Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Germany, Asparagus and the First World War

Waiting at Tegel airport for a flight back to London, at the end of a 10-day lecture tour that began last week in Essen and ended last night in Berlin, I have a moment or two for reflection.

This is Spargel Zeit, the Asparagus Season, which in Germany is enjoyed with wonderful gusto. In NordRhine-Westphalia they call it Spargel-Fest, and at Münster Haupt Bahnhof (Hbf) I saw a train newly festooned with pictures of green and white asparagus, and proudly calling itself the Spargel- Express. Over the past week I have enjoyed, greatly, asparagus in all its köstlichsten Spargelvariationen: asparagus soup, asparagus quiche, asparagus and strawberry salad, asparagus with schinkenteller plus Hollandaise sauce and boiled potatoes, asparagus accompanying rump steak, and asparagus as a bed for salmon. I have been served asparagus – usually long white, succulent spears laid side by side, plain boiled or parboiled and then sautéed and served with melted butter – in restaurants, in a remote Pomeranian schlosshotel to the accompaniment of the theme music from Dr. Finlay’s Casebook and Desert Island Discs; in gardens, in private homes with kindly hosts, on a lakeside terrace and beneath a grand Baroque balcony where in past years (but no longer) statesmen and others waved at the world.

But this tour has not been all about asparagus. I have been in Germany at the invitation of the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft to lecture on aspects of the Great War (“And why is it still called the Great War in England?” I have been asked, often). I have been giving two lectures, the first entitled ‘If Armageddon’s on … British writers responding to the outbreak of the First World War’, and the second, ‘Mixing Memory and Desire: Memorializing the First World War in Germany and Britain’; the first, therefore, focusing on the start of the war, and the second on its aftermath. I have given the first lecture in, successively, Essen, Dusseldorf, Bonn, and Münster; the second in Bielefeld, Schwerin and Berlin. My audiences have been interesting, and interested, German and British, but all Anglophone – aged (I guess) between 16 and 86: students, teachers, art historians, academics, civil servants and senior citizens among them. I have spoken in an 18th century Jägdschloß, a modern conference centre, a porcelain showroom, an adult education college, a beautifully restored cultural centre, the headquarters of an international Law firm and, finally, at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

I have been travelling with my wife throughout the tour, and our hosts have been unfailingly kind and generous with their time. We have seen some remarkable places: not least the World Heritage site Zeche Zollverein, where on our first day in Germany we visited an exhibition (‘1914 – Mitten in Europa) that traced the German response to the War - before, during and after - with a candour that gave me valuable points of reference for my lectures and, especially, for some of the questions and answers that followed.

Here’s an example. In the ‘If Armageddon’s on…’ lecture, I discussed the British insistence that the German invasion of Belgium provided a moral justification for entering the war. I quoted from a much-publicized Declaration in August 1914 signed by fifty-three British writers (including Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield and H.G. Wells) which stated:

The undersigned writers, comprising among them men of the most divergent political and social views, some of them having been for years ardent champions of good-will toward Germany, and many of them extreme advocates of peace, are nevertheless agreed that Great Britain could not without dishonour have refused to take part in the present war…..Great Britain was eventually compelled to take up arms because, together with France, Germany and Austria, she had solemnly pledged herself to maintain the neutrality  of Belgium ….
When Belgium in her dire need appealed to Great Britain to carry out her pledge, that country’s course was clear.

Some among my audiences found this hard to accept: was Belgium really the reason (they asked) or just the pretext, for Britain’s entering the war? One questioner roundly declared that Germany had never signed any treaty promising to respect Belgium’s borders, and denounced the stories about German aggression in Belgium as ‘mere propaganda’. Actually, such a Treaty did exist: the Treaty of London (1839) signed by Prussia. But, somewhat unnerved, in case this treaty had been revoked after German Unification, I consulted an English historian friend who emailed back reassuringly that

in 1913 the German Foreign and War Ministers each separately reassured the Reichstag that the neutrality of Belgium as 'guaranteed by international treaty' would be respected.

And even as I write now, my friend has just sent further evidence that when, on 4th August 1914 (the day Britain joined the war) the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg addressed the Reichstag, he regretted the need to invade Belgium which, he admitted, ‘was a breach of international law’.

As for the ‘mere propaganda’ point, I felt at once on safer ground. One of the interpretation panels at the Zollverein exhibition I had just visited was unambiguous on the subject:

In Germany the many war memorials were initially dedicated to the dead, but later “racially” co-opted through jingoistic heroisation. Until long after 1945 Germans disclaimed their responsibility for the war crimes committed against civilians when invading Belgium and France in 1914.
           (Essen, Zeche Zollverein: ‘1914 – Mitten in Europa’ exhibition)

One of the surprises of my second lecture was the discovery that even the best-known German memorials were unfamiliar to nearly all my audiences. Was I naïve to assume people would know the Magdeburger Ehrenmal, by Ernst Barlach, or the Grieving Parents by Käthe Kollwitz? Evidently yes. But it’s always good to re-think one’s assumptions; and though I have lectured on war memorials before, I have never encountered such thoughtful and thought-provoking questions afterwards. And in any case, to speak of my admiration for Kollwitz and Barlach in Germany to German audiences was a joy, especially since – quite unexpectedly – in Bielefeld’s Kunsthalle, I’d discovered a little-known but prophetic First World War work by Barlach; and in Schwerin’s remarkable Museum I’d encountered a whole gallery of small-scale bronzes by Barlach, including a touching dual portrait: Barlach and Kollwitz, two of the finest and most humane artists of 20th century Europe, together.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: The Spargel-Express, photographed  at Münster Station; Ernst Barlach: self portrait with Kathe Kollwitz, in the Schwerin Museum, Mecklenberg-Vorpommern. Photographs copyright the author .

The English Association’s major international conference on ‘British Poetry of the First World War’ Takes place at Wadham College, Oxford, from 5th – 7th September 2014. For full details of the Conference programme, click here.

I have written before about a previous lecture tour to Germany:

Anglo-German (May 2012)

Also about Berlin:

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: