Q: Why are the standard misleading clichés about WW1 so very popular with writers?
A: Because they are so very useful for adding instant pathos to a story or script.
Last night I watched “To the Last Man”, an episode of Torchwood, the Dr Who spin-off that is never quite as good as the original. The basic premise was a bit complicated. So far as I understood it, there was a rip in the fabric of time, located in a 1918 military hospital. This meant that 1918 people would appear in the present and modern people would appear in 1918, and each lot would think the others were ghosts, which is a fairly neat idea.
This gap had to be stopped, because otherwise bits of 1918 would start appearing all over modern London. The people in the episode all thought this was a bad thing, whereas a history buff like myself would rather like it. Just think – if lovely old tobacconist’s shops started popping up among the City skyscrapers, if Marie Lloyd and Ernie Lotinga materialised once more on the stage of the Palladium, if Augustus John and Nevinson held court again at the Café Royal…
Anyway, this gap was to be cured by a plot device – a soldier patient (called Tommy, to make the point that he was typical, symbolic, etc.) was taken out of the 1918 hospital by the precursors of the modern Torchwood team, frozen for ninety years, and then sent back through the gap to put things right.
Brilliant idea – except that Toshiko, the nicest of the Torchwood team, fell in love with reanimated Tommy. And she found out that if he returned to 1918, he would be sent back to France by ruthless desperate General Haig. And because he would still actually be suffering from shell-shock, he would be shot at dawn in a few weeks time. This generated a nice irony – the Torchwood team needed to send him to a certain death to solve the time problem, just as unfeeling Haig need him to be cannon fodder.
So the usual myths were propagated.
One of the Torchwood team was horrified at the thought of someone being shot for having a mental breakdown, and was told “There were three hundred of them!”
To which a historian wearily tries to answer that yes, three hundred-odd were executed over the course of the four-year war, but this was by no means the inevitable fate of anyone offending against the military code. Military crimes attracted tough punishments, but clemency was usually afforded to those who committed the crimes through human weakness (so that almost all of the 449 condemned to death for sleeping on sentry duty had their sentences commuted.) The three hundred executed were only about ten per cent of those on whom the death sentence was passed. Cruel and unfeeling Haig reprieved the other ninety per cent.
Tommy in the episode was supposed to be “shell-shocked”, but displayed no symptoms – no trembling, no mutism, no stammering, no involuntary movements. He was just a bit frightened of going back. “Shell-shock” was a wide and vague diagnosis – which is why, by 1918, doctors were avoiding use of the term.
And there was a supposition that if Tommy returned to the Army, he would go back to France, and to the front line. This once again does not square with the facts. They did not want unreliable soldiers on the front line, and someone in his position would most probably be sent to work at a base in England, or in a Labour batallion to the rear in France, so freeing a more dependable soldier for combat.
All of which information would be of no use to Torchwood writers. They need drama and horror, and the WW1 stereotype is an easy source of it. Just as Pat Barker continually returns to the period because it provides her with an image of the very worst that can happen (but then contrives her story to make it worse than any actual worst) so popular writers need a shorthand image of dreadfulness that their readers will easily recognise, and the Great War fits the bill.
And, of course, any mention of the War allows people to feel a pleasant flow of easy emotion. I recently wrote some comments on that inaccurate and sentimental book Private Peaceful, and today I notice that someone called Cheyenne has added a comment to the post:
i love this book, i awesome … i had to read it ..
I LOVE IT
Who can doubt the strength of Cheyenne’s incoherent sincerity? But we need to be careful of what Wimsatt called the affective fallacy – the idea that the more a book affects us, the better it is. Good writing affects us because it makes us aware of what we hadn’t realised before; shoddy writing affects us because it skilfully dishes out the clichés to work on our emotions. Hitting the WW1 button means instant pathos.