Skip to content

War Stories Part 3 – Post by Jonathan Trigg

June 13, 2014

Here’s a real treat for you all, a long, detailed and fascinating post by Jonathan, he writes:

There have been a number of occasions over the past couple of months where I have found myself suitably inspired to think about actually writing something in response to previous blogs, but now seems to have been the first time that I have been able to put pen to paper (or whatever the laptop-friendly equivalent is…). With luck there’ll be more to come, but for now (and given that we are in the centenary year of the outbreak of the so-called “war to end all wars”), I thought that this would be the most important to start with (and with thanks to Julia for bringing this important subject up, and also for flagging up how useful this blog is as a resource for sharing research).

To me it seems that there are three strands of research that we, as historians of archaeology, should be pursuing viz-a-viz conflict situations; briefly, I would summarize them as follows:

  1. How has conflict affected archaeological practice?
  2. What was the contribution of archaeological knowledge to conflict?
  3. What happened to archaeologists in conflict?

All of these topics interest me to a greater or lesser extent; they all would seem to be inextricably linked and I thought it might be interesting to sketch out a few ideas and examples. Here, I must stress that I am approaching this from a HARN point of view, and do not wish to embark on a historiography of the relatively recent, but flourishing, discipline of ‘conflict’ or ‘battlefield archaeology’; furthermore, here I will be concentrating on World War 1.

To start with the influence of conflict on archaeology, and here it must be said that there are positive and negative elements to consider. Perhaps the greatest contribution that war has made to the advancement of archaeology is the development of equipment that is now considered commonplace in archaeological research. The most obvious situation here is in the field of aerial photography, with developments both in the aeroplane and cameras, largely as a result of the Great War. This, together with military training, allowed the likes of OGS Crawford and his contemporaries to map and interpret landscapes as a cumulative whole. There was also the formation of monument protection plans in the face of conflict. Thus, Theodor Wiegand directed monument protection in the Ottoman Empire.

There is, of course, the negative side of conflict which imposed itself upon archaeology, either as the result of projects which were never seen through to fruition or (and often a cause of the latter) the death or long-term incapacity of established and promising archaeologists. Furthermore, conflict has frequently been known to disturb or destroy archaeological sites. Finally, as biographers of historically-significant archaeologists, perhaps we should consider how conflict affected these people, and how their specialist skills were utilised?

I would like to consider here the Romanist George Leonard Cheesman (14/9/84-10/8/15).[1] Cheesman took a first in Classical Mods in 1905, and likewise in Lit. Hum. in 1907. He was at the British School at Athens from 1908-9 and fellow of New College, Oxford from 1908. He taught, in particular, on the subject of the Roman military, authoring the seminal English-language work Auxilia of the Roman Army (1914), much cited even today. This was the development of his prize-winning 1911 Arnold Essay in Ancient History. In the context of this piece of work, it is worthy of note that, in his study of the Roman army, he made far-sighted comparisons with contemporary military practice. It is perhaps whimsical, but interesting, to consider how much this was of use to his brief military career (he had been a territorial volunteer, prior to the war as well). Furthermore, he took part in Roman excavations in England, including at Corbridge and Ribchester, as well as being well-travelled throughout the Roman Empire.

Cheesman obtained a commission in the 10th Hampshire Regiment, although it was noted contemporaneously that many of his colleagues hoped that his scholarly qualifications, particularly his mastery of several languages (not least of which was Serbian, significant at the time) might be used in an alternative occupation by the War Office. Cheesman was killed in action at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, at the age of 30; a flourishing scholar cut down in his prime in an area that features greatly in the classical historic literature.

A memorial service was held for him (alongside Arthur George Heath, another Fellow) at New College that year. Appreciations of Cheesman were written by Gilbert Murray (‘A Professor’s Proud Remembrance’ in The Lost Generation of 1914), and particularly by Francis Haverfield, the leading expert on Roman inscriptions in Britain, and who viewed Cheesman as his intellectual successor. In an obituary published in both The Classical Review and the Journal of Roman Studies (both publications to which Cheesman had contributed), he wrote that “indeed, the study of history has seldom lost an ‘inheritor of unfulfilled renown’.” And that “if he lived, he was singularly sure to do really great historical work”. He further noted that, even at the end of Haverfield’s first lecture to his cohort, Cheesman formed a question worthy of ‘none but a thorough historian’. Cheesman’s death was reported in Paul Lejay’s summary of the British School at Athens activity from 1914-16 in the Journal des Savants of 1918 and he was also commemorated in the Roll of Honour published in the Annual of the British School at Athens in 1919 and on a plaque listing these at the School itself. Utilising the data from David Gill’s blog on the history of the British School at Athens, we can see that, of 111 surviving male students at the outbreak of war, Cheesman was one of seven who died in the conflict (a 6.31% loss rate – not all of the 111 would necessarily have been eligible for active service, but it is interesting to note that this can be compared to estimates of the percentages of total British population deaths -including civilians- of between 1.79 and 2.2%).

The death of Cheesman, and the lamentations afforded him by his contemporaries brings me to the question of how would Classical scholars have viewed the Great War? Cheesman himself wrote letters to many of his friends stating that he was fighting on historical ground to win back the Roman capital from the Turks. However, it was not just the scholastic community for whom this was an important question, for a survey of the popular regional press at the time shows that the era was steeped in Homeric literature, and the press of the time made many references to the Trojan Wars and other heroic Greek episodes. For instance, a popular advert run in various newspapers in December 1914 for Dunlop tyres, highlighting the importance of pneumatic tyres in the capture of Boer general, Piet de Wet, in 1901 considered that large issues often hinge on small details. It stated that “[i]f Helen of Troy had had a snub nose, the Trojan war, with its far reaching consequences for the ancient world, would never have been fought”.

An article to the North Eastern Gazette on January 13th, 1915 carried a critique of an article in the French journal Revue des deux Mondes, by de Lannay which drew direct comparisons with the battles of the Great War and those of Antiquity. The trench system of warfare was referred as a return by the infantry to “Roman earthworks” and trench fighting was seen as being as close enough “to joke and revile each other, like the heroes of Homer”. Individual fights between infantrymen were often considered as redolent of the fight between Achilles and Hector. Taking trenches “required almost as much fighting as the Trojan war”.  A description of the Hun invasion of Gaul in AD451 follows, which is related to the military position in the Paris basin. Particular attention is drawn to the comparison which can be made between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Attila, with the hope that the same fate should occur to the Germans as the Huns.

Similar references were made later in the war, with the Gallipoli campaign in which Cheesman fought and died. The Edinburgh Evening News of 17th March 1915, in a report presaging the campaign reported how, on arrival at Tenedos, it was possible to gain “some idea of the panorama obtained in reaching this island which witnessed some thousands of years ago the Trojan War and now is destined to see from its shores enacted probably the most historical event of this war”. Tenedos was the focus of another article, this time in the Burnley Express of 1st May 1915, which highlighted the fact that this was the place to which the Greeks withdrew their fleet in an attempt to convince the Trojans that they had fully retreated, as well as being used by Xerxes in the Persian War as a naval station. The comparisons with the existing situation were inevitably drawn, with much the same comment being made in the [West Midlands] Evening Despatch exactly one week later and repeated in the Newcastle Journal on the 10th May 1915.

References to modern places that were no doubt unheard of in many homes in Britain were contextualised by their occurrences in Classical texts; thus the Liverpool Echo of 28th July 1915, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette and Liverpool Daily Post of the 29th July 1915 (and reprinted in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on the 30th July) reported that “[a] number of howitzers have been brought and placed behind hills on the other side of the Menders River (the Simois of the Trojan War).”

An article from the Birmingham Daily Mail of January 29th 1915 utilises Classical (and later) warfare to counter the argument stated by von Moltke (chief of the German General Staff from 1906-14) that, had Germany wanted war at the beginning of the twentieth century, they would have pushed for it in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese conflict, whilst two of the major powers in the Great War were otherwise occupied, thus weakening the Allied powers. In this case, the correspondent argues, somewhat facetiously that Germany did not participate in the Trojan or Punic Wars; thus she clearly didn’t want war in 1915. To quote the final statement of the article “Q.E.D.”

It was not just battle activities that were given a Classical turn. Making reference to the economic blockade, it was noted in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 20th March 1915 that the Trojan War lasted ten years, but it was not starvation that caused the end of the conflict, but the Trojan Horse stratagem.[2] Referring to the censorship prevalent during the Great War, the following joke was run in the Yorkshire Evening Post on the 13th November 1915 and the Newcastle Journal of the 15th November 1915:

“Is this all about the Trojan War” asked the student during the Greek class.

It is replied the Professor.

“Well somebody was a wonder to get that all past the censor!”

Finally, an article in the Burnley News of 24th November 1915 drew broad comparisons between the emerging genre of Great War poetry, and that of the epic poetry of the Trojan War. After this date, Classical references seem to tail off – perhaps unsurprisingly given the perceived and actual failure of the Dardanelles campaign, as the romanticised allusions for the war on a lot of fronts seem to have faded away quite a bit. The exception could be made for the campaign in Palestine/the Holy Land in 1917/1918 though.

This is far from a complete review of the way that Classical Archaeology and scholarship were viewed during the war.[3] But what general conclusions can we make from it? There are important comments to be made here. For a start, it can be seen that these references were published not only in the national press, but throughout the country. It can be seen, therefore, that, in an age in which the newspaper was the equivalent to today’s internet with regard to influence and dissemination of information, the Classics were seen to be significant. Homer and Virgil were the staples of the academic system, particularly of the officer class. The interest in the Classical roots of the Gallipoli campaign did not stop with the war itself – in the post-war pilgrimages made by survivors and the next of kin, many visits were also made to the sites of the Homeric epics.

I wonder what other HARN members might make of this, and would be glad for suggestions of how to take this farther.  One possible avenue of research would be to look at comparative approaches in other countries – there was certainly a wealth of German Roman scholarship at the time, not to mention the archaeological and historical exploits of TE Lawrence.

[1] I am grateful to Phil Freeman whose research for his excellent biography of Francis Haverfield, and in several seminar presentations, first brought GL Cheesman to my attention, and got me thinking about the legacy of the Great War on scholarship

[2] Indeed the SS River Clyde, from which many troops were landed at Cape Helles, has often been referred to as a Trojan Horse.

[3] There is a far better summary of archaeological activity in the Aegean during the Great War by David Gill in Public Archaeology for 2011.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Julia permalink
    June 14, 2014 11:32 am

    Thank you for this, it’s absolutely fascinating. I had never even heard of Cheesman and had no idea that the newspapers made so much reference to the Classics, and the idea that the local press did the same is just mind-bending! It makes you realise just how prevelant the concept of a classical education actually was, so interesting.
    I don’t know if you, or other HARN members, know the answer to these questions, but in the hope someone does here goes:
    Wheeler said in Still Digging (and of course now I can’t find the exact reference) that he was the only one of his generation to survive, or one of the few, does anyone know if this was in fact true or typical Wheeler hyperbole? Looking at the stats from the British School of Athens I guess it could actually be so.
    My other question is about archaeology using military terminology, campaigns, seasons etc. Is this a reflection of the Ordnance Survey and/or Pitt Rivers?
    Any answers, further examples, gratefully received

  2. June 17, 2014 9:07 pm

    In a forthcoming article in the Archaeological Journal vol. 171 for 2014 (out in print Sept 2014), Professor David Breeze again tackles how the polarity in views on the Roman army, whether viewed as either as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, inspired by recent thinking about civilization, has dominated our thinking of Romano-British military archaeology

  3. Kate Sheppard permalink
    June 20, 2014 12:19 pm

    Reblogged this on Adventures in History and Archaeology and commented:
    Fascinating post on one of my favorite history of archaeology blogs. If you have any comments or suggestions for Jonathan, please go over to the main post and post your thoughts!

  4. Kate Sheppard permalink
    June 20, 2014 12:20 pm

    I also wonder, not just about how archaeological practice is affected, but also what do archaeologists do in the meantime when they can’t dig? Do you know about any spies? I’ve found a few…wonder if anyone else has?


  1. On Finding Myself in the Archive | HARN Weblog
  2. Archaeological Obituaries – who decides? | HARN Weblog
  3. Dilemma | HARN Weblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: