Thursday, 15 May 2014

In defence of the war poets (ii): the battle of Max Hastings

Max Hastings continues to wage war against the war poets. In last weekend’s Sunday Times, under the billboard headline ‘OH, WHAT A LOVELY MYTH’, he declares that ‘The popular image of 1914-18, nurtured by the war poets, is of needlessly awful slaughter. But Britain’s generals were far from donkeys, the bloodshed no worse than in other wars and the frontline soldier’s lot no more terrible.’

It is a curious article, an abridged version of his preface to a soon-to-be republished edition of C.S. Forester's novel, The General, which originally appeared in 1936. Hastings begins with a striking assertion:

No warrior caste in history has received such mockery and contempt from posterity as Britain’s commanders of the First World War. They are deemed to have presided over unparalleled carnage with a callousness matched only by their incompetence. They are perceived as the high priests who dispatched a generation to its death, their dreadful achievement memorialized for eternity by such bards as Siegfried Sassoon.

I find Hastings’ lexis revealing: ‘warrior caste’, ‘high priests’, ‘bards’ – such language conjures ideas of a remote, ancient fighting elite: the hosts of Midian perhaps, but hardly the British Expeditionary Force. The use of these words is peculiar to the author; who else has ever called Sassoon a bard, for goodness sake, or described the generals (albeit ironically) as high priests? Not the war poets, certainly.

What really offends Hastings is the fact that the full-time soldiers like French, Haig and Rawlinson should have been so impugned by ‘cultured citizen soldiers, disdaining the stoicism displayed since time immemorial by professional warriors’. Actually, this sounds to me like the disdain displayed by the warrior caste for those who – for the duration of the war, but for no longer than absolutely necessary – had to be allowed into the officers’ mess.

Hastings is eager to defend the privileges of the mess. Though he suggests accounts of ‘the sybaritic lifestyle of commanders in the Kaiser’s conflict’ were exaggerated, he himself cheerfully accepts that ‘When champagne was available, most British, American and German senior officers drank it as enthusiastically between 1939 and 1945 as they did between 1914 and 1918.’

Hastings’ disdain for the feebleness of the ‘citizen soldiers’ reminds me of an entry in the (carefully re-written after the war) diaries of Field Marshal Earl Haig:

Monday, 4 September [1916]:
I visited Toutencourt and saw Gen. Gough. The failure to hold the position gained on the Ancre is due, he reported, to the 49th Division. The units of that Division did not really attack and some men did not follow their officers. The total losses of this Division are under a thousand! It is a territorial division from the West Riding of Yorkshire. I had occasion a fortnight ago to call the attention of the Army and Corps Commanders (Gough and Jacobs) to the lack of smartness, and slackness of one of its Battalions in the matter of saluting when I was motoring through the village where it was billeted. I expressed my opinion that such men were too sleepy to fight well, etc.

Hastings enjoins his readers to see the generals as men who ‘possessed virtues and vices bred into the British military caste over centuries’. However, after reading, nearly a century later, that Haig condemned the 49th Division – part-timers, Territorials – for ‘slackness … in the matter of saluting ’ and judged it not to have fought hard enough because it only lost 1000 men, I find Hastings’ plea in mitigation – that they were simply ‘men of their time, and it is thus that they should be judged’ – unconvincing. Men of their time … men of their caste: tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner – is that sufficient?

It is, as ever, Sassoon’s poem ‘The General’ that is produced in evidence against the war poets. I think, however, that before any more historians cite this poem as the fons et origo of the myth that the staff officers were callous, cosseted incompetents, they should read what Field Marshal Lord Wavell had to say about staff officers in his still much-admired anthology of English verse, Other Men’s Flowers:

The feeling between the regimental officer and the staff officer is as old as the history of fighting. I have been a regimental officer in two minor wars and realized what a poor hand the staff made of things and what a luxurious life they led; I was a staff officer in the First World War and realized that the staff were worked to the bone to keep the regimental officers on the rails. I have been a Higher Commander in one minor and one major war and have sympathized with the views of both staff and regimental officers.

To prove the point, he includes a poem he chose to learn by heart (he claims to have memorized at one time or another all the poetry in the anthology): Sassoon’s ‘The General’.

Hastings believes that ‘the public mood began to shift about the time the Depression began’ and he cites Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man (1928) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928, though Hastings incorrectly dates its publication as 1930) among the key books that ‘depicted a protracted agony in pursuit of rival national purposes that allegedly meant little to those who perished in their names, compounded by the brutalism of those who directed the armies’. He cites in evidence a 1975 letter (unpublished?) by Charles Carrington to an unnamed friend in the wake of Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory:

Does anybody care any longer about the silent millions who did not want the war, did not cause the war, did not shirk the war, and did not lose the war … who had never heard of these lugubrious poets … with their self-pitying introversion?

I accept of course that Max Hasting’s has quoted accurately from this unidentified letter. But I am puzzled. I have in front of me Carrington’s excellent memoir, Soldier from the Wars Returning (1965). It’s a book I much admire, not least because of the author’s willingness to understand viewpoints other than his own. He is particularly sympathetic towards Siegfried Sassoon. ‘For ten readers who know of Siegfried Sassoon’s protest,’ he asks, ‘are there two who know that he returned to duty, performed more feats of valour, and ended the war a wounded hero, like so many others.’ And he goes on to describe Sassoon’s poem, ‘Everyone Sang’, as ‘the supreme revelation of the soldier’s life …. If this is not pure poetry, I know none.’ (Soldier from the Wars Returning, 1965; Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military Classics, 2006, p.266)

Thus Carrington on Sassoon. More surprising still, in the light of the letter Hastings quotes, is Carrington’s admiration for Edmund Blunden. He calls Undertones of War ‘a book that would be remembered and read, whatever the circumstances in which it had been written …. So firmly constructed, so deeply wrought out of genuine experience, so exquisitely finished is this book that it transcends experience.’ He ends by saying that, ‘as one of Edmund Blunden’s admirers, I should be proud to think that my crude rendering of the soldiers’ chorus would help some of my readers to detect his undertones.’ (p.267)

No doubt Max Hastings will go on accusing the war poets, or at least those he names in ‘Oh, What a Lovely Myth’ Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, of having created a false myth of the Great War. But I believe the most pernicious myth being peddled in this centenary year is the myth that no one apart from the military historians understands what the Great War was about, what it was like and what the warrior caste had to put up with; and that it’s all the fault of the war poets.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: the Ancre at Hamel, scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Battle of the Somme; photograph (September 2013) © the author.

Here are some of my previous posts about the First World War:


  1. Brilliant. To hijack some military jargon, you present a case that comprehensively outflanks the opposition!

    I, for one, am tiring of the self-righteous copy trotted out by historians that the literature of war is all “like this” and is somehow sentimentally inaccurate. If they think the popular public reading of the war poets is one of incompetent leadership and “war is bad”, then they need to actually read the poetry first. You do a fine job of illuminating the multifaceted nature of these poems, which reveal a full range of experiences and responses. I’ve said this before - I think what irks these historians is the potency of the literature in the public memory. The poems unashamedly make the case that war is a low point in human affairs – because it really is.

  2. It's a tonic to read such a forceful, closely-argued, subtle, fair, honourable and well-informed piece.

    Thank you!

  3. Adrian, I can only add my tuppence worth to two fine responses.

    I found the quote from Max Hastings article frankly stupefying. The war poets simply did what poets do, and cannot be held responsible for deliberately nurturing any subsequent historical view. Certainly, Hastings is right in saying that the horrors and bloodshed were – at least on an individual basis – no worse than those of Agincourt, Trafalgar, Stalingrad, Syria, or any other individual battles or wars. But, by bringing to notice this common denominator of war, Hastings seems to reveal a deep disquiet about the traumas suffered by combatants – conscripted or volunteer. Besides, the ‘Great Archive’ of The Great War – especially those of film and still photography – vividly underpin the truths expressed by the poets.

    I know too little to comment on the generals, but I do now that the so called strategy of ‘going over the top’ was barbaric — ‘ordered suicide’ might have been a better term for it – and demonstrated utter callousness. I wonder if Max Hastings ever imagines himself ‘going over the top’?