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.

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Possibly an angry post

Yesterday the Guardian published this letter.  I am currently at a conference about shell shock but, in between discussing post-traumatic cultures, I have been trying to work out why it has annoyed me so much.  The following are my conclusions; forgive me if they get a bit heated.

My main reason for annoyance lies, I think, in two aspects of the letter.  The first is the apparent belief that those engaged professionally with and in the arts (as the majority of the signatories are) have a particular authority to speak about the horror of war.  I may be wrong; it may be that these were just celebrity names associated with Stop the War, although this still begs the question of where they get their authority to speak so definitely about the war and its meaning for commemorative purposes.  Nonetheless, I cannot help feeling that some, such as Michael Morpurgo, are using their status as creators of cultural expression which use the war as subject matter to give themselves authority to pronounce on the ‘truth’ about the war, drawing on the tradition of the First World War cannon.  This tradition in British culture privileges particular narratives based on what is artistically valued, seeing the poetry in the pity as the overriding truth of the war.  Now, I have nothing against Wilfred Owen, other than his ubiquity, and much of his poetry is beautiful and moving, but his poetry is not the sole truth of the war, however artistically important it may be.  Equally, those engaged in the arts have no greater access to the truth of the war as a historical event to be commemorated than politicians, former generals or any other group with interest in said events.

The second infuriating aspect of the letter is the dichotomy it sets up between national commemoration and the promotion of international peace and understanding through a focus on its futility and devastation.  Such attempts to impose a contemporary political narrative on the commemorations feels like a betrayal of the men who fought.  (This, incidentally, applies equally to attempts to portray the war as a locus of contemporary national identity, which this letter accuses David Cameron of doing.)  There were certainly plenty of voices calling for international peace both at the start and in the wake of war.  Equally there were many who saw the war as a fight for national survival agains the threat of Prussian militarism.  And there were many who, in fighting for King and Country, were simply fighting to preserve the sanctity of the small part of that nation that they called home. Far more men enlisted in the belief that they were defending democracy, however limited that democracy might seem from a 21st century perspective, than we tend to given them credit for.  Many survived the war, just as many did not. Some were disillusioned by their experience; many incorporated it into their life stories and carried on, changed but not destroyed by war.  To deny any this is to deny those who gave voice to these sentiments, as a huge number did, the validity of their beliefs and does their memory a huge disservice.

As I say, I do not think that a commemoration of the war as a moment of great national unity is any more valid.  There was great resistance to war on many levels and from many people whose experiences of war have equal right to be commemorated.  So what do I want from the commemorations of the next four years?  For a start, a depoliticisation, an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of experience that was fundamental to total warfare, experience that ran the entire spectrum from absolutist conscientious objection to the rabble rousing of John Bull.  All form part of the history of the war that is to be commemorated; none should be ignored because it does not sit comfortably with our contemporary political narratives, be they national or global. Please let these commemorations be about the war as a whole, and all who were involved in it, not solely about those whose experiences support a contemporary sound bite.

Why Am I Here?

A couple of recent comments, both on here and via e-mail, have caused me to start thinking a bit more seriously about the point of this blog. Over the past few months I have commented fairly extensively on manifestations of First World War history in the wider culture and a bit less on my own particular field of research. What was originally intended as a space for me to work out ideas relating to the history of non-commissioned members of the RAMC during the war has become a rather more general First World War blog.

I have to admit, this makes me a bit nervous. There are an awful lot of First World War buffs (in the most general sense of those interested in the war, not just pure military history obsessives) out there, and this blog is never going to be able to cater for all interests and I won’t even begin to try. I worry, however, that I spend an awful lot of time defining myself negatively as a historian. I am NOT a military historian (although I do know an increasing amount of military history as I get to grips with the complex systems of evacuation employed by the RAMC during the war). I CANNOT identify specific uniforms not am I likely to be able to help with queries about genealogical research (although I may be able to point people in the right direction). I am NOT a transnationalist and my knowledge of the non-British experience of the war is woeful, although I am hoping this will change in the not-to-distant future.

So where do all these negatives leave Arms and the Medical Man? Well, there are still plenty of positives, I hope.  I AM a cultural historian of warfare. I DO know a great deal about popular literature and the war, and an increasing amount about the medical history of the war.  I AM a gender historian which helps me locate my studies of the war in the narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I still hope to use it as a space to work out my ideas, especially now that I am starting to have more primary material to work with. I am in the Wellcome archive this week, discovering just how little there is on the work of the nursing orderly, something I am going to have to think hard about as I am due to give a paper on that very subject in two months time. And, as the centenary gets ever closer, I will carry on discussing representations of the war in British popular culture. That aspect of this blog has been the source of the greatest amount and potentially the most fruitful discussion so far. And while creating a forum for discussion about the war was not necessarily my main purpose in starting out with this blog, if that is a role that it fills (in a civilized manner, naturally) then far be it from me to resist!

On which note, here is an article that was doing the rounds last week, in case you haven’t seen it. Encouraging to have the problems of commemoration voiced by such an authoritative source, although I am not sure where we go from here. More discussion, then.