A Hundred Years Since: Time to Read.

000048e2_big

So it is a hundred years since the declaration in Great Britain of war against Germany. One hundred years ago from 11pm tonight, the deadline expired that Britain had set Germany to end its invasion of Belgium and France. And as I walked the streets of London tonight, in the darkening evening, I thought back to the London of old, and a picture that seems emblematic somehow of the naiveté of the age, of ranks of men raising their hats in cheer in Trafalgar Square. And of course to Edward Grey’s apposite and prophetic words as dusk fell: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes”.

I won’t rehearse a long speech of familiar lessons to be drawn from the war. To be frank, I’ve found the commemorations alienating. The art has been misjudged, the television programs unmemorable, the newspaper articles a familiar recasting of attitudes of the present in the clothes of the past. The gatherings of the heirs of the British Establishment in our finest churches, and of European leaders standing in line before great memorials, “in stately conclave met”, seem to me to be a wholly appropriate repetition of the scene of the crime.

It also seems to me that far from lighting a candle— as some have suggested– to commemorate the war dead, should we wish to make a profound or meaningful connection to those past events, an effort should be made to de-ritualise the commemoration of the war. And as an English teacher, I can fortunately say that it is books, and reading, that are the way to do this.

The First World War was, and remains, a written war. Very many of the soldiers who fought were the product of the late Victorian education acts, and they wrote home to their families about their experiences; they wrote to their friends about their experiences; they wrote poems, plays and novels about their experiences. The raw and shocking and humbling stuff of the war is already out there. If you are reading this, you are a literate person: so, if you truly want to commemorate the war, don’t follow a timetable set for you by some sentimentalising politician, but read about it, read, read, read. Read the accounts of the men themselves, read the great writings that they produced, and read history books. Don’t have your thoughts about the war predetermined by me or anyone else. Read.

You’ll be a better person– and ours will be a better world– for it.

 

What? Privates? Where?- The Structure of a British Infantry Battalion in the First World War

I’m currently reading Frederic Manning’s ‘Her Privates We’ in an excellent edition published by Serpent’s Tail Classics. It’s a major First World War text, much regarded by great modernist writers such as Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound– and I must say that, as I read, I haven’t enjoyed any piece of writing from the period quite so much since I read ‘Goodbye To All That’, long ago. I’m sure I’ll return to it on the blog at some point in the future (together with some posts about Jules Verne’s ‘The Begum’s Fortune’ and Jessie Pope), should I have the chance.

Anyway, I found that, as I read ‘Her Privates We’, I was having trouble with something that I think you, as A-level students, will also have trouble with as you start your course. If you’re studying ‘Journey’s End’, ‘Goodbye to All That’ or any other First World War text, it helps to know the hierarchy of the British Army; to know your Private from your Captain from your Major. I found a simple explanation on the structure of an infantry battalion on the always informative website ‘The Long, Long Trail’, here. Check it out if you want to know your Batman from your Band Sergeant.

Why the long face? Horsing around with History

The Romantic vision of cavalry during the Great War: 'Cavalry and Tanks at Arras, 1918' by Lieutenant Alfred Bastien

I’m not sure if this constitutes a recommendation or a warning, but last night Channel 4 showed a new World War I documentary entitled, ‘War Horse: The Real Story’. This program is now available for viewers to watch again online, on 4 On Demand. If you are interested in a documentary that promises to tell the “extraordinary, moving story” of the horses used in the Great War, “beginning with the mass call-up of horses from every farm and country estate in the land”, I suggest you take a look.

I caught a large chunk of the show last night. It does contain some interesting background information about the cavalry and the perils faced by these men and their horses, and some of the footage shown is certainly illustrative of the horrors of the war– a shot of the Hawthorn ridge mine exploding, for example. As far as it goes, there’s some interesting and useful information here to give literature students a sense of historical context.

But… but. It’s difficult to watch a documentary like this and not feel a sense of horror at the prospect of all the low-grade, uninspired documentaries about the Great War that will swamp our television screens over the next six years, as we mark the centenary of the war. The narration of the show, when not downright offensive, caught exactly the wrong tone in speaking about the war.

Offensive? Try this on for size, when talking about Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest of all the late battles of the war (please read with a softly mournful tone, as if telling a four year old that their pet guinea pig had just died): at Passchendaele, “the horses suffered equally alongside the men”. Really. Really?

This was a statement of such cosmic ignorance and such utter lack of empathy with the subject in hand that I had to switch the television off immediately: I find this beats having to install a swearbox in the living room. So I don’t know how the show ends. Sorry about that.

AS students who are reading the Jon Stallworthy anthology, however, will recognise from Herbert Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ the show’s nostalgic longing for a more honourable age of knights and chargers. Just as the general staff longed for a war of movement, this show longed for the First World War to be a completely different war to the one that was actually fought: one of heroes on horses making the decisive intervention. The program repeatedly showed romantic reconstructions of cavalry silhouetted against the setting sun: “horsemen, charging under phantom skies”, indeed.

Of course, the First World War wasn’t like that. The First World War was the end of the cavalry in modern warfare, for obvious reasons: a horse can’t be armoured against enfilading machine gun fire, and works, at best, at roughly one horse power. Horses were, on the other hand, essential for transport and, at the end of the war, meat for starving peasants.

The argument that the documentary makes, that “the finest hour of the cavalry came in spring 1918 when – led by the warhorse Warrior – they checked the German advance before going on to help win the war” is, frankly, idiotic. On the contrary, the cavalry was an outmoded institution that no-one in the conservative British Army really knew what to do with, at least on the Western Front. The years of static slaughter during which, at each big push, hundreds or thousands of horse riders would hang about behind the lines waiting for signs of breakthrough, stands as an everlasting testament to the mental inflexibility of the general staff.

Similarly, our current fascination with the War Horse seems to be, in part, an attempt to substitute a romantic symbol for ugly reality. We better get used to this desperate revisionism in the years ahead.