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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.


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.