My thesis project title is “Close order in the French and British armies (1853-1920)”. Indeed, from the second half of the 19th century to the end of the First World War, traditional bodily movements (the rigid parallelism of the dense rank and file formations, the uniform distances to be respected between each fighting unit and each soldier, the regularity of the cadence step during complex and numerous evolutions) were progressively distinguished from emerging bodily movements (the advance, in subsequent short leaps, of small pockets of dispersed and initiative-driven soldiers, using the protection of the terrain to move and to fight or digging trenches when no cover was available).
The aforementioned traditional bodily movements still remained an important part of infantry ceremonial, training and combat throughout this period. How can we explain their “resilience”? Using French and British tactical essays, inspection reports, training manuals and iconography of ceremonials, trainings and combats, the objective of our thesis is to “follow” the movements attributable to close order tactics. It is by knowing when, where and how these traditional bodily movements were used that we will be able to better understand how the tactical (thus bodily) knowledge of contemporaries was constructed.
Why did you decide to work on the First World War?
During my masters degree, I studied military drill in the Canadian militia, from 1867 to 1914. For my PhD, I wanted to get closer to the tactical crisis felt by contemporaries across the world. Firstly, Canada had a (very) small input in international debates on tactics, whereas France and Great-Britain experienced some of the major conflicts of this period. They had their share of combat experience, which they tried to make sense of. Secondly, I understood that, for the particular subject of military tactics, studying, for example, the Second Boer War while leaving the First World War out was unsatisfactory, being this period’s densest moment of tactical transformation.
Which is your favourite book on the First World War and why?
One of my favourite (classical) books on the First World War is The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900-1918 by Tim Travers. In the first part of this study, he analyses the pre-First World War “traditional attitude” of British officers and relates it to this conflict, which is an interesting approach for my research.