Enduring War: A review

So I am currently in London, part way through the first of a mad pair of weeks encompassing a meeting, two conferences, a couple of days in the archives and two days with the BBC at the Great Yorkshire Show. To ease myself in, I began Monday morning with a wander around the Enduring War exhibition at the British Library.

This is an ambitious exhibition, given the size of the space it occupies. Divided in to six sections, from the ‘The Call to Arms’ to ‘Grief and Memory’, the exhibition not only tries to tell a complete story of the war, but as a contributing partner in the Europeana 1914-1918 project, attempts to do it from an international perspective. Inevitably, some things are missed, while others are under-analysed. For instance, the caption to one photograph ends with the statement ‘There was an increase in Protestant church attendance in Britain in the first weeks of the war but, for a number of reasons, this was not sustained.’ There is no indication as to possible reasons why church attendance was not sustained, leaving this viewer with a sense of incompleteness.

In fact, the section on ‘Faith Under Fire’ is possibly the least satisfactory of the six. The claim about the prevalence of protective charms and rituals is never really demonstrated, in part because the use of the library’s resources places limits on what is available for display. The original manuscript of Ruper Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in the first section is extraordinarily moving, but there is no equivalent of, say, Adolphus, the mascot who has become the face of the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. Excellent use is made of posters, particularly in illustrating the Russian perspective, and the use of ANZAC trench journals makes a double point with an elegant lightness of touch. Nonetheless, the material on display does not consistently feel capable of carrying the full breadth of the story that the exhibition is attempting to tell. Indeed, so broad is the narrative that it isn’t always evident what the curators understood by the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Grief, Grit and Humour’.  All three elements are addressed episodically but don’t really feel as if they are the central thread of a coherent narrative.

Having entered the exhibition from the side, and followed the chronological path to the dead end around a corner in the separate space that houses the section on ‘Grief and Morning’, I ended my visit by deliberately walking back around to look at the audiovisual displays at the front entrance. And here the exhibition managed to produce what was for me its most powerful and moving display through its series of video booths of montages of postcards from the front, the accompanying audio just the messages scrawled on each one. Very simple, yet entirely mesmeric, the displays demonstrate the art of the everyday that, as much as the war poets, artists and musicians whose work is, once again, presented throughout the exhibition, defined the First World War as a profound cultural experience in Britain and across Europe.

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Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?

I thought that, with yesterday’s post, I had managed to get everything I needed to say about Michael Gove’s intervention on the First World War out of my system.  Then I read this and I discovered that I had not.

I consider myself a ‘proper’ historian, a ‘careful’ researcher and, as it happens, one who spends an awful lot of time reading the accounts, both contemporary and retrospective of ‘the men who were there’.  In fact, I have written at some length about why there are historical problems of privileging ‘the men who were there’ as witnesses to the ‘truth’ of the past.  And yet, unlike Mr Mastin, and, as it happens, Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield, I do believe there is a value to showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom, not simply for what it tells us about ‘the different ways in which the past has been interpreted’, and certainly not because of what it has to tell about the lived reality of the war.  But it does have a great deal to tell us about the history of how the war has been remembered and commemorated as a major cultural (as well as military) event in British history and is thus an important historical document in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse my defense of why the cultural history of the war is at least as important as the military history, this centenary year of all years, here.  I have been making that argument in just about every piece of academic work I have published and I have a book review to write.  But I am going come out and say yes, we should be showing students of the history of the war television programmes like Blackadder and getting them to read books like Birdsong and Regeneration. They will teach students as much about how the war was remembered in the last quarter of the twentieth century as they will about the war itself, but that too is part of the history of the war.

What is more, I would add that we should also be getting students to read Sergeant Michael Cassidy by ‘Sapper’, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Kitty by Warwick Deeping.*  They should be watching Journey’s End and The Big Parade and La Grande Illusion.  Will these cultural works tell them the ‘truth’ about war experience? Only as much as Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That tells the truth of war experience.  But they do tell us a great deal about how the war was remembered and understood and interpreted by British (and French) culture.  And that, too, is the proper history of the First World War.

*I have personally cited all these works of fiction as historical evidence in essays which have been published by reputable publishers in independently refereed journals. References available upon request.

Never such innocence again

Yesterday was the anniversary of British entry into the First World War and, as such, saw a rash of articles in the British press and on line reflecting on both the conflict and the forthcoming centenary. Among them was this offering from Henry Porter in The Observer.  The main thrust of the piece is a discussion of the meaning and purpose of commemoration of conflict, about which Porter has a number of reservations, some of which I share.  What fascinated me about it, however, was the series of assumptions that underpinned Porter’s argument about the nature of the men who fought the war.

The opening paragraph describes a piece of graffito carved into a tree in Gloucestershire: PM 10/9/13 MKN.  As described, that is it, no heart encircling the initials, no indication of the sex or age of either party.  Yet, from this description, Porter makes the leap to a narrative whereby these are the initials of two lovers separated a year later by the war.  While I, too, make the assumption that at least one of the individuals was male (based on assumptions I make about knife possession and the desire to mark things through carving), my immediate narrative conclusion was rather different: two boys marking their friendship after school, perhaps, rather than two lovers swearing eternal fidelity after work.  Yes, they might have been 18 and, a year later, found themselves in the British armed forces preparing to face the enemy.  Or they might have been 13, too young to enlist until the war’s final year.  Porter’s narrative, while romantic, seems to have little evidence to back it up, making his tour of local war memorials even more of a long-shot than he himself implies.

Another, similar, imposition of narrative occurs later in the article, when Porter writes of the war as ‘an event that prods Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Remarque, Gurney and Nash into great art’.  By implication, the war is the sole source of these men’s artistic inspiration.  Certainly experiences of war inspired great art from these men, but their artistic aspirations and labours predate the war and several of them (most notably Graves, perhaps) produced great art in the years after that drew on other sources of inspiration. We cannot begin to speculate what sort of poets, artists, musicians they might have been had the war not occurred, but positioning the war as the sole reason for their artistic endeavour is equally a-historical.

It seems to me that there is quite a lot of this imposition of narrative in relation to our historical memory of the war.  The narrative runs that the Britain of the pre-war world, and all who inhabited her, were innocent and pure.  The war, with its unimaginable (by us as well as by those pre-war peoples) mud and blood and violence, destroyed that innocence, leaving behind only the grief and cynicism of the modern world.  It is the narrative of Paul Fussell’s literary paradigm shift writ large upon British social history.

And yet… As someone who has spent an awful lot of time reading the letters and diaries of men who fought in the war, documents which cover the complete span of 1914 through to 1920 and beyond, this narrative sits uncomfortably with me.  In the first place, as I have argued elsewhere, the post-war world was not entirely bereaved or cynical.  Men survived the war and came home to families who rejoiced.  All had been changed by their experiences of warfare, but those changes weren’t, in all cases, for the worse.  Some had gained new skills, acquired new aspirations, had their horizons widened, their philosophy and tolerance deepened.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the run-up to 1914, when questions of war enthusiasm and recruitment will be at the forefront of commemorative events, not all men who served were the lovelorn innocents of Porter’s (and I suspect popular) imagination.  The men who enlisted in the first years of the war were probably fairly reflective of the population at large: some were unworldly, some were sophisticates, a few were criminals.  Following the introduction of conscription, the accuracy of that social reflection may have increased as the reluctant soldiers were called up for service. Among the ranks of the army were surely, throughout the war, wife beaters, bullies, incompetents, malingerers, con men, the lazy and the cowardly, as well the idealistic, the intelligent, the grafters, the loyal, the poets and the heroes.  I have read more than enough papers of young men who started the war as prigs, or fire-eaters, and remained that way until the Armistice to know that war did not necessarily change men in the ways the canonical poets would have us believe, as well as far too many of men who were killed before they had a chance to reach anything like maturity.  Their stories, as well as those of the men who war changed in a myriad of ways, reflecting the myriad of personalities who were engaged in waging war, are worth listening to as well.

Over the course of the centenary it will, I know, be very tempting to look at the many artifacts of the conflict that will emerge into the public eye and impose romantic narratives on them, as Porter has done with a piece of graffito and as Philip Larkin did with a photograph in ‘MCMXIV’.  We should be wary of doing so, however, lest, in our romanticism, we miss far more, and far more interesting stories of this extraordinary conflict than the ones we believe we know.

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.

A Final Parade

Yes, I know it is over a week since the final episode of Parade’s End was broadcast.  I won’t go into the reasons why I haven’t had a chance to see it before this weekend, except to say that infant sleep patterns were definitely involved.  But I did, finally, watch it, so here are my concluding thoughts on programme.

Let me start by saying that I thought they did a pretty decent job of the trench scenes.  The scene in the dugout with the C.O. was particularly brilliant, capturing the surreality of the war that I think has tended to get lost in more recent representations of the war.  Since Blackadder Goes Forth the tendency has been to merge surreality and satire – the war is mad therefore we must mock it.  This was just pure surreality, without point or purpose, and all the more moving for it.

There was one major source of irritation for me, however, and that was the depiction of the stretcher bearers who appeared twice, once with an empty stretcher, once with an injured man on board.  In both instances the stretcher was carried by two men, one at each end, the typical image of stretcher bearers in the war, you might say.  Except it must be born in mind that First World War stretchers were immensely heavy objects made of wood and canvass, not the lighter metal ones that were used in later conflicts.  They were a struggle to carry empty; loaded with the dead weight of an injured man, usually wearing his heavy clothing and gear, they needed a minimum of four men (one at each corner) and in heavy going like Ypres in 1917 required six.  In fact, as George Swindell, an R.A.M.C. stretcher bearer, noted on several occasions in his memoirs, untrained bearers (those not in the R.A.M.C.) almost always carried six to a stretcher because they didn’t have the practice and training to do so more efficiently.  In the front line, stretchers would be carried by regimental bearers, infantry men told off for stretcher duty from front line to Regimental Aid Post (RAP), rather than R.A.M.C. bearers who generally carried men from the RAP to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).  So in Parade’s End there should have been at least two and most probably four additional bearers for that loaded stretcher for authenticity.  Now that directors seem to be more willing to show the trenches as angled rather than straight, I am starting a new campaign to get them to employ the appropriate number of bearers in their films!

Despite the bearer problem there were brilliant moments in this episode. The scene describing Tietjens, McKechnie and Perowne going up to the line was a masterclass in succinct and spot-on dramatic adaptation, and Roger Allam’s face at the very end, when Sylvia propositions General Campion was perfection.  Allam has been a revelation throughout, and this moment was beautifully done.

I did, however, have some broader reservations.  I’m not sure the final scene worked.  It was too slow and the music too sentimental to capture the sheer joy and relief that book evokes.  There is a tendency to forget  that, behind the lines, the reactions of many, particularly the young, to the Armistice were euphoric, even bacchanalian in some instances. (Dan Todman has an excellent discussion of this, and its cultural impact, in The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon & London: 2005)). Ford captures the immense sense of release beautifully in the final pages of A Man Could Stand Up -. Stoppard and White, I think, lost some of that by sexing the scene up and slowing it down.

I am also in two minds over the wisdom of the decision of simply eliminating The Last Post from the adaptation.  Given Ford’s own later reservations about the novel, and the immense difficulties that I imagine would be involved in adapting the most difficult of the four novels, it probably does make sense.  But I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Christopher and Valentine at this point in their story.  It did feel a little incomplete.

So, in the end, an excellent adaptation beautifully acted but with some problems inherent to any dramatic adaptation of a superb set of novels.  Now I just have to make the time to reread the books…

Parade’s End Again

Well, Downton Abbey is back on our screens. No, I haven’t watched the opening episode yet. My daughter has taken to waking up at 5:45 in the morning so I am currently retiring no later than 10 pm in self-defence. (You will probably start to notice a pattern in the interface between my home life and work revolving around the theme of sleep. Ah, the joys of motherhood!) Anyway, a review of the new season will have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest. In the meantime, I thought I would write a bit more about why I think Parade’s End is such a superb representation of the First World War.

After a great deal of thought, my primary conclusion is that the drama has had the good sense to stay out of the trenches for so long. Other than the glimpse at the end of the second episode (and arguably the brief scene in the slightly too quiet Casualty Clearing Station), all the action has been set firmly behind the lines, whether in England or Rouen. This is not to say that the war hasn’t been evident, but it has been beautifully subtle – the presence of a lorry of soldiers in the background, uniforms mingling with civilian dress, the female railway porter. Yes, the clichés are there – the clueless civilians for whom horses matter more than the lives of men, the general in his chateau behind the lines (although all the men are behind the lines as well at this point), the dangers of bombardment (with air raids substituting for artillery) – but shown in such a way as to demonstrate why they have become clichés. The myth of the war has its basis in reality. By allowing the mythic elements of the war narrative to emerge organically as the background to the story, rather than bludgeoning us over the head with them, this dramatization of a work of fiction demonstrates the complexity of the historical truth that First World War historians have been uncovering for a while now. Yes, there is a strong sense of disenchantment with the pettifogging rules and obsessions of the military with cleanliness (a theme that is very familiar from the numerous letters and memoirs that have formed the bulk of my research to date). And there is horror and pity and fear, particularly in evidence in the death of Oh Nine Morgan, but such emotions are only part of Christopher’s story. There is no disillusionment, at least not disillusionment with why he is fighting. Groby and Michael and above all Valentine, even the formal propriety of his marriage are still implicitly worth fighting for. And if they are not it is because they have already been undermined by social hypocrisy that predates the war, not simply because of his experience of warfare.

Much of this, of course, is inherent to the narrative. In my Everyman copy of the tetralogy the entire time in the trenches takes up 110 pages out of a total of 906. The focus of the novels is on the sense of continuity that Christopher embodies and the stresses that modern life place on his seventeenth-century rectitude. It is in choosing to remain loyal to this theme rather than attempting to shoe-horn the books into a more familiar understanding of what makes a First World War novel that this production is such a triumph.

All of which made me think of the BBC’s other big First World War adaptation this year. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 novel about the war, was adapted by Abi Morgan and broadcast in January to a good deal of acclaim. As with any television adaptation, some aspects of the book had to be sacrificed to the time scale, here two hour-and-a-half long episodes. Morgan removed an entire subplot concerning a young woman researching her family history, an editorial decision that worked well in creating narrative coherence. However, she also chose to seriously underplay another subplot concerning the relationship between the sapper Jack Firebrace and his son, John, who dies of diphtheria during the course of the novel. It does get a brief mention but has nowhere near the emotional impact that it has in the novel where it beautifully illustrates the continuing relationship between home and fighting fronts that was so powerful a motivation for men to fight and continue fighting. Instead, the television play’s narrative chooses to focus on the disjunction between a golden idyll of passion in prewar France and the mud, blood and horror of the trenches in the same geographic area six years later. The war is a space solely of horror and disillusion and the only motive for fighting is the sense that the protagonist has nothing left to live for. This is the more traditional view of the war dramatized by many modern war novels, yet as a narrative it is much less powerful than that of Parade’s End. So while I enjoyed Birdsong (and thought that Joseph Mawle was excellent as Firebrace), it had nothing like the effect on me that Parade’s End is having. Whether that will continue to be true next week, when Tietjens actually enters the trenches, remains to be seen.

(I do realise that I got a little ahead of myself in my last post in saying that this past week’s episode dramatises A Man Could Stand Up -. It was, of course the second half of No More Parades, which means we are going to get very little, or a highly truncated version, of Last Post, which is a pity. As I say, there are always sacrifices to be made in adapting for television.)

Parade’s End

OK, hands up, who is loving Parade’s End on the BBC?  Yes, that would be me, and not only because of the presence of not just the amazing Benedict Cumberbatch but, for two glorious episodes, Rufus Sewell as well.  All the acting is excellent, especially Cumberbatch (as I knew he would be from the moment the casting was announced) and the luminous Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. The visuals are also superb, especially the use of Vorticist fracturing and mirroring to portray movement and multiple perspectives. But what I am really loving is how brilliantly the production is evoking all the emotions I felt when reading the books – fury at the hypocrisy of society, the humour of the golf course scene, the huge affection that Tietjens and Valentine engender, despite him being, on the surface, an extremely irritating individual, the pity and horror of Tietjen’s father’s suicide.  I haven’t read the books in years, not since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on them, but it is testament to the power of both the original source and the adaptation that I am feeling such vivid sensations of recognition with every episode.

At the moment, my only quibble, and it has the potential to be quite a serious one, is with the characterization of Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia Tietjens.  I initially thought that it didn’t work because of the need to focus so much on Sylvia’s back story in the first half hour of the first episode, a section not lifted directly from the book’s fractured narrative.  To me this was the weakest part of the production so far, although the introduction of Tietjen’s love for Michael was beautifully done.  Reading an interview with the director, Susanna White, however, I have discovered that she has chosen deliberately to portray Sylvia as more vulnerable and sympathetic than in the book, a decision that I am not sure works.  In the books, Sylvia is a first class bitch with no redeeming features and is recognized as such.  Any inconsistencies in attitudes and behaviours can be attributed to her personality.  By making her more sympathetic, White and Hall have also made Sylvia harder to understand and have undermined her ability to power the narrative.  When set alongside the fabulously hypocritical and vicious Edith Duchemin (now MacMasters), she fades as a character, which makes it that much harder to understand the hold she has over both Tietjens and the rest of her male attendants.  Next week, however, we have A Man Could Stand Up – where her relationship with Tietjens takes precedence over his with Valentine, so maybe my doubts will be laid to rest.  I do hope so, because there are so many reasons why this is the best dramatization of British society in the First World I have ever seen, which I will be discussing in a future post.