Week 9 Seminar: Aimée Fox-Godden – ‘A case of goats mingling with sheep? The identification and employment of civilian experts in the British Army of the First World War’

Our Week 9 Modern & Contemporary Research Seminar is by our own:

Aimée Fox-Godden

‘A case of goats mingling with sheep? The identification and employment of civilian experts in the British Army of the First World War’

Aperçu de « Microsoft Word - Fox-Godden.M&C.Poster.docx »

See you at 16:15 in the Rodney Hilton Library, on Wednesday 26 November.

All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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Film Showing: The Politics of Famine in the Greek 1940s.


The Birmingham Centre for Modern & Contemporary History, in association with BOMGS, is pleased to present

A Basket of Food: Greece in the 1940′s

Directed by Dr. Sheila Lecoeur (Imperial College)

Muirhead Tower Room 118, Wednesday 26th November, 2 pm.

All welcome. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the director.

This dramatic and moving film tells the story of Greece in World War II. The frightening prospect of running out of food leading to a critical famine is remembered by survivors. Their human stories show that society began to fall apart when people could no longer help each other. The film uses rare historic footage and links past and present to show that shadows of the past still haunt Greece today.

Dr Sheila Lecoeur is a lecturer at Imperial College, London and author of Mussolini’s Greek Island: Fascism and the Italian Occupation of Syros in World War II, London: I.B. Tauris 2009.

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Week 8 Seminar: Laura Beers – ‘Forging a feminist internationalism: the British Women’s International League between the wars’.

Our Week 8 Modern & Contemporary History research seminar is by our own

Dr. Laura Beers

‘Forging a feminist internationalism: the British Women’s International League between the wars.’

Beers Poster 1

See you at 16:15 in the Rodney Hilton Library, on Wednesday 19 November.

All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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Week 7 Seminar: Camilla Schofield – ‘The Mixed Inheritance of Empire: Don Chesworth, Multiculturalism and the British Left’.

After we return from reading week our research seminar will be given by:

Dr. Camilla Schofield (University of East Anglia)

The Mixed Inheritance of Empire: Don Chesworth, Multiculturalism and the British Left‘.

Schofield poster.1See you at 16:15 in the Rodney Hilton Library, on Wednesday 12 November.

All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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Week 5 Seminar: Eric Tagliacozzo – ‘Chinese ‘Illegalities’ in Colonial Southeast Asia: Lessons from the Fin-de-Siècle Maritime World’.

Our seminar this week is in association with the Global China: New Approaches lecture series and is by Eric Tagliacozzo (Cornell University). It is titled ‘Chinese ‘Illegalities’ in Colonial Southeast Asia: Lessons from the Fin-de-Siècle Maritime World’.

It’s on Wednesday, October 29, 2014 at 4:15 p.m. in The Senate Chamber, Aston Webb Building.

Eric POster 2

Abstract: How have Chinese been typecast as ‘illegal’ in colonial eyes in the various parts of Southeast Asia? What has been their significance as a community, and how has this changed over time? To what extent is Chinese ‘illegality’ a myth and to what extent has it corresponded to any historical truth? My presentation will examine the interface between overseas Chinese and the colonial state writ-large in Maritime Southeast Asia, particularly in the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya, over the course of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. In the first part of my talk, I will look at various sites of contestation, as this pertained to this ethnic divide across the Insular World of Southeast Asia. The second part of my talk looks at the archipelago through ‘secret societies’ and ‘illegal trade’, as these concepts were understood by colonial governments. Finally, the third part of the lecture then focuses on the border itself, partially maritime in nature and partially overland, as Chinese communities on the evolving frontier were classied by these states. In total, I hope to show some of the ways in which the maritime Southeast Asian milieu dictated new ways of type-casting Chinese communities, and how this fits into larger taxonomic processes of the state at a time of evolving modernity.

Student bursaries are available. Please contact: Daisy Payling (dxp720@bham.ac.uk)

Image copyright Eric Tagliacozzo/Yale University Press.

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Week 4 Seminar: Daniel Whittingham – ‘The Global War: British Strategy, 1914-16’.

Our seminar this week is by our own Dr. Daniel Whittingham on: The Global War: British Strategy 1914-16.

Dan Poster

See you at 16:15 in the Rodney Hilton Library, on Wednesday 22 October. All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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Week 3 Seminar: Global Houses, Global Homes – Dr. Kate Smith

Our seminar today is in association with CREMS and is by Birmingham’s own Dr. Kate Smith, speaking on

‘Global houses, global homes: mobility and migration in the long eighteenth century’.

See you at 16h in Arts 103. All are welcome and there will be drinks.

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Week 2 Seminar (First of 2014-15!)

We kick off the new year in the Modern and Contemporary History Seminar Series (full calendar here) with a talk by Dr. James Ryan of the University of Exeter, titled ‘”The ‘Incorruptible Kodak”: Photography, lantern slide lectures and cultures of colonial mission and humanitarianism in the Congo Reform Association, 1904-1911′. It’s on Wednesday 8 October, beginning at 4:15pm in the Rodney Hilton Library, Arts Building, 3rd floor.  All are welcome, and there will be drinks.


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Histories of Proxy Warfare in the Modern Middle East

As a number of British newspapers lead this morning with news that Britain is going to war again in the Middle East, here’s a piece – recently published at The Conversation, an excellent site co-sponsored by the University of Birmingham – which tries to set current events into historical perspective, with a focus on the 1920s.


An “initial gifting package”: the opaque label is wrapped around £1.6m worth of heavy machine guns and half a million rounds of ammunition, which has now reached the Iraqi town of Arbil courtesy of the British government. The delivery adds a small British component to a flow of weaponry, air strikes and “advisors” that has washed into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq over the last month.

These deliveries are the most concrete aspect of the international response to the gains by Islamic State (IS) militants over the summer, and that response has now culminated in Barack Obama’s effective, if unauthorised, declaration of war.

That the Kurds are outgunned because the IS is firing captured American artillery at them has not stopped the decision to supply new weaponry. Neither have the shipments been slowed by the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) willingness to agree a very short-lived and opportunist “informal non-aggression pact” with the IS in mid-June, as the two sides took over Kirkuk and Mosul respectively. It allowed the Kurds to “expand their territory by some 40%”.

Clearly, in the wake of Chuck Hagel’s warning that the US fight against IS is not going to be “a combat boots on the ground kind of operation”, the KRG and its forces are thus the new favourite proxies in the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands.

Who gets the guns?

But what does the region’s history tell us about this strategy of arming minorities, including the Kurds? The Western supply of weaponry to the wider Middle East has a notoriously dense modern track record and the list of recipients includes states and regular armies, in addition to minority auxiliaries.

That record of course includes the British provision of ingredients to Syria’s chemical weapons program. The Reagan administration’s massive supply
of weapons to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, meanwhile, permanently reshaped the political economy of both countries and taught Iraqi Kurds to seek ever-greater autonomy, a lesson they are now applying.

But, critically, furnishing weaponry always implies a choice of fighters to pull the trigger. This in turn has historically required an effort to identify and categorise certain groups, often – though not always – “minorities” like the Kurds, as distinctively reliable, martial proxies. Who gets the guns, and on what basis, is therefore the key question.

French proxies during WWI

During World War I – the founding conflict of the modern Middle East and its first machine-gun war – the French and British both armed an array of proxy forces. The Arab Revolt and the Jewish Legion are well known examples. But the French also built a 4,000-strong “Legion of the Orient” in 1916, composed of Ottoman Armenians, Syrians and Lebanese.

France drew the Legion’s volunteers from among Armenians fleeing the genocide against them and also from Syrians in neutral Brazil, Argentina and the USA. Shipped across the Atlantic, the latter groups found themselves deployed to fight in Palestine. Tellingly, as my own research reveals, their French officers promptly singled out the Armenians as “hardy, tough” fighters, but derided the Syrians as “vain, scheming, undisciplined and commercial individualists” – not the stuff of soldiers in other words.

Kurdish cavalry used by the Ottomans against the Russians in World War I.
The New York Times 1915

Such descriptions, as historian Richard Fogarty has shown, emerged from an established colonial mentality that identified “martial races” – Sikhs or Gurkhas for the British, and Kurds, Senegalese and Kabyles (an Algerian Berber group) for the French – and disproportionately recruited them for combat. These narratives often presented martial races as whiter, manlier and more modern than other colonial peoples. And such categories had a huge influence on both the fate of those soldiers on the front lines and on the legacies of war in the Middle East.

Alawites armed by the French

In the 1920s and 1930s, in French-ruled Syria, the emergency schemes of wartime hardened into a system that disproportionately relied on arming and training “martial” highland peoples for service as proxy forces. In 1925, for example, the outbreak of the Great Syrian Revolt against colonial rule prompted French recruitment of large numbers of Kurds, Assyro-Chaldeans and Circassians to fight against the predominantly Sunni Muslim and Druze rebels.

Alawites, the group from which Syria’s ruling Assad clan comes, were often poor or landless in this era. They too, as historian N E Bou-Nacklie has documented, jumped at the chance to carry a rifle in an auxiliary unit, as the lumbering French Army struggled to match the fast-moving guerrilla tactics of its adversaries.

As historian Benjamin Thomas White has argued, these recruiting campaigns did not just pick out pre-existing groups as handy allies. Instead, they actively forced groups like the Alawites into a new role as political “minorities”. Rather than acknowledging Alawite social and political diversity, for instance, the French reinvented them as a group defined in opposition to a Sunni Arab “majority”.

Impact on region’s political anatomy

The arming of proxies thereby helped to chop the former Ottoman populations of Iraq and Syria into ethnic-sectarian blocks. It is crucial to stress that such labels had little to do with the complex realities of people’s affiliations on the ground. But externally imposed and wrong-headed as they were, the fact that these categories brought weaponry and training to some groups and not to others meant they endured.

Like the US’s institutional embedding of sectarianism in Iraq after 2003, these labels became powerful forces in the reshaping of Syria. There, the Alawites later used their influence in the military as a springboard to political dominance in the 1960s and 1970s.

As weaponry and training flows to the Kurds over the coming months, and the KRG fights Obama’s ground war against the IS for him, we will be well-advised to consider the effects of this lethal largesse not just on the front lines, but on the political anatomy of the Iraqi and Syrian nation states in the years to come.

The Conversation

Simon Jackson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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