The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell

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.



  1. Wow this sounds like heavy reading – but great of you to draw my attention to this war – as you say – nearly forgotten, but the language we still use that evolved from that time.

  2. Great review, Rachel. I think that as we close in on a war raged now close to 100 years ago, we can finally begin to grasp how much the world changed and how its impact is still felt today. This sounds like a compelling read.

  3. It’s hard to imagine the world as it was back then. This sounds like heavy reading indeed, but so important and eye-opening.

    Thank you for the review!

  4. I think that your point about the language (Victorian Boy’s Own Adventure Language) being totally inadequate to express “such sights, such violence …” in WW1 is spot on.

    I remember Mary McCarthy writing about the language used to obfuscate the horrors of the Vietnam war; a whole new language had been developed for that purpose. (Sorry I can’t remember the details right now. )

    Such a perceptive and sensitive review, Rachel.

    1. Yes I loved the way Fussell explored language and its use both pre and post war – I’d never thought about it much before and I found it truly fascinating.

      That’s really interesting about Vietnam – I’ll have to look that up, thank you.

      Thank you so much Sue, so pleased you enjoyed reading it. 🙂

  5. Great review. When I did my history major in college I focused on 20th c. wars, and was especially interested in WWI for so many of the reasons you mention here. It’s been years since I’ve looked at any scholarly works on the war, though, and this sounds like the perfect book to help me return to the subject. I still find it hard to imagine how huge the cultural shift was at the time, and it’s just…I don’t know, CRUSHING, to think of how ill-prepared people were for what this war would bring. Because, as you write, these things had (in living memory) occurred far away, in a sort of colonial adventureland, and no one was prepared for war so close to home, or war in which technology took such a huge leap forward and in which men were treated as little more than cannon fodder.

    1. How lucky that you got to study such interesting topics, Ellen – I wish I understood the mechanics of WWI a little more – I need to do some further study. Yes – it’s not something I think I’ll ever be able to fully grasp – just how blind they were to it all. How willingly they signed up to throw their lives away. And for what, in the end? It’s heartbreaking.

  6. A fascinating review! If you’re interested in reading more on the topic, I really recommend The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt: through the story of a family inspired by that of the author E. NEsbit, she describes the end of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the shock of WWI. The last part of the book, which follows the men to the trenches and the women to the hospitals of France, are very powerful. I reviewed it after reading it last summer…

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Florence! I read The Children’s Book when it came out – I found it a slog but as you say the portrayal of a totally innocent world sleepwalking into its oen destruction was incredibly powerful and thought provoking.

      1. A slog? Really? I agree there were bits that were a bit long and tedious – the in-between chapters on politics or the history of thought – and which detracted from the main story, but I was blown away by the richness of Byatt’s language. I was also very taken with all the fairy tale elements: the stories Olive writes for the children, and the puppet shows. And the poems at the end of the novel are heart-rending!

  7. Thanks for that. I remember realising the magnitude of the horrors of the First World War when years ago I watched (or tried to watch) the World at War series and some of those images have never really left me. Both of my parents lost relatives in the fighting, soldiers who were still boys and who had no idea (who did?) of what was ahead of them. The War To End All Wars. We wish.

    1. Yes – it’s hard for us to grasp isn’t it? Watching footage doesn’t even quite cut it. So much of the atrocities we witness are through a remove of a TV screen these days and the reality of these events never quite translates – WWI still seems like a story to me when I read about it.

      How I wish it had been the war to end all wars. How anyone can think war solves anything -still – is beyond me.

  8. Thanks for your soulful review. My French father was a veteran of WWI; back home after the war, however, he could never bring himself to speak about it. After much prodding from my older sister, he mentioned it once, and she remembers the hair on his arm sticking straight up. There are two novels of WWI which are both unforgettable in their own way: “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, and more recently, a brilliant one by Sebastian Faulks, “Birdsong.”
    Frankie Moore

    1. Thank you Frankie! How interesting – and how awful for your father to have to live with such unspeakably horrific memories. I just can’t imagine how anyone could go from living that to coming back home and being expected to live a ‘normal’ life again.

      I would very much like to read both of those novels, though I wasn’t much fussed by the recent Birdsong TV adaptation!

  9. “Finding themselves literally lost for words, soldiers turned to their favourite poems to illustrate their experiences….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.”

    That’s a beautiful observation, R.

    Really beautiful.

    I think it underlies my interest in Wilfred Owen, in particular, in regard to his wrestling with horror and how he managed to translate it into words; and the power that had for him, and which he conveyed to others.

    – Bop

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Bop! Always lovely to hear from you. I need to get reading Wilfred Owen’s poetry – I have a little volume to immerse myself in. Translating horror into something strangely beautiful speaks of a remarkable talent.

  10. I have not read much WWI literature, but I know that Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books was greatly affected by the war. She became depressed and her writing changed at that time. She almost quit writing for a time. She described how they waited for the newspaper reports and hung on every word. There were daily trips to the post office to read “the lists.” How horrible.
    This was a great review. I am intrigued but I am not sure I want to tackle it at this time.

    1. Yes, I noticed when reading the Anne series that she does become very melancholy in the ones written after 1914 – there is a darkness there, a knowledge that life contains a good deal of unfairness and cruelty, and that bad things do happen to good people. Thank you for reminding me of that.

      I’m glad I intrigued you but I understand you not feeling in the mood to tackle something so heavy! It is a fascinating book but certainly not a light read!

  11. Books about wars make painful reading. I really admire what you’ve said here, so many excellent points.

    At present I’m reading Rebecca West’s superb essays (published in 1946) ‘A Train of Powder’ which discuss the Nuremberg Trials (she saw the defendants sentenced) and the post war period. Not WW1 but especially poignant because all those lessons of the horrors of battle 1914-18 seemed not to have been learned, in 1939 or even today.

    As you say so movingly, war is the background noise of our daily lives. Perhaps it always will be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s