Sheffield in the Guardian, Strachan in the TLS

The first fortnight of November is the time each year when the respectable media turn their attention to consideration of the Great War. The BBC has already given us some very watchable programmes, and its website has a good timeline of the war, and other historical goodies.

The Guardian has just started another of its pamphlet series, on the history of the war. Today Gary Sheffield gives a succinct account of its beginnings, explaining the fuller picture, but putting the blame squarely on the Kaiser’s shoulders.

At best, Germany and Austria-Hungary launched a reckless gamble that went badly wrong. At worst, 1914 saw a premeditated war of aggression and conquest, a conflict that proved to be far removed from the swift and decisive venture that some had envisaged.

Some won’t like this interpretation, but to me it seems bang on the button.

The TLS has several noteworthy articles this week. The always interesting Then and Now feature, which reprints articles from ancient issues has a piece about wartime theatre by A. B. Walkley (the drama critic of the Times, who challenged Shaw to write a play about Don Juan, and so planted the seed of Man and Superman). There is a sentence of this article that I copied for my thesis as soon as I read it. It draws attention to:

“the weak point of all war plays in wartime: a certain shame for our security and amusement at the simulation of things not merely dreadful but still going on…”

There’s an excellent essay by Keith Jeffery on Irish drama about the War – which reminded me of Patrick MacGill’s play, Suspense. I’m a MacGill fan but I’ve never read the play. On investigation, I find the the BFI have got a viewing copy of the 1931 Walter Summers film of the play, so I’ll try to see that when I’m in London next.

The star turn, though is the monarch of WW1 historians, Hew Strachan, being very snooty about A Part of History a new collection of essays about the war. He takes it as typical of the current state of British thinking about the war – confused and contradictory. Oddly, his negative review makes me want to buy the book – that amount of disagreement between the authors must make for lively reading. One of the contributors to the book, Dan Todman, has things to say about it on his blog.

Strachan criticises the essays in the book for not living up to the title – not showing how the British war experience fitted in, either with the comparable experiences  of other countries, or with the general flow of British history, from which it is often separted as something unique. I have sympathy with this view – the more one looks at the war years, the more they are the product of what has gone before and the determiner of what is to follow. He’s going to have a hard job convincing the public, though. I reckon that Gary Sheffield and his Birmingham chums will even persuade the populace of the competence of Haig before Britain is willing to give up the idea of the war years as the time of hell, the extraordinary period qualitatively different from anything that had gone before. Mentally we are still in the same state as Roger in Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1923 novel Told by an Idiot, who after the war is obsessed by the difference between the war and ordinary life, and writes poetry about it. His mother, Amy,  is not totally impressed:

“I simply can’t read the poetry you write in these days, Roger… It’s become too terribly beastly and nasty and corpsey.”

“Unfortunately, mother,” Roger explained kindly, “war is rather beastly and nasty, you know. And a bit corpsey, too.”

“My dear boy, I know that; I’m not an idiot. Don’t, for goodness’ sake talk to me in that superior way, it reminds me of your father. All I say is, why write about corpses? There’ve always been plenty of them, people who’ve died in their beds of diseases. You never used to write about them.”

“I suppose one’s object is to destroy the false glamour of war. There’s no glamour about disease.”

“Glamour, indeed! There you go again with that terrible nonsense. I don’t meet any of these people you talk about who think there’s glamour in war. … Glamour indeed. I’ll tell you what it is, a set of you young men have invented that glamour theory, just so as to have an excuse for what you call destroying it, with your nasty talk. Like you’ve invented those Old men you go on about, who like the War. I’m sick of your Old Men and your corpses.”

“I’m sick of them myself,” said Roger gloomily, and changed the subject, for you could not argue with Amy.


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