In A.G. Macdonell’s dark but lively satire, Lords and Masters (1936), forceful young Veronica Hanson has just returned from Nuremberg, a convinced and enthusiastic Nazi. She explains recent history to her father:
‘Anyway, my point is that in the last war the whole world combined couldn’t beat the German armies in the field -’
‘Is that what they say nowadays in Deutschland?’ interrupted her father.
Veronica opened her dark-green eyes very wide.
‘That’s what they say everywhere. I mean, everyone knows that. It’s simply a matter of record.’
‘That the German armies were never beaten in the field?’
‘Of course they weren’t. They were invincible. All the armies in the world couldn’t beat them. Everybody admits that. The civilian population collapsed under the blockade. That is what lost the war. But the German armies were never beaten.’
‘How old are you, my child?’ enquired Hanson.
‘Twenty-one of course,’ replied Veronica, and don’t start telling me I’m too young to know better. I can read history as well as my neighbour.’
‘You were a nice little baby of three,’ murmured Hanson, ‘when the fellows bolted for their lives.’
‘What fellows?’ asked the bantam in a voice like a frozen rasp.
‘The German armies on the Western Front, my child, with all the allies rushing after them as hard as they could. And even so they found it hard to keep up with the Germans. They bolted so fast, you see.’ he added by way of explanation.
Veronica impertinently yawned back at him. ‘Propaganda,’ she said with a sigh.
Macdonell is one of those novelists of the twenties and thirties for whom the war always remains the touchstone against which a book’s characters are judged. Philip Gibbs is another, and so in a very different way is Warwick Deeping. Macdonell is a better novelist than either of these, and Lords and Masters contains a plentiful (and very entrtaining) gallery of cads, bastards and total shits, clearly labelled as such by the summaries of their war careers, as profiteers or staff officers. The dialogue above, which occurs soon after the character is introduced, clearly labels Veronica as a gullible idiot.
Yet it also, I think, conveys an anxiety about how the story of the war was being rewritten, not just by Nazis but by those who in the sprit of Locarno wanted to downplay both German guilt and Allied victory.
In 1936 Macdonell was writing for a readership who would agree with him that Veronica was a twerp. But would all twenty-first century necessarily think that she was wrong?
At a couple of conferences I have come across students of Great War literature and culture who insist that nobody won the war. One chap seemed to believe that it ended when both sides collapsed.
Probably his reading was mostly confined to ‘disillusioned’ war books, and to the critics who promote these and ignore others. When I marked A-level scripts for three illuminating years, I came across many candidates whose views had been formed by teachers deeply read in the more recent novelists who take the First World War as a subject and stress its appalling effects on individual soldiers without ever hinting at the fact that the Allies actually won.
When challenged, people who want to contest the idea that the Germans were actually defeated come up with Veronica’s answer: ‘The civilian population collapsed under the blockade.’ They put this forward as though the blockade were not part of the war effort, and without acknowledging that logically this is to say that the British Navy won the war by its effective action.
In 1918 and 1919 the British authorities played down the extent of the victory. Officially the Armistice was a cease-fire rather than a capitulation; officially the celebrations in 1919 were for ‘Peace Day’ rather than a Victory parade. ‘Mafficking’ was as far as possible avoided. But the humiliating terms on which the Germans accepted peace were a clear indication of their military failure. In March 1918 they had gambled everything on a huge and costly offensive, but could not carry it through. They retreated towards the German border, giving up their gains of 1914, while their allies crumbled. If this is not military defeat, I don’t know what is.
I’m not writing this in a gung-ho flag-waving spirit. I’d be the first to agree that the Allied victory was immensely costly and painful, for Britain as well as other nations, and that much of the war was very far from glorious. But I do think that acknowledgement of the victory is necessary to explain much of British literature in the 1920s, and especially to explain why it was so different from the literature of those countries who had lost the war, or who had suffered occupation.