Very well then, I contradict myself…

Last Friday, I went to the final showcase for the Legacies of War Leeds Stories of the Great War project.  I haven’t had a huge amount to do with this project, so it was both a surprise and a delight of an event, with results (many of them ongoing) of six exciting community projects on display.  Of the six, two stood out, the year 11 students from Roundhay School who produced two films, one silent, one a pastiche news bulletin, inspired by the history of Belgian refugees in Leeds, and Urban Sprawl theatre company, Leeds’ sole homeless theatre company, who came up with a touching, funny, vulgar music hall riff on the theme of enlistment.  All the projects were moving, informed and passionate, but these two groups stood out for their creativity and humour that, in the case of Urban Sprawl, was true enough to the spirit of the times they evoked that it had me referencing Frederick Manning’s Her Privates We.

Which brings me to another First World War event from last week, this one a launch rather than a culmination.  14-18 NOW, which launched officially on 27th March, is an Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund funded series of events, hosted by the Imperial War Museum and taking place around the country.  Projects range from a Royal de Luxe production telling the story of the Accrington Pals using giant puppets in the streets of Liverpool to 1914 told day-by-day through cartoons.

The reactions have been almost as varied as the proposed artistic outputs.  The first response on Twitter was, in general, a rather patronising, ‘These people need to learn some “real” history.’  The mainstream media tended to pick up on the project to paint warships using First World War-era ‘Dazzle’ camouflage techniques, sparking this bizarre but somehow predictable response from the Guardian.  By the weekend there were some more detailed, considered response emerging on blogs, most notably those of George Simmers and Jonathan Boff. More recently, Gary Sheffield has pitched in with this interesting discussion of why the idea of turning off lights to mark the start of the war is historically uninformed.

By rights, I should be in complete agreement with these posts, and to some extent I am, having done my fair share of fulminating about luvvies voicing ill-informed opinions about how the war should be commemorated.  I agree that Stephen Fry’s letter to an unknown soldier, as well as several of the projects on 14-18 NOW, are deeply clichéd.  And yet overall I find myself intrigued and excited by the majority of ideas on display, and particularly by the Letter to Unknown Soldier soldier project.

Part of this is due to a huge personal affection for the Charles Jagger memorial sculpture honouring the dead of the Great Western Railway on platform 1 of Paddington Station, the Unknown Soldier of the title.  Reading his letter from home, he forms the cover of my monograph on writing wartime masculinity, in stunning a photograph by my brother, photographer Sebastian Meyer. Men of War coverAnything that makes people more aware of this particular statue is liable to get my attention and my approbation.

But I also keep coming back to those amazingly creative responses to the history of the war on display last week.  The Letter to the Unknown Soldier invites similar creativity from participants.  I doubt it will come from well-known artistic or creative figures, given the evidence so far available.  But I love the idea of a busy commuter, looking for the first time at that beautiful, powerful face, being inspired to engage with the history of the First World War enough to write their own letter, an act of commemoration speaking not only to Jagger’s vision but also that of Eliot and Auden.  Or maybe it will be a local homeless person who, like the clients of Urban Sprawl, locates a sense of identity and community in this imagined figure of the past.  Yes, these will be the projection of 21st-century ideas, concerns, aspirations on to an image almost a century old.  But in looking to the wider public, there is the potential for an artistic engagement with history beyond the clichés that, so often, have dominated Britain’s commemorations. It is an artistic response, certainly, but given the richness and complexity of artistic responses across the past century, responses which have led to their own branch of academic study, this too will be ‘real’ history.

At the heart of my unease at the response to 14-18 NOW, however, is, I realise after a week of thinking about it, actually very similar to the annoyance I felt at the luvvies’ letter (see above).  I resent, deeply, being told how to commemorate the First World War, whether it is by artists or historians.  Both groups have important contributions to make to the way in which the war is remembered.  At their best, the disciplines can combine in extraordinary and unexpected ways that enlighten the past anew, as was perfectly demonstrated at the Tetley last Friday night. As a historian, not only do I think that there is potential for the continuation of artistic commemorations that have been part of British culture since the war years in the 14-18 NOW project, but I hope that, given the opportunity to contribute through active engagement rather than holding aloof or, in the worst cases, simply sneering, my discipline may enable these artistic events to have real resonance throughout the centenary.  On which note, I am off to write my own letter to the unknown soldier of platform 1.

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The Wipers Times (belatedly)

A couple of months ago, I tweeted this in response to the publicity surrounding a new television drama co-scripted by Ian Hislop and starring Michael Palin as a First World War general. That drama was The Wipers Times, which has now been broadcast, several weeks ago, and I can only apologise for the delay caused by pressure of work which means it is no longer available on iPlayer for anyone in Britain who may have missed it.

As the comments on my original tweet forshadowed, I am forced to eat my words because, as a historical drama, it was, I thought, very good indeed, mainly because it didn’t attempt to represent itself as historical realism.  Rather it adopted the tone of the trench journal which was its subject to represent the war as seen by the Wipers Times.  Here I want to particularly commend Ben Daniels as a stereotypical brass hat blowhard, the very stereotype I was so concerned about, played to the point of exquisite caricature, beautifully illustrating the way in which trench journals such as the Wipers Times satirized the absurdist situation in which the men who created them found themselves.  Far more than the music hall interludes, with their nods to ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ and the excesses of cabaret culture, Daniels’s performance (and that of the more sympathetic figure played by Michael Palin) illustrated how our view of the war has been distorted by a tendency to define all wartime behaviours in black and white terms.  No one in reality could be either so blindingly stupid or so wittily sympathetic as the characters these two actors portrayed. Only as satire do they make sense.

In general, all the performances were excellent, although Emilia Fox’s role as a loving wife was more or less superfluous.  And my only potential historical criticism relates to some mumbling on the part of Julian Rhind-Tutt who made what I assume was meant to be ‘red tabs’ (staff officers) sound suspiciously like ‘red hats’ (military policemen), an entirely different, if equally loathed group of authority figures.  But it was a good drama and, for the first third, very funny indeed.  After that the humour became repetitive, and the shift of focus almost exclusively to the officers meant a loss of the voices of the ordinary soldier.  While the tone towards these men was generally condescending, mocking the ignorance and unsophistication of the young British working class man, this was an accurate reflection of the language used by many trench journals which were as class-bound as so much else in British culture during the war.

The increasing staleness of the humour as the drama continued may seem like a criticism, but it is not.  It too is an accurate reflection of trench journalism.  For anyone who has spent any time reading such journals, and those produced in prisoner of war camps and hospitals, this growing staleness is all too familiar. It reflects the fact that (pace all those television reviewers who referred to the public school humour of the publication) these publications represented the humour not of the upper-middle classes (although this was well represented) as much as that of the institution.  The result is a predominance of in-jokes which, to the outsider who is not caught in the institutional setting, be it a hospital, a prison or a military unit under orders, seem either inexplicable or dull.  The trajectory of the drama captured this beautifully, with the only duff note being the uncharacteristic injection of sentimentality and 20/20 ‘foresight’ in the scenes depicting Fred Roberts, the originator and editor of the Wipers Times, at home with his wife on leave.

In the end, it was not the drama itself which troubled me as a First World War historian, but the response of television critics after its broadcast, an number of whom implied that the Wipers Times was worthy of note because it dramatised the viewpoint of a unique publication and, as such, stands as a necessary corrective to more sombre commemorations of the war.  In fact, as I have suggested, it was one of a number of such publications which treated the trials and tribulations of warfare (including serious injury and the loss of liberty) as subjects of humour and absurdity.  Some 800 such journals have been collected by Cambridge University Library.  Nor was it only periodicals that adopted this tone.  Herman Cyril McNeile, better known as ‘Sapper’, wrote a number of short stories which were published for propaganda and recruitment purposes by The Daily Mail, which also adopted an amused, flippant tone in their descriptions of life at war.  For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend George Simmers’s excellent essay on facetiousness in wartime and post-war writing (which does a far better job of teasing out the class dimensions of this literature than I have done here).  And for anyone want to read more institutional war time journals, Sue Light’s blog of the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital, Ward Muir’s Happy Hospital, gives an excellent idea of what can be found in that extraordinary organ, including contributions from C.R.W Nevinson, later a war artist, and Stephen Baghot de la Bere, the cartoonist.  Nor were British the only servicemen to produce trench journals.  Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s Men at war, 1914-1918 : national sentiment and trench journalism in France during the First World War(translated by Helen McPhail) and Robert L. Nelson’s German Soldier Newspapers of the First World War present a transnational picture of bottom-up morale building during the war.

So The Wipers Times ended up not only proving itself an enjoyable drama, but also the source of considerable reflection on popular understandings of the war. While reviews of the programme expose some of the limits of public knowledge, my previewing comment exposed the limits of my own.  It provoked a very interesting discussion with the historical adviser to the programme on the limitations inevitable with creating drama out of history, particularly on the sort of budgets provided by the BBC.  I am now training myself not to complain about the misrepresentation of roles until I consider how a limited cast is being deployed to cope with sheer lack of numbers, and not to judge a popular television programme by its publicity.