Revisiting the Reality of War Literature

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I read a fascinating article in the Times Educational Supplement this week about the version of WWI students get taught at school. It tied up nicely with my current study of The History Boys, which raises similar sentiments about the fiction of history. As an English teacher, I love teaching war poetry for its emotive power. We turn the lights off and close our eyes as someone reads, shutting out the modern world in an attempt to imagine the sounds, smells and emotions of the soldiers crouching in their trenches, waiting to go ‘over the top’. We gaze horror struck at images of bombed towns and bloated corpses, struggling to comprehend the experiences the poets put so hauntingly into words. We discuss the values of the men who went to war, considering the difference in our societies and whether, if war happened again on the scale it did in the early 20th century, we would see queues of our own contemporaries eagerly signing up to fight.

We are full of empathy, as one would hope, when we explore these vivid, horrific portrayals of war. However, we are also unconsciously full of patronisation. The poems tell us that the soldiers didn’t know what they were doing. They were lambs to the slaughter. They were exploited and lied to and died for nothing. We can’t help but come to these conclusions from the literature the war left behind. Owen’s terrible words are burned into the public consciousness; ‘my friend, you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori.’ Kipling’s anger was expressed in his brief, bitter couplet; ‘if any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.’ However, as John Blake says in his article, this is far from the reality. The poets were upper class, educated men, subject to a whole different set of morals, values and expectations from their comrades from the lower classes. They were not representative voices of the average soldier. Using their words as the authentic experience of war is like using Dickens as a realistic representation of life for the average person in the 19th century. And, as Irwin, the renegade history teacher in The History Boys tells his sentimental students; if the war was as bad as Owen and Sassoon said, why were they so desperate to keep fighting in it? ‘[They were] surprisingly bloodthirsty,’ he comments, with no hint of irony.

Blake raises a number of excellent points in his article, and quotes some surprising statistics. So used are we to the rhetoric of the tragedy of the slaughter of ‘a generation’, few of us realise that around 80% of enlisted men returned back to their homes. Not quite the decimation of the male population we are led to think by the likes of Vera Brittain, whose personal grief perhaps overshadows her rationality when it comes to assessing the true impact of the war. In the 1970s, Martin Stephen, a historian, interviewed hundreds of WWI veterans. None recognised the portrayal of war seen through the famous poets’ eyes. Instead they remembered having good food, good hospitality from the French and a sense of purpose and camaraderie. Many expressed their frustration and distress at the attitude of subsequent generations, who dismissed them as ignorant of the causes of the war and mere cannon fodder. ‘They were clear why they had fought and satisfied that the war had been worthwhile,’ says Blake. For many, the war had offered them more than they had at home and they had gone in with their eyes fully open. They may have seen many dreadful things, but the bitterness shown in the poetry we have used as our version of events for so long was not shared by the veterans. They did not see themselves as the lied to victims Owen so famously portrays.

So how and why do these myths of representation come into being? Why do we choose to continue to believe them, even in the face of directly contradictory facts? Well, as Blake says, this myth was adopted by the educated classes as it reflected their own shock and horror at the scale of a war none of them saw coming. It rocked their safe and comfortable existence in a way that would leave them changed forever. I also think Blake misses the opportunity to explore the fact that many upper and upper middle class families were hit disproportionately by the war; their sons enlisted early, were promoted to higher posts, and as such were on the front line and in the path of danger more frequently. They were the angry and bitter ones, and they were the ones in the position to create the lasting public memory of the war. So, as usual, we have a history that has been formed from the point of view of the privileged few rather than the majority, whose voices have been left unheard. But where would we be if our canon of war literature explored positive aspects of the conflict too? What impression would that have left for future generations? For obvious reasons, we cannot allow ourselves to see the war in any other light than as a tragedy. However, ultimately, through continually choosing to see it as such, we devalue the ‘glorious dead’ we claim to revere. Would they really appreciate being remembered as victims, as naive young men, led blindly into the gates of hell by incompetent generals? I certainly wouldn’t. It might have assuaged the guilt of the middle classes in 1918 to do so, but from our historical distance, surely it is time for us to collectively recognise that there is no worse way to commemorate than to patronise with our pity.

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28 comments

  1. This was exactly one of the issues I had while being taught WWI from an English persepctive. I thought that yes, maybe some were naïve and had no idea where they were getting into, but many others saw a escape from a sheltered life that, if they chose war, was not that important to them.

    However, I am still careful and acknowledge the power of the war discourse and how it presented the conflict in a more optimistic way, same as it still happens nowadays.

    1. Yes exactly. We always want to simplify these things for some reason when obviously behind the statistics were individuals with their own motivations. Saying everybody felt the same way is reductive and devalues the contribution these men made. I’m glad you had a mind of your own and were able to get past the narrow education you were given!

  2. I’d recommend Peter Parker’s ‘The Last Veteran’ to you. It touches on the sort-of myth created after the war of this canon-fodder, innocent band of soldiers. The book largely deals with our social history of the war. How this sense of loss and horror has been passed down to every generation but manifests slightly differently as we have moved further and further away from living memory. I found it really interesting, especially the creation in our social conscience of inherited loss and wholesale destruction of a generation. It runs to the heart of the first 11/11, the poppies, the erection of cenotaphs in every tiny village, town and city up and down the country, a whole culture was created out of the war. Highly recommend!!

    1. P.S. I work within the Bodleian Libraries, UofOxford, and a few years back the Library collaborated with JISC to create the WWI Poetry Archive (http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/). Maybe of use to some of your students at some point in their studies. (Or those that may like to have a look at some of the original manuscrips…)

  3. That’s such a good write-up. But that’s how history almost always is, right? Viewpoints of some bubble up to the surface, others remain buried.

  4. Another vibrant, intelligent review dear Booksnob, thank you.

    Max Hastings has just been to our local Lit Fest, Bridport, talking about this very subject (& his new book ‘Catastrophe 1914′). A thorough, clearly analysed & startling book which swept 60 years of cobwebs away for me.
    Hefty & worth it.

    I’m glad you made the point of disproportionate losses in the literate, ruling, ‘upper’ classes…difficult to explore fairly or convincingly in this new classless
    age. Trying to convey the powerful grip of the upper class & the rigid barriers of snobbery to our four sons leaves them amused & still baffled.

    1. Thank you very much, Robin! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Yes, I do think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that the upper classes did suffer more than the others. It’s interesting how we are now so PC that we can’t bear to mention class at all. It seems to be the great taboo…like daring to admit you are a republican and don’t particularly enjoy being a serf in 2013…

  5. I am just starting to read 1913 The year before the Storm by Florian Illies. It is fascinating, here is a a quote from the beginning of the book:

    The first second of 1913. A gunshot rings out through the dark night. There’s a brief click, fingers tense on the trigger, then comes a second dull report. The alarm is raised, the police dash to the scene and arrest the gunman straight away. His name is Louis Armstrong.

    I am not at all well-informed about World War 1 (hence reading Florian Illies) so in learning about what was happening in the lives of Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Oswald Spengler, just to mention a few, it is shining a bit of a light on the subject from a different perspective.

    Recommended.

  6. I can’t remember who said it first; I went to school in the ’80s & ’90s. Using ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ as part of the materials for teaching the facts of the war is maybe not a great idea. I do agree with using different media to flesh out a subject/alternate pathways to engage a class of 30 children. But ‘Blackadder’ certainly not a documentary & a lot of people really felt that there was more truth to it than there was.

    A lot of WWI poetry v. misogynistic in my view as well, with terrible women harranguing (sp?) men on to their doom.

    1. Ha! I would never have thought of using Blackadder to teach WWI! It’s interesting how there are fashions in history – then, the current historical trend was to paint the war as the tragedy of the lambs led to their slaughter. I think that perspective is starting to change more now, but the myths still perpetuate. Oh yes – I would love more women’s war literature to be on school curricula to provide a counterbalance to the male depiction of their roles!

  7. Thank you for the link to the article in the TES, I think the author makes several good points. I love the complexity of history, I love how it always makes you dig deeper and always seems to turn up some suprises. Apparently, we never know what we think we know.

    You say ‘For obvious reasons, we cannot allow ourselves to see the war in any other light than as a tragedy.’ But, in light of the TES article, I have to wonder, why it is OK to see the Second World War as a wholly justified war that needed to be fought, and why it is OK to paint it in a positive light (how it brought the people on the home front together, how God was on the side of the allies, how some terrible acts by the allied forces were/are justified (bombing of Dresden, atomic bombs) etc.) but not the First World War? I know they were two very different wars, and I don’t doubt that the Second World War needed to be fought and won, but still, I have to wonder about the very different attitudes towards both wars, the very different aura that surrounds each.

    I don’t disagree with your statement, but your post got me thinking about this …

    1. I agree! The glorification for WWII often sits uncomfortably with me. More civilians were killed by far and the systematic bombings of European cities was horrendous. And then there was absolute atrocity of the atomic bombs, dropped entirely on civilian areas. In the East, Russian troops were slaughtered by the million, civilians starved to death in Leningrad and, yet, it is still WWI which is seen as the great sacrificial war. I suppose the defeat of Nazism justified the means in WWII, whereas WWI ended with soldiers dying for nothing, only ensuring the ball began a slow roll to the second war. I don’t know. It’s all awful. Soldiers die in Afghanistan for what exactly? I’m not sure it really matters in the end, somebody’s loved one is still killed.

      1. Well that’s just it – WWI has the pathos of being an utterly pointless war in that it achieved nothing but 20 years’ fragile peace before it all happened again. The fact that WWII had at its centre a clear focus of evil to fight makes it somewhat more justifiable as a noble cause. What I hate about WWII is that it’s very much seen as British – good, Germans – bad. Most Germans didn’t like Hitler either.

    2. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, Elke!

      Yes it’s interesting isn’t it. I think the fundamental difference is that WWII was fought against a clearly defined enemy whereas WWI wasn’t as much. Also, WWI was pointless in that WWII followed so shortly afterwards; all those deaths occurred only for the whole thing to start again barely 20 years later. If WWII had been followed by WWIII, I’m sure we’d view it in a similar light to WWI now.

  8. Excellent points, Rachel. This reminds me of a section I read in my current read in which a character shares that he had such a wonderful time of it all during The Great War he wishes he could do it all over again. L.P. Hartley writes another character as saying something about that sentiment going against the pet theories…
    Still blubbered like an idiot while watching the memorial ceremony in Ottawa whilst doing my ironing yesterday.

    1. I shall have to read that L P Hartley, Darlene! It sounds very intriguing. I know. I get all misty eyed every Remembrance Day. When they interview veterans on the news and they tell their heart wrenching stories of what they went through, I always end up crying over my breakfast!

  9. You might find ‘Private 12768′ interesting. I’ve had a copy for years, not yet read, but bought because it’s meant to be a very positive optimistic account of life in the trenches.

  10. As a born & bred working-class Brit, I think it’s important to consider the life the working-class conscripts were leaving behind for the trenches: Dismal living conditions in cramped, dark, damp, and cold homes where work, money, and food were scarse and hard-earned. So being sent overseas where government provided food and clothing and shelter (albeit of a somewhat rickety nature) and getting to be in a foreign land (which was usually not a possibility for the working-class) regardless of circumstances undoubtedly means that a rag-and-bone man’s son from Bethnal Green would have a far different WWI experience than, say, a squire’s son with a Cambridge education. It’s all a matter of perspective.

    1. Oh, absolutely. The official version of the war all too often only reports the view from the Officer’s Mess. I’d love to read more perspectives from working class men.

  11. Thank you for posting this as a contribution to a balanced debate. There is no doubt that even after the Great War experience young men were avid to join up up in 1939. (Angela Thirkell is very good on this and so is Felicite Nesham, qqv.) Of course if 80% of enlisted men had returned at the end of the conflict in WWI that population was more than “decimated”, since this means reduced by one-in-ten!

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