On the Impossibility of Great War Fiction

Occasionally I come across a sentence that gets things so wrong that I just have to write about it. According to Claire Tylee, writing in 1990 :

During the First World War men fighting in the trenches had little opportunity to compose poetry, let alone write novels, and few civilian writers cut through the political smokescreen on their behalf.

Taking the first assertion first:
The unstated assumption behind this seems to be that soldiers in France spent all their time in the trenches. They didn’t. Many spent a high proportion of their time behind the lines, and rarely saw action. Keeping troops from getting bored could be a problem for officers, who organised sporting contests and concerts to keep up morale. There is plenty of  evidence that  soldiers did a lot of reading while in France, and if there is time to read there is time to write. Officers were likely to have even more leisure time than enlisted men; some even brought their hounds out to France, so that they could go fox-hunting.

Ian Hay and Patrick MacGill were two soldiers whose lightly-fictionalised accounts of their time first training and then fighting were best-sellers in the early years of the War. Hay’s work has not worn too well, but MacGill’s still gives one of the most vivid pictures of Army life from the point of view of the private soldier. These two were by no means alone. The autobiographies of W.A.Darlington (who wrote and published the first version of his comic War fantasy Alf’s Button while  serving in France) and A.M.Burrage  (who seems to have kept on producing magazine stories throughout his war career) indicate that the main problem for soldier writers was the censorship. Not that anyone wanted to ban or cut their work – the difficulty was finding an officer willing to read through five thousand words at the end of a long day. Burrage’s solution was to acquire by devious means a supply of the green envelopes designed for highly personal mail that would be subject to censorship at the base rather than by local officers. Using this system meant that the stories got through.

Claire Tylee does not seem to know about this; neither has she considered the soldiers like Gilbert Frankau who fought, came back injured, and then fictionalised the experience, writing realistically about battle and the experience of shell-shock..

Then there is the second assertion:

few civilian writers cut through the political smokescreen on their behalf.

The assumptions behind this are

First – that cunning politicians hid the War’s true nature from the populace. This hugely overstates the power of the state and its propaganda resources.

Second – that writers were too weak or dishonest to think seriously about the War.

Claire Tylee names some of the guilty men:

Galsworthy, Bennett and Conan Doyle simply scribbled puff for the government’s case.

How just is this? All three men sincerely supported the War effort, and all three produced work for Wellington House, as propaganda to make the British case abroad. Doyle by this time was past his best, and his wartime writing does not compare well with what he had done before (Compare ‘His Last Bow’ with the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories.) I have not looked at his part-work History of the War; it sounds more dogged than inspired. Galsworthy, I think, went in for some self-censorship during the War. His ambiguous fable Defeat was written  in 1916, but not published in Britain, I think, until after the War. During the last year of the War, however, he was writing Saint’s Progress, which gives a devastating picture of the War’s effect on family life, and of the weakness of organised religion in dealing with the War’s effects.

As for Bennett, his support for the War was in part impelled by his long-term Francophilia, but he was by no means mindless in his support. Look at his early story ‘The White Feather’, or the analysis of wartime London in The Pretty Lady. I’d choose Bennett as an example of a writer who kept his integrity through the whole business.

Tylee obviously wants writers who would come out and say: ‘The War is wrong,’ like Siegfried Sassoon did. Well, there were dissidents, from Bertrand Russell to Herbert Tremayne, but they were remarkably few, and limited mostly to those who took an absolutist pacifist position. I think it is more interesting to ask why most writers did not do so, and to avoid the easy answer that they were fooled or suborned by the state. The fact is that most writers, like most citizens, believed the War to be just, even while they knew its effects to be terrible. And they realised that if Lansdowne’s plan for a negotiated peace had worked in 1917, Germany would effectively have won the War – and that that would have mattered.

The book in which Claire Tylee wrote this sentence (The Great War and Women’s Consciousness) was written in 1990. Maybe she has changed her views on these matters since then; if so, I apologise to her for dragging her words up out of the past – but there is plenty of evidence that people still believe this sort of thing.


  1. Alan Allport
    Posted August 26, 2009 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    The sort of know-it-all presentism Tylee’s 1990 work encourages comes across very strongly when you teach twentieth century history to undergraduates. Sometimes the effects are just weird. Students are often convinced, for instance, that

    (a) the failure to make peace with Germany in 1917 shows how weak, stupid, and/or mendacious people in the past were; while at the same time

    (b) the failure to make war with Germany in 1938 shows how weak, stupid, and/or mendacious people in the past were …

  2. The Shadow
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Hear, hear! It’s sad, but I think that the Tylee version of history has been adopted by people as the popular view of the conflict. People can be surprised if you try to suggest any other.
    On the subject of Doyle, I haven’t read the Great War history either, but I would disagree with the idea that he was past his best by then. THE VALLEY OF FEAR (1914-1915) is an excellent novel, and some of the Holmes short stories published in the 20s (ILLUSTRIOUS CLIENT/THOR BRIDGE/SUSSEX VAMPIRE) are well up to the quality of the rest of the canon. Equally, some of the Prof. Challenger stories written a year or two before his death (THE DISINTERGRATION MACHINE/WHEN THE WORLD SCREAMED) are as good as anything he ever wrote. I suspect that the lack of good stuff from the latter part of his career has more to do with his time being taken up with his relentless proselytising about Spiritualism, rather than any dropping off of quality.

  3. Posted August 29, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    There are definitely good stories in the last two Holmes books, but it’s the Adventures and Memoirs for me, every time.
    Of the Professor Challenger stories, the one that fascinated me when I was young was The Land of Mist, where he delves into the realms of the psychic. I ought to re-read it, except that I suspect I’d be disappointed.
    One thing I’d like to know – why did Doyle keep Holmes away from the spiritualism he was so committed to? Was it his own good sense that told him the two wouldn’t mix? Or was it his agent or his publisher, telling him not to spoil the earning potential of the series?
    But can you imagine how it might have turned out?

    “The answer, Watson, is self-evident. If we eliminate the uncle from our list of suspects, there is only one other possible solution. The murder was committed by fairies!”
    Thank goodness he managed to exert some self control.

  4. The Shadow
    Posted August 31, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that it was to do with artistic self-control. He pretty much prevented Holmes from progressing much beyond the reign of Victoria, because he believed that his detective was out of place in the modern world, so it’s not too much of a stretch to see him deciding that the psychic and detective worlds didn’t mix. By the time that ACD was won over to spiritualism, Holmes had become such an emblematic and popular character that he must have realised that he could not make such a major change in his persona.

    Interesting to note that the two Challengers I mention were written some time after LAND OF THE MIST. In DISINTERGRATION MACHINE, someone mentions the idea of ‘apports’-the objects that a medium was supposed to be able to materialise from ‘the other side’ Challenger rejects the idea of apports as nonsense. Considering that the fiery scientist had apparently given himself over entirely to the reality of the spirit world by the end of the novel, you have to wonder if Doyle regretted his earlier decision.

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