Reading the First World War

Written by Wordsmith on .


As we commemorate the dreadful death toll of the First World War, we should be aware of some of the twists and turns that history has superimposed on the war. 

Is it a gloss to call the deaths of all those men and women from many continents - but mostly men of the armed forces - a 'sacrifice'?  Does that word simply attempt to make it easier for relatives, descendants and us all to bear?  

The history of the First World - or Great - War has been seen through many filters.  There have been 'fashions' in finding explanations for the disaster the war undoubtedly was. 

Born during the Second World War, I first learned about the 1WW from Joan Littlewood's astonishing musical Oh What a Lovely War (1963).  As a student, I stood for two nights at the back of the stalls in London's Wyndham's Theatre - utterly dumbfounded.  

Why had I not been told about this scandalous disaster?  School history had first ended with the Stuarts - and then a couple of years later, ended again with Queen Victoria's death.

Some academic military historians have waged a vitriolic war against Oh What a Lovely War.  They allege it has single-handedly distorted the military history of the war and infected generations who as school kids have learned from it - and even acted in it - with an anti-war and anti-military virus.

At its extreme the reaction to the Oh What a Lovely War type of history has led to recent academic analyses declaring that Allied military strategy in the 1WW was in fact successful and showed how British armed forces could learn, adapt and change the way they fought.  They are quieter on why that all took so long.

When it comes to the 1WW many historians have played the blame game.  If you acknowledge that the Western Front became an attritional stalemate made bloody by the widespread introduction of the machine gun, someone must have got it wrong.  Who to blame...?

Was it the politicians who got Britain into war?  Was it the Generals whose strategies and tactics had not advanced with the new weapons that led to such carnage?  Was it a dysfunctional relationship between politicians and the War Office that got the planning wrong?  Or was it the Staff Officers' fault?  Or was it the men's lack of fitness?  Or....

The headlines come in terms of 'Lions' (the brave PBI - or Poor Bloody Infantry) led by 'Donkeys' (their incompetent leaders - both in and out of uniform).  Alan Clark's The Donkeys was published in 1961.  It is a moot point whether or not Clark's quotation from a conversation between German generals that English troops were 'lions led by donkeys' was a complete fabrication.

Clark's simplistic explanation was partly responsible for the 1960s attitude to the war - which included Oh What a Lovely War - and which also produced authoritative accounts critical of the High Command.  

Much later, the attitude that defended the PBI and blamed their officers led to the very popular and very critical depiction of the war in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).  

The contentious nature of this battle over the way those bloody battles were fought goes back to the first few years after the 1918 Armistice. 

In 1927 Captain P.A. Thompson published Lions Led by Donkeys - pre-dating Alan Clark.  He gave his book the subtitle: 'Showing how victory in the Great War was achieved by those who made the fewest mistakes'.

In the first decade after the war, there were other books which painted the PBI in glowing colours and pinned various levels of blame on their leaders.  So in 1930 Arnold Bennett could write:

"A characteristically English reaction has begun against the truthfulness of good war books, which are said to malign our armies." 

"An effort is being made to maintain that our soldiers, in addition to being heroes, were archangels.  For myself I prefer them to have been what they were: men.  I have no use at all for archangels, but a lot of use for men."

In 1930 the 'progress' of war books was rudely interrupted by Canadian Charles Harrison's anti-war novella Generals Die in Bed.   This has been described as painting life in the trenches as 'unrelievedly horrible' and being distinguished by 'its absolute disillusionment and cynicism.'  So much so that the Daily Mail called for it to be withdrawn.

Henry (Tarka the Otter) Williamson had served in the 1WW, admired the camaraderie of war and wrote extensively about the war - before he turned to espouse fascist politics.  He showed an acute awareness of the different approaches to writing about war.

In 1959 he wrote of his book The Patriot's Progress (1930) "...on re-reading the book, I found it mannered to the anti-Staff period of the infantryman's war of 1915-1917 [the years of trench warfare].  I wanted to write balanced novels;  the Staff also had their problems."

What is the answer to all this for modern readers?  We should be careful how we read even the most reputable, foot-noted and re-printed books about war - especially those by writers who have fought in wars.  We should even be careful of those who pass down their opinions about war books.

Henry Williamson could not bring himself to finish reading a pre-publication proof copy of Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front - even after its publisher had told him the book would 'sweep the world':  "...the book seemed to me to be written with the imagined dread of an inexperienced infantryman who had never felt the release of tension during battle, when action dissipates the terrors of pre-action....If All Quiet was going to 'sweep the world, then ---"  

Such was his reaction to Remarque's book, that for a year he stopped writing The Patriot's Progress.  

Historical accounts do often reflect the times in which they are written - and there is no such thing as 'absolute historical truth'.