‘Hardly educated at all’

In the years of writing this blog, I’ve often commented on inaccuracies and half-truths in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, which is still the most influential critical book on First World War literature (as I know very well, having just marked 200 AS-level exam scripts, many of which contain a great deal of third-hand Fussell).
I’ve only just spotted a remark that really gets me indignant, though.
It’s at the start of the ‘Oh What a Literary War’ chapter. Proving that soldiers looked at the war through literary spectacles, he notes that even ‘Private Stephen Graham, hardly educated at all’ is reminded of Clarence’s dream in Richard III when heading out on the uncertain journey to war.
Hardly educated? Graham was the son of a literary man, the editor of ‘Country Life’. He left school at fourteen, to be sure, and became a clerk for a while. But then he learned Russian, hiked round the Caucasus and wrote a book about his travels, and then became Russian correspondent for The Times.
In 1916 he enlisted in the Scots Guards as a private. His connections could have gained him a commission, but he joined the ranks, I think, in the same spirit of adventure that during the twenties led him to spend nights in jail, just to see what it was like.
His post-war book, A Private in the Guards, is one of the very best accounts of wartime experience in the ranks, and  morally penetrating in its exploration of the tension between the human values Britain was supposed to be fighting for and the qualities need to fight and win a war.
‘Hardly educated at all’? Fussell gets pretty snide from time to time about the public schoolboy poets, but here he seems to be using only the narrowest definition of education.



  1. Chris
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Do you have a short list of the inaccuracies/half truths to which you refer in your article? I am interested in any books you might recommend as a good (and factually accurate) contrast to Fussell.



  2. Posted June 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Here are some of Fussell’s main contentions:
    1. The important writing about the War is that which describes the experience of the individual soldier in combat. The crucial experience is that of soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front.
    2. There was an impassable gulf between the soldiers’ knowledge of the war in which they were engaged and the ignorance of civilians, and ‘even if those at home had wanted to know the realities of the War, they couldn’t have without experiencing them.’ Fussell underestimates the extreme interest in the War shown by almost everyone in Britain, and overstates the ‘Rigid censorship’ of the press and of letters home. He creates a myth of civilian ignorance, encouraged by the ‘high’ diction of propaganda.
    3. The soldiers were fighting for no good reason. Fussell’s only comment on the reasons for Britain’s entry into the conflict is the trivializing claim that: ‘In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.’ He skips over the fact that the strong and continuing commitment of the British people to the war effort was largely impelled by reports of atrocities committed by German troops in Belgium during the early days of the War.
    4. The most important mode of writing about the War is the ironic, since industrial warfare has robbed the individual soldier of agency. Minimising the moral justification for the War allows Fussell to suggest that the only significant war writing is the literature of ‘futility’.
    5. The ‘catastrophe’ of the Somme was crucial in the progress from idealism to disillusionment, and the Battle of the Somme ‘can stand as the type of all the ironic actions of the war.’
    6. It was a ‘literary war’, and the important literature it produced was typically by young officers whose writing was infused with memories of the classics and the English poetic tradition.
    7. The Great War was exceptional, different from all previous wars in quality as well as scale: ‘[T]he machine gun alone makes it so special and unexampled that it simply can’t be talked about as though it were one of the conventional wars of history.’
    8. The significant prose writing about the War was published a decade after the events. By this time writers had managed to cope adequately with their memories and write about the War with objectivity. The prose of this time most worthy of analysis is that by poets (Graves, Sassoon, Blunden, Aldington).

    Some of these contentions have some truth in them, but none should be taken completely for granted.

    I’ll think about a short booklist, and maybe post it in a few days.

  3. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Fussell galls me. He’s glib, he’s facile, and sometimes he doesn’t quite know what he’s talking about. He’s an excellent academic stylist, however.

    I find Samuel Hynes’s “A War Imagined” a more persuasive and less affected treatment of the subject than “The Great War and Modern Memory.”

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