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Civilian Experiences and Home Fronts in the First World War

  • Christodoulou Meeting Room 11 The Open University Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA (map)

This one-day event focuses on civilian experiences of the First World War. Three speakers will explore the civilian experience of World War I in Iran; British theatre during the Great War; and living under military occupation in Europe, 1914-1918.

Attendance is free, but registration is required. Please contact Marie-Claire Leroux ( to register and to advise of any dietary requirements by 30 June 2017. For additional information, and to receive the workshop programme, please contact

This workshop will consist of three papers focused on the theme of civilian experiences in the First World War. The speakers are Oliver Bast, Helen Brooks and Sophie De Schaepdrijver.

Oliver Bast: Losers and Winners at the Homefront of a 'Neutral' State: The Civilian Experience of World War I in Iran

Although Iran never entered in the conflict on either side, the officially neutral country became a battle ground of the First World War which had far reaching implications for the people living on its territory. The proposed paper tries gauging this impact. It explores both, the (still hardly known, yet widespread and sometimes extreme) tribulations that many civilians had to endure as well as the (even less considered) potential for enrichment and upward mobility, which the war situation afforded others.

Biographical note:
Oliver Bast, Maître-ès-Lettres, Dr. phil., is Professor of Iranian Studies at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. His research interests include the political and diplomatic history of Modern Iran with a particular focus on the “long” First World War, but also the interface between historiography, politics and cultural memory in contemporary Iran. Bast has edited La Perse et La Grande Guerre (Louvain: Peeters, 2002) and authored Les Allemands en Perse pendant la Première Guerre Mondiale (Louvain: Peeters, 1997). Other recent World War I related writings include “ ‘Sheer Madness’ or ‘Railway Politics’ Iranian Style? – The Controversy over Railway Development Priorities Within the Persian Government in 1919–1920 and British Railway Imperialism”, IRAN, vol. LV, no. 1 (2017): 1-17; « Les « buts de guerre » de la Perse neutre pendant la Première Guerre mondiale », Relations internationales, n° 160 (2015): 95-110; “Duping the British and outwitting the Russians? Iran’s foreign policy, the ‘Bolshevik threat”, and the genesis of the Soviet-Iranian Treaty of 1921’, in Cronin, Stephanie (ed.) Iranian-Russian Encounters: Empires and Revolutions since 1800 (London & New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 261-297.

Helen Brooks: Not just ‘A Little Bit of Fluff': British Theatre during the Great War

This paper will demonstrate the diverse ways in which theatre across Scotland, Wales and England, responded to and represented the experience of war between 1914 and 1918. Drawing on extensive data from the ‘Recovering First World War Theatre’ Project – a project recording data on every new play written and licensed for performance during the Great War – the paper will explore both geographic and temporal trends in the wartime performance of war-themed plays. Analysing these trends in relation to the wider context of the conflict the paper will reveal how theatrical representations engaged with both national and local experiences of, and attitudes towards the war. As such it will argue that wartime theatre offers a valuable and long-overlooked lens through which to understand the experience of conflict.

Biographical note:
Helen Brooks is a theatre historian at the University of Kent. Her interests span the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and she is currently researching the theatre of, and about, the First World War. She is Primary Investigator on the 'Recovering First World War Theatre' project and a Co-Investigator of ‘Gateways to the First World War’, an AHRC centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary.
Dr Brooks also researches theatre and performance during the long eighteenth-century. She has published on the topics of women's involvement in theatre during the eighteenth-century, cross-dressing, acting theory, histories of gender and sex, the economics of the stage, amateur and private theatricals, and the theatre as a site of social engagement.

Sophie De Schaepdrijver: Civilians in the Great War’s Third Space: Living under Military Occupation in Europe, 1914-1918

The First World War divided Europe into sharply delineated spaces: fronts; home fronts; and those spaces which were neither – the areas invaded by enemy armies. Close to 40 million Europeans experienced the war as civilians under military occupation. They lived in areas ranging from the highly industrialized regions behind the Western Front to the sparsely-populated Baltic; from the urban sophistication of Warsaw to the Karst mountains of Montenegro. Occupied Europe was both marginal and central to the war: marginal, because it saw neither army clashes nor arms production; central, because it was created and suffused by the war and because it propelled the war onward. This paper will examine what the particular, and particularly baffling, experience of “being occupied” meant for civilians: violence, but also interstices in violence; limitations and agency; self-definitions; time-horizons; memory. It will also ask whether it is possible to study “occupied Europe” as a whole.

Biographical note:
Sophie De Schaepdrijver holds the Ferree Professorship in Modern European History at Penn State University (USA). She is a historian of the First World War with a special interest in gender, class, the uses of language, and military occupations. Her most recent books are Military Occupations in the First World War (edited, 2014); Bastion: Occupied Bruges in the First World War (2014); Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War (2015); and An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp (with Tammy Proctor; 2017). She is currently (2016-2017) Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Kent, where she has given a series of lectures entitled “Enemy Rule: Seeing the First World War Through the Lens of Military Occupations.”