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.


Welcome to BBC listeners

7 Mar

For those of you arriving from the link on the page at BBC Radio 4′s 1914-1918: The Cultural Front — welcome!  This is very, very far from being an aggressively updated blog, by any measurable stretch, but it’s something.  I hope to make it more dynamic at once.

In the meantime, interested parties can check out my contributions to Oxford’s WWI centenary project, Continuations and Beginnings — this recent one on the Authors’ Declaration of September 1914 will be especially relevant to those listening to The Cultural Front — or follow me on Twitter @1stWorldWarrior.  I can also be followed on both and LinkedIn.

I’m very grateful to BBC Radio 4 to have been asked to speak about these matters, and look forward to doing so again as the centenary events unfold.  In the meantime, thanks for stopping by — I intend for daily posting to resume on Monday, March 10th, so please feel free to check back.


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.

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.

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.