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Members' research

We invite members of the society to discuss their research or to announce their latest publication through a short blog post.

Chris Kempshall

Unwilling allies?: Tommy-Poilu relations on the Western Front 1914-1918

My research focuses predominantly on the interactions and relations between allied soldiers of different nationalities. My recently completed PhD thesis focused on the relations between British and French soldiers on the Western Front. Whilst previous studies have touched on the relations between common soldiers, this has often been within specific case studies. I drew particularly on the contemporary diaries, letters and written records of British soldiers within the Imperial War Museum and also the postal censorship records of the French army at the Archives de l’armee de terre in order to trace the nature and evolution of these relations across the war.

Whilst I followed these Tommy-Poilu interactions across the war I paid particular attention to specific moments of high contact such as the First Battle of the Marne, The Battle of the Somme, the German’s Spring Offensive of 1918 and the Final Hundred Days.

This focus shows that the arrival of Kitchener’s New Armies in 1915-16 was a crucial development in forming strong relations between British and French soldiers. British military command took little interest and made no substantial plans for ensuring friendly relations between soldiers of the two armies and, as a result, these early interactions were largely self-directed by the soldiers. They were also driven by the apparent insecurities of the British volunteer soldiers who viewed themselves as being less accomplished than their French fellows, who were largely well-disposed to welcoming and teaching the new British arrivals in order to achieve swift victory. I argue that, although serendipitous in nature, this uneven starting point allowed relations between British and French armies to evolve positively whilst allowing both sides to maintain a sense of their own national identity without having to overly sacrifice their own ideals. However, the French desire for a decisive victory and a professional response in the trenches led to a rupture in Tommy-Poilu relations following the British failures in 1918. This changed the dynamic between the two nations in the build up to, and aftermath of, the armistice and provided a prelude to the difficult inter-war relationships at governmental levels.

Whilst I am beginning to prepare my PhD thesis for publication as a monograph I am also now exploring incorporating the experiences of American soldiers to this topic. My research showed that upon their arrival in 1917 and 1918 the French largely embraced the arriving Americans, whilst the British reacted with suspicion and disdain. As the American Expeditionary Force would come to have increasing levels of involvement in the Western Front fighting, the incorporation of the American interactions with British and French soldiers seems to be the next logical evolution of the study.

I have had a circuitous approach to the field of First World War studies with my initial university BA degree being in Media Practice and Theory, followed by a Masters in Contemporary War and Peace Studies. It was when I encountered theories of the ‘myth’ of the First World War during history related courses in my undergraduate that the war first took hold as an interest of mine and Dan Todman’s work on the subject cemented my interest in the field. The original notion behind my PhD thesis was to examine whether the British and French had competing or complimentary ‘myths’ of the First World War but it was during that early research that I realized that the relationships between British and French soldiers had been largely overlooked and the more I examined it the more interested I became. The article Elizabeth Greenhalgh wrote on ‘Parade Ground Soldiers’ proved to my mind how important an area this could be and now I can’t imagine not working within the topic of allied relations.