The Myth of War Literature

‘veterans did not start to produce war novels until the later 1920s’

This quotation comes from Fiona Reid’s Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-1930  (2010), a book I am thoroughly enjoying (more on which later) but which has raised a couple of issues relating to the sort of assumptions we make about the war.  Reid’s book is about the myths that have grown up around shell shock as a symbolic image of the First World War in British culture, a condition that has moved from being historically specific to being cultural shorthand for what we think we know about the experience of war as a whole.  Yet, despite much excellent work on examining myths related to shell shock and placing the condition in a clear historical and cultural context, she can still come out with this statement which, despite being widely repeated in both academic and popular histories of the war, simply is wrong.

Veterans of the First World War began publishing novels about the war and its aftermath as early as 1919.  H.C. McNeil (better known as ‘Sapper’) published Mufti that year.  It is not a good book, to be sure, nor did it sell particularly well (19,636 copies by 1939 compared with 162,432 for The Lieutenant and Others, his most popular collection of short stories and 396,302 for Bulldog Drummond, the novel which he remains best known for), but it is a novel about the war and its aftermath that found a publisher and an audience in the early 1920s.

And there were plenty of other, more popular novels, published in the early 1920s.  Rosa Maria Bracco, in Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (1993), identifies three out-and-out bestsellers: The Way of Revelation (1921), Simon Called Peter (1921) and Tell England (1922).  R.H. Mottram published the first volume of his Spanish Farm trilogy in 1924 and Warwick Deeping’s best known novel, Sorrel and Son, was published in 1925.  Bracco notes that ‘After a spate of novels in 1919 there was a sharp decrease in numbers during the following years (from thirty-nine in 1919 to seven in 1925)’ but this is a decrease, not a silence, as Reid’s statement implies.

Reid is not alone in her assumption about publishing patterns of novels about the war.  The general belief is that no one wrote or published ‘war books’ until the boom of 1929-30.  Why?  Partly, I suspect, because of a general oversimplification of an actual phenomena.  There was a war books boom in those years, much of it literature of the ‘disenchantment’ variety, although Bracco argues persuasively that there was also a great deal of popular, middlebrow literature in circulation at the time which presented a view of war that can’t be classified as disenchanted.  It is easier to understand and explain this fairly dramatic cultural shift (and to underline its dramatic nature) by arguing that there was no significant literature being published beforehand.

‘Significant’ gives a hint as to the other part of the explanation, the extent to which our understanding of war literature (like our understanding of the war) is dominated by our interpretation of what is ‘good’ literature.  All Quiet on The Western Front, Goodbye to All That, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, Parade’s End (first published between 1924 and 1928) are all classed as literary classics.  Tell England, Simon Called Peter and Sorrell and Son, are not, despite being bestsellers in their day.  Many of the war novels published in the early 1920s are bad books, or, more properly ‘good bad books’, the classic definition of the middlebrow.

Should they still be read and studied today?  Possibly not, although they can be great fun to read and the field of middlebrow studies is a growing one in its own right.  But scholars of the cultural history of the First World War cannot simply write them out of existence because they do not fit comfortably with a narrative of post-war veteran silence that we have come to accept and aren’t very good in literary terms.  Veterans were not silent; whether the public wanted to hear what they were saying is another matter entirely.  To ignore the existence of these novels and their popularity in the 1920s is the equivalent of ignoring the cultural impact of The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Gray in commentaries about Anglophone culture in the early 21st century.  They may not have a great deal to say, they may not be very good books, but ignoring them entirely is intellectually dishonest.

So this is a plea that we finally start laying to rest the great myth of First World War literature. The books of the war books boom and the literature of disenchantment are hugely important parts of our understanding of the cultural legacy of the war in Britain, but they are by no means the whole story.

Happy Thanksgiving

As some of my readers may be aware (yes, I do mean you, Mum), despite my Anglophilic tendencies and the facts that I hold a UK passport, have lived in England for the past 13 years, and have one of the oddest transatlantic accents to occur since Lloyd Grossman first opened his mouth, I was, in fact, born and raised in the United States.  Which appears to mean that this time every year I am hit with an unexpected bout of nostalgia and, for the second time in two years, found myself driving around the Leeds ring road on the verge of tears while listening to the particular brand of female singer-songwriter country/folk music that I favour.

There is no particular reason why this music, which I listen to quite often when I am driving, should spark deep emotion every third week in November, nor why my particular nostalgia should find its focus in my final year as an undergraduate.  Quite why the memory of cheap warm beer and long nights writing my dissertation should have such power is beyond me.  But clearly the potency of cheap music and a subconscious recollection of national ritual combine in me to stir deep emotions at this time of year.

Interestingly, nostalgia was once classified as a mental illness, related to melancholia and, during the early years of the First World War, occasionally identified as one manifestation of shell shock.  The symptoms were heightened emotionalism and a longing for home, neither of which one can imagine being uncommon among soldiers drawn largely from the civilian population and plunged into the chaos of trench warfare.  Yet clearly many men who did not suffer a diagnosable or disabling illness felt deeply nostalgic about the homes they had left behind, a fact reflected in the many and varied descriptions of Christmases in the trenches.

Of course my experiences of homesickness and nostalgia for my youth are in no way comparable to the experiences of men at war.  But for me they serve as a reminder that, while the past may indeed be another country, it’s residents are human beings and the power of their emotions is all to recognisable.  And also that today, safe and healthy, and able to say the same about my friends and family, I have a great deal to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

Men at work

Last Thursday, as well as being my birthday, was the date of the second in the Legacies of War seminar series.  Rob Thompson gave a fabulous talk on engineers at Third Ypres.

Superficially, this looked to be a relatively dull topic, but not the way Rob presented.  First of all, he is an excellent and highly engaging public speaker.  But more than that, he gave one of the best demonstrations I have seen of how cultural and military history can fruitfully be married to create a deep analysis of particular moments in the history of war.  He argued that by 1917 the culture of war had changed from a martial one fought by warriors to a civil one worked by civilian soldiers. He pointed out that most men serving in the BEF were predominantly labouring (building roads, digging trenches, mending things) rather than fighting (engaging with the enemy) and that the landscape was dominated as much by the roads, rails, trucks and trains of logistics (sights familiar from civil society) as the otherworldly eeriness of no-man’s-land.

Having outlined this cultural shift in the way war was being carried out, Rob went on to argue that the failure of British High Command to fully grasp the implications at an operational level led to ultimate failure at Third Ypres. The dominance of civil logistics was due to the rise of artillery, yet no provision was made at the front line for an increase in manpower to serve the needs of the engineers in building/rebuilding roads for the artillery to advance over the landscape it had decimated.  The result was poorly trained, exhausted soldiers doing this work badly with the result that the advance became bogged down in its own built-in inertia.

Rob’s arguments were highly seductive, particularly given his flair for dramatic and humorous narration.  The more I think about his arguments, the less convinced I am about the dominance of civilian work culture as that of the war.  There were other cultures at play as well, notably the domestic culture which Joanna Bourke and I have both discussed and which had links to the structures of the regimental system, as discussed by David French.  There is also an entire social group being ignored by an analysis that focuses on the work cultures of manual labourers, namely the aspirational lower middle classes, the clerks and shop keepers and service workers, men whose experiences of work would no more prepare them for the heavy labour of the front than it would for hand-to-hand combat with an enemy.  This is a not-insignificant group of men, yet there has been little discussion beyond that of domesticity, as to how they retained a sense of civil identity in wartime.

There was also a question of morale that I am not sure was fully addressed.  From my own work on diaries and memoirs, the aspect of warfare that men found most morale-sapping was repetitive heavy labour and the feeling of being a cog in the machine, both aspects of this civilian culture that Rob identified.  Yet morale was maintained, even at the pinch-point of 1917.  Why the British Army did not mutiny even at the height of the manpower crisis is something that clearly needs a lot more discussion in light of this analysis.

So there are many questions still to answer, not least, for me, the effect of the manpower crisis on the RAMC in 1917.  I am starting to wonder if I might not be able to challenge Mark Harrison’s assertions about the centrality of 1916 to the RAMC and its effectiveness, arguing that from a personnel, rather than organisational, stand-point 1917 is more significant.  It certainly has given me some useful ideas to work on.

And, as a bonus, the talk served as a useful reminder that engineers didn’t spend their entire time (or even most of it) digging tunnels.  It is always good to have a few assumptions demolished occasionally!

On the contemplation of male facial hair

So, it is November, or Movember for certain sections of the population who are currently growing facial hair in aid of research into men’s health, specifically prostate and testicular cancers.

Now, I have never had a particular interest in this charitable movement, bar the occasional friend e-mailing with an amusing picture and a request for donations (my husband has always refused to get involved on the grounds of the need to retain his dignity in front of his students), but the conjunction of this fund-raiser with the inevitable historical reflections that accompany Remembrance Day on 11th November always strikes me as poignant.

One trope that quietly haunted my research into masculinity and the First World War is that of facial hair as a signifier of masculinity.  I wrote in my monograph about men’s insistence on shaving even in the most difficult of circumstances, in order to retain their sense of humanity in the hell of the trenches, but I never really explored further.  Yet I as I think about moustaches, I cannot help thinking about the references made to men growing facial hair in order to appear more mature when they came to enlist, in both memoirs and fiction.  And I wonder how many officers grew moustaches specifically to give themselves a sense of authority, an authority associated with mature masculinity, over the (often older) men that they were leading.

The link between male facial hair and maturity seems to me to have been particularly strong at the turn of the twentieth century.  Of course, the biological link transcends historical periods, but literary references and cultural artefacts relating to facial hair and shaving as a symbol of maturity seem particularly prominent in this period.  And certainly if you look at collections such as the Imperial War Museum’s Faces of the First World War, from which Private Johnston’s photograph (above) comes, the number of young men sporting moustaches is notable. The image is a poignant one, of young men striving to attain a maturity of image that they would never achieve in life.

How does this link with Movember?  I’m not entirely sure.  The fundraisers of the movement are, in with their growth, flaunting the life-affirming nature of the ability to grow old enough to grow facial hair in the face of ill-health.  The link may be especially powerful in relation to testicular cancer, with its cultural implications of impotence; less so in relation to prostate cancer, which is far more common in older men who have already achieved maturity.  For the young moustache growers of 1914-18, the threat of death and mutilation was far more immediate and threatening to their sense of both maturity and masculinity, making their facial hair even more complex in its significance.  I am sure there is a paper in all of this (and perhaps someone has already written it.  I remember listening to a fabulous paper on masculinity and nineteenth-century beards at a conference several years ago.)  In the meantime, I remain unable to look at all these young men with their newly-sprouted declarations of charitable intent without a small pang of pity for their youth and, dare I say it, innocence.

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.