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Commemorating the Normandy Landings   1 comment

Documenting D-Day:

This Thursday, 6th June, many of the world’s leaders will be gathering on the beaches in Normandy to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy. Those veterans who survived the landings and the rest of the war are now well into their nineties, but many will make the crossing of the English Channel once more to commemorate their fallen comrades and recall the events of June 1944. But what exactly was ‘Operation Overlord’, what happened along the coast of Normandy seventy-five years ago, and what was the significance of those events in the war itself and over the following period? To gain a true understanding, we should not simply rely on Hollywood films or even documentaries. We also need to consult the documents and other primary, eye-witness testimonies from the time, with the help of serious historians. Otherwise, there is a danger that the sacrifice of those who took part, whether they died or survived, will be trivialised and turned into a military comic-book.

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One of the joint commanders of the Operation, Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, wrote an account as a Supplement to the London Gazette in September 1946:

I arrived in England on 2nd January, 1944, after handing over command of the Eighth Army, and immediately started a detailed study of the plans for the assault of the Continent – Operation OVERLORD. …

The intention was to assault, simultaneously, beaches on the Normandy coast. … The Normandy beaches were selected because they offered a better shelter for shipping and were less heavily defended than other possible beach areas along the Channel coast. …

The absence of major ports was overcome by the gigantic engineering feat of constructing two artificial ports in the United Kingdom; these were towed across the Channel in sections and erected, one in the United States sector and one in the British sector. …

My plan of assault, as approved by the Supreme Commander, provided for simultaneous landings by eight equivalent brigades – of which three were British and two were Canadian brigades, and three were American combat teams. … The total initial lift in the assault and follow-up naval forces was of the order of 130,000 personnel and 20,000 vehicles, all of which were to be landed on the first three tides. …

The Assault:

At 02.00 hours 6 June (1944) a ‘coup de main’ party of 6 Airborne Division was dropped near Benouville, to seize the bridges over the Canal de Caen and the River Orne. Surprise was complete, both bridges were captured intact and a close bridgehead was established. …

Meanwhile, the Allied sea armada drew in towards the coast of France, preceded by its flotillas of minesweepers. Not until the leading ships had reached their lowering positions, some seven to eleven miles offshore, and the naval bombardment squadrons had opened fire on the shore defences, was there any appreciable enemy activity. …

The Airborne and Seaborne Assault:

The Ninety men from D Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who, under the command of Major John Howard, had debouched from the gliders and captured Pegasus Bridge without difficulty earlier that morning, held it until they were relieved by Lord Lovat’s Commandos at 13.00 hours. Lovat’s had marched from the beach up to the canal towpath to the sound of bagpipes played by piper Bill Millin (pictured disembarking below), blowing away for all he was worth. The Americans were less accurate in finding their landing zones, some units landing as much as thirty-five miles off target. But this added to the practice of dropping dummy parachutists, so confusing German intelligence that it estimated a hundred thousand Allied troops had landed by air, more than four times the actual number. The majority of the paratroopers landed in the correct drop-zones, however, and were to play an invaluable part in attacking the beaches from the rear and holding back the inevitable German counter-attack.

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The French Resistance had been ordered to ready itself for the invasion by the BBC broadcast on 1 June of the first line of the poem Autumn Song by Paul Verlaine, which went Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automme (‘The long sobs of the autumn violins’). The Abwehr had tortured a ‘Maquis’ leader and learnt that when the second line – Blessent mon coeur d’une langeur monotone (‘wound my heart with monotonous languour’) – was broadcast, it meant that the invasion was imminent. So when it was duly broadcast on 5 June at 23.15, the commander of the German Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais put his troops on alert, but no one warned the Seventh Army in Normandy. At Army Group B’s chateau headquarters at La Roche-Guyon, it was assumed that it must be more disinformation, as they could not believe that the Allies would have announced the invasion over the BBC. Certainly, the Germans were not expecting the offensive when it came. Shortly before 05.00, the Seventh Army’s chief of staff warned Army Group B that the attack was indeed taking place, Rommel was unavailable as he was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday. He only made it back to La Roche-Guyon at six o’clock that evening. His chief of staff, General Hans Speidel, ordered the Twelfth SS Hitler Youth Panzer Division to counter-attack at Caen at first light, but some of the 4,500 bombers that the Allies fielded that day severely blunted this attack. As Rommel later pointed out:

Even the movement of the most minor formations on the battlefield – artillery going into position, tanks forming up, etc. – is instantly attacked from the air with devastating effect. During the day fighting troops and headquarters alike are forced to seek cover in wooded and close country in order to escape the constant pounding of the air. Up to 640 (naval) guns have been used. The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid fire artillery, either by infantry or tanks.

The German Reactions to the Assault:

Interrogated after the war, Speidel quoted Rommel as having said, very perceptively:

Elements which are not in contact with the enemy at the moment of invasion will never get into action, because of the enormous air superiority of the enemy … If we do not succeed in carrying out our combat mission of warding off the Allies or hurling them from the mainland in the first forty-eight hours, the invasion has succeeded and the war is lost for lack of strategic reserves and lack of Luftwaffe in the west.

Although Hitler was not woken at Berchtesgaden with the news of the Normandy landings – he had been up with Goebbels until three o’clock the previous night, exchanging reminiscences, taking pleasure in the many fine days and weeks we have had together, as Goebbels recorded. Even by the lunchtime conference, the High Command was unsure that this was a true attack rather than a diversion. By the time the two Panzer divisions were sent against the beaches a hundred miles away, much valuable time had been lost. Rommel felt that the Allies had to be stopped from getting ashore, telling his Staff that the first twenty-four hours will be decisive. In all, there were fifty-nine German divisions in the west at the time of D-day, of which eight were in Holland and Belgium. More than half the overall totals were mere coastal-defence or training divisions, and of the twenty-seven field divisions only ten were armoured, with three of these in the south and one near Antwerp. Six divisions, four of them coastal defence were stationed along the two hundred miles of Normandy coast west of the Seine where the Allies attacked. The commanders later admitted that all of these divisions were better described as coastal protection forces rather than as true defence.

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The Beaches – Utah & Omaha:

It was 05.50 that a massive naval bombardment opened up on the German beach fortifications and the villages along the Normandy coast. The troop crossings had taken several hours in some cases and, as it had been feared that the Germans would use gas on the beaches, the anti-gas chemical with which uniforms were sprinkled smelt so disgusting that, once added to the landing crafts’ tossing about on the waves, it induced vomiting in the many troops who had not already been seasick. At H-hour, 06.30, the main American landings took place on Utah beach, followed by those on Omaha beach, with the British and Canadians arriving on their three beaches an hour later, as Montgomery himself later recorded:

On Utah beach, VII United States Corps assaulted on a front of one regimental combat team. … On Omaha beach, H Hour for the assault had been fixed for 06.45 hours. V United States Corps assaulted on a broad front. … By nightfall V United States Corps had secured a beach head about a mile in depth.

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At Utah, 23,000 men got ashore with only 210 killed or wounded, partly because the current had swept the US Fourth Division’s landing craft some two thousand yards south of the original area designated for the attack, on to a relatively lightly defended part of the coastline, and twenty-eight of the thirty-two amphibious Duplex Drive (DD)  Sherman tanks got ashore. The one regiment facing them from the German 709th Division surrendered in large numbers once the 101st Airborne had secured at least four exits from the beaches.

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On Omaha beach, however, where two-thirds of the American effort that day was to land, it was a very different state of affairs. The veteran US 1st Division (known as the Big Red One from its shoulder flash) and the 29th Division, which had never seen combat before, were to suffer tenfold the losses as did the 4th Division at Utah. Despite all the meticulous preparation, the ground had been ill-chosen for the attack. However, once the decision had been taken to expand the area to be secured by Overlord from which further operations could be conducted to take in Utah beach to the west, Omaha was the only feasible landing area between Utah and the British and Canadian beaches. The cliffs and bluffs at Omaha were, in some places, more than a hundred and fifty feet above the sea wall at the end of the dunes and the inward curvature of the bay at that stretch helped the German fields of fire to overlap.  Underwater sand bars and ridges snagged the landing craft, and the well-placed fortifications, which can still be seen today, were not silenced by the naval shelling; the anti-personnel mines, barbed wire and huge steel anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ proved murderous obstacles; accurate German artillery fire and crack infantry troops caused havoc. Rather than the four battalions of defenders that had been planned for, there were eight, but by the time this was discovered it was too late to alter the plan of attack. These battalions provided, according to the military historian Max Hastings, by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front.

‘An American magazine spiked my review as it did not share the widespread adulation’ … Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.After a truly extraordinary opening – probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed – everything changes and becomes formulaic. The opening scenes of the movie, Saving Private Ryan (pictured right) give the best cinematographic representation of those first monstrous minutes of the Omaha landings, but even that cannot begin to show the extent of the chaos and carnage on the beaches. It would have been even worse had Rommel been right about the Allies arriving at high tide, as every gun had been fixed for this eventuality. As it was they chose low tide in order to make the obstacles more visible. The six thousand yards of Omaha beach along which the Americans landed was soon a scene of utter destruction and confusion. The American soldiers, who aged on average twenty and a half, far younger than the British, at twenty-four, and the Canadians, at twenty-nine, had to leap out of their landing craft into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire loaded down with sixty-eight pounds of equipment, including a gas-mask, grenades, TNT blocks, two bandoliers of ammunition, rations, water-bottles and related kit. Many simply drowned when the water proved deeper than they had expected.

Although the ‘British’ beaches were in part cleared of German killing apparatus by a series of specialized tank-based gadgets, Generals Bradley and Gerow preferred a massive frontal assault. Because of heavy seas and being transferred to their landing vessels eleven and a half miles out, ten landing craft and twenty-six artillery pieces sank on their way to the beaches. The British transferred at six and a half miles out and suffered fewer sinkings as a result of less turbulent water. The loss of twenty-seven of the twenty-nine DD ‘floating tanks’, launched six thousand yards from the Omaha shore, denied the Americans the necessary firepower to get off the beach early. The RAF support planes observed a shambles … on the beach … burning tanks, jeeps, abandoned vehicles, a terrific crossfire. The official account of what happened to Able Company of 116th Infantry, 29th Division, after its landing craft hit Omaha beach at 06.36 gives a sense of the horror of those next few minutes:

Ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine gun fire from both ends of the beach. … The first men out … are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning , doomed by the water-logging of of their overloaded packs. … Already the sea runs red. … A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upwards, so that their nostrils are out of the water, they creep towards the land  at the same rate as the tide. This is how most of the survivors make it. … Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless.

It was not until 13.30, after seven hours being pinned down on the beaches, that Gerow could signal to Omar Bradley, who was on board a ship trying to make out what was going on through binoculars, that troops were finally advancing up heights behind beaches. Although there were two thousand Americans killed on Omaha beach, by nightfall a total of 34,000 men had made it ashore, including two Ranger battalions that had silenced the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc to the west after scaling cliffs with rope ladders. At one point the 5th Rangers had to don gas masks in order to charge through the dense smoke coming from the undergrowth of a hillside that suddenly caught fire. In Saving Private Ryan, after its truly extraordinary opening – probably the most realistic battle sequence ever filmed – everything changes and becomes formulaic. Eight US rangers under the command of a captain, having survived the initial D-day bloodbath, are detailed to seek out and save a single man, Private Ryan. Although continually voted the best war movie ever, in a recent article for The Guardian, the historian Antony Beevor has repeated his balanced criticism of Spielberg’s claims for the movie:  

Steven Spielberg’s storyline rightly dramatises the clash between patriotic and therefore collective loyalty, and the struggle of the individual for survival. Those mutually contradictory values are, in many ways, the essence of war. Spielberg said at the time that he sees the second world war as the “defining moment” in history. One also suspects that he wanted this film to be seen as the defining movie of the war. If so, it is a uniquely American definition of history, with no reference to the British let alone the Soviet role.

Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches:

The conditions faced by British and Canadian forces prior to reaching the beaches were no less harsh than those which the US soldiers had to contend with, but they met with far less resistance in their sectors and, as Montgomery later recorded, were able to establish control far more quickly, though still sustaining significant casualties:

… Second British Army assaulted on the right in the Gold sector. … H Hour for 3 British Division was fixed for 07.25 hours and the assault waves reached the beaches well on time. The leading brigade was soon a mile inland … by nightfall the Division was well-established. … 

John Watney’s eye-witness account in The Enemy Within (1946), describes in more detail the ‘order from chaos’ which was made on the ‘British’ beaches, due to the closer range of the fleet to the shore and the steady progress made by the soldiers under the cover provided by the Royal Navy’s assault:

On the beaches themselves all was feverish activity. Invasion craft of every kind and description lay at all angles in the sand; most had gone in head foremost and now lay a little off keel, half way up the beach or just in the water; others had been swung sideways and lay like rowing boats flung up by the breakers; others were still afloat, moored in the shallow waters that rippled over the grey sands, while dark splotches, which turned at close sight into tanks, carriers, guns and trucks, poured out of all these ships and crawled away in long queues across the sands, to disappear against the green of the fields. …

All around us lay the immense fleet that had brought us to this Normandy bay. There were ships of every kind, from the clear outlines of cruisers to the tubby fussiness of tugs. … Away to our left a cruiser was firing in spaced, steady salvos; to our right a second cruiser accompanied her, while behind me, out at sea, through the mist could be seen the orange flashes from what appeared to be a battleship. …

The tide left us dry at last and on the glassy stretches of the sands the ships lay in line, their bows open, spilling their cargoes on to the grey sands, in the grey light. The air was full of the roar of vehicles, the decks shook as the tanks clanked over them and nosed on to the ramps; then, rushing down the steep slopes, grasped the water-logged sand in their tracks and, with a jerking roar, heaved themselves inland. Clouds of steam accompanied these exertions, and, as I watched the tanks crawl out of the bellies of the line of the waiting ships, I was reminded of some fearsome tale of interplanetary warfare. …

Into this colourless nightmare arena of sands and tanks there came at last a touch of humanity; the first marching troops were landing now; like pony gladiators, weighed down with kit, they scrambled down the ramps and on to the wet sands; then, hunching up their packs and tightening their blankets (rolled Spanish-ways across their shoulders), they straggled off in the resisting sand, towards the land that now looked strong and real; their voices floated back, high and thin, against the din, like the muttering of a radio set tuned low in a room full of chattering people. 

There were no high cliffs at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and more time for the naval bombardment to soften up the German defences; however, by late afternoon part of the 21st Panzer Division attacked in the gap between Juno and Sword beaches and almost made it to the Channel before being turned back by naval fire. The British suffered over three thousand casualties, but by the end of the day, the Canadians who suffered over a thousand themselves, got the furthest inland, with their 9th Brigade advancing to within three miles of the outskirts of Caen. Montgomery concluded:

As a result of our D-Day operations a foothold had been gained on the Continent of Europe.

Surprise had been achieved, the troops had fought magnificently, and our losses had been much lower than had ever seemed possible.

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Successes, Errors & Sacrifices:

At 16.00 hour Hitler, who had dithered about the best way to react to what he still suspected was a diversionary attack, finally agreed to his Chief of Staff’s request to send two Panzer Divisions into the battle in addition to the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions already committed. But as the German historian Gerhard Weinberg has pointed out,

The reinforcements dribbled into the invasion front were never enough, and the Allied air forces as well as the sabotage effort of the French resistance and Allied special teams slowed down whatever was sent. The German armoured divisions, therefore, arrived one at a time and quite slowly, were never able to punch through, and ended up being mired in positional warfare because they continued to be needed at the front in the absence of infantry divisions.

Allied aerial supremacy over the battlefield made it impossible for the German tanks to be better deployed than in piecemeal fashion in daylight. Yet five armoured divisions of the reserve in France, and no fewer than nineteen divisions of the Fifteenth Army a hundred and twenty miles to the south, simply stayed in place waiting for the ‘real’ attack in the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile, Runstedt and Rommel became more and more convinced that Normandy was indeed the true Schwerpunkt, whereas the Führer continued to doubt it. The German troops were critically under-reinforced in Normandy, partly because of the success of the Allies’ elaborate though never conspicuously uniform deception plans. A determined German ground counter-offensive had once again been staved off by Allied air power. The 7th Army had thrown into battle every available unit in the Coastal defence forces, and bringing units from Brittany would take time. That was a commodity of which they had very little since they had failed in their initial objective of flinging the invasion forces back into the English Channel immediately. Both the capacity and willingness of the Wehrmacht to push the Allies back into the sea were still there, but they were overwhelmed by the ability of the RAF and the USAAF to attack the unprotected armour from above, where it was weakest. The bombing campaigns against the Luftwaffe factories and the attritional war against the German fighters once they had been built had paid off spectacularly. Such were the forces alighting from the Arromanches Mulberry Harbour, even though the second harbour off Omaha was rendered inoperable by a storm on 19 June, that by 1 July they exceeded a million men, 150,000 vehicles and 500,000 tons of supplies.

In total, D-Day itself saw around nine thousand Allied casualties, of whom more than half were killed, a high proportion for combat in the Second World War. The Allied dead comprised 2,500 Americans, and 2,000 British and Canadians. In addition, fifteen ANZAC soldiers and fifty-seven Norwegians, Free French and Belgian soldiers were killed, making 4,572 Allied troops in total. Although expected to lose eighty per cent of their numbers, the actual figure was fifteen per cent. The American cemetery at Collesville-sur-Mer above Omaha beach bears testimony to the sacrifice of the US servicemen. The news of D-day gave sudden, soaring hope to Occupied Europe. Ann Frank, the German-Jewish author who was about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday in hiding in the hidden attic of her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam, wrote poignantly in her now well-known Diary, of her excitement at the news and of her renewed hopes for her future:

The invasion has begun! Great commotion in the Secret Annexe! Would the long-awaited liberation that has been talked of so much but still seems too wonderful, too much like a fairy-tale, ever come true? Could we be granted victory this year, 1944? We don’t know yet, but hope is revived within us; it gives us fresh courage, and makes us strong again.

A Fallen Poet:

One of those who did not survive the Normandy campaign was Keith Castellain Douglas (24 January 1920 – 9 June 1944, pictured below right), an English poet noted for his war poetry during the Second World War and his wry memoir of the Western Desert campaign, Alamein to Zem Zem. Like so many others who fell in Normandy, Douglas had lived a short life but fought a long war. He was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, the son of Capt. Keith Sholto Douglas, MC (retired) and Marie Josephine Castellain. Marie Douglas faced persistent ill-health, the collapse of her marriage and extreme financial distress, so much so that only the generosity of the Edgeborough Prep School headmaster Mr James permitted Douglas to attend school in 1930–1931, his last year there. Douglas sat in 1931 for the entrance examination to Christ’s Hospital, where education was free and there was monetary assistance to cover all other costs. He was accepted, and joined Christ’s Hospital, near Horsham, in September 1931, studying there till 1938. It was at this school that his considerable poetic talent and artistic ability were recognised.

After a bruising brush with authority in 1935, Douglas settled down to a less troubled and more productive period at school, during which he excelled both at studies and games, and at the end of which he won an open exhibition to Merton College, Oxford in 1938 to read History and English. The First World War-veteran and well-known poet Edmund Blunden was his tutor at Merton and regarded his poetic talent highly. Blunden sent his poems to T. S. Eliot, the doyen of English poetry, who found Douglas’s verses ‘impressive’.

Keith Douglas.jpg

Within days of the declaration of war he reported to an army recruiting centre with the intention of joining a cavalry regiment, but like many others keen to serve he had to wait, and it was not until July 1940 that he started his training. After attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he was commissioned on 1 February 1941 into the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry at Ripon. He was posted to the Middle East in July 1941 and transferred to the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry. Posted initially at Cairo and Palestine, he found himself stuck at headquarters twenty miles behind El Alamein as a camouflage officer as the Second Battle of El Alamein began.

At dawn on 24 October 1942, the Regiment advanced, and suffered numerous casualties from enemy anti-tank guns. Chafing at inactivity, Douglas took off against orders on 27 October, drove to the Regimental HQ in a truck, and reported to the C.O., Colonel E. O. Kellett, lying that he had been instructed to go to the front. Luckily this escapade did not land him in serious trouble and he got off with an apology. Desperately needing officer replacements, the Colonel posted him to A Squadron and gave him the opportunity to take part as a fighting tanker in the Eighth Army’s victorious sweep through North Africa vividly recounted in his memoir Alamein to Zem Zem, illustrated with his own drawings.

Captain Douglas returned from North Africa to England in December 1943 and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. He survived the Allied landings but was killed by enemy mortar fire on 9 June, while his regiment was advancing from Bayeux. The regimental chaplain Captain Leslie Skinner buried him by a hedge, close to where he had died on forward slopes point 102. Shortly after the war, his remains were reburied at Tilly-Sur-Seulles War Cemetery (14 km south of Bayeux).

Douglas described his poetic style as “extrospective”; that is, he focused on external impressions rather than inner emotions. The result is poetry which, according to his detractors, can be callous in the midst of war’s atrocities. For others, Douglas’s work is powerful and unsettling because its exact descriptions eschew egotism and shift the burden of emotion from the poet to the reader. His best poetry is generally considered to rank alongside the 20th century’s finest soldier-poetry.

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Douglas’ poems were published in The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas by Faber & Faber (1978). Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, has written that while Douglas’ north-African poems may take a seemingly insouciant attitude towards battles, they leave us in no doubt about war’s misery and waste. In Vergissmeinnicht, he juxtaposes the roles of lover and killer in the rotting corpse of a German soldier:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone

returning over the nightmare ground

we found the place again, and found

the soldier sprawling in the sun.

 

The frowning barrel of his gun

overshadowing. As we came on

that day, he hit my tank with one

like the entry of a demon.

 

Look. Here in the same gun-pit spoil

the dishonoured picture of his girl

who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht

in a copybook gothic script.

 

We see him almost with content,

abased, and seeming to have paid

and mocked at by his own equipment

that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

 

But she would weep to see today

how on his skin the swart flies move;

the dust upon the paper eye

and the burst stomach like a cave.

 

For here the lover and the killer are mingled

who had one body and one heart.

And death who had the soldier singled

has done the lover mortal hurt. 

Sources:

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Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

The Guardian History of the Second World War (2009).

Andrew Motion (ed.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. Faber & Faber.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hitchinson Educational.

Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester (West Sussex): Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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