Updated: Dec 2, 2020
#PodcastingHistory 5 is here! This time, I get to share a post with you from Wesley Livesay of The History of the Great War podcast. Here, he discusses his process for creating "A Re-examination of Cavalry in the First World War, Part I", the first episode in his series on the British cavalry's contributions to World War One:
Unlike some of the other podcasts which you may have read about during the #PodcastingHistory series, my show is narrative and chronological. This means I usually do not have to really hunt for my story. The First World War is a well established timeline--all I have to do is walk down it with my listeners. While this was a huge advantage when I first began, it's recently become more of danger, as it can be very easy to just start going through the motions instead of hunting for a unique and interesting story. Anybody who spends much time reading or listening to a wide range of history resources can probably tell you how easy it is for historians to tell a boring and predictable story and I try to stay away from that.
For many of my episodes, research begins on Amazon. The Marne, Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, and so many other events of the First World War are incredibly well covered by historians. To try and prevent myself from merely retelling a predictable story, I have developed several habits, and one of the most important is to spend some time wandering through the very interesting world of graduate theses and dissertations. I will often do this by just going to the Open Access Theses and Dissertations website (oatd.org), typing in a keyword, and browsing through the results. Not every entry on the site is of the highest quality--they are after all created by Master's and PhD students--but it provides some deep dives into some topics that are hard to find anywhere else. This is especially important to my podcast because I am neither a graduate student, nor affiliated with any university, and I only speak English. These factors limit my access to some sources. Perhaps my favorite item I have found on OATD is a dissertation called Offensive spending: tactics and procurement in the Habsburg military, 1866-1918 by John Anthony Dredger (1) which discusses the spending of the Habsburg military in the decades before the war. It is an incredibly niche topic and Dredger's work is built off of a huge number of German sources which are unavailable to me.
While Dredger's work is my favorite that I have discovered on OATD, by far the most impactful for my podcast was Fire and the Sword: The British Army and the Arme Blanche Controversy 1871-1921 by Stephen Badsey (2). When most people think of the Western Front during the First World War, cavalry is not something that enters into the equation. If anything, people consider it to be a silly and absurd notion that cavalry could be used in a battlefield dominated by trenches and barbed wire. That was roughly my mindset as well, and the only time I planned on discussing cavalry in any meaningful way was during the episodes covering the Middle Eastern theatre. Reading Badsey's dissertation changed all of that. This would then lead me to read other works by Badsey including his recent book on the British cavalry between 1880 and 19183. This research spiral continued with other items available on OATD that focused on other facets of the usage of cavalry during the war. (4,5)
When I initially decided to spend an episode focusing on cavalry I believed that it would be a story of commanders stuck in the past, not properly reacting to modern realities. However, as my research continued, a very different story emerged. Instead of commanders with outdated tactics, I found commanders trying to develop tactics that would allow them to maintain some form of mobility on a battlefield of increasing technology. The reality of the battlefield was that while firepower technology was advancing rapidly, modes of transportation were not. While cavalry would certainly become a battlefield anachronism by the end of the First World War, before the war began there were few other options. Many commanders had no choice but to rely on the horse as the only way of propelling an attack forward faster than man could walk. This research ultimately changed my perspective on the value of cavalry during WWI, which compelled me to increase the scope with which I intended to write about the topic. What began as one episode quickly became four. With much more writing ground to cover, I needed to expand the timeline backwards and cover the evolution of cavalry before the war, not just during. This resulted in a dive into the Boer War starting with Badsey's discussion of the British Cavalry in the Boer War (6) and then following up with the excellent work of Spencer Jones.(7)
The four episodes that I released on cavalry, beginning in March 2016, was a real turning point for me. It represented my first large departure from the normal, and honestly predictable, story of the war. It was received well by listeners, and that gave me the confidence to explore more in future episodes. Over the last two years I have spent more time finding the weird and interesting stories of the war, to the benefit of myself (adventures are fun!) and those who listen to my show.
1: Dredger, J. A. (2013). Offensive spending: tactics and procurement in the Habsburg military, 1866-1918. (Doctoral Dissertation). Kansas State University. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2097/15684
2: Badsey, S. D. (1982). Fire and the Sword : the British Army and the Arme Blanche controversy 1871-1921. (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Cambridge. Retrieved from https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/244878 ; http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.237654
3: Badsey, S. (2016). Doctrine and reform in the British cavalry 1880-1918. London: Routledge.
4: Potter, S. E. (2013). "Smile and Carry On:" Canadian Cavalry on the Western Front, 1914-1918. (Thesis). University of Western Ontario. Retrieved from https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/1226
5: Kenyon, D. (2008). British Cavalry on the Western Front 1916-1918. (Doctoral Dissertation). Cranfield University. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1826/3032
6: Badsey, S. "The Boer War (1899-1902) and British Cavalry Doctrine: A Re-Evaluation." The Journal of Military History, vol. 71 no. 1, 2007, pp. 75-97. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jmh.2007.0001
7: Risio, A. J. (2012). Building the Old Contemptibles: British military transformation and tactical development from the Boer War to the Great War, 1899-1914. Place of publication not identified: Biblioscholar Dissertations.
Wesley Livesay is the creator of the History of the Great War podcast, a weekly podcast which covers the events of the First World War in (roughly) chronological order which began in 2014. He is a software developer by trade and earned his BS and MS in Information Systems from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.