War Centenary Wars

The Great War centenary may be over a year away, but the preliminary skirmishes are already providing entertainment.
A few weeks ago a letter appeared in the Guardian, signed by a number of actors and celebrities, sternly arguing that the message of any celebrations should be firmly anti-war:

We are disturbed […] that David Cameron plans to spend £55m on a “truly national commemoration” to mark this anniversary. Mr Cameron quite inappropriately compared these events to the “diamond jubilee celebrations” and stated that their aim will be to stress our “national spirit”. That they will be run at least in part by former generals and ex-defence secretaries reveals just how misconceived these plans are.
Instead we believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe, and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded.
In 2014, we and others across the world will be organising cultural, political and educational activities to mark the courage of many involved in the war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused. In a time of international tension, we call on all those who agree with us to join us – by adding their names to ours at ww1.stopwar.org.uk – to ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.

Today historian Gary Sheffield replies with guns blazing, strongly criticising ‘the popular view of the war as a futile one, a belief that is sharply at odds with most modern scholarship, and with how it was perceived at the time.’ He points out:

Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those which the country fought Hitler’s Germany in the second world war: to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperilling British security. Most historians argue that Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating the war (recent attempts to blame Russia are not wholly convincing). Whoever started it, the fact is that in 1914-18, Germany waged a war of aggression that conquered large tracts of its neighbours’ territory. As has often been pointed out, there were distinct continuities between the policy and strategy of imperial Germany and its Nazi successor.

This seems to me completely true. The one thing that bothers me about his article is the subheading:

Planning next year’s first world war centenary, we shouldn’t rely on Wilfred Owen’s version of events

This seems to me unfortunate, not only because Owen was a truth-teller about the War, so that we can rely on his account, at least of the things he saw. Also it implies that he did not agree that the war was fought in a righteous cause, and that victory was important. His brave actions in the last month of his life hardly support this hypothesis.
More, though, it sets up a literature versus history opposition that is unproductive. In the (educated) popular mind, the literature of the First World War gets reduced to a few poems. When I tell people that I study that literature, many assume that I am looking at poems. When I mention a few prose writers, they often look blank and change the subject.
What I would like to see at the centenary is a recognition that the literature of the War extends beyond Owen, Sassoon and futility. (The BBC made a good start with its production of Parade’s End, even if then it set the campaign back a bit with Birdsong and The Village.)
For another response to the celebrities’ letter, see this post on Jessica Meyer’s blog.
And while I’m at it, I’ll mention a review in the current Times Literary Supplement of a novel by Thomas Kenneally called The Daughters of Mars. The novel is about nurses in France, and sounds as solidly made as the same author’s Schindler’s Ark and The Playmaker. Since I’ve not read it I don’t know if Peter McDonald’s generally negative verdict is appropriate. What I do know, however, is that in the last sentence of his review McDonald sums up what is wrong with so much modern fiction that takes the Great War as its theme:

Thomas Keneally’s industrious imagining of pain and waste plays not to an argument, but to a consensus.

In other words, it does not go beyond what we already know, or think we know, about the War. The differences of opinion between Sheffield and the letter-writers show that there is more to our current relation to the War’s history than an unexamined consensus. When are we going to get some works of imaginative literature that really tackle this?


  1. janevsw
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Just as a matter of interest, George: if you were going to write a Great War novel, what would you write? I hope this doesn’t come over as an aggressive question, it’s not meant to: but (given that I myself am an (out-of-print) author – it would be intriguing to know what the informed reader wants…

    • Posted June 19, 2013 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      I have already posted my one and only (short and derivative) attempt at Great War fiction on this blog.
      Really, I have no talent for prose fiction, and there is no prospect whatever of my trying to write a novel of any kind. But if I did…
      There have been plenty of novels about junior officers, and quite a few about the ranks. What nobody has attempted, I think, since C. S. Forester’s 1936 hatchet job The General, is a war novel told from the perspective of a senior officer.
      One could show him coping with military failure, facing the uncomfortable responsibilities of command (like endorsing a death sentence), and dealing with power struggles at GCHQ. Meanwhile, back at home, his wife has fallen for a pacifist…

      • Posted June 19, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        I am not sure that that’s quite fair to The General. I was a bit surprised when I read it how sympathetic Forester was towards Curzon (the main character), albeit in a condescending way. He’s emphatic about how personally brave and, in his own manner, thoughtful he is. I do agree though that a non-Blackadderish reimagining of this subject is overdue.

  2. Posted June 19, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this, which I hadn’t read before. The letter irritated me; I was reminded of Homer Simpson’s, ‘Rock stars. Is there anything they don’t know?’

    I wrote something about this way back in 2008.

    I’d recommend people to read A Subaltern’s War by Charles Edmonds.

    • Posted June 19, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Barbara. I like your post about Vera Brittain. I second your recommendation of ‘A Subaltern’s War’. ‘Charles Edmonds’ was a pen name for Charles Carrington. I’ve recently been looking again at his 1965 book, Soldier from the Wars Returning’, and that’s another one I’d strongly recommend.

  3. Posted June 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Of course, the irony here is that Cameron’s trenchapalooza is awash in futility: the “national spirit” he invokes is one of pious martyrdom. So far as I’m aware there’s little official interest in reexamining the actual merits of the war, or the manner of its conduct.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    George, you may be interested to know that Sheffield, in a Twitter exchange earlier today (or possibly yesterday), noted his own discomfort with the line you critique above, and declares that he did not write it and would not have chosen it. It appears to have been appended by someone at the Guardian.

  5. Posted June 20, 2013 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    Sorry, the above anonymous comment about Sheffield was mine — thought I’d filled in the form properly, but apparently not!

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