The most persistent myth about Great War writing popped up in the Guardian again last week, in an article by Geoff Dyer:
A decade of literary silence followed the armistice of 1918. It wasn’t until 1929 that a novel appeared that made imaginative sense of the first world war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front answered an unspoken need and helped to create the conditions in which other war novels might, in the words of the hopeful Richard Aldington “go big”.
A correspondent has now corrected him with a mention of The Good Soldier Svejk, but really you don’t need to go to Czechoslovakia to find war books from the early and mid-twenties, and good ones at that.
There were, for a start, many non-fiction accounts. Philip Gibbs’s Realities of War is as hard-hitting about the suffering of the troops as anything published later. There were plentiful histories; almost every unit seems to have commissioned a proud account of its achievements. (Probably the most distinguished of these is Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards, which contains some stunningly convincing battle-descriptions.) There were also many memoirs. I would put in a special word for Stephen Graham’s A Private in the Guards which dealt as penetratingly as any later text with the paradox that a war for decent ends can only be fought by barbaric means. C. E. Montague’s Disenchantment, half memoir, half elegiac essay, also belongs to this period.
As for novels, many writers complained that publishers were unwilling to invest in war fiction during the twenties, but here are some of the notable books that appeared between the Armistice and 1929:
J.B. Morton, The Barber of Putney.
Gilbert Frankau, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant.
A. P. Herbert, The Secret Battle.
A. W. Wheen, Two Masters.
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End.
C.E.Montague, Rough Justice (and the short stories he collected in Action and Fiery Particles).
R. H. Mottram, , The Spanish Farm Trilogy.
Godfrey Elton, The Testament of Dominic Burleigh.
Philip Macdonald, Patrol.
A.D.Gristwood, The Somme.
Max Plowman, A Subaltern on the Somme.
Others, I’m sure, will have their own favourites.
When All Quiet appeared, many did acclaim it as something new. Herbert Read, in The Criterion in 1930, for instance, wrote:
All who had been engaged in the war, all who had lived through the war years, had for more than a decade refused to consider their experience. The mind has a faculty for dismissing the débris of its emotional conflicts until it feels strong enough to deal with them. The war, for most people, was such a conflict, and they never got ‘straight’ on it. Now they feel ready for the emotional reckoning and All Quiet was the touch that released this particular mental spring.
By implication, Read discounts all the writings about the War produced and published during the fifteen years 1914-29, including his own earlier work, such as his semi-fictionalised memoir In Retreat (written 1919, published 1925).
What was so new about All Quiet? It gave a picture of war as relentless disgusting horror. It presented a war without causes or justification; its ending was neither victory or defeat for the nation, but just the meaningless death of its central character.
In 1929 its first British readers were well aware that the War had not ushered in a better world; the immense national sacrifice seemed to have achieved nothing. Reasons for entering the War that had seemed compelling in 1914 now seemed less so with hindsight. The relative moral superiority of one side or the other was a less important issue than the suffering shared by both sides.
Between 1928 and 1930 you get All Quiet, Journey’s End, Sassoon’s Infantry Officer and so on, all concentrating on the experience of battle. Many of these later books were masterpieces, but something was lost. The characteristic representation of the soldier was now that of a hapless victim of inhuman war, not that of a man trying to make sense of a role that made huge demands of him.
This view of the Great War has become the orthodoxy, expressed powerfully in critical works such as Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, and perpetuated by comments such as Dyer’s. But it depends on a kind of willed amnesia. To call the twenties ‘a decade of literary silence’ on the subject is the imposition of another kind of silence, by critics who do not want to complicate their own picture of the War.