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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 #4 | The Recruitment Ads of Sir Hedley Le Bas

3 Jun

The fourth installment of my ongoing series, The First World War in 100 Documents, is now available at Oxford’s WW1C blog.  In it — inspired by the contents of yet another gift book — I take a look at some of the recruitment ads devised by the prolific Sir Hedley Le Bas (1868 – 1926).  One such ad appears below:

five questions better

The full piece refers to others as well, and looks back as well to a recruitment ad from 1802 calling upon the men of Manchester to join the army and travel at once to Gibraltar.  Be sure to click through to check it out.

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).

New posting series to begin at last

13 May

[N.B. I had initially planned to get this ball rolling back in March, but the tide of events turned against me and all was delayed.  The time has now come to get it all back on track, however, so here we go.]

It is a curious quirk of fate that there are currently no fewer than three books on the market organized around the theme of exploring the First World War “…in 100 Objects.”  Gary Sheffield’s is one; Peter Doyle’s is another; I confess I can’t remember who prepared the third, and I apologize to that author for the omission.  Whatever the case, it’s a popular format.

Mimicking it too closely myself would probably be a bad idea.  I am not an historian of material culture, and still less do I feel qualified to give any sort of overview of the war through descriptive engagements with objects-as-objects.  I am also, when it comes right down to it, not really an historian at all, but rather a literary scholar: I work, instead, with words.

With this in mind, and as a helpful spur to productivity, I’ve decided to start a new, intermittent posting series based instead on exploring the First World War in 100… Documents.  The threshold for “document” will be pretty broad, it must be confessed; readers can expect to see pieces on all sorts of things, be they poems, sermons, essays, posters, newspaper ads, proclamations, or goodness knows what else.  Everything from multi-volume books to two-line telegrams is on the table, but you’ll have to keep checking back to see what’s next.

The first post in this series has already appeared.

Canadian Literature of World War One

12 Mar

wwi lit logoThe tentative schedule for the upcoming international conference on Canadian WWI literature has now been posted; you can check it out here.

The conference will take place in Ottawa and is co-sponsored by the Canadian War Museum, the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa.  There will be four days of concurrent sessions and a trio of plenary addresses from Tim Cook, Margaret MacMillan and Frances Itani.  I’ll be presenting a paper there myself (on the Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock’s wartime writings in aid of Belgian Relief), and several of my colleagues from uOttawa’s English department will be giving talks on (among other subjects) Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed (1930) and Timothy Findley’s The Wars (1977) — two texts that would be all but impossible to exclude from any discussion of the Canadian literary response to the war.  Other colleagues from UO will present papers on the wartime experiences of Canon F.G. Scott, the contemporary Canadian dramatic response to the war, and the child-like rhetoric involved in describing the German enemy.

All in all, a promising affair.  If you happen to be in the area this summer, please consider coming out.

Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog

27 Jul

I’m happy to announce that I’ve been given a position writing for Oxford University’s WWI Centenary Blog!  My first post, rather tragically, is not about the war itself, but rather about something that sprang up in its aftermath — still, the war had a considerable impact on the periodical culture of the time, and what you’ll read here is very much an outgrowth of that.  Unfortunately, if you’ve been reading this blog already, you’ll already have seen me talk about this subject.  No matter!  The next post will be wholly original, and actually about the war into the bargain.  It may also be somewhat controversial.

I’ll be sure to announce any new posts here once they go up.  This will be a great deal of fun, I think.

On Beckett

21 May

George Simmers at Great War Fiction has a short, mostly-positive review of Ian W. Beckett’s The Making of the First World War, which came out late last year.  “Short” and “mostly-positive” are the words I’d choose to describe the book itself, so this seems only fitting.

The only aspect of it that was slightly off for me was Beckett’s light dismissal of the Learning Curve thesis, which has far better warrants than he suggests.  Simmers picks up on the same thing:

The last essay is an interesting one, since he diverges from what seems to be the prevailing view among British military historians – that Allied generalship won the war by skilful strategy during the last hundred days. Ian Beckett argues instead that the German generals lost the war by the mistakes they made after the March offensive. I’m not entirely convinced – since, after all, they only lost because the Allies were able to take advantage of these errors. Still, it’s a bracing argument, as are those of all the essays.

And Gary Sheffield, one of the Curve’s leading supporters (see his Forgotten Victory and The Somme for more), reached similar conclusions in his review in the BBC History Magazine:

Breaking the surface at various points is Beckett’s deep scepticism about the effectiveness of the British Army’s learning process. Beckett and this reviewer are on different sides of this dynamic and lively debate and there is not the space here to rehearse the arguments in any depth. Suffice it to say that his blunt statement in the book that the German army “adapted more quickly to the changing nature of warfare than the Allies” is, to my mind, not convincing; it lacks nuance and disregards much recent research into the British and French armies. Moreover, his unfavourable comparison of Allied gains on the Somme in 1916 with German gains in March 1918 is effectively meaningless, so different were the circumstances and consequences: while the Somme gave the Allies a solid strategic success, the initial and partial German success of March 1918 – as Beckett shows – only led to disaster.

In any event, the rest of The Making of the First World War is quite good indeed, with first-rate chapters on the flooding of the Yser and the release (and initial reception) of Malins and McDowell’s notorious The Battle of the Somme (1916) — one of the first feature-length “war films” and arguably the first runaway blockbuster.  On this latter, quite interesting subject I shall have more to say tomorrow.

Brittain, Kipling(s), Roosevelt

20 May

Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge have edited a fantastic volume of wartime letters that were sent to and among Vera Brittain’s intimate circle of friends and lovers — Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends (1998).  It’s a fine collection of correspondence marked with a necessary sense of impending loss, given the frequency with which Brittain’s doomed fiance, Roland Leighton, comes up.  His own letters are included as well.

What struck my eye while browsing the volume, however, was a remarkable letter from Vera to Roland in October of 1915, after the Battle of Loos.  This was the ill-starred battle that led to the now infamous death of John Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s only son; its immortalization in numerous books, articles, a play, and a (reasonably good) TV movie have seen the young Kipling take on a symbolically resonant status.  Much of this is intentionally emphasized — even exaggerated — in the art that surrounds the event, of course; what better image could there be, from the still-disillusioned modern point of view, than that of a bright young men sent off to a war he barely understood at the urging of his famous, wealthy father?  What better than that he should die unceremoniously and immediately, his body vanishing (this is debatable) forever into the mud-soaked hell of the trenches?  They couldn’t have done it better in a novel, and the degree to which a superficial reading of the situation lends itself exactly to the template played up by so many post-war books and poems and plays has made it hard to separate fact from fancy.  My Boy Jack is fine entertainment, but it should hardly be taken as a totally reliable account of these events.

Anyway, this letter, dated October 7th of that fateful year, contains a surprising meditation on Brittain’s part on the death of John Kipling.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever read from a now-canonical author of the war, and offers a perspective that would be very hard to fit into what we’re all supposed to think everyone then was supposed to be thinking.

And so:

Vera to Roland. Buxton, 7 October, 1915.

I could often have wept at the casualty lists that have kept coming in this week – so many officers and most of them so young too. Rudyard Kipling’s son is among the ‘Missing believed killed’. I always feel sorrier when they are the sons of intellectual & brilliant people. I don’t know why I should be, but somehow I always feel that they must mean even more to their parents than those of the more ordinary ones do to theirs…

Amazing — and rather against the grain of how many now feel in an age that persists in seeing Wilfred Owen’s death as tragic while viewing the national grief at the death of Rupert Brooke as quaint and silly.

Three years later, in July of 1918, Rudyard Kipling himself opened up to a friend about a similar matter and about the gulf that the loss of so many young men had left in his life and in the lives of those around him.  He takes as his pretext the death in action of another “son of intellectual & brilliant people” — that of Quentin Roosevelt, former president Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son.  The younger Roosevelt had joined the air force and was killed in action over France on July 14, 1918.  Roosevelt’s own response to this (and his correspondence with Kipling on that very subject) will likely turn up on this blog later, but for now I’m going to stick to Kipling’s letter to Edmonia Hill:

I see to-day that poor young Quentin Roosevelt has been killed flying.  One doesn’t  mind these things so much for oneself as one does for other people.  I know Kermit and like him immensely but I believe Quentin was a great favorite of his father’s and a most promising man.  His mother will feel it – and more as the years roll around.

Can you imagine such a life as it is with us here now – where there are no young men left among the people one knows, within eight visiting miles of us, every house has lost its son.  Now my second young cousin – younger than John – has just gone out to take John’s place in the Irish Guards, and I’m praying that he’ll get a good satisfactory deep-seated wound that will keep him quiet for six or eight months.

We had a boy staying with us one Sunday night.  He had just recovered from a wound and was off on Monday morning.  By Thursday he was wounded and back again in hospital.  Now he is out once more at the front twice wounded and a Major at the age of twenty-three!  Another friend of mine is a Brigadier General, aged twenty-six! which when you remember the ancient Generals in the East seems revolutionary.

Theodore Roosevelt would not have long to grieve his son — he would die six months later, Jan. 6, 1919.  Kipling would endure with his increasingly estranged wife and daughter until 1936, dying within days of his friend, King George V.  The monarch, as My Boy Jack is at pains to emphasize, also lost a son during this time — though not because of the war.  But that is another post for another day…

Enter the Lists

17 May

George Simmers at Great War Fiction has found a very interesting list of books.  The list dates from 1918, and includes 130 books that the compiler believed would be of enduring value in understanding the war.  For those interested (as I am) in approaching the war through the lens of the works actually produced at the time, this is a remarkably useful resource.  Go check it out!

I can only claim to have read twenty of the books on the list, so this is going to present me with some wonderful leads.  I’m particularly delighted to see in the Cartoonists section that the matchless W. Heath Robinson apparently produced a volume of war cartoons.  There’s nothing I’d rather see this afternoon.

The worst war poem

18 Apr

I wish to say at the very start that I have nothing against Sir William Watson (1858-1935).  He was a popular and oft-anthologized poet in his time, and on two occasions was seriously considered for the post of Poet Laureate.  He had personal demons, and he fought them; he had hard politics, and he expressed them; he had a love for an older style, and wrung out every last drop of it that he could in producing his own works.

Watson was knighted in 1917 — possibly at the urging of David Lloyd George, about whom Watson had written a number of stirringly laudatory poems.  One such poem appeared as the title piece in Watson’s The Man Who Saw: and Other Poems Arising Out of the War, which had come out earlier the same year.  It’s an astounding piece; a short selection follows to give you a taste of the thing:

…then indeed shall Time
Add yet another name to to those the world
Salutes with an obeisance of the soul:
The name of him, the man of Celtic blood,
Whom Powers Unknown, in a divine caprice,
Chose and did make their instrument, wherewith
To save the Saxon; the man all eye and hand,
The man who saw, and grasped, and gripped, and held.

It’s sensational.  John Collings Squire, in a short essay on the collection, drily notes that “this must certainly be the most eulogistic poem ever written about a British politician.”

But it isn’t.

Later in the same volume, Watson offers up a sonnet called “The Three Alfreds.”  A footnote somewhat surprisingly declares that “Friends have urged the author not to republish this sonnet.  He does so because he believes it to be the truth.”

And so:

Three Alfreds let us honour. Him who drove
His foes before the tempest of his blade
At Ethandune — him first, the all-glorious Shade,
The care-crowned King whose host with Guthrum strove.
Next — though a thousand years asunder clove
These twain — a lord of realms serenely swayed;
Victoria’s golden warbler, him who made
Verse such as Virgil for Augustus wove.
Last — neither king nor bard, but just a man
Who, in the very whirlwind of our woe,
From midnight till the laggard dawn began,
Cried ceaseless, “Give us shells — more shells,” and so
Saved England; saved her not less truly than
Her hero of heroes saved her long ago.

The “Three Alfreds” are King Alfred the Great, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Alfred Harmsworth — that is, Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper baron and propagandist.  I have a small portrait of Northcliffe on my desk even as I write this, but it is possible to go too far.