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Into the Vortex: Britain & the First World War - 30 credits (HS1787)

Module Tutor: Dr Toby Thacker

Course Description

This module explores Britain’s role in the First World War, and examines the impact the war had on British society and culture. It takes a twin track approach. On the one hand, it explores the military history of the war. On the other, it examines the cultural history of the war through the study of literature, art and music. We will pay particular attention to a selected group of artists whose work both embodied the experience of war, and shaped British views of the war. The writers, poets, painters and composers we consider – while many have taken on iconic roles in twentieth-century Britain – exemplify varied perspectives on the war. They have been chosen to represent the traditional and the modern, and to provide something of a cross section of British society in 1914. They include the poets Rupert Brooke and Hedd Wyn; the authors Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon, and T. E. Lawrence; the painters Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer; and the composers Edward Elgar and Hubert Parry. Studying these men and women and the work they produced either during the war, or in the years after 1918, provides a fascinating lens through which to explore the war’s effect on British society and culture. What was the involvement of these individuals in the war? How did they view the war’s progress? How is the war depicted in their work? In looking at the impact of the First World War on British society and culture, the module blends the military and social history of the period to examine how the British tried to come to terms with the war, how its progress was viewed, and how society responded to the war.

Dr Toby Thacker's research interest focus on propaganda and culture in Germany, citizenship and identity, and writing biographies. His recent study, Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death (2009), is the first to be written since the entire set of Goebbels’ diaries has been published and offers important new contentions and insights.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to lectures.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one 1000 word assessed essay [15%], one 2000 word assessed essay [35%] and one two-hour unseen written examination paper in which the student will answer two questions [50%].

Course assignments:

Assessed Essay 1 will contribute 15% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 1,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

Assessed Essay 2 will contribute 35% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Skills that will be practised and developed

Students will extend their ability to:

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • think critically and challenge assumptions
  • use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • manage their time and organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions. 

Suggested preparatory reading

Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Bantam, 1989)
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 1975)
Samuel Hynes, A war imagined: the First World War and English culture (Bodley Head, 1990)
Arthur Marwick, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War (Macmillan, 1991)
A. J. P. Taylor, The First World War: an illustrated history (Hamish Hamilton, 1963)
Jon Silkin, The Penguin Book of First World War poetry (Penguin, 1996)
Richard Cork, A bitter truth: avant-garde art and the Great War (Yale University Press, 1994)
Jane Potter, Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918 (Clarendon Press, 2005)
Gary Sheffield and John Bourne (eds), Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)