Roy Greenslade versus Great War journalism

In the Guardian today, Roy Greenslade marks the centenary by considering the 1914-18 press’s reporting of the First World War, which he considers deplorable:

The catalogue of journalistic misdeeds is a matter of record: the willingness to publish propaganda as fact, the apparently tame acceptance of censorship and the failure to hold power to account.

The journalists, however,  were, he says, not wholly to blame for this, because they ‘were prevented from informing the public by three powerful forces – the government, the military and their own proprietors.’
Of course there is much truth in Greenslade’s article, especially when he discusses the inhibiting effect of DORA, the Defence of the Realm Act.

One of its regulations stated: “No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.” Its aim was to prevent publication of anything that could be interpreted as undermining the morale of the British people.

True, but as he acknowledges, this did not stop Lord Northcliffe spinning the news against Kitchener. Nor, one might add,  did it stop the press barons playing a crucial role in the fall of Asquith.
In fact, censorship was very strict on military matters, or on matters that might possibly affect the military (even weather forecasts were banned because they might help the enemy). Political comment was very free, however. I have written before about the extreme personal vituperation against ministers and other politicians in Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull (much nastier than anything you’s find in today’s papers, more like the pitbull viciousness of the comments below the line on even the nicest newspaper websites). Read More »

Singing secretly


I’ll be giving a talk in a couple of weeks about myths of the War – the strange rumours that people whispered to each other at the time, and the equally strange things that some people believe about the War today.
That’s why I’ve been looking again at a book I’m very fond of, Echoes of the Great War, a compilation from the diaries of Rev. Andrew Clark, the Rector of Great Leighs, in Essex. In 1914 he set himself the task of recording what his parishioners (and others) said and did during wartime, and the results are fascinating and sometimes surprising. For example, in December 1916, he reports a rumour told him by his daughter Mildred, back from the University of St. Andrews for the vacation:

A report current in Scotland gives out that, in the battle of Loos, the Warwickshire regiment, both officers and men, got so out of hand and so undisciplined that Scots Guards turned their machine guns on them.

Read More »

Another view of soldiers’ songs

I’m still looking for material about soldier’s songs, and recently came across this article in the excellent Spectator archive. It’s a November 1917 review of F.T. Nettleingham’s collection, Tommy’s Tunes, and reminds us that the subject was not always seen through the socialist-populist filter of ‘Oh What a lovely War’. The Spectator site’s text is obviously created using the kind of scanning device that generates quite a few errors, so I’ve made my own corrected version, and thought that I would share it here:

War is a very disappointing subject for the conscientious artist. If he is a student of the graphic arts, he draws carefully studied pictures of battles as they ought to be, full of atmosphere and composition, with all his lights and shades nicely echoed and balanced, and the purblind public reject his efforts in favour of the crude realism of the picture palace. If his genius moves him to verse, he writes stirring odes and pulsating lyrics alive with fire and human emotion cunningly cast in the finest metrical form, and obstinate troops blankly refuse to sing them. When the private soldier is moved to raise his voice in song, he prefers first the common tunes that have formed the stock-in-trade of the amateur vocalist for generations : “Annie Laurie,” “Ye Banks and Braes,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” ” Killarney,” ” Swanee River,” “John Peel,” and their like. Next in popularity come the music-hall songs of the moment, which enjoy a terrific but fleeting vogue for a few months and then disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they arise. Last in order of frequency, but very nearly first in their quality of endurance, are the professional ditties ; some of them traditional from a time “beyond which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary,” but continually being revised and brought up to date by topical allusions and impromptu additions ; others technical parodies of well-known hymns and “favourite ballads”; others, again, completely original, of which a very large portion are interminable chanties built up by successive accretions in the manner of ” The House that Jack Built”, ” Who Killed Cock Robin?” or—to take a more musicianly instance—”The Merryman and his Maid” in The Yeomen of the Guard. It is from this third class, the professional ditties invented by the men in all ranks and divisions of the fighting-line, that Mr. Nettleingham has made the present collection.In any literary sense, of course, they are not subjects for criticism. Read More »

The Folio Fussell

folio fussell

There are not many works of literary criticism in the Folio Society’s backlist. Most of the books that are given the sumptuous Folio treatment are classics of fiction, biography and travel writing – the sort of thing that a bookish person of means might want to decorate his or her shelves iwith in preference to a cheap paperback.
Paul Fussell’s 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory is no ordinary work of literary criticism; since its publication its ideas have set the agenda for literary critics writing about the War, even those who dissent from its findings ; some historians too have been strongly influenced by its interpretation of the conflict. Moreover, it has been a best-seller. By the time that the second (‘Twenty-fifth anniversary edition’) was published in 2000, fifty-three thousand copies of the book had been sold.
It is a cultural landmark, and it is a marker of that status that the Folio Society has chosen it for reissue in the centenary year. They have kindly sent me a copy for review.
The book has the usual Folio Society quality: a striking cover, protected by a cardboard slipcase; clear print; good quality paper. There are forty illustrations of various kinds, compared with the fifteen in the 2000 paperback edition on my bookshelves. The new additions include photographs of the War, and of one or two war poets, posters, and paintings by war artists such as Orpen and Nash. Oddly, though, the editors of the new edition have not included some of the original photographic choices.

fussell contrast

(Click for a larger image)

I miss especially the pair facing each other on pages 43 and 44 of the paperback; one of these shows King George sagely inspecting some very neat and shipshape model trenches, and the other presents the chaotic shambles of an actual trench on the Somme. That is exactly the sort of ironic contrast that Fussell at his sardonic best specialised in. Read More »

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry


Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry was first published thirty years ago. Vernon Scannell, in a generally appreciative Guardian review, noted that ‘this editor’s selective criteria are rather obscure’, and indeed there is an interesting quirkiness in the selections that Professor Stallworthy makes from three thousand years of poetry, from the Book of Exodus (‘The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.’) to the H-Bomb (in Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’).
He  has now revised and updated his earlier  collection, and the Oxford University Press has kindly sent me a copy for review. I am glad to say that he has not made the book less quirky, but there are changes, most of them improvements.
The beginning of the anthology is not very different, as we go through the Bible (in Tyndale’s translation) through Homer, Simonides and Virgil to Horace, in James Michie’s excellent version:

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run and death will sieze
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
gets his quietus in the back and knees.

Read More »

Ethel Mannin on Arnold Bennett

arnold bennett

In Ethel Mannin’s Confessions and Impressions (1930), there’s this anecdote about Bennett:

I love the story about Arnold Bennett and the young man who so much wanted to meet him. A mutual friend introduced them during a chance encounter in the street. At the spot at which they stood, a carter was carrying a heavy trunk into a house. The young man stood waiting for the great Arnold Bennett to say something witty or profound, but Arnold Bennett was preoccupied with the spectacle of the man carrying the heavy trunk. He would talk of nothing else. It fascinated him. No human being ought to expect another human being to carry a trunk that size… Did they realise what the weight of such a trunk must be?

This story sums up what makes Bennett such a good novelist. No acting the part of a great man; just looking, and imaginatively immersing himself in what he sees, and thinking about the human cost.
There’s another story, about a critic damning a love-scene in one of Bennett’s books as ‘an orgy of lust’.

Arnold Bennett is supposed to have retorted, ‘Orgy of fiddlesticks! If love isn’t an orgy of lust, it ought to be!’

Ethel Mannin on ‘Journey’s End’

ethel mannin

Ethel Mannin

This month at the Reading 1900-1950 reading group we’re looking at the work of Ethel Mannin. I’m reading her Confessions and Impressions (1930), an alternately fascinating and annoying book of memoirs. I was struck by her comments on Journey’s End:

The reason why we have so little great art of any kind today is primarily because of our chronic self-consciousness. Therein lies the secret of the greatness of Journey’s End. Sherriff wrote quite simply and un-self-consciously about something which he knew, something he had observed and felt. The title had nothing to do with Shakeskpeare so far as he is concerned – it was the name of the trench he was in. He had no literary ideas to air when he wrote the play, no tiresome little ideals to postulate.

This is interesting as an indication of the status of Journey’s End in 1930. She firmly labels it ‘great art’. Yet she insists on its artlessness.
Which is typical of many critics of war books and poems, then and later. The work is valued insofar as it is an unmediated chunk of raw experience, and the critic prefers not to notice that it is a made, considered thing. Journey’s End, of course, is a very carefully crafted play. It is not just experience thrown down on the page, but a considered and quite intricate reworking of material that Sherriff  had originally tried and failed to shape into a novel.
This passage occurs, slightly oddly, in the middle of a discussion of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who, like the Sherriff of Mannin’s imagination, is also ‘simply being himself, knocking up masterpieces by accident.’
D. H. Lawrence is another who has ‘the supreme lack of self-consciousness of the natural artist’.
I think that this is the first time I’ve ever seen the rather repressed and gentlemanly Sherriff compared with Lawrence. I don’t think I’m convinced.

The Folio ‘Parade’s End’


The Folio Society are marking the centenary of the Great War with a reprint of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, in two volumes. They have kindly sent copies to me to review on this site.
The books are very handsome indeed, as one might expect from the Folio Society. The paper is good, the text is clear, and there are attractive illustrations. These are lino-cuts by James Albon; the pictures are always vivid and interesting, and his style is very appropriate to the roughness and drama of the military chapters.parades end 2 Read More »

Some new websites

Today is Sarajevo day, and therefore as good as any (and better than most) for mentioning A Century Back a new blog that intends day by day to record what happened exactly a century ago. So today, obviously, the author writes about the assassination, and quotes Stefan Zweig’s memory of a sudden silence:

And so it was that I suddenly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly. I did not know what piece the band was playing. I noticed only that the music had broken off… Something must have happened. I got up and saw that the musicians had left their pavilion… I noticed that the people had crowded excitedly around the bandstand because of an announcement which had evidently just been put up. It was, as I soon learned, the text of a telegram announcing that His Imperial Majesty, the successor to the crown, Franz Ferdinand…

So far. so factual, but Josh the author tells me:

I have sneaky plans, later on, to complicate our notions of storytelling and history by also introducing fictional characters (as long as their authors’ actual war experience vouches for their “realism”) into the rolling timeline–what Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant was doing on this day, that sort of thing.

This is definitely a blog that I shall follow.
Another new blog is Michael Bully’s Great War at Sea Poetry Project . Mr Bully feels that soldier poets have been privileged in the canon at the expense of sailors. He is therefore looking for sailor poets. I don’t think he’s found many yet, but it’s the sort of search that can uncover unexpected goodies.
In a much more orthodox vein, the English Association has created a rather impressive site called Discover War Poets. A good range of poets is on display, with examples of their work and snippets of commentary of the sort likely to be useful for students wanting help with their homework.

‘Culture Wars’ papers now online

Some of the papers from the very enjoyable ‘Culture Wars’ conference at Sheffield Hallam University are available online. They are on the site of the Middlebrow Network, which has done much over the past few years to encourage intelligent thinking about the less academically respectable kinds of writing.
My own paper is about detective stories. Called ‘Cambridge versus the Cosy’, it contrasts the attitudes of Ludwig Wittgenstein (crazy-keen to read tales about hard-boiled American private eyes and Q.D. Leavis, who regarded all detective stories with scorn but reserved her special loathing for the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, which she lambasted in one of the most spectacularly damning reviews ever written.
It’s one of those papers where I’d have liked to have more time than the allotted twenty minutes. Maybe I’ll expand on it one day.
If I do rework it, it will be with more understanding of Q. D. Leavis. Jan Montefiore, who was at the conference, has kindly sent me an offprint of her interview with Kate Varney, the Leavises’ daughter (Women: A Cultural Review, vol 19 no 2, 2008)
Kate Varney gives a picture of her mother as a complicated woman, from a close family who cut her off when she married outside the Jewish faith. Read More »


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