How we see the war

6 Jun

One of the major problems that confronts us in attempting to understand the war and its attendant culture in the way so many of its contemporary British participants did is one of occlusion.  As Brian Bond astutely notes in The Unquiet Western Front, “it is very difficult now, particularly in comparison with the Second World War, to interpret the First World War in ideological terms”; the beliefs, fears and determinations of 1914-18 seem to pale in comparison to the much more pressing, sensational and recent ideas that were contested in 1939-45.  A great deal is said and written about the First World War without any regard for the Treaty of London; it is not now possible (or at least not advisable) to speak or write of the Second without emphasizing the Treaty of Versailles.  The threat of Prussian Kultur seems almost trite when compared to that of the Thousand-Year Reich; the threat of Prussian militarism seems almost benign when compared to that of the Blitzkrieg; the monstrosity of Prussian Schrecklichkeit is virtually forgotten when compared to that of the Holocaust – so vast is the perceived gulf between the two that some now assume the former never occurred at all.  The first war suffers and is diminished in every popular comparison to the second.

The same is true of the major players.  The Kaiser seems a distinctly unthreatening and even innocent figure when compared to the Führer; a Haig or a Plumer seem like quiet vacuities when placed against the explosive facts of a Montgomery or a Patton; Prime Minister Churchill dominates the imagination even as Prime Ministers Asquith and Lloyd George fade from it – and even as does First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill, who met with such disgrace in 1915 that it was widely believed he was finished in politics forever.  The men who ran the first war were criminals and incompetents, while the men who fought in it were victims; the men who ran the second war were geniuses even when they were also villains, while the men who fought in it were heroes.

The second war was the big war, the flashy war, the war that moved; “the good war”, fought by the “greatest generation” of Americans and by the Britons in “their finest hour”.  It was the cinematic war, the unpoetic war of happy cynics[1], the straightforward hustling no-nonsense war.  Its generals were charismatic and knew their business; its conduct made immediate sense to everyone.  Where the recollection of the first war is dominated by the image of men stuck in mud for years, doing nothing much apart from dying, the second war gives free reign to memory of destroyers in the Pacific, tanks in the desert, planes over the Channel, and men in active motion everywhere.  The anniversary of the Armistice of 1918 each year is a day of quiet misery and regret; VE Day and VJ Day carry the spirit of victory in their very names.  It is almost forgotten that the first war ended with the overthrow of Imperial Germany and the flight of her Emperor; we are still not only permitted but encouraged to be jubilant at the collapse of the Third Reich and the ignominious suicide of her Führer.

Until we learn again to see the First World War through the eyes — and feel it with the hearts — of those who experienced it, we are unlikely to have any semblance of a proper understanding of it to pass on.  And we can’t just choose only some eyes and only some experiences and then call it comprehensive: while the trench poets and disillusioned memoirists were right to insist that the jingos and the patriots did not have the final say on what the war was and meant, neither should we take those poets and memoirists as a final word in their own right.  All of these things are part of a rich tapestry of experience and meaning; we ignore important strands of it at our peril.  It was with just such a concern in mind that Douglas Jerrold summarized his outrage near the end of his 1930 pamphlet The Lie About the War:

By the simple device of omitting […] the relationship of the part to the whole, the writers of these books make every incident and every tragedy seem futile, purposeless and insignificant.  This is the ultimate, dastardly lie.  Why is it told?

As to why, I have some theories, but I’ll leave them for another time — but the implications of these omissions are troubling.  As Correlli Barnett rather provocatively put it in his editorial “Oh What a Whingeing War,” he laments “the absence of any attempt to explain the political and strategic dynamics of the war, or even of individual campaigns, which alone can give meaning to the human experiences so glumly harped on.”  Without this broader context, even examinations of minute details must suffer.

The ongoing preparations for the upcoming centenary programmes in England and elsewhere suggest that they will be carried forward in exactly this key of lamentation, tragedy and alleged futility.  This is a dangerously incomplete view of the war and its history, and the only thing that will end up being remembered over the next four years is how we’ve often remembered it — not the thing itself.


[1] See Cecil Day Lewis’ notorious 1943 poem, “Where Are the War Poets?”  It reads, in part: “It is the logic of our times,/ No subject for immortal verse –/ That we who lived by honest dreams / Defend the bad against the worse”.  It is instructive that CDL found the lack of “war poets” noteworthy rather than a norm — their voice is one that had come to be expected.

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