On November 22nd and 23rd, I attended the Canterbury 100 conference reflecting on and exploring the commemoration of World War One. This was my first time attending an academic conference, and even though I wasn’t presenting (the CFP closed before I’d even begun my thesis) it was still an incredibly valuable experience. I wanted to go for two main reasons. Firstly, the conference topic is very relevant to my field of study, and the chance to listen to people within my area speak about their research was two good to miss. Secondly, there were a few big name people in the program whose work has been valuable to my own research, and who I really wanted to hear speak and meet.
I’ll be honest, going in on the first day of the conference I was very nervous. I didn’t know anyone, and I wasn’t presenting, so it was easy to feel a bit out of place. Luckily, I ended up sitting next to someone I know from academic twitter (what a world we live in), and made some friends pretty quickly.
I’m not going to go into detail here about all the talks I listened to, even though they were all fascinating. Most of the people who read this are not researching the First World War/commemoration, and I think a blow by blow of every speech would get a bit tedious. If you do want to find out more about the individual speakers, Hanna Smyth did a fantastic series of live-tweets (you may have to hunt a bit to find them – scroll for a bit and search #C100WWI) that did an amazing job of summarising all the main points.
What really stood out to me during the conference was the focus on voices that have in some way been previously marginalised – whether that be a result of their race, culture, or access to the formal mechanisms of narrative creation and commemoration. So much fascinating work has been done over the course of the centenary with local communities to help share their war stories – including Catriona Pennell and Hanna Smyth‘s presentations. There has also been a concerted effort to tell the stories of those who have been largely absent from the traditional British and Commonwealth narratives because of their race, with a specific focus in the conference on the experience of Indian soldiers and women during the war – spoken about by Santanu Das and Arumina Day respectively. It was also great to see a focus on less-discussed aspects of the First World War, incluing the Salonika Front from Simon Moody and the Arminian Genocide from Joy Damousi. Seeing as diversification of traditional war narratives is kinda my jam, it was great to see so much discussion going on. I was surprised by the lack of discussion about Māori and Pasifika inclusion and experiences, but perhaps some of the panels I was unable to attend discussed these topics in more detail.
As it turned out, the presentation I was the most excited to hear was the one that disappointed me most. Now, I’m going to go out and say it right now in case someone tries to jump down my throat – I am in no way going to suggest that I know more than Christopher Pugsley, or deny that he has done great things for military history in New Zealand. But listening to him talk about his experience as historical advisor on Gallipoli: Scale of our War at Te Papa left me feeling a bit off. In particular, I found the way he spoke about Māori participation as being “unrepresentative” of the New Zealand experience in the First Word War reflective of a far more traditional view of commemorating and discussing military history, one based on percentages, rather than reflecting the experiences of the various groups who served. At the end of his talk I was left with far more questions than answers, questions I never had the chance to ask because he disappeared almost immediately afterwards. Obviously I am coming at commemoration from a slightly more niche perspective than most, but I did find some of his attitudes towards his role and what story of Gallipoli should be told as a bit…well…old fashioned.
Overall, however, the conference was a success. I had the opportunity to speak to some amazing academics whose work I really admire, and I managed to make some new friends in the process! I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about academic conferences, but the Canterbury 100 conference was a great experience all-in-all. I left with new friends, new ideas, and a renewed enthusiasm for academia and research.