Friday, 22 March 2013

The Great War: writers, historians and critics

Nothing that I have blogged about in the past four years has been so widely and so rapidly read as my last two posts: Why reading matters (more than ever) and What larks? Birdsong, the Great War and cultural memory. Look at the column on the right : you’ll see they are already well up in my ‘top ten’ blogs. (How could I have known fifty years ago when I used to listen to Alan Freeman on Radio Luxembourg that one day I should have a top ten of my own? Or that ‘blogging’ would become not merely a word but an activity one could indulge in without shame.) I’m grateful to everyone who wrote to me on the subject of historical and literary responses to the First World War, and have decided to devote this post to these responses. A couple of them can be read in full underneath ‘What larks?’; the rest were emailed directly to me. My thanks to all, for giving me so much to ponder.

The first message I received pointed out that the same tension between historical and literary representations of the Great War could be found in Holocaust Studies. Which made me wonder whether this tension is a generic problem, perhaps a fault line between the arts and the humanities: literature on one side, history on the other. Indeed, the second message assured me that this tension has applied to the representation of war ever since Homer’s Iliad was attacked in Dio Chrysostom's Eleventh Discourse for not telling the truth about the Trojan War.

I confess I had to look up Dio Chrysostom [40-120 CE], but found him in an excellent blog, The Ploughman. The post is headed, We are hard to teach, but easy to deceive: Dio Chrysostom’s Homer:

There is no doubt that the Iliad and the Odyssey are masterpieces of literature, telling “a true story” of human nature, but they are not, in Dio’s view, retelling the truth about what actually happened. There is a difference.

An old friend and colleague described a line of thought my blog had prompted: ‘I was wondering, he wrote, ‘what kind of poetry Rupert Brooke might have written had he survived long enough to experience Gallipoli or the Western Front. Did only the poets have a chance to attempt any description and explanation?’ Another friend took me gently to task because ‘your latest blog doesn't say whether there can be any common ground between historians and literary critics.’ He went on:

I remember being astonished when I heard a WWI historian say that Haig's battle strategies were 'unduly criticised' and 'ultimately successful'. This seems to be the mentality of Haig himself who could envisage (and work for) a victory that left the Allies with only 10,000 soldiers as long as that was double the remaining 5,000 Germans. Anyone who sends 58,000 men to their deaths on the first day of the Somme, instructing men to walk, not run towards embedded and impregnable German machine gun emplacements, is hardly a successful general. It may be true that the majority of British people regarded the War as well-won, but only because their sense of duty, community and patriotism, as well as underinformed trust in politicians and generals, was far greater than it is now - and part of that long, withdrawing disillusion starts with Haig and Co.

Peter and Liz would have agreed. They wrote:

We were not sure what myths people entertain about that war. We feel that it was a truly futile and utterly appalling bloodbath, run by some very callous men, in which the ‘policy’ of ‘going over the top’ was tantamount to mass suicide and the firing squads at dawn equally miserable and inhumane. Have we got something wrong somewhere?! 

But it was Vivien Whelpton who offered the most detailed critique of what I had written. I have her permission to quote at length:

 I see faults on both sides of the divide - the reluctance of readers of the literature (and English teachers!) to see knowledge of the history as important, and the readiness of historians to condemn the literature without studying it.  In the classroom Owen is often seen as an 'easy' way to interest reluctant kids - boys especially – in poetry and there is a lot of lazy teaching of his work; Sassoon is similarly abused because his epigrammatic poems are so accessible.

The historians have tempered their views somewhat; few of them would now take the hostile stand towards the literature of early revisionists like Correlli Barnett and John Terraine.  Furthermore, one only has to watch some of the programming that appears on television to understand their frustration that an historical interpretation of the war, around since at least the 1980s, has still not received popular recognition.

As you say, the real issue is their tendency to 'treat the literary writing about the Great War as bad history and the writers as unreliable witnesses not as poets and novelists'. The 'reliability' of the combatant poets and their right to speak with authority (and here I come up against the 'combat gnosticism' sceptics as well as the historians) have, I feel, been unfairly questioned.  We are reading reliable witnesses - even though they are not writing history - or journalism. The issue of 'bad history' is more relevant when we come to the contemporary novelists.  Is there a difference between an 'historical novel' and a novel set in an historical time period?  My own view is that if you set your novel in a particular time period, even if your themes are 'timeless', you have a duty to be faithful to the history.  Faulks needed tunnels in 1918 for artistic purposes; did that entitle him to have them, even though, with the mobile warfare of 1918, there wasn't any tunnelling?  I don't think so.  And, for both Faulks and Barker, the clichés have been just too easy to exploit. Barker's Regeneration trilogy I think very fine, and very thoroughly researched, but Life Class turns out all the cliché-ridden scenes.  There are other writers, John Boyne in The Absolutist for example, who not only exploit the popular myths but make little attempt to produce accurate history.  Dan Todman is absolutely right to say that 'audiences often believe that works of fiction communicate “deeper truths” about the war because they reflect their own misconceptions.' 

As far as your passage from Birdsong is concerned, I would pick out 'We hear nothing from our commanding officer' - as simply, and without accuracy, taking the 'easy route' of exploiting one part of the First World War popular myth - the lions led by donkeys part!  Then there is Stephen's view that 'This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.'  This is not an authorial view, but, given the extent to which the reader is invited to identify with Stephen, it might as well be.  Again, it is too easy.  ALL war is about human degradation, but war does also bring out some of the strengths of human beings.

Which brings me to the historians' own myths:  camaraderie and enjoyment!  I am not suggesting that these were not an important feature of the First World War, but to stress them to the exclusion of the more negative aspects is really to create a counter-myth.  It is also important to acknowledge that support for the war was obtained and maintained by a propaganda machine that cultivated the (already prevalent) myths of the period - chivalry, sacrifice, nationhood, civilisation (as opposed to Kultur), 'masculinity' etc.  (One of the most important aspects of the writings of Owen, Rosenberg and others is the ways in which they 'split open' these assumptions.)  This was a war about the balance of power - you couldn't sell it to the British public like that; it was also a war which had to be fought 'attritionally' until the necessary developments in technology and tactics came about.  In other words, of course the generals knew that their methods were going to be, for the first few years, vastly 'expensive' on manpower and would not achieve 'break-through', but they had little choice - they needed to wear down German manpower.  However, they couldn't acknowledge publicly that the 'wastage' was essential.  (Hence the vital importance of myths of sacrifice.)

Some of the best writing about the war is in the memoirs - Blunden, especially, but also someone like Guy Chapman.  Are memoirs 'witness' or 'literature'?  This brings out the simplistic nature of any attempt to separate the two.

So I think that the historians are entitled to demand 'good history' in literature.  But the issue of 'witness' is a much more complex one.

Again, my thanks to all who contacted me, whether I have quoted from your messages or not. Further comments will be received with interest and acknowledged. Meanwhile, I shall continue to ponder these things (especially the teaching of the Great War and war poetry), and may return to them in future. My next post, however, will be on something completely different.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: German 1914 – 1918 war memorial, at Ettlingen, Baden-Württemberg. I discuss this memorial in my chapter ‘Mixing Memory and Desire: British and German War Memorials after the Armistice’ in  The Silent Morning: Cultural Responses to the Armistice (T.Tate and K. Kennedy eds. M.U.P. 2013, forthcoming)

The hyperlink for ‘combat gnosticism’ (see above) takes you to the valuable War Poetry blog, written by Tim Kendall. I strongly recommend a visit.

Details of the English Association’s international Centenary Conference on British Poetry of the First World War, to be held in Oxford in September 2014, can be found here.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The fine response from Vivien Whelpton has alerted me to something I had never fully questioned: does it matter if a novelist — intentionally or otherwise — misrepresents the past (insofar as it is ever possible to completely disentangle that past and give us a visceral feel for the period — either as history or fiction?) Novelists might perhaps argue that what they are after all writing IS fiction, and perhaps even point to the havoc Shakespeare played with history —which he used as a basis for the expression of the deep wellsprings of human nature. Well, if there are any Shakespeares alive today I must have somehow missed them! But our culture has anyway changed, and if a novel is written about, for example, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, then we expect that every line of every character — even when resulting from prejudice, ignorance, social ‘immersion’, or any other kind of distorted feeling — will be absolutely grounded in, and expressive of, the political situation in which they find themselves.

    If it is objected that novelists are not — for the most part — historians, and that they do not have time to research as is they were historians, the fact is that it is completely unnecessary for them to do so. It is not difficult to discover historians who are completely open about the problems presented by lack of evidence and the idiosyncrasies of histories written contemporary to the period under study, and etc. I doubt that any novelist would go far wrong in reading, for example, Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, Jason Goodwin’s The Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire, or Mark Matzower’s Salonica ~ City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430–1950. (I have not read the latter, but nonetheless have complete confidence in it.) Sometime during the war in former Yugoslavia, I read Ivo Andric’s The Bridge over the Drina. There is a quote on the front cover: ‘No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists.’ I do not disagree with that. After I had read this wonderful novel I had a clearer understanding of the bitter conflicts that had led to that war then I ever got from all the newspaper and television analyses I read or watched.

    And if anyone asks why it should matter so much that novelists should attempt to be as accurate about history as they try to be about human nature — arguing that novels tell stories, and we are anyway not going to live forever — I can only answer that I want to have as true a picture of the world as is possible. And if I’m then pressed on that point, I can only side with Aristotle in saying that there is a point where it becomes futile to ask further questions.

    (There are several books for children on Henry Ford. One such is Henry Ford: The People's Car-Maker. Well, you know, nice Mr Ford, admirer of Hitler! How early the untruth begins!)