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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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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part One – The Legacy of a Lost Generation.   Leave a comment

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 past the temporary cenotaph to commemorate the end of the war.

The main effect of the first world war was a loss on a scale that exceeded the Holocaust, together with the traumas that matched it. As many as nine million combatants from all warring nations were killed in action, at an average of over six thousand on every day of the war’s four-and-a-quarter years’ duration. It was a hell of mud, blood, barbed wire and broken bodies, as vast rows of artillery thundered tons of hot metal on to each already churned-up square metre of earth, tree and human remnant. Spectral memories of the lost men haunted the gleaming white cemeteries, memorials and shrines that sprang up, from Melbourne’s shrine of remembrance to Whitehall’s cenotaph to the battlefield graves and ossuaries at Douaumont and Thiepval. The founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission calculated that if Britain’s war dead were to have marched past Edwin Lutyens’ austere London monument, it would have taken three-and-a-half days before the rearguard trooped by. There were also fifteen million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, as well as many others whose minds were so damaged they would never recover their equilibrium, and I have written about these survivors elsewhere.

Here I want to concentrate on the psychological torments of parents who lost sons during the conflict, wives who lost husbands, children who lost fathers and sisters who lost brothers. One of those who lost both brothers and lovers was Vera Brittain. Her first world war classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, told the story of the ‘lost generation’ wiped out in the trenches. It was first published in 1933 and remained influential in the late twentieth century, being made into an excellent BBC Television drama in the late seventies. She lost a number of her closest friends as well as her fiancé and brother in the conflict.

Testament of War – Letters of Vera Brittain & Roland Leighton:

003At the heart of Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain’s own anguished love affair with Roland Leighton, the dashing best friend of her brother at Uppingham School. Their letters were published in 1998 and revealed the unbearable poignancy of their relationship. Roland’s first letter to Vera from Uppingham on 15 July 1914 demonstrates just how quickly the plans of young people changed that summer:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the two days you were here… You will let me know how you have got on in your exams, won’t you? I suppose I shall not see you again until October at Oxford.

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Roland Leighton

Vera replied from her parents’ home in Buxton (in Derbyshire) that she thought she had failed her Latin exam and so would not be able to go up to Oxford that autumn. On the 29th, Roland wrote back that he would not give up hoping to see her at Oxford that October unless he knew for certain that she had not passed when the results came out at the end of August. But less than a week after he wrote this letter, Britain declared war on Germany. Roland and Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been sent home early from their Officers’ Training Corps summer camp at Aldershot, attempted to find temporary commissions in the army. Roland then wrote to Vera from his mother’s home in Lowestoft on 21 August 1914:

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expected Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. . I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters. The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, … but it was of no use … PS: You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache – as an experiment.

Vera wrote back immediately to express her sympathy with him over this rejection, but felt it was for the best as he could now exercise his ‘intellectual qualities’ at Oxford; they would be of little use to him in gaining promotion in the Army. Two days later, on 27 August, she wrote again to inform him that she had, after all, passed her Latin. She was much relieved at this, as she didn’t know how she could have endured the thought of you and Edward enjoying Oxford life and myself cut out of it for another year. Roland confirmed that he was now expecting to go up so that all three of them would be at Oxford together. But on 28 September, with just ten days to go before the start of term, he wrote to tell Vera that he could no longer say confidently that he would be at Oxford after all. He stood a good chance of being accepted into the 4th Norfolks and would know definitely within the week. He wrote that:

Anyhow, I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it – except that perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very enobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

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Vera Brittain

Vera replied, on 1 October, that she never expected him to want to go to Oxford; conditions were now very different from those of a month previously. She didn’t know whether his feelings about war were those of a ‘militarist’ or not: She had always called herself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinated her, horribly but powerfully, as it did him. Her mixed feelings about war were complicated by her being a woman:

… whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war & none of its exhilaration.

A week later, Roland was informed that he had been approved for a commission. In her next letter to him in mid-October, Vera wrote from Somerville College that he had been right in thinking that life at Oxford would have been difficult for him as an undergraduate in war-time. She didn’t know how those there could endure not to be in khaki. Roland’s mother took rooms in London at Christmas and Vera was invited to visit before New Year. On 1 January 1915, he wrote to her, thanking her for her visit:

It has been such a delight to be with you these past two days. I think I shall  always remember them in their wonderful incompleteness and unreality. When I left you I stood by the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly circus to see the New Year in. It was a glorious night, with a full moon so brightly white as to seem blue slung like an arc-lamp directly overhead. I had the feeling of extreme loneliness one is so often conscious of in a large crowd. There was very little demonstration: two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the Marseillaise: a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When twelve ‘o’ clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer, and then everyone seemed to melt away again leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched.

At the ‘Ides of March’, Roland went to Buxton to say his farewells. Early on the wintry morning of 19 March, Vera said goodbye to him on Buxton Station as he left on the first stage of the journey, with his regiment, to France. After crossing the Channel on 1 April, the regiment’s only immediate sign of war was a sudden flare of light along the road at night and a glimpse of a French military car rushing past, together with an occasional patrol of blue-coated cavalry. Although they could hear the distant sound of heavy artillery fire, for the time being, they were out of the danger zone.

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

On 5 April, Vera wrote from Buxton to tell Roland that she was volunteering to help in a large hospital nearby which had been extended to admit the wounded. The Matron said that they had more work than they could manage satisfactorily so that she was glad to accept Vera’s offer. She was to serve as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse for the rest of the war. By the 11th, she had heard that they were expecting a great many wounded in the summer and would probably want all the extra nurses they could get. They would be almost sure to need her, not merely to darn socks as she had been doing, but to do the usual probationer’s work. Joking, she wrote that if he ‘must get wounded’ he should try to postpone it ’till about August’ by which time she hoped to be efficient enough to be able to look after him. By 12 April, Roland was in the trenches but wrote that there was not really much to do, just that the officers…

…have to go round now and again to see that the men are in their right places and the sentries looking out (in the daytime through periscopes). They go round every three hours or so at night as well and so don’t get much sleep. No one is allowed to take his clothes off, and so you have to scrape as much mud as possible off your boots with a bayonet, tie up each foot in a small sack to keep the mud out of your sleeping bag, and get in boots and all. You rarely have much opportunity to shave or wash properly. It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take the letters back with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you. Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account…

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May 1915 in the trenches

On 19 April, the Norfolks’ trenches in the middle of a ‘vast wood’ were shelled for some time, and they had their first man killed, shot through the head. But sitting in the sunlight while writing, facing a bank of primroses, Roland was struck by the grim contrast between the danger of war and death and thoughts of the beauty of life and love. The previous morning he had gone up to his fire trench through the sunlit wood and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path:

He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all of this time … You do not mind my telling you these gruesome things, do you? You asked me to tell you everything. It is of such things that my new life is made.

Vera wrote back affirming that she did want to be told all the gruesome things since she knew that even war would not blunt his sensibilities. She wanted his ‘new life’ to be hers to as great an extent as possible. Her now more conscious ‘feminism’ is evident in the rationale she gave for this:

Women are no longer the sheltered and protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery and the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are … Now you are in the midst of it all, do you still feel you will come through to the end? 

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On 29th, Roland wrote his letter just after dawn, when everything was very still. Again, he was struck by the contrast between his natural surroundings and the accompanying reminders, sometimes in dramatic interruptions, of the reality of war:

From where I am sitting I can see the sun on the clover field just behind the trenches and a stretch of white road beyond. There are birds singing in the wood on our left, and small curls of blue wood smoke from the men’s fires climbing up through the trees. One of our Machine Guns has been firing single shots every few minutes with a cold and lazy regularity that seems singularly in harmony. Everyone else except the sentries is asleep. … 7.30 am: A French biplane went up a few minutes ago and is circling round and round over the German lines. They have got two anti-aircraft guns and a Maxim trying to hit him. It is a marvellous sight. Every minute there is a rapid report like the pop of a drawn cork magnified, and a fluffy ball of cotton wool appears suddenly in the air beside him. He is turning again now, the white balls floating all around him. You think how pretty it all is – white bird, white puffs of smoke, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It is hard to realise that there is danger up there, and daring, and the calculated courage that is true heroism…

The ‘colour’ in this description also contrasts sharply with our popular images of a war fought in sepia or black-and-white. Meanwhile, on May Day morning in Oxford, Vera was up at dawn for the famous celebrations at the Magdalen tower, the choristers singing the traditional Latin hymn while turning slowly to the sun. Again, her feelings were a mixture of the appreciation of beauty and the pain of thinking how different their lives were now from what they had pictured the previous July, with both of them there enjoying the celebrations together. A week later, she wrote that her greatest object was to get this term over. She didn’t think that another term while the war was in its present condition (and you in yours) would be tolerable. 

Two days later, the first man in Roland’s battalion was killed. He described to Vera the way he had been taking things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who would see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. Soon after, Vera received a letter from one of her school friends whose brother was wounded and was then in a hospital in London. Vera’s friend wrote that there were only three officers surviving, including her brother, out of his battalion, and 159 men out of five thousand. They had had to hold their trenches while under shell fire without a single gun to help them and had watched the Germans forming up to attack them without being able to do anything. Their trenches had been taken and as he had been lying wounded he saw the Germans bayoneting his men, including several of his friends, who had also been lying wounded. Vera wondered how he would be affected by this experience.

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On 21 May, Vera wrote that she had never read anything quite so terrible as the official report of the German outrages in Belgium, especially their treatment of the women and children. As a signal of how her attitudes were hardening, like those of many others in response to what we now know was anti-German propaganda, she wrote that she didn’t know how any man could read it and then not enlist, and urged Roland and everyone at the front she knew, “Once you get hold of them, do your very worst.”  She also felt increasingly hostile towards some of the young men among the Whitsuntide trippers whom she witnessed ‘lounging down’ the streets of Oxford…

 … smoking cigarettes with a vacant expression … and a self-satisfied smile on their faces, twirling Japanese umbrellas… and poking them at the passers-by … I can scarcely bear to look at them and think that you and such as you are enduring toil and weariness and risking death that they may remain safe, and that your task is made is made all the harder and heavier because the hero of the Japanese umbrella refrains from relinquishing it for a bayonet. No one has the right to lounge these days, not even an American…

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Above & below, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War

A week later, at the end of May, Vera wrote to Roland of the more than usually heated conflict… going on in the papers about the war in general and conscription in particular. Lord Northcliffe’s papers seemed to be attacking everyone in authority, especially Lord Kitchener, and the rest of the press was attacking Lord Northcliffe. It seemed…

… a dreadful state of affairs that the authorities are quarrelling among themselves at home while men who are in their hands are dying for them abroad. One begins to doubt the advisability even of the freedom of the Press.

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At the beginning of June, Roland wrote to Vera of his growing disillusionment with the war after two months at the front:

I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford … It all seems so very far away now, I sometimes think that I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s.

On 6 June, he wrote again of the possibility of his getting six days’ leave in the near future. Vera wrote back that sometimes she felt that she couldn’t bear to see him again until the war was over, that the only thing she could not endure living over again the morning of March 19th on Buxton railway station, when they had said goodbye. But she knew that even a short visit from him would be worthwhile and that she was willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life. Roland, inexplicably, ‘fell silent’ during July, and at the end of the month, Vera heard that there was a ‘faint chance’ of her getting into a large London hospital as a VAD (auxiliary nurse). The hospital was an ‘immense place’ at Camberwell (No 1 London General), established at the beginning of the war but recently extended, containing over a thousand beds. The hospital administration needed to make an increase in nursing staff as a result and to recruit more VAD staff like Vera. She was keen to transfer there as the hospital got all the wounded straight from the trenches and the VADs were needed to do all the minor dressings.

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

On 29 July, she sent Roland a volume of the poems of Rupert Brooke, whom she had regarded as the most promising poet of the younger generation. Brooke was a well-known poet before 1914 who had had his poem The Old Vicarage included in a 1912 volume of Georgian Poetry. He had enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out and fought in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, where the naval brigade fought as if they were soldiers. He wrote his five famous war sonnets at Rugby School during the last months of 1914 when he was home on leave. He served in the fleet that was attacking the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles, but on 23 April  1915, he died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship of the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. He was buried on top of a high hill on the Greek island of Skyros; among the burial party was Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Brooke had not been dead long, however, before the more clear-sighted of his fellow-poets saw the limitations of the poetry that he typified. Charles Sorley expressed in one of his letters his conviction that Brooke’s sonnets had been overpraised:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances.

Arthur Graeme West, who was killed in 1917, expressed his contempt of poets who wrote such lines as ‘O happy to have lived these epic days’ and ignored the revolting appearance of the dead and dying in actual warfare. One of his own poems began with a direct attack on Brooke and his imitators:

God! how I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

From a literary perspective, the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that Brooke’s verse exhibited a genuine sensuousness rather like Keats’s … and something… rather like Keats’s vulgarity with a Public School accent.  On the other hand, Robert Nichols, a leading Georgian poet and friend both of Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon from before 1914, was still insisting in 1943 that:

Rupert Brooke’s sonnets are full of that sensation of being gathered up. They are wonderful works of art and it is sad that they have come to be regarded by many with suspicion.

But the latter half of the war produced a second generation of young soldiers who produced very different kinds of war poetry from that of  Brooke or Nichols. At the time Vera sent them to Roland she thought he would love them all … not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful. She was right, as on receiving the volume, he read it straight through. He wrote of how it made him feel that he wanted to sit down and write things himself instead of doing what he had to do as an officer there, and of how…

It stirs up all the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soulless nonentities one finds around one here. I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty; but that is all.

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‘No road this way’: the Germans made access very difficult for the advancing Allies.

On 15 August, Roland wrote to let Vera know that he was coming home on leave in three days’ time. He then sent a telegram arranging to meet her at St Pancras’ first-class ladies’ waiting room as soon as he could get across there from Liverpool Street Station. Roland’s leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become unofficially engaged “for three years or the duration of the War”. After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled to Lowestoft to be with his family. As they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure, Roland rested his head on Vera’s shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As she had to return to report for nursing duty in Buxton and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, he saw her off at St Pancras on 23 August. He kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. Later that day, Vera wrote in her diary, I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much.

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur “Goodbye”. She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd, not turning around. What she could see of his face was ‘set and pale’. That was the last Vera saw of Roland. His next leave was due to be at Christmas 1915, but he died on 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. Instead of receiving him home in person, his family were sent his ‘personal effects’ in the New Year. What follows here is are extracts from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a nurse. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland’s family:

I arrived at a very opportune, though very awful, moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them  and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of the his death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted and putting them where nobody could ever find them…

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply raked with mud. And I was glad that neither of you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn those things when he was living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse heap of a country’ or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’. 

And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all – let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition – the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head – with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him trampled on it …

We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front – well below where the belt would have been, just below the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic – was almost microscopic, but at the back almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest … which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry – probably the doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained. He must have fallen on his back, as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained and muddy than the front.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Mrs Leighton said,

“Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of death; they are not Roland, they seem to detract from his memory and spoil his glamour”.

And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived and walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not him. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide and felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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On 1 July 1916, Vera also lost her brother Edward to whom she wrote a poem in 1918 (right). In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera wrote of how she felt on Armistice Day in 1918, having lost Roland, Edward and two other friends. She felt that she was already living in a different world from the one that she had known during the past four years. This new world was one in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. She would have no part in that alien world because she had no-one to share it with; all those with whom she had been intimate had gone. For the first time, she realised how completely everything that had hitherto made up her life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey:

The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.

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Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

The First World War was a deep shock to every individual who experienced it personally, from poets to politicians, either directly or indirectly. It often left a lasting sense of loss with them. The war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the Armistice was signed, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, produced brilliant, often pathetic or vituperative, but always compelling pieces of literature on the nature of trench warfare on the western front. I have written extensively about Owen’s life, tragic death and his poetry elsewhere on this site. Sassoon (1886-1967) began the war as a patriot. Already enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, he broke his arm when falling from his horse; consequently, he did not go to the Front till November 1915 and until then his poetry showed much the same attitude as Brooke’s did. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and early in 1916 was sent to the First Battalion in France. He showed remarkable and rather eccentric courage. His heroic episodes in bringing back wounded from no man’s land and in capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed won him the Military Cross; these episodes were described by Robert Graves, an officer in the same regiment, in Goodbye to All That.

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The war radically changed Sassoon’s approach to poetry, the romanticism of his early works replaced by muddy death, blood, cowardice and suicide. In July 1916 he was invalided home; on leave, he became a virtual pacifist. He had lost faith in the ethical cause for which the Allies were fighting, and in the strategy and tactics used by Allied generals on the Western Front. He was, therefore, the first poet to publish poetry that was openly critical of the Allies’ motives and methods in waging the war. By the spring of 1917, he was back in the front line at the Battle of Arras and was wounded in the neck. Invalided home again he adopted more dramatic methods of showing his opposition to the war. Graves persuaded Sassoon to appear before an army medical board, which sent him to a hospital for neurasthenia at Craiglockart in Scotland, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, and where he encouraged his fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen, in writing poetry.

As the historian Henry Pelling pointed out, in 1914 the country had not been psychologically prepared for the trials it had to undergo, the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties never previously experienced. Britain and its Empire had lost almost a million men, with twice as many wounded; this placed them fifth behind Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary in a war that claimed more than thirty-five million civilian and military casualties around the world. Technology had given these powers the artillery gun and the machine-gun, and their leaders elected to kill more than sixteen million people with these weapons. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reluctance to get to grips with what had happened. In some ways, this was surprising because, for the first time ever, the ranks were filled with natural reporters. The troops who went into action at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 were mostly volunteers who had answered the appeal of Lord Kitchener. They came from every stratum of society, from the unemployed to factory hands, clerks and office workers, and on through to lawyers, doctors and landed gentry.

As John Buchan wrote in 1935, a war solves no problem but the one – which side is the stronger. In November 1918 the Allies felt that they had overthrown a great menace and arrogance. But what was to come next? It was an old assumption that some spiritual profit was assured by material loss and bodily suffering, but it was certain that the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain. He went on:

The passions of many millions cannot be stirred for years without leaving a hideous legacy. Human life has been shorn of its sacredness; death and misery and torture have become too familiar, the old decorums and sanctions have lost something of their power. The crust of civilisation has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of the primordial fires. … Principles, which seemed fundamental, are… weakened, and men are inclined to question the cardinal articles of their faith. …

But the chief consequence of so great a war as this was the mental and moral fatigue. Minds were relaxed and surfeited, when they were not disillusioned. They had had enough of the heroic. After the strain of the distant vision they were apt to seek the immediate advantage; after so much altruism they asked leave to attend to private interests; after their unremitting labours they claimed the right of apathy. The conundrums of peace had to be faced not only by jaded statesmen, but by listless, confused peoples. Mr Lloyd George found the right word for the malady when he described it as a “fever of anaemia.”

The situation was the more dangerous for the Allies, because the intricate business of peace should have been the work of the peoples, as they had been the architects of victory. The war was not won by the genius of the few but by the faithfulness of the many. It had been a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature. … But the peoples seemed to stand aside, and cast the whole burden of settlement on statesmen whose shoulders were already weary. Nothing was more striking than the popular apathy about the business of peacemaking. …

Britain caught the same infection as the rest of the world. … As for youth, it shut its ears for a little to every call except the piping of pleasure. … The War was a memory to be buried. Young men back from the trenches tried to make up for the four years of natural amusement of which they had been cheated; girls, starved for years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. …

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The soldiers had returned, both male and female, as the picture above of them sitting on Brighton beach in 1919 reveals. The well-known blue uniform was seen about the streets. The wounded looked cheerful in the second picture below, presumably, simply because they were alive.

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The newspaper reporting of the time was factual but restrained and relatively free of ‘comment’ apart from the editorials; “morale” was all-important. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon supplied a tiny audience what was missing from the reportage. He continued to show his distrust of England’s ‘ruling classes’ in several ways, writing Aftermath in 1920:

Have you forgotten yet? …

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game …

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look down , and swear by the dead of the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

There were some undistinguished novels in the 1920s, but it was ten years before Robert Graves and Sassoon felt able to release their officer-class memoirs and before R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was first performed. Sassoon became the first literary editor of the Daily Herald, the new Socialist newspaper, and his prose books such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer implied considerable criticism of the class system. The experience scarred many, on all fronts, including the home front, in deep psychological ways.

(to be continued…)

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