The excellent news is that The Silent Morning, the essay collection about the aftermath of the Armistice, edited by Trudi Tate and Kate Kennedy, is now in a paperback edition at a much less scary price.
I’ve mentioned this before (click here for a blog post including a full list of the book’s contents) and have in particular drawn readers’ attention to the essay by Trudi Tate on Truby King, the new Zealander who campaigned during the War years for better (and more rigorous child care). The book is very varied, though.
There are also essays on postwar publishing, and on Ford Madox Ford, C.E. Montague and Helen Zenna Smith, as well as chapters on how music and art reflected the war (I was very interested in the essay on the German composer Ernst Krenek, by Peter Tregear). In addition (he mumbles modestly) there is my own essay on how middlebrow novelists, (Philip Gibbs, Warwick Deeping and ‘Sapper’) responded to the post-war world.
There is one essay, though, that I’d been thinking about just before I heard the news of the paperback edition. It is ‘Indecisive Victory? German and British soldiers at the Armistice’ by Alexander Watson.
A couple of weeks ago I heard a talk in which the speaker breezily claimed that, of course, the First World War ended because both sides were utterly exhausted.
Did it? Were they?
Alexander Watson has studied British and German soldiers’ letters, as well as other sources, to understand the state of mind and morale of the armies in November 1918. The Germans were indeed ‘demoralised and and exhausted by the failure of their […] offensive in the first half of the year and the subsequent retreat under intense Allied pressure,’ The British, on the other hand, though indeed war-weary and claiming to be ‘ready to drop’, had their morale boosted by the experience of liberating French towns long under German occupation, and receiving rapturous welcomes, with ‘flags everywhere’.
The speed with which the Armistice came seems to have taken both sides by surprise; some British soldiers were ‘flummoxed’ by the sudden order to cease fire. Really, though, the Germans had no choice but to cave in, with the crumbling of their Bulgarian ally, the collapse of the food supply in Austria-Hungary and the retreat of the Turks. Other fronts were heading for disaster, and on the Western Front the Germans were facing not only the advancing British and the determined French, but also the still fresh armies of America.
German soldiers seem to have welcomed the ceasefire, but many found it hard to believe in the defeat. So grew the myth of the ‘stab in the back’, the idea that Germany’s soldiers had been betrayed by civilian politicians. The Nazis, of course, made much of this myth. (Though it has always struck me that if one accepts that the German war effort was indeed scuppered because of food shortages at home, then this surely meant that it was the British Navy that won the war, because of their blockade. Hitler seems not to have emphasised this aspect of the matter.)
Communists, on the other hand, keen to present the First World War as a futile imperialist conflict, have underplayed the fact that it was a victory for the Allies, emphasising the futility and meaninglessness of the conflict. This interpretation has been taken up by pacifists (I think the speaker I heard the other day was a pacifist of a sort). It will be interesting in 1918, when the centenary programme rolls to its conclusion, to see how the events of the Armistice are interpreted in popular debate. Meanwhile, Dr Watson’s is the best short account that I have read of the end of the war.