A way out of the maze

11 November, 2013 (22:39) | All articles | By: Stuart Fraser

Radio 4’s Moral Maze discussed the legacy of World War One last week. It’s a subject about which you are going to hear an awful lot over the coming months as the centenary of the start of the conflict approaches.

Much of what you hear will be utterly banal, exemplified by David Cameron and by plans such as the one to restage the “football match played in No Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce of 1914”, as if that was an organised match with a referee on a playing field.

With that sort of nonsense going on, I absolutely shudder to think what the level of analysis will be. I feel worriedly sure it will be an insult to men and women who do not deserve to be patronised by grandchildren and great grandchildren who view them, with sneering pity, as a generation too dim and too doomed to rumble what their “betters” were doing to them.

Moral Maze bravely questioned the hegemony of the cliché of doomed youth that has come to dominate our perception of the conflict. But in the maze, panellists seemed entirely polarised on whether or not we should accept the view that has long come to be history’s verdict on the Great War: a tragic loss of a generation, disillusioned soldier poets needlessly sacrificed by blundering, uncaring aristrocrats.

Well, we don’t need to argue about it. That view is perfectly valid. But so, too, is the view that the war was a just war that had to be fought, which was the verdict of many of its participants even after its end. Equally valid is the view of all the veterans I’ve interviewed in my time who remembered the war with fondness as the time of their lives. For an urbanised, industrialised working class, it was the first time in their lives they’d had access to decent food, for example, or a regular wage. Dozens more views are valid, including those of the 90-year-old veteran of the Somme who once cried on my shoulder.

Not valid is the view that the suffering caused by the war, and the reflection upon that suffering, was in some way exaggerated or romanticised: you need only look at the sheer scale of the loss, worldwide, to see that pain was widely, deeply, genuinely felt. Lots of families have memories of older members who “never talked about the war”, so traumatic were their experiences. Every community has a war memorial.

What I hope is for a sensible, informed reflection on the First World War: don’t insult those who lived and died by plodding dully through the muddy swamp of cliché, romanticism and untruth imposed on history in its aftermath by people who weren’t there. Read the letters and diaries of the people who were there, for example, and you will find every emotion displayed, from pathos to rebellion, from triumphalism to despair, from joy to heartbreak.

If you do want to read more reflections upon the war, well, I’ve worked a very great deal on this subject over the years, though I don’t pretend to be an expert. What I have done is read a lot of books, so let me recommend a couple to you.

Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Canto) and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford) are brilliant analyses of how the war, and the losses it caused, affected us all. For general histories, AJP Taylor’s brief illustrated history remains the most acerbic, but Hew Strachan’s modern history deals with the global aspect of the conflict better than anywhere. If you can find it, one of the most overlooked books about the conflict is an unforgettable piece of micro-history by David Macfarlane, called Come From Away (last published by Abacus in 1992). It reflected the enormity of the conflict through the prism of the experience of the Newfoundlanders who answered, with enthusiasm, their country’s call.

You could also try to look beyond Seeger, Brooke, Sassoon and Wilfred Owen for some poetic reflection, from other people who lived through the conflict as participants or civilians. I prefer the quiet insight of such as Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and our great, Cornish, Charles Causley. Read about Causley’s Dick Lander, playing trains with matchboxes, if you want to think about the reality of the legacy of the war:

At firework time we throw a few at Dick.
Shout, “Here comes Kaiser Bill!”

Dick stares us through

As if we’re glass.

We yell, “What did you do

In the Great War?”
And skid into the dark.

“Choo, choo,” says Dick.

“Choo, choo, choo, choo, choo, choo.”

Thomas, in As The Team’s Head Brass and This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong, has so valid, so dignified a voice of the common man. He wants to save England, he makes clear in the latter, and this is worth the fight. But he makes so very prophetically clear:

This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true….

….Little I know or care if, being dull,
I shall miss something that historians
Can rake out of the ashes when perchance
The phoenix broods serene above their ken.

Compare, for example, Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches, and its motif of the poppy, to Seeger’s In Flanders Fields, and tell me which is superior:

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

Profoundly moving. I’m with those who think that Rosenberg’s is perhaps the greatest of all poems of the first war.

So yes, come next year, I can see myself turning off the television and radio, casting out the newspapers and returning to something the soldiers of 1914 would recognise – books, letters, diaries. Real people in real times. I think that will be a better way to commemorate the centenary than to look back at the war with the aid of revisionists, film-makers, script-writers and novelists, however great they are and however valid their work. I admire Michael Morpurgo and Sebastian Faulks as much as the next man, but for 2014, I think the voices of 1914 should be heard one more time.


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Time January 6, 2014 at 10:29 pm

[…] as I warned only a few short weeks ago – http://www.stuartfraserwords.co.uk/?p=605  – the centenary will bring about thousands of words of shuddering banality. It’s started […]

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