The deaths of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham have brought the commentators and opinion-wallahs out in force. Simon Heffer in the Telegraph writes about the effect that Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory had on him when he read it thirty years ago, and asks:
Why was Lord Lansdowne, when he called for peace in early 1917, so reviled? Why, at around the same time, when Siegfried Sassoon demanded an end to the war, and chucked the ribbon of his Military Cross into the Mersey, did others regard him as mad? Wasn’t he one of the few sane ones?
When I saw Mr Patch, Mr Allingham and Bill Stone – the last three surviving Great War veterans in Britain – at the Cenotaph last November, on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, I wondered again why their generation had allowed itself to be slaughtered because of the opportunism of the German Kaiser in exploiting a quarrel between Serbia and Austria.
The answer to the questions in the first of these paragraphs is surely contained in the second. Yes, the Kaiser had started the War in a spirit of opportunism, and up until June 1918 he was winning. To have negotiated peace in 1917, when the Russians had just caved in, would have been negotiating from a position of weakness, and the Germans, effectively would have won the War. What sort of Peace settlement would there have been? Certainly no reparations to France and Belgium for the destruction of huge parts of those countries. Probably Belgium would have become a German puppet state, with control of the Channel Ports effectively in German hands. The Germans realised the War had become a stalemate, and a Western Peace would have been less draconian than Brest-Litovsk, but it would definitely have been a Peace that rendered the previous three years futile. Sassoon, by the way, in Siegfried’s Journey (1945) acknowledged that a negotiated peace in 1917 would not have been a final solution to the problem of German expansionism.
Meanwhile, a leading article in the Guardian takes a more sophisticated view, seeing the memorialisation of the War as the creation of a mythology and both the product and generator of ideology. Parts of the analysis simply do not ring true, though, because they depend on huge generalisations. For example:
Few of the 6 million who answered the call to arms saw themselves as heroes [….] For the veterans, it was something to leave behind, an experience most closely reflected in the bitter anger of poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and Edmund Blunden.
True of some, certainly – but a lot of soldiers in the twenties did not want to forget. In fact, it was the great age of Remembrance, of battlefield tourism, the creation of the British Legion, and the invention of proud rituals such as the Great Silence.
In literary terms, during the twenties the war was remembered less by the work of the poets mentioned than by the great flood of regimental histories, which soldiers bought to see their achievements proudly chronicled, in a way that stressed collective endeavour rather than individual suffering.
The Guardian editorial goes on to claim:
Three generations later, schoolchildren standing in the vast cemetery at Thiepval are still taken aback by the sheer scale of the loss, and the bathos of Rudyard Kipling’s inscription of the unidentifiable dead, “known unto God”.
That certainly wasn’t my impressionof the reaction when I took students on school trips to Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate. Yes, they were flabbergasted by the scale of the losses – but there was no sense of bathos. On French unidentified graves, there is the blank word ‘Inconnu’. Kipling’s formulation may not please the taste of everyone, but it insists on the soldier as a presence, not an absence, affirming that the remnants under the stone were once a man, who had a soul. You don’t have to believe in God to see the value and meaning of that.