It’s been a long time since I read a book of literary criticism and I don’t think I’ve ever read one purely for pleasure before. The Great War and Modern Memory is certainly an academic text, going into great depth in its analysis of WWI and the impact it had on the creation of a modern literature, but it is also a highly readable and fascinating account of the changing norms and attitudes of the 20th century. In 1914, buoyed by a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure language that talked of honour and warriors and steeds and battles, a generation of young men signed up to fight in a war of such enormity, brutality and horror that it was beyond anything they could ever have imagined. WWI plummeted Europe into a hellish nightmare; there had never been a war like this before, and there had never been a need for a language in which to express such sights, such violence, such overwhelming shock, pain and grief.
The Edwardian period is often portrayed as one long August afternoon, filled with ladies in grass sweeping white lawn dresses, men in striped blazers, clinking tea cups, maids in caps and vases of flowers. It was a time of innocence, of peace, of manners and dulce et decorum est. Its values were those of an age of chivalry, of patriotism, of a merciful God, of a class system where everyone knew their place and their duties within the hierarchical structure of society. This has become so engrained in our consciousness that we cannot quite comprehend it as reality, but reality it was. The blind innocence, the naivety, the ignorance of the general populace of the enormity of what they were about to enter into is almost impossible for us to understand in an age of terrorism, war, and nuclear bombs. We have become desensitised to it all; war is now the background noise of our daily lives. In 1914, however, this was not the case. There was no television, no radio, and no internet. The news was delivered solely through newspapers, in flowery, moralistic, story telling language that never quite spelled out what it meant. Everything nasty and distasteful was communicated in a veil of euphemisms. There was no such thing as straight talking. And there was no such thing as war, not in the way we know it now. The only wars in living memory for most were the Boer Wars, conducted far away in an almost mythical country, and dealing with a nasty, alien foe who had been vanquished by the heroic British army. It was not a ‘real’ war, but merely an adventure story, a brief page in Britain’s colonial history. WWI broke in upon this childlike world and ripped it apart, shattering it at the very core. The culture, the language, the history of Britain would never be the same again. Over one million of its young men had been slaughtered merely hours from their comfortable sitting rooms and sunny gardens where just weeks before they had sipped tea and made love to blushing girls in those white lawn dresses. Millions of its citizens had been brutally bereaved of those they loved and would never recover from their grief. A new world had dawned, a world that had experienced unimaginable horrors and that could never go back to what it had been before. This new world would need a whole new way of expressing itself, and it is this shift in language and literary technique and its knock on effects throughout the 20th century and beyond that Paul Fussell explores in this book.
The Great War and Modern Memory is so rich with detail that I can’t possibly hope to touch on everything, so I’ll just pick up on a couple of topics I particularly enjoyed reading about. Firstly, the use of language in contemporary portrayals of the war and the pure indescribability of it all. To a generation of men used to reading high Victorian literature and newspapers filled with carefully worded phrases that didn’t really mean an awful lot, there was a real lack of ability and willingness to craft the true horror of war into words. Added to this was the censorship of both letters home and newspaper reports of the action going on at the front; the truth was constantly veiled in chipper messages and stock phrases devised to prevent worry and keep everyone’s spirits up. The proximity of the front to the suburban homes of most soldiers meant that letters were frequently filled with requests for items to be sent over; the post always remained regular and soldiers had no trouble asking for things such as freshly baked cakes, books, forgotten keepsakes, new clothes etc to be sent to them. How could one write about witnessing the machine gunning of a friend in the same paragraph as a request for a Victoria Sponge? The contrast was too great, the events too horrific to be put into words. Therefore a language of humour, irony and euphemism became widely used, weaving the horrors of war into a narrative that read more like manageable fiction than unbearable fact. Soldiers at the front renamed the unfamiliar Belgian and French towns with smutty names, produced their own satirical newspapers and mocked the strict and often absurd rules and regulations imposed on them by their often clueless superiors. In literature, novelists such as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon sandwiched their descriptions of violence and horror between layers of ironic humour, sweetening the pill.
Secondly, what fascinated me was the use of traditional literature to help express the experience of the front. It is so difficult for us now to appreciate how well read the average person was at the beginning of the 20th century; with few other forms of easily accessible entertainment, reading was the predominant leisure activity across the classes. Everyone had read Tennyson, Ruskin, Morris, Keats, Wordsworth….everyone could quote from the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost and Shakespeare. Finding themselves literally lost for words, soldiers turned to their favourite poems to illustrate their experiences, inserting them into letters home or using familiar construction techniques, tropes and images such as the sunrise, sunset, etc to illustrate the romantic pathos of their plight. There is a sense of the romantic, of the mythical and the poetic in the literature that emerged from the front, reflecting the literariness of the population at the time and a lack of ability to find their own language through which to describe their experiences. Aside from expression, literature was also an escape from the horrors and of the monotony of war; books were the most requested items from home, and soldiers loved nothing more than curling up in the dugout with a good dose of Trollope or a volume of poetry to while away the interminable hours of tense waiting.
I really haven’t read much WWI literature so Paul Fussell has opened by eyes to so much that I will now be able to mull over as I slowly read my way through the poetry and often heavily fictionalised memoirs that were produced in response to this world changing event. I think now we take war so much for granted that we fail to realise just how much WWI influenced the language we use and the literature we read; images of war are infused into even the most commonplace phrases, and yet without the events of 1914-1918, we wouldn’t use the terms ‘barrage’, ‘front line’, ‘above and beyond’ etc at all. So much of what we unthinkingly say has a military or combatative connotation; so much of what we read is constructed within a rhetoric of conflict that was simply non existent before 1914. WWI changed how the world was viewed, and how events were explored, expressed and remembered. The impact was all encompassing, and yet now we give WWI no more than a fleeting thought during our minute’s silence every Remembrance Day. It wasn’t just lives that were destroyed between 1914-1918; it was the whole construct of a society that was built on foundations of a trust in human decency that WWI exposed as nothing but a juvenile fairy story. Post WWI Literature bears witness to this devastating truth in every word, and yet we have become so desensitised to it that it is difficult for our eyes to see any more. I’m so looking forward to exploring more on this topic and I strongly urge anyone interested in this period to give this book a go. I did skip some of the lengthier and more uneven chapters – it’s not perfect by any means, and does get lost in places – but overall it’s a fantastic read and don’t be put off by the literary criticism label as its perfectly accessible to the ‘common reader’, as Virginia Woolf would say.