The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

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‘Men whose minds the dead have ravished’

A new public sculpture was unveiled in Seaham, Co. Durham on 29th May.  Entitled 1101, the piece, by the sculptor Ray Lonsdale, shows a 9.5 foot soldier in First World War uniform sitting at rest and is intended to reflect a moment of contemplation in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.  It is also, apparently, supposed to represent ‘what is now known as Post Traumatic Street Syndrome [sic] (PTSD) which many faced as they returned from the battlefields.’ [1]  Even ignoring the typos, this interpretation worries me for two reasons.

The first has to do with the fact that I don’t think we should retrospectively diagnose soldiers of the First World War with a psychiatric condition which was not fully defined until 1980 and which remains contentious today.  This is not to say that First World War servicemen didn’t suffer from psychological wounds; many most certainly did.  But, as I have explained in more detail here, shell shock (and or indeed hysteria, neurasthenia, disordered action of the heart or any of the other names given to psychological disability during and after the war) is not same thing as PTSD.

Setting the question of labeling aside, however, I still have serious reservations about this work of art as a representation of psychological war disability, whatever name we give it.  It shows the soldier as calm, contemplative, tired perhaps, maybe even sad, but seemingly in control of body and mind. There can be few adjectives further from the experiences of shell-shocked servicemen, as depicted in the literature and art of the time, than ‘calm’, ‘contemplative’ or ‘controlled’.  These were men whose bodies jerked and twitched, who woke screaming from nightmares, who leaped violently at sudden noises, who stuttered, struggled physically to overcome hysterical mutism or groped blindly through hysterical blindness. They had lost control of both mind and body, a condition that was fearful both to experience and behold. These men were not calm or contemplative about their condition.

The pain of psychological wounding comes across viscerally in some of the great literature and art of the period.  Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ is powerfully physical in its description and the disgust and pity it evokes.  The art of Otto Dix is agonizing to look at.

Dix Shell Shock 127-otto-dix-verwundeter-map-der-krieg-jpgThe viewer recoils from the pain and violence of the images.  This is how psychological disability was experienced by many First World War servicemen and those who lived with them – as pain, fear, disgust and violence. To represent the condition through a generic image of a soldier, as something calm and totalizing, runs the risk of whitewashing from history the individual subjective pain suffered by many that made their condition as disabling as any physical wound or amputation.  Too many shell-shocked ex-servicemen suffered stigma and poor treatment throughout their lives.  I would hate to see the very real pain they suffered written out of history because it is too painful for us to contemplate today.

[1] ‘New World War One statue for Seaham seafront’, Sunderland Echo, 22nd May, 2014, http://www.sunderlandecho.com/what-s-on/new-world-war-one-statue-for-seaham-seafront-1-6630051, last accessed 25th June, 2014.

Peaky Blinders and the Ubiquity of Poetry

Peaky Blinders gang in Stanley DockA quick disclaimer to begin with.  I do not propose to get involved in the debate over the accuracy of the Brummie accent in Peaky Blinders, the stylish interwar gangland drama broadcast on BBC2 earlier this month, that exercised a number of tweeters.  As someone whose accent hovers around the oddly mid-Atlantic, and has, mortifyingly, once been compared to that of Lloyd Grossman, I am in no position to make any comment on anyone’s accent. Nor is this post is not going to be, strictly speaking, a historical critique of the drama.  I am not a historian of crime and that sort of critique has been done already by those who are, notably Heather Shore in this blog post.

That being said, as a historian of the First World War, I was always going to be interested in a drama set in the war’s immediate aftermath, and there were an unsurprising number of references to the conflict.  The only one I took real issue with was the incitement to strike in the first episode, where men’s war service was used as a reason for striking.  Now, the injustices of the failure to find a land fit for heroes on demobilization was certainly a cause of labour unrest in the 1920s. What was less convincing was the purported date, 1919.  I find it hard to imagine that a significant number of working-class men had been demobilized, rehired and were already prepared to strike at that date.  More plausibly these men would have been on the verge of riot in a camp in France, chafing at the delays in demobilization.

Such quibbles aside, Peaky Blinders wore its war context relatively lightly.  There was the inevitable victim of shell shock, although shooting such a man with pig’s brains at close range is a form of aversion therapy is a treatment I have yet to come across in the medical literature.  The references to the role of women, most obviously in the form of the redoubtable Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) as the mainstay of the family business in wartime, were nicely done.  And it was interesting to note that the inevitable flashbacks to war experience were set in the tunnels, a trope of war that seems to be increasingly popular at the moment, as if Paul Fussell’s metaphor of the trogolodyte world can only now be properly understood if represented literally.  (Something similar seems to be happening with facial disfigurement, which appears to be overtaking shell shock as the metaphoric wound of the war.)

But it was only in the final episode that I felt I was being beaten about the head by the fact that this was a post-war drama and that war experience was at the heart of character’s attitudes and actions.  That it should be so is no surprise.  This was the episode where the Peaky Blinders, under the command of their wartime leader, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), went into defensive battle against Billy Kimber (the fantastically spivvy  Charlie Creed-Miles) armed with that key weapon of First World War battles (at least in the popular imagination), a machine gun.  The references were inevitable.

What interested me, however, was that extent to which the images of the battle referenced war poetry as much as military history.  This started early on, when Aunt Polly told Grace (Annabelle Wallis), that Tommy had thrown his medals into the cut.  Siegfried Sassoon allegedly throwing his MC into the Mersey is the obvious precedent.  This is followed by Tommy’s extended meditation on living in the present in the moments before he and his comrades going into battle, a meditation intercut not with the earlier images of the fighting in the tunnels of France that made up his flashbacks, but memories of making love to Grace the night before.  As I watched I found myself quoting from Alan Seeger’s ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’:

God knows ’twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.[i]

Then there is Ada Shelby’s appearance, in widow’s weeds and pushing her infant son in a pram (an extraordinary image that I want to think about further in terms of what it says about domesticity and respectability), bringing to mind ‘the pallor of girls’ brows’ that was, for Wilfred Owen, the pall of young men dying in battle.  And finally, in the culminating moment of battle, when Tommy Shelby single-handedly kills Billy Kimber, I thought I saw a look of recognition pass across Murphy’s. By this time I was so attuned to potential poetic references that all I could think was ‘Oh, Strange Meeting, of course’.

Now, I have no way of knowing if Murphy read any Wilfred Owen when researching the part of Tommy Shelby, or if the director Otto Bathurst is familiar with ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’, not one of the better-known poems of the war, though it should be.  My associations may simply be an over-sensitivity on my part to any poetic reference in relation to the war, an unfortunate aftereffect of studying the war and its culture for too long.  But the fact that the references are there, even only subconsciously, tells me something about the power of these poems to speak down the generations in their representations of an emotional truth about war, violence and its aftermath.  Dramatically, this is how our culture understands the war and its aftermath, the images that it associates with this bit of history.

This is a fact that those of us who argue that there is far more to the war than ‘the mud, the blood, the endless poetry’ must come to terms with in our attempts to convey what else history has to tell us about the First World War.  That there are emotional as well as historic truths to be acknowledged.  The continued power of war poetry is that it taps into the sense of being ‘of all time’, speaking as powerfully to us today as it did to those who read it when it was first composed and published.  This does not make it the only narrative of the war, but it does make it a significant one.  And if we stay attuned to these references, in whatever unlikely scenario they pop up, not only will we be able learn more about the place of the First World War within our cultural heritage, but we may also have an excuse to quote some very moving and beautiful poetry.


[i] Alan Seeger, ‘I have a rendezvous with death’, http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19396, last accessed 28/10/2013, 15-24.

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.

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.