Archive | Britain RSS feed for this section

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.

The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands

25 Jul

Apart from Jutland, the war is not often noted for its naval battles. This is largely due to most of the German surface navy having spent the war under blockade, with the most wide-ranging naval operations instead being conducted by the German U-Boat fleet.

There was one independent squadron operating elsewhere at the outbreak of the war: Admiral Maximilian von Spee‘s German East Asia Squadron, which had been based out of Tsingtao in China. With the declaration of war, however, and Japan’s decision to enter on the side of Great Britain, the then-at-sea squadron could not return to port and was forced to flee. Vastly outnumbered and with few options (other German colonies and ports in the area having been swiftly seized), von Spee decided to take his ships into the Atlantic to subject Allied shipping to their predations until better opportunities came along. It was also hoped that they’d be able to dock at Valparaiso in Chile to refuel and rearm.

The Royal Navy was greatly concerned by the threat von Spee’s squadron posed to the Pacific theatre, but also with the above possibility of it making its way around the Cape to enter the Atlantic. Rear-Admiral Christopher Cradock‘s South Atlantic Squadron was given orders to take up the hunt. Cradock was given considerable operational leeway, and decided that it would be best to split the squadron into two patrols, the one to sail up and down the western coast of Chile from the Cape to Valparaiso, the other to patrol the southern coast of Argentina. Cradock and his flagship, HMS Good Hope, accompanied the western patrol — both were going to their death.

The western patrol (the cruisers Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow, and six other lighter ships of varying types) encountered von Spee’s squadron off the island of Coronel on Nov. 1st, 1914, and Cradock gave the order to engage. The gathering darkness played to German advantage, however, as did their more modern ships; by the time the battle was over, Good Hope, Monmouth and 1600 British sailors lay on the ocean floor — no survivors. Von Spee’s squadron, by comparison, suffered fewer than ten wounded and no fatalities at all. They steamed into Valparaiso as planned. Von Spee seemed deeply troubled by his success — he was of the type to respect a gallant action, even from an enemy, and to mourn a wholly lop-sided victory.

Once news reached England of the defeat, several more ships were detached from the North Sea blockade and the Home Fleet and sent to reinforce what was left of Cradock’s squadron. The new squadron, which added to it HMS Danger, Invincible and Inflexible, came under the command of the marvelously named Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee, an accomplished sailor and administrator who had recently served as the Chief of Staff at the Admiralty. Nevertheless, he had something of a rivalry with Sir John Fisher, then First Sea Lord, and Fisher had seen this as an opportunity too get Sturdee out of the way. Little did he know that his rival would return covered in glory.

In any event, Sturdee and his men were ready for battle. They found it — by accident — on Dec. 8th, 1914.

The British squadron was in harbour at Stanley in the Falkland Islands on the 8th, having only just arrived there the previous morning. There was considerable surprise when von Spee’s squadron unexpectedly came into view from the south. It’s hard to say for sure, but the best evidence we have is that von Spee had hoped to attack Stanley before the British squadron arrive and then slip off northward; their meeting on the 8th was a result of delays for the one party and a mostly speedy crossing for the other. Whatever the case, they had met — something had to be done.

Sturdee, commanding from his flagship Invincible, ordered his squadron to disembark, while fire from the shore kept von Spee’s ships from being able to approach the island at sufficient distance to shell their opponents in port. Realizing the gamble had failed, von Spee turned his squadron north-east and tried to race off into the Atlantic; by 1PM, the British had caught up.

What happened next was something in the way of a massacre, though not an easy-going one for all that. The Germans were outnumbered, outmanned, and outgunned, and their enemies were out for revenge, but having made it this far they were not about to go down without a fight. Over the course of the next few hours the Germans kept up an intensity of fire that shocked their British counterparts, buying crucial time through von Spee’s skillful maneuvering of the squadron with the shifting winds to always keep the British funnel smoke obscuring their own targeting. Invincible and Inflexible came under fire from the longer-ranged German guns, and it would take some time to close the gap.

But it was closed, and the results were as catastrophic for von Spee’s squadron as his earlier action had been for Cradock’s. Von Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst was the first to go down, taking the admiral, his two sons and every other soul aboard with her. The rest of the squadron swiftly followed suit, with only one cruiser, the Dresden, being able to escape — she would be driven into hiding after intense pursuit and eventually scuttled three months later. While the British suffered ten fatalities as a consequence of the action, the Germans lost 1900 men (with an additional 200 taken prisoner), six ships, a daring and accomplished admiral, and the ability to ever again effectively conduct surface operations in the Atlantic. The war was only four months old.

The last of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau [William Lionel Wyllie c. 1918]

The battle is an interesting one to me because of all the things it was not: no stagnation in the trenches, no repeated folly, no gross miscalculations. The worst that can be laid at the feet of those involved is misfortune. Even more than this, in a war that was so often marked by the disproportionate (even appalling) results achieved by tactics involving nascent technologies, the Battle of the Falkland Islands was nothing more or less than a squadron action, gun upon gun, in the oldest traditions of the navies involved. No radar, no aircraft, no submarines, no mines. Everything involved but the ships themselves would not have been out of place in the age of Lord Nelson, and the victory at the Falklands — particularly after the disaster at Coronel — was seen as a sign that the Royal Navy’s age-old supremacy had at last been reasserted.  Mark Connolly of the University of Kent provided a spectacular keynote about the battle’s commemorative history at the 2011 The Great War: From History to Memory conference in London, ON.  The conference’s proceedings no longer seem to be online, so no link to that is possible at this time — in a very real sense, you had to be there.

I’m happy to report that the good people at Osprey have finally put out a volume about these events — Coronel and Falklands 1914; Duel in the South Atlantic (2012). Those who would like to know more will find it an accessible and comprehensive work.

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.

Language and the “war machine”

2 Aug

A very interesting post today at Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog from Christopher Phillips on the subject of how industrial/commercial language is employed in the rhetoric surrounding the work conducted by the British general staff.  The red tabs organized an unending series of logistical miracles throughout the course of the war, and Phillips’ engagement with a popular 1917 pamphlet on this subject insists upon some realities well worth remembering:

The First World War on the Western Front was an industrial conflict. The armies that fought it required men, munitions and materials on a scale hitherto unimagined. Without food, men cannot fight. Without ammunition, guns cannot fire. As an illustrative example, in the first two weeks of September 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, the British fired 4,283,550 rounds of ammunition. All of which had to be produced, transported and delivered to the right place at the right time. Popular images of the war, transfixed by the horrors of trench warfare, have succeeded in almost completely eradicating this vast organizational challenge from the historiography. Marcosson’s contemporary account, however, does not diminish the importance of this challenge, but instead marvels at the scale of the operation required simply to feed the voracious appetite of the Western Front.

Do read the whole thing, as it’s not obstructively long.  Everyone writing at this venue is turning out amazingly interesting work, and this latest piece is no exception.


31 Jul

A quick note to say that a revised version of the Lettow-Vorbeck piece from a couple of days ago is now available to read at Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog.

A very different 1st

30 Jul

Just a short little thing for the moment, offering a further extract from a book I mentioned in my previous post (that is, Palmer and Wallis’ Intimate Voices from the First World War, 2003).

The First Day on the Somme (July 1st, 1916) has become a byword for catastrophe, nightmare and grim, pointless death.  It is the very avatar of suffering, and this conception of it — though incredibly oversimplified — is more or less impossible to escape when discussing the date in question.

Still, it’s interesting to consider what the day meant for other people.  John Terraine astutely noted in The Smoke and the Fire (1980) that the 1st day on the Somme was also the 132nd day on Verdun — a thing well worth remembering.  But what about experiences still further removed?

What follows is a very short passage from the wartime journal of Capt. Douglas “Duggie” Lyall Grant, a 28-year-old London man of Scottish extraction.  He had served for the first two years of the war as an embarkation officer in Bolougne — a relatively benign position not likely to see him end up on the Somme, but work with me here — but unhappily found himself captured by the Germans in June of 1916.  He ended up, initially, at the POW camp at Gütersloh in German Westphalia, and very quickly found it to his liking.  His companions were congenial, there were plenty of activities, and he no longer had to worry very much about taking care of himself.

This leads us to his journal entry for July 1st, 1916.  Contrast this with the Opening of the Somme:

1st July: Dominion Day, which was celebrated by the Canadians by a game of baseball in the morning and a dinner at night, both very noisy entertainments.  The French lesson got a miss for tennis and in the afternoon I watched our Hockey Team defeat the Russians’ 1st by 15-12, the 12 being their handicap.

I… yeah.

It would be worth also examining his next entry.

3rd July: This afternoon, in the company of thirty-nine others, I went for a walk.  This is a new idea, mutual arrangement between British, French and German Governments, by which officers give their parole not to escape while out walking, and in return no guard is sent with them but only one man as a guide.  We have parole cards which we sign and give up on our return.  We go out in batches of forty twice a week.  The crops looked to be good but we saw practically no men and certainly no young ones, while the ladies of the district must be noted more for their rotundity than their beauty.

The journal goes on in much the same vein until his release in April of 1918.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: A Different View

29 Jul

For those of you who have never read the articles at, I can’t say I would heartily recommend the experience.  While they’re of some value, sometimes, in bringing to popular attention subjects and people that might otherwise languish in obscurity, the quality of the treatment accorded such things is very, very uneven.

This is doubly true of their articles on historical matters, and trebly true for military historical ones.  The tendency is towards flash and sensation and the “badass” — all well and good, I guess, but it is not worth the steep cost of nuance that every single article seems so cheerfully to pay.

One article that’s been making the rounds for a while is this one — Five Soldiers Who Kicked Ass in the Face of Death (and Logic).  The article has been viewed some 875,000 times.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the first page, you’ll see that no. 3 on their list is the German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964), a legitimately remarkable character who served with distinction in the German East African campaign of World War One, and largely refused to serve with any distinction at all under the Third Reich.  His dislike of Hitler was well-known and cost him much of his reputation in Germany, at the time.

It’s the East African Campaign with which we are most concerned, here, and specifically with the hopelessly rosy view of it that the linked article paints.  Remember, this has been read over 800,000 times, and likely constitutes the first and only exposure of many of its readers to the person of Lettow-Vorbeck and to the East African Campaign.

The first claim of substance is true enough: Lettow-Vorbeck was ordered to maintain neutrality in East Africa as much as possible and to refrain from prosecuting a campaign there.  This was from his military superiors; the German governor of the colony similarly ordered him to stand down, worried that war in East Africa would have a serious and negative impact on the local economy.  Lettow-Vorbeck defied these orders in a bid to keep the Allied forces there locked down for as long as possible, and over the course of four long years he led them on a merry chase through jungles, down rivers, up cliffs and into thin air.  By the time the war was over, very little of Lettow-Vorbeck’s ragtag army remained — but it had not been defeated.  He formally surrendered on November 25th, 1918, waiting only for confirmation of the Armistice to reach him.

That does sound pretty amazing — so what’s the problem?

There are a few things worth noting, here, and the first of them is the article’s claim about Lettow-Vorbeck’s victory at the Battle of Tanga.  He apparently “handed the British their asses even though he was outnumbered eight to one.”  It is true that it was a remarkable action, and that LV and his army did indeed hold Tanga in the end, but there’s an element of luck involved in this that the article utterly fails to note.  The British attack on Tanga was sent into disarray by the sudden and explosive presence of African bees, which flew around stinging soldiers in the hundreds and sending a ripple of panic through the line.  To make matters worse, LV faced not seasoned British regulars but largely green and just-arrived colonial Indian troops.  This is to say nothing against the bravery of colonial troops generally, I wish to be absolutely clear, but a very important component of the defeat of the British attack on Tanga was the morale collapse and headlong rout of entire battalions of Indian infantry.

To make matters still more complicated, as we learn from the diaries of Dr. Ludwig Deppe — who was attached to LV’s army for the whole of the war, running the mobile sickbay — the initial assault on Tanga resulted in a truce after British shells accidentally landed on the hospital in Tanga where Dr. Deppe was working.  His meeting with the British envoy, the equally interesting Richard Meinertzhagen, inadvertently revealed the amazing news that the British planned to withdraw — a welcome discovery indeed for the German forces, who were convinced they were going to be overrun and who had intended to withdraw themselves as soon as possible.  Vorbeck’s troops were actually in the process of leaving the city when Dr. Deppe, suddenly realizing what one of Meinertzhagen’s remarks had meant, ran out into the street to call them back.

Is this really “handing the British their asses even though he was outnumbered eight to one?”

Of the rest of LV’s campaign I have little to say except as a thumbnail sketch.  The article doesn’t go into much more detail about it than I already provided earlier in the post, apart from pausing to note that he cobbled together artillery from guns salvaged from a sunken ship.  This is admittedly pretty cool.  LV and his forces spent the next four years racing around through the jungle, one step ahead of their enemies, pausing only to conduct lightning strikes against their much larger pursuers when and where they were least expected.  It does have the air of romance to it, and I completely understand why people are so happy to read about this.

But it comes at a price.  A terrible, often unspoken price.

The nature of the terrain over which this “war” was fought made transport extremely difficult.  Trucks were right out, as were boats, planes, any large number of horses or mules — even airships, though heaven knows they tried.  LV’s army had no lines of provision, no access to resupply, no home base, and no possibility of evacuation.  Attempts to resupply him from the air or by sea were thwarted by a strict British blockade and by Belgian troops holding much of the shoreline.  LV and his army were on their own.

Except, of course, that they really weren’t.

I mentioned above that transport was difficult, but all of their existing provisions, weapons, tents, medical supplies, tools, and artillery had to be moved around somehow.  It had to be carried on human backs — specifically, on East African backs.  These porters were culled from every village and town that could be found as the armies made their way through the bush.  Many went willingly, enticed by the promise of pay and adventure, or in the hopes of currying favour with the colonizers; many were pressed into service, or functionally left with no choice after their homes were destroyed in the running battles between LV’s men and his British, Belgian, Portuguese and South African pursuers.  Those pursuers needed porters too, make no mistake, and rather more of them than LV’s dwindling army did.  In all, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 East African porters were used between the two armies.

So, what were the consequences of this?

Catastrophe.  Black, bloody catastrophe of the most callous sort imaginable.

In the course of conducting his wholly unnecessary war — Lettow-Vorbeck had been ordered not to do this, remember — the combined German and Allied armies in the East African campaign worked between 200,000 and 400,000 native porters to death.  They died in unthinkable numbers, killed off by malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, accident, combat, reprisal and even execution for “desertion”.

Did it end there?  Of course it didn’t.

Apart from this massive wave of human depletion, one of the effects of having hundreds of thousands of men stamping around through a jungle for four years is that a lot of supplies were consumed.  LV and his army had no possibility of resupply, so they only survived by stripping the jungle bare of edible plant and animal life, when they could, and by regularly looting East African villages and towns that they passed.  For the Allied armies the situation was somewhat better, given the existence of a supply train, but it is impossible for the multi-annual passage of so many people through a region this small not to have a dramatic impact.

The despoliation undertaken by these armies during their wholly unnecessary jaunt left East Africa in a state of famine.  The food had all been eaten; rivers were corrupted, wells were drained.  Agriculture collapsed in many areas owing to all of the able-bodied men having been carried off as porters, and this absence would also have severe demographic consequences in the generations to come.  Cramped conditions in hastily-constructed prison camps for captured porters who refused to switch sides eventually saw the Spanish flu cut through them like a scythe.  Taken all together, this resulted in the post-war death over the next several years of another estimated 300,000 people — this, too, a direct consequence of Lettow-Vorbeck’s refusal to stomach the possibility of surrender and the Allied refusal to give up the pursuit.

So, to conclude, yes — it’s all very cool, I guess, but perhaps only up to a point.

[With credit to Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis’ Intimate Voices from the First World War (2003) for references to Deppe’s and Meinertzhagen’s journals]

The Death of Charles Fryatt

27 Jul

From our “this day in history” file…

The following notice appeared in Dutch, French and German on July 27th, 1916, to broadcast a dark announcement:

NOTICE. The English captain of a merchant ship, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. For this he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the Field Court Martial of the Naval Corps, and has been executed. A ruthless deed has thus been avenged, belatedly but just. Signed VON SCHRÖDER, Admiral Commandant of the Naval Corps, Bruges, July 27th, 1916.

Captain Fryatt’s execution by firing squad reignited international outrage at the German treatment of foreign nationals, already banked high after the similar execution of Nurse Edith Cavell in October of the previous year. British artillerymen on the Somme, incensed at Fryatt’s treatment, began a trend of chalking tributes to the executed captain on their shells before loading them into the guns.

In the weeks leading up to his court-martial, Fryatt was held at the civilian prison camp of Ruhleben near Berlin.  I note this as a sort of taste of things to come, as the subject of the conditions endured by civilians in German prison and labor camps is one that is not often discussed and which has recently come to interest me deeply.  It is one of the most appalling gaps in the war’s popular memory (in the English-speaking world, at least — the French and the Belgians have not forgotten) that currently exists, and as the rolling centenaries commence I have hope that this imbalance may finally be redressed.

All of which is to say that you can expect to hear more about this in the coming weeks.  Ruhleben and Holzminden are on my mind.

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.

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.