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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.

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.


10 Aug

In a move not likely to win him many friends with the Centenary approaching, prominent investment banker Bill Gross elected to describe the current state of the bond market in terms of the Somme campaign of 1916.  Yes, you read that right.

And so:

In his latest investment note – titled Bond Wars – Gross compares the current state of the markets to the aftermath of the Somme conflict in the World War One, when the British realised their traditional ‘horse and saber’ approach could not match the machine guns and flamethrowers used by the German army.

“Now that bonds have suffered a near Somme-like defeat in the past few months, fixed income investors are concerned about their prior conceptions of bonds as an asset class – an asset that has historically provided reliable income and stable to higher prices,” he says

“With yields so low, and with a negative 3–4 per cent two-month return for bond indices – investors wonder if the bond ‘horse and saber’ has given way to the alternative asset ‘machine gun’ of a new era.”

[ . . . ]

“It is an open question whether we are still marching three feet apace with 65-pound backpacks into the face of 1,000 machine guns, or safely burrowed in fox holes with revised strategies adaptive to a new era. Trust me, no investment firm has given this transition more thought,” he says.

“While our strategic execution in May/June of 2013 can and has been publically faulted, we are confident that we know how to win this evolving bond war. We have spent months – indeed years – preparing for this new dawn. We intend for you – our clients – to be surviving veterans of this battle, not casualties. Pimco will not go down at the Somme.”

To say nothing of the crass inadequacy of the comparisons being made, this is a veritable fever dream of mismatched ideas and atemporal connections.  Sabre-wielding cavalry charging into flamethrowers!  Good Lord.

If anyone is still wondering why scholars of the war are in such a fuss about “getting the war right” in time for the Centenary and the vast public involvement that’s coming, well… look to articles like this.

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.

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.


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.

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.