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100D #5 | Yeats Refuses to Declare

20 Oct

During the course of reading a marvelous new volume just out this year from the Bodleian Library — From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-Hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916 — I was thrilled to discover something that sheds another sliver of light onto the matter of the Authors’ Declaration of 1914.

It comes in the form of a letter to the eminent classicist Sir Gilbert Murray from the influential Irish poet W.B. Yeats.  I think it is a mark of the direction in which history has unfolded that Yeats should need no contextualizing hyperlink while Murray surely does, but in their time it was Murray who was the titan and Yeats still the rising star.  In this letter, we discover that Yeats had been asked by Murray to endorse the Authors’ Declaration with his signature — but Yeats refused.

Here is the text of that letter, dated 15 September 1914:

Dear Murray,

No.  I am sorry, but No.  I long for the defeat of the Germans but your manifesto reads like an extract from the newspapers, and newspapers are liars.  What have we novelists, poets, whatever we are, to do with them?

First: I don’t know whether England or Germany brought on this war, and you don’t.  Diplomatic documents published in the White Book deal with matters of form.  The question is whether Germany has as England believes been arming for years to wage war on England, or whether as Germany believes, England has surrounded her with hostile alliances waiting their moment to attack, through which she had to force her way at the first likely moment.  That knowledge will be kept by secret diplomacy for a good many years to come.

Second: I cannot see who this document is going to influence.  It has every sign of its origin ‘drawn up to include as many people as possible’ that is to say to be something which nobody will wholeheartedly believe, and which looks all its insincerity.  If a manifesto is to move anybody the man who made it must at least believe in it.  I would gladly join with you if you would get up a declaration against secret diplomacy when the time comes, or get up a manifesto demanding some responsible investigation of German outrages.  The present campaign may result in reprisals that will make this war more shameful than that of the Balkans.

There should be no anonymous charges, and when the war is over the whole question of atrocities by whatever nation committed should be sifted out by the Hague or some other tribunal.  It doesn’t seem possible to doubt the atrocities in many cases, but one hopes that investigation would prove that great numbers of German commanders and soldiers have behaved with humanity.  I gather from stray allusions in the Press that the Germans are carrying on an atrocity campaign not only against the Belgians but against the French and English.

Yours sincerely

WB Yeats.

There is much in this that will already seem familiar to the anti-propagandist reader of the modern age — the skepticism of newspaper accounts, the condemnation of ‘secret diplomacy’, the dismissal of the Declaration‘s power on account of its seeming banality.  Yeats, in this letter, is very much a man ahead of his time.

Still, it is possible to be too much ahead of one’s time.  Modern scholarship — in volumes like John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities 1914 (2001), Jeff Lipkes’ Rehearsals (2007), and Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction (2007) — has shown that the vicious destruction of Belgium was all too real an event, and Yeats would have stood upon firm ground in condemning it if his qualms about the manifesto in question had been less fervent.

This is not a rarity, though.  Many at the time were suspicious of claims focused on German atrocities in Belgium, believing them to be likely propaganda inventions.  This notion was further cemented in the years following the war, with volumes like Irene Cooper Willis’ England’s Holy War (1928) and Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in War-Time (1928) insisting that such claims were the fatuous inventions of Allied propagandists.  History has proven otherwise, but this only lends further flavour to Yeats’ contemporary refusal.

100D #3 | Advertising King Albert’s Book

30 May

The latest installment in this series has been cross-posted at Oxford’s WW1C blog — you can check it out here.  An excerpt:

The ad is not so much a tantalizing description of the book as it is an exercise in propagandistic persuasion.  The emphatic declaration at the ad’s outset that the book will “help put on record for all time the true and only reason for which the Allies have drawn the sword” reads like a press release from the agency with which this blog shares its name — and may very well actually have been, given that Hall Caine had been enthusiastically involved with the Bureau from its very inception.

A great deal of rhetorical effort is expended in emphasizing the volume’s unique and international character.  It could be “the most remarkable production that has ever issued from the press” — “a book to treasure now, and to hand down to one’s children,” because “perhaps nothing of its kind will ever appear again.”  This has turned out to be somewhat true; we have many imperfect analogues to the “gift book” craze in the modern day (like celebrity telethons, perhaps, or the Live Aid concert), but not to the same extent and with the same dizzying popularity as these volumes achieved at the turn of the 20th century.  The volume was certainly quite unique in its comprehensive breadth, as we’ve already seen, but it was its international flair — and the spirit of co-operation between “civilized” nations that it promoted — that was a primary focus.

I’ll be taking a look at King Albert’s Book itself in an upcoming installment, so stay tuned (so to speak).

22 July 1917 | A Letter from a German Prison Camp

19 Jul

I’m posting this here because I don’t imagine I’ll ever get the chance to bring it up otherwise.  The following is a letter from the French Archives nationales, dated 22 July, 1917.  It is from a young woman in the civilian prison camp at Limburg, and is addressed to her husband, another civilian who had been forced to work in Battalion 2 of the Zivilarbeiter Bataillonen, stationed somewhere in northern France.  This latter group, easily distinguishable in public by the red armbands they were forced to wear, was comprised of French and Belgian civilians who were essentially enslaved to support the German war effort through their labour.  From Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker’s 14-18 (2000):

They were blackmailed in a particularly odious manner.  Either they voluntarily agreed to work for the Germans, in which case their situation was one of ‘free’ salaried employees who were entitled to leaves and to contact with their relatives; or they refused, in which case they were rounded up and subjected to compulsory labour.  [. . .] Since most mayors refused to hand over lists of their town’s unemployed, the Germans simply rounded up men in the streets and deported them. [75]

It is against this backdrop that we must read this heartbreaking letter from the young Eugénie Broyart.  Her original grammar has been preserved as much as is possible in translation:

22 July 1917

Dear Lucien,

I’m surprised by your silence I havent received news since your cards of 3 and 11 March, yet I would be very happy to get some for I miss you a lot and regardless of my courage and my resignation I don’t know if I can stand this suffering of being separated from the whole family as we are if I knew where my little children and my parents are I’d take courage more easily.  In spite of everything I’m in good health and so is my little Henri and I hope my letter will find you well also, which is what we must ask for in our sad situation.  Rosa is fine still works outside she sends you her greetings but still doesn’t know about her misfortune she received another card this week from your parents they sent back to non-occupied France… all these upheavals of all these families, Rosa doesn’t know where Raymond is either.

Dear Lucien if you can try to look into the fate of our poor little children, because for myself I can’t and you will write me but write me always as much as possible, that will be a very precious consolation… I feel like everyone is abandoning me, though, dear husband we must not get too discouraged for we’re still needed on earth to bring up our little family.  I hope though that there will be an end and that we will all be reunited to live happier days after so many cruel ordeals we certainly deserve to I don’t have much else to tell you hello from my comrades to Cousin Désiré and to you I hope you are still together.

A thousand loving kisses from afar while waiting to kiss each other close up what a happy day, dear Lucien, but when… let’s hope for God’s clemency.  Yours for life.

Eugénie Broyart

(Above all, send me good news from you soon, I forgot to tell you I haven’t yet received news of the plea for pardon that I asked for I hope.)

Pause to think on all that is contained above.

In any event, it reminds me of nothing so much as this remarkable passage from Edith Wharton’s The Marne (1918), which sees a young American man head off to France as a volunteer after having been briefly exposed to the war in its early months during the initial German invasion.  He arrives in the little town he and his family used to visit so often, seeking news of the friendly family that had acted as hosts and tutors in French.

Troy jumped down, and began to ask questions. At first the only person who recognized the name of Gantier was an old woman too frightened and feeble-minded to answer intelligibly. Then a French territorial who was hoeing with the women came forward. He belonged to the place and knew the story.

“M. Gantier – the old gentleman? He was mayor, and the Germans took him. He died in Germany. The young girl – Mlle. Gantier – was taken with him. No, she’s not dead… I don’t know… She’s shut up somewhere in Germany… queer in the head, they say. …The sons – ah, you knew Monsieur Paul? He went first… What, the others? … Yes; the three others – Louis at Notre Dame to Lorette; Jean on a submarine; poor little Félix, the youngest, of the fever at Salonika. Voilà… The old lady? Ah, she and her sister went away… some charitable people took them, I don’t know where… I’ve got the address somewhere…”

He fumbled, and brought out a strip of paper on which was written the name of a town in the centre of France.

“There’s where they were a year ago. … Yes, you may say: there’s a family gone – wiped out. How often I’ve seen them all sitting there, laughing and drinking coffee in the arbour! They were not rich, but they were happy, and proud of each other. That’s over.”

He went back to his hoeing. [64-66]

This story, and others like it, repeated itself over and over, in the millions, throughout France and Belgium from the autumn of 1914 onwards.  The focus on the trenches, while understandable, does tend sometimes to obscure this fact.


27 Jun

Searching in vain for a preserved copy of The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin (1918), I stumbled across this small selection of clips from anti-German propaganda produced during the war.  It makes for fascinating viewing: the production quality on the animated sequence is actually quite high, and the live-action portion is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, albeit on a sadly diminished scale.  There were entire feature-length films like that, and I cannot properly express how keen I am to find them.

So, very much worth watching in that light — but that’s not all there is.

The clip itself comes from an old documentary series, apparently called The Peoples’ Century.  The clips are accompanied by a voice-over and some interviews with veterans intercut throughout.  All fair enough, but the impression that it all conveys is absolutely appalling.

First, yes, propaganda of this sort was certainly produced and distributed, and on a quite massive scale.  Nobody would deny that.  And second, yes, many propagandistic works made use of hyperbole and sensationalism in the prosecution of their cause; nobody should find this surprising.

What disgusts me about this clip is the complete lack of meaningful engagement with the truth claims of such works.  It’s simply taken for granted that they were all fabricated and deceitful from start to finish.  The American veteran interviewed is wearily cynical about it all, and the German veteran — who is permitted to have the final word — can only say how personally hurt he was at the slander such propaganda laid upon him and his colleagues in the German army.

But how seriously can we actually take this?  The American veteran cites some things — abuses and murder of women and children, burning of villages, general terrorizing — as though they were gross and sensational distortions, made up out of whole cloth in a bid to angry up the recruits.  The implication is that such reports are not to be trusted.  This sort of perspective is unforgivable in light of what we now know about the misdeeds perpetrated in Belgium in the autumn of 1914.  The most credible modern scholarship (see specifically Horne and Kramer’s German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial, 2001) makes clear that a great deal of this sort of thing really did happen, for very shabby and misconceived reasons, and that the findings of the subsequently notorious Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages produced under the direction of Viscount Bryce (1915) were essentially correct.  The Report‘s notoriety as an icon of deceitful governmental war-mongering, in fact, may perhaps be undeserved.

Somewhat more importantly, it doesn’t even really need the findings of modern scholarship to make this kind of thing clear.  To claim that the invasion of Belgium by the German Army in the autumn of 1914 was in fact not accompanied by the mass destruction of villages, the displacement of tens of thousands of people (1.5 million, actually, in this case), the ravaging of the countryside, the theft or destruction of untold amounts of property and the deaths of numerous civilians is to paint the invasion as being unique in the whole history of warfare.  How can those who so regularly denounce these claims as “propaganda” and leave them at that lack so much in the way of historical imagination and empathy?  What exactly is it that they think happens when a city like Louvain is burned or a national redoubt like Antwerp invested?  It isn’t an orderly affair.

In any event, I believe that most of those who are skeptical of the Bryce Report or of the more sensational claims like the film I referenced above would not insist that nothing of note at all happened during the German passage through and eventual occupation of Belgium, but one could be forgiven for thinking as much based on how they sometimes treat it in their books.  That, however, will be the subject of a later post.


1 May

The uniform situation at the start of the war was not, um, uniform.  Infantrymen wore all sorts of things, depending on their national background; the German field grey is already well known, and the initial French uniform of blue jacket and red trousers has assumed an iconic status (though it would not last — the war saw to that).

The Belgian Garde Civique, for my money, had all of them beat:

It’s not every unit that goes boldly into battle wearing top hats.

Interestingly, as John Terraine notes in The Smoke and the Fire (1980), this almost-civilian attire may have accounted in some small manner for the ruthless treatment of the Belgian people by the invading German army.  As Ludendorff declared, “the Garde Civique, which in the days of peace had its own arms and special uniforms, were able to appear sometimes in one garb and sometimes in another.”  He said this in support of his claim that the Belgian government had been “systematically organizing civilian warfare,” and that consequently the incredibly harsh and murderous treatment of Belgian civilians by the German infantry was intended to thwart an entrenched system of francs-tireurs (that is, “free-shooting” partisans) — a system of which no modern historical inquiry has found any real evidence.  In any event, as Terraine concludes, while it may have been defensible for the German army to claim to have initially responded so harshly because of their mistaken evaluation of these soldiers, it is much less so to say that they must have kept on making the same mistake.

The Kings

5 Apr

Barbara W. Tuchman, in her highly influential The Guns of August (1962), takes as her prologue the funeral rites of Britain’s King Edward VII.  The funeral brought together dozens of heads-of-state from across the world, and occasioned one of the single largest gatherings of royalty in history.  It has never been equaled since, and I should be very surprised to learn that it had been dwarfed by anything before.

It was during this funerary gathering that this remarkable photograph was taken, at Windsor in May of 1910:

Standing, from left to right: King Haakon VII of Norway, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, King Manuel of Portugal, Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire, King George I of Greece and King Albert I of the Belgium.

Seated, from left to right: King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King George V of Great Britain and King Frederick VIII of Denmark.

There almost appears to be a certain wariness on Albert’s face — perhaps rightly so.


1 Apr

Today we look to a deservedly iconic photograph:

A study in contrast

Men of the 8th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment move up into the line at the Battle of Broodseinde, Oct. 4th 1917.  An image basically tailor-made for dust jackets.

August, 1914

25 Mar

This remarkable photograph was taken amidst the first incursion of the German Army into Belgium in August of 1914:

The degree to which this event and the ones that followed over the coming months are now popularly conceived of as being somehow “unimportant” or “uninteresting” is dismaying.  I’ll have a lot more to say about the German-Belgian front as this blog continues to develop.  From the crossing of the frontier to the burning of Louvain to the fall of Antwerp to the flooding of the Yser, here we find a campaign so rich in drama and action, so steeped in heartless cruelty and breathtaking heroism, that it hardly seems recognizable as a part of the First World War at all.  Those expecting the same stale tales of mud, trenches and futility will find nothing of the sort.