog post/podcast in no more than 200 words.
  • Entrants may present unrefined ideas, early thoughts and as yet unformed research projects or works-in-progress but should never compromise on the commitment, as academics, to a high intellectual standard.
  • We also welcome proposals from college, library and museum staff that tell a story of the University in the First World War.
  • The intended audience of the blog posts and podcasts is: researchers, librarians, educators and more generally, anyone with an interest in the First World War. Therefore, entries should be carefully crafted with these groups in mind. It can be helpful to engage with the question of: why does your history matter? Are there contemporary parallels or implications? Does it tie in to modern concerns or news stories? Any interesting angle is welcome, but do try to think about your work in creative ways and ask yourself how best you can make the work appealing and accessible to a broad audience.
  • Selected entries will showcase on the world-renowned Oxford iTunesU,, Oxford Centenary Programme and WW1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings websites. Thus, you may want to look at existing posts and podcasts (in particular the New Perspectives series) for inspiration and guidance on previously successful styles and formats for this type of content.
  • To enter, visit the ‘Oxford Ideas’ website and click on the challenge entitled ‘WW1 Research Competition’ and then the ‘enter’ tab. In doing so, you will be asked to complete a simple form where you can provide the key details of your proposal along with a short description (200 words max.).

What happens next?

Once you have submitted your proposal, it will be open to other members of the Oxford Ideas community to comment on. You are welcome to edit your entry based on any comments and suggestions you receive. We also encourage you to take a look at the other proposals submitted and add your thoughts, questions and words of support. This can be a really valuable element of the process so we urge you to get involved. This function will close on the submission deadline: midnight on 1st August 2016.

Up to 10 finalists will be shortlisted by a team of judges (based at TORCH and Academic IT Services); you will be notified either way on 16th August 2016. If your proposal is successful, you will then be given instructions in a notification email to sign up to a surgery and/or recording session where you will be given support on how to create and disseminate online content through the abovementioned channels. These sessions will be scheduled throughout September and in early October 2016.

 The Second Stage of the Competition

Firstly, congratulations for reaching this stage: you have impressed the judges with your idea. Secondly, this next phase will involve finalising your blog post or podcast – ready to be submitted to the second panel of judges (experts in the First World War and public engagement). You will gain the chance to learn about how to prepare content at the organised surgeries and the opportunity to use University equipment on the recording days. Here are some additional points to note:

  • We expect blog posts to be around 500-800 words in length and (video/audio) podcasts to be up to 10 minutes
  • Contributors can express their ideas, in their own style and with whatever degree of informality they wish. Our First World War channels do not have a style guide or require a specific referencing format: they are neither an academic journal, nor newspaper. However, you may benefit from looking at previously successful blog posts on WW1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings and podcast series such as New Perspectives for inspiration.
  • That said, entries must reflect the fact that the authors are representatives of the disciplines that make up First World War studies, their department or organisation, and the academic profession. Entries can be ‘political’ — we would encourage it! — but should be written/presented in a responsible, respectful fashion and not be purposefully inflammatory. We advise against including personal information in your blog post/podcast, as this may have unintended consequences.
  • Feel free to include hyperlinks and images if relevant to your topic. However, please ensure that you have the necessary permission to reproduce this content (see our further guidance under the heading ‘Good Practice’).
  • In particular, by contributing to WW1C, you agree to the terms of a Creative Commons licence (CC-BY-NC-SA). This means that content is made available as Open educational Resources (OER) and can be reused and redistributed by third parties globally, provided that it is attributed to its creator. Please see full details at
  • Your final entry should be submitted to by midnight on 10th October
  • The winner will be announced in October 2016 and will receive the following prizes: an iPad mini and a free ticket to the International Society for First World War Studies conference on 10th-11th November 2016 (including dinner).

Good luck! We very much look forward to receiving your proposals. If you have any questions about the competition, please contact the team at:

Spirit of England: an introduction


Image of the plaque on Pentire Point, north Cornwall, UK commemorating the composition of the poem ‘For The Fallen’

By Robin Darwall-Smith Written for the the Oxford Bach Choir members’ bulletin and reproduced here with kind permission.

In a year that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the Oxford Bach Choir is performing Elgar’s own reflection on that conflict, his great choral work The Spirit of England. Its title may have led people to fear an ephemeral piece of jingoist flagwaving, but the truth is very different. I will stick my neck out here and say that I think that The Spirit of England is one of Elgar’s greatest works in any genre, and I hope that all of you, whether or not you already love Elgar’s music, will find that you are in for a special musical experience.

Spirit of England is an unusual work in that both words and music were written the middle of a war, and it lets us into the emotions felt by Britons on the home front, impotent to do anything, fearful of loved ones, uncertain of the future, and yet hopeful of eventual victory. One important thing to bear in mind is that, in early performances of this piece, every member of the choir, orchestra, and audience will have known someone close to them who was serving in the armed forces, and, especially in the latter days of the war, most of them will have known someone who had been killed.

Soon after the outbreak of war, the poet Laurence Binyon published in the Times a series of poems reflecting on the conflict. At a time when many assumed that the war would be over by Christmas, Binyon showed a prescient awareness that it would be more serious than that. As early as 21 September 1914 there appeared his poem, For the Fallen, which includes these famous lines:

They shall not grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, not the year condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

In December 1914, Binyon published his war poems as a collection called The Winnowing Fan, which became immensely popular: in January 1915, one of Elgar’s friends wrote to him “Why don’t you do a wonderful Requiem for the slain—something in the spirit of Binyon’s For the Fallen?”

Elgar therefore set to work. He selected three poems from The Winnowing Fan out of which to create a halfhour cantata which would chart the emotional journey of the war to date. We therefore start with The Fourth of August, which represents the excitement and apprehension which greeted the outbreak of hostilities. The other two poems swiftly leave that world behind to consider the emotional cost of war. To Women reflects on the feelings of women with loved ones serving on the front, and their uncertainties and fears, while For the Fallen, the longest movement of the three, is a great elegy to the dead themselves.

In May 1916 that the second and third movements were released for performance, but not the first movement. Interestingly, the most optimistic of the poems was also the one that caused him most trouble. In particular Elgar could not bring himself to set a verse in which Binyon described the Germans thus:

She fights the fraud that feeds desire on
Lies, in a lust to enslave or kill,
The barren creed of blood and iron,
Vampire of Europe’s wasted will.

Elgar, like many Britons, was steeped in German culture. His own music owed a great deal to German influence, and he had visited Germany regularly. He had also been encouraged and helped by many Austro- German musicians. It was, at least early on, impossible for Elgar to demonise a nation which he had loved so well.

By early 1917, however, after three increasingly terrible years of war, Elgar’s mood had changed. He now came up with an extraordinary solution to his problem: he based his setting of these words around the music of the Demons’ Chorus from The Dream of Gerontius. He explained his reasons for doing this in a letter:

“Two years ago I held over that section hoping that some trace of manly spirit would shew itself in the direction of German affairs: that hope is gone forever & the Hun is branded as less than a beast … I would not invent anything low & bestial enough to illustrate the one stanza: the Cardinal [Newman] invented … that particular hell in Gerontius where the great intellects gibber & snarl knowing they have fallen. That is exactly the case with the Germans now:—the music was to hand & I have sparingly used it. … The horror of the fallen intellect—knowing what is once was & knowing what it has become—is beyond words frightful.”

In fact the overwhelming mood of The Spirit of England, especially in its second and third movements, is one of a deep compassion in the face of unimaginable losses and suffering, and there is very little militarism about it. In the third movement, when Binyon imagines fallen warriors as they marched off to war “open-eyed and unafraid”, Elgar certainly sets these words to a march, but it is an eerie and ghostly episode. Instead the emotional core of the work is at the end when Binyon compares our memories of the fallen to the stars above, and Elgar rises to a deeply moving and ecstatic climax (sufficiently ecstatic for Elgar to give the first altos a top G sharp at its height: you have been warned), before dying away to nothing.

The Spirit of England made a deep impression on contemporary listeners. The poet Robert Nicholls, who had been wounded in the war, in a letter to a friend, damned “all the people writing about war & soldiers when they haven’t a notion of either. Sensible people like Yeats keep quiet, or express the feelings of noncombatants in the most touching & poignant forms imaginable as Elgar & Binyon. How often the sad last phrases of Elgar’s “For the Fallen” echo despondingly & yet somehow victoriously in my head!”

The Spirit of England ends quietly and uncertainly: a reflection of Britain’s mood in the middle of the war. Even after the war, however, Elgar was in no mood to celebrate. Laurence Binyon wrote an Ode to Peace, which he invited Elgar to set, but Elgar was not interested; instead he wrote the Cello Concerto.

I’ll leave the last word on The Spirit of England to another great composer who wrote a masterpiece inspired by the First World War. In 1969, Benjamin Britten planned to perform For the Fallen at the Aldeburgh Festival. Here is what the composer of the War Requiem made of Elgar’s music:

It has always seemed to me to have in its opening bars a personal tenderness and grief, in the grotesque march an agony of distortion, and in the final sequences a ring of genuine splendour.

The Oxford Bach Choir performance of The Spirit of England will take place in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on Dec 6, 2014.

Several recordings of The Spirit of England can be found, for example on YouTube.

More information about the composer Edward Elgar, the poet Laurence Binyon  and his Ode of Remembrance can be found in Wikipedia.

Oxford Central History Network

The Oxford Central History Network (OxCen) held its inaugural meeting on June 18th. Led by the History Department at Oxford Brookes University, the network aims to encourage and support the remembering of the First World War in Oxfordshire through a diverse range of community projects and educational or heritage activities.

“We believe that by creating a network that brings together people and organisations who may normally not meet, we can share ideas, enhance the work of all, spread interest in the subject and create a uniquely rich account of the myriad ways in which the War affected the county and its people.”

Some 30 people from a range of organisations gathered to discuss the format and activities of the network, and look at how the network can best support the historians of Oxfordshire in their work on the Centenary of the First World War. The kind of support the network may offer was outlined, and ideas for further work was discussed.

It was agreed that the network website would be used to publish information about the network and about events and resources of potential interest to people within and outside the network. The site already features an events listing, links to resources and a timeline. Input is welcomed to extend these sections, add more material and ensure they offer a useful resource. A members-only area will be set up where members can post a profile and outline the kind of work they do, any input they may be looking for or the type of advice or support they may be able to offer.

The network is happy to welcome anyone interested in history or active in historical research in Oxfordshire, whether affiliated to an institution or organisation or doing independent or personal research. More information about the network can be found on the OxCen website

OxCen webpage header

British Poetry of the First World War Conference

On the 5th-7th September 2014, Wadham College will be hosting an international conference to celebrate the British Poetry of the First World War.

Run by The English Association, the conference is designed to appeal to all who have an interest in the poetry of the Great War, a distinctive feature will be that all the various societies, fellowships and associations devoted to individual poets of the First World War will be invited to participate by contributing lectures, panel discussions and recitals as well as exhibiting items from their archives and displaying their publications.

The conference patron is Professor Jon Stallworthy and plenary speakers will include Professor Edna Longley, of Queen’s University, Belfast and Professor Jay Winter of Yale University.

Oxford senior members Dr Stuart Lee and Kate Lindsay are on the conference steering committee representing Oxford’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive and The English Faculty.

Booking is now available on the conference website.

George Butterworth, Railways, and WW1

George Butterworth’s letters addressed to his father at NER offices must have landed here in his father’s in-tray.

Entrance, NER Head Office, York

Entrance to the former North Eastern Railway head office at York

Recently it was announced that the AHRC would be funding a PhD studentship, Britain’s Railways in the Great War, 1914-1918, to begin in September 2013. The project is to be managed by the Science Museum Group, and will address ‘six core inter-connected themes – political, administrative, economic, technical, cultural and social … to explore the basic questions of how, and how well, the railways coped’ (see the project outline).

Railways are frequently mentioned in the papers I have been researching for material for the Bodleian Library’s 2014 exhibition on the First World War, usually in the context of delays to journeys in England in wartime conditions, or transportation from the French coast to the front. George Butterworth, the composer, and alumnus of Trinity College, Oxford, was a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. His papers include his wartime diary and letters to his father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, who was a general manager of the North Eastern Railway. Sir Alexander’s office was in the grand new NER headquarters at York, later the main offices of the North eastern region of British Railways, and my father’s own place of work from 1968-1983 (see the family railway blog, Memories of a Railwayman).  George Butterworth’s railway connection explains his wry comments about his journey from London to Bodmin, the depot of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Regiment which he joined as a private in August 1914: ‘We decided unanimously that the transport arrangements were not creditable to the Committee of Railway Managers.’ He describes the train as ‘ordinary’ with the ‘space reserved quite insufficient, many having standing room only.’ Nevertheless, the journey was ‘a hilarious one—beer and singing ad lib.’

Once Butterworth had reached France in August 1915 with the Durham Light Infantry things did not improve. His battalion marched in the middle of the night to a railway where the men sat down and waited for a train to take them to the front: ‘the transport arrangements at this point were defective, as we had to wait about two hours by the side of the line, during which time some fifty trains must have passed us, mostly empty and returning to the base.’ Eventually their train turned up, comprising ‘three first class compartments for the officers and cattle trucks for the men, 40 in each.’ Rumours spread that they were heading straight to the front, ‘but after a few hours journey the train pulled up at a small wayside station’ and they were marched ‘five very hot and dusty miles’ to their billets in a village.

On 28 November 1915 Butterworth wrote to his father about his turn in the trenches.  At the end of the letter he mentions the pioneer battalion raised by the North Eastern Railway Company (the 17th Northumberland Fusiliers): ‘I hope the N.E.R. Battalion will have luck—it is rather thankless work out here, and our Pioneer Battalion has certainly had more than its share of artillery and machine gun fire.’


Memorial in York to the 2236 men of the NER who died in the Great War



Innovating in Combat: Telecommunications and intellectual property in the First World War

Innovating in Combat: telecommunications and intellectual property in the First World War is a newly-launched one-year collaborative project between the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford and the University of Leeds, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The principal investigator is Professor Graeme Gooday at the University of Leeds and co-investigator Dr Stephen Johnson at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford with research assistance provided by Elizabeth Bruton, a former PhD student in history of technology at the University of Leeds.

The overall aim of the project is to help museums, archives, and the wider public to better appreciate the significance of communications technologies during the Great War, both in terms of the intellectual property issues involved, and the work of signals engineers. It will draw upon the collective resources of partner museums and archives to generate public events, multimedia materials, and educational resources.

St John’s Research Centre Annual Lecture: ‘Can we ever understand the outbreak of World War One?’

The Annual Research Centre Lecture on 25 October 2012 at 5pm in the Kendrew Quad Cafe will be given by Professor Margaret MacMillan, the Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford. The title of the lecture is ‘Can we ever understand the outbreak of World War One?’

It has been estimated that there are over 30,000 works in English alone on the outbreak of World War One yet there is still no consensus on why it started or who or what was to blame. Perhaps we should stop looking to assign blame and ask rather what were they thinking? This lecture examines the assumptions and attitudes of those who had to make the key decisions in those few weeks in the summer of 1914.

The lecture will be followed by a drinks reception in 20 St Giles to which you are cordially invited.

The lecture is open to everyone. If any alumni would like to attend, please email the alumni office in advance.