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So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll leave a more detailed response to the first chapter to subsequent posts- I think it is an interestingly textured bit of writing, very accomplished in its own way. But here, bald, wrinkled and shivering in the wintry gloom, is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, a little perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.

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‘Disbanded’, an engraved illustration for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, after a painting by John Pettie. (Wikimedia)

Before we begin reading ‘A Long, Long Way’ we would do well to ask ourselves some basic questions about literature and how we tell stories about history. What kind of story are we going to read? Indeed, what do we already know about ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry?

Barry’s novel, written in 2005, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Willie Dunne, born at the turn of the nineteenth century: turning in pretty quick time from recounting his unremarkable childhood to his ultimately grueling experience as an Irish soldier in the British army during the First World War.

This is about as brief a summary as it is possible to give, what screenwriters call a logline, but it’ll do for now. We’ll avoid spoilers, because we are going to read this story together.

From this summary we already know enough to start locating Barry’s novel within the traditions of literary form. In the following post, I want to focus first on a useful definition of what form in literature actually is; then, I want to examine more closely the type of novel that Barry adopts to tell his story, known as the historical novel.

Form

You’ll recognise the term ‘form’, of course. You’ll have been taught about form, structure and language in English lessons since way back when. This doesn’t mean, however, that the term ‘form’ is necessarily easy to understand, as I can testify from a decade of teaching. In fact, of the three terms mentioned, I would say that form as a concept is often the most difficult to fully grasp. This is because it’s often intuitively simple to recognise form- to see that that some texts are similarly shaped, while others are recognisably different. Yet it is far more difficult to understand or explain why certain forms are as they are, and what categorical details make them similar or different to others. If you’re doing the AQA English Literature exam, recognising and understanding form is important: Assessment Objective 2 demands that students “analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.”

So what is form? Briefly described, form is the organisation, shape or framework for any literary composition, and these forms of literature develop historically. Writers tend to work within the framework of form that they have inherited from previous writers. Form helps shape a writer’s work, supplying an already-evolved framework for him or her to work within and adapt. The expectations we have of form also of course shape an audience’s expectations.

Whilst there are many forms in literature, the three major forms tend to be identified as poetry, plays and novels. These forms have historical roots in the particular societies out of which they grew. Poetry is the oldest literary form, the product of oral prehistoric cultures: a spoken, rhetorical form that developed out of religious and social rituals such as commemorating the heroes and the dead of a community in battle, or celebrating patron gods and goddesses. Drama develops later, first in Europe in classical Greece: there, drama grew out of an extension of public religious rituals and festivals, becoming in democratic Athens a focus for the acting out of ethical and social dilemmas before the public. The modern novel is, by comparison, a very recent invention, emerging in the eighteenth century as a form explicitly concerned with the individual and his or her interior life. While there is a broad debate about what impelled the invention of this remarkable new form, critical opinion generally holds that it developed out of a new emphasis on the individual that ran in parallel with the development of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. The novel, in this sense, can be understood to be an active part of the invention of the individual and individualism in the modern age.

Form, then, is historically derived and grows out of a particular social content: the lives of specific peoples, in specific societies, at different stages of development. These forms remain available for subsequent generations to adopt and adapt.

The Historical Novel

Even the three major forms contain many other forms and subgenres, and these again are historically derived. Let us consider two novel genres: the Gothic novel and the historical novel. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’, the novel that is generally accepted to be the first true historical novel. By contrast, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, similarly generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel, is a fiction set in medieval times and was written before Scott’s novel, in 1764. Despite the fact that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is set some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, it is not read as a historical novel. Why?

The answer is that Walpole’s novel does not seek to realistically evoke the medieval period; the medieval setting is in fact secondary to Walpole’s interest in creating an appropriately fantastical and beguiling time and location for a supernatural tale of haunted castles and talking skeletons. ‘Waverley’, on the other hand, romantically recreates the lost world of the Scottish highlands at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, describing in detail the social tumult that accompanied the death of the clan system and the birth of Enlightenment Scotland. It is not that the adventures of Edward Waverley are particularly plausible in ‘Waverley’ that makes this latter a historical novel; it is, rather, the fact these adventures (however unlikely though they be) are rooted in a particular material narrative of Scottish history, without which the story of Edward Waverley could not in any meaningful sense be written.

How might the invention of this genre be said to be historically derived, then? Marxist literary critics such as Georg Lukacs argue that the historical novel is invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century precisely because the French revolution and the triumph of bourgeois society across Europe led to a new consciousness of history as a dynamic narrative, as a story in which there is social rupture and radical political change— a narrative that could be written. The same critics would argue that the Gothic novel stems rather from an earlier secularisation of the West, caused by advancing industrial Capitalism. This secularisation led to English writers expressing a growing fascination with the Catholic ‘Old World’ of Europe as exotic, mysterious, enchanted and grotesque. Indeed, in the more fully industrialised and secularised eras of the Victorian age and beyond, the Gothic has grown increasingly popular as a genre; just as the popularity of the historical novel has continued to grow in the ever-more forward-facing and rootless societies of the industrial West.

Engaging with History

Clearly, ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a historical novel. The book tells a story set over a hundred years before. Moreover, the story is set at the time of two great historical fractures; one in the history of Europe and the world, the other in the history (or rather, histories) of Great Britain and Ireland. The first, of course, is what contemporaries called the Great War; the second, the period of political upheaval during the 1910s and 20s known as the Irish Revolutionary Period. Many critics would argue that the degree to which the novel engages with this history of state violence and revolution will, to some degree or other, determine whether in literary terms it is a successful historical novel.

Yet it may be that Barry has no interest in wars or revolutions at all. It may be that he has chosen, as in fact many historical novelists do, to a present a particular age as a picturesque or interesting backdrop, to create a fascinating setting that adds romance and spice to a tale. One contemporary definition of the historical novel is indeed simply a novel set in the past, after all. Such texts can be fun— the film industry alone makes a lot of money out of them. And indeed, even historical novels that play with historical setting or adapt historical detail to contemporary expectation are not always naïve: it is possible to explore history as one adaptable form of storytelling among others, as a kind of narrative itself (the term for this kind of narrative about other narratives is metanarrative). This can certainly be one kind of engagement with history; though such gaming with narrative will often willfully cleave the reader from a sense of particular time and place within the text. Another name for this state of being cleaved from history, of rootless character and an immersion in a seductive but empty world of objects is Postmodernity, the age in which all of us live, but contemplating that is for another post entirely.

The author’s engagement with history in ‘A Long, Long Way’ could be manifested in any number of ways in the book. The inflection that the narrator gives to this encounter with history will be determined by any number of choices. What is the author interested in exploring? Romantic love? Comradeship? Perhaps a sense of nation or familial belonging? Hatred and betrayal? Trade Union agitation in early Twentieth century Dublin? The violence inherent in European imperialism? The author is not limited to pursuing one of these ideas. Will the story follow the soldier Willie Dunne throughout? Will his character be stationed in Ireland? On the Western Front? In Turkey or Iraq? The story the author wants to tell will engineer and encourage certain encounters with history and exclude others. Will his story reproduce the content of other tales of the First World War? What political or moral lessons will it wittingly or unwittingly propagate?

As readers we need to be sensitive to the presentation of history that we find in ‘A Long Long Way’, and react to it critically. In writing a historical novel, an author makes decisions about a period and the people who live in it, some of which may be conscious, others unexamined. We need to recognise that what we read is the product of certain choices the author has made: it is a construct. Characters, setting, the plotting of events, all are authorial constructions, and to attend to them as such is to refuse an innocent response to the book and to seriously engage with literature as literature. By the same reasoning, as readers, we also need to be self-reflexive in approaching the text, willing to be challenged on our own assumptions about history and what literature should be.

My next post will summarise Chapter One and ask for some first responses to the novel.

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A recruitment poster for the Football Battalion (Wikipedia)

 

One of the great fortunes of studying the First World War at A-level right now is the wealth of interesting resources available for you to access. It wasn’t always this way, of course; in the dark days when I first began writing this blog you could barely get an amusing gif of Fieldmarshal Haig tripping on a duckboard.

Not exactly true, but you get my gist. The centenary has been a good time for students of First World War history and literature to learn about life from 1914 to 1918.

On Monday I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Dan Snow’s ongoing Radio 4 series about the conflict, ‘Voices of The First World War’. This series is a goldmine for those of you fretting about your lack of historical knowledge about the war. In the UK you can listen online or download the series as MP3 files (outside the UK, I’m not so sure).

Each episode in the series is under fifteen minutes long, and focuses on a single aspect of the war, from First Impressions on the outbreak of the war to most recently (and fortuitously given my last post!) the emergence of new technologies like Tanks.

The episode that caught my attention was entitled ‘Sheffield and the Somme’. It is, admittedly, an upsetting program. In it, Sheffield locals give their own firsthand accounts of the effect upon the community of the massacre of the Sheffield City Battalion, or as they were then known, the ‘Sheffield Pals’.

The Pals Brigades are one of the more sobering facts of the First World War. They were a successful recruiting method whose formation had unseen and tragic consequences in battle. Men from a particular locale or men who found themselves in a particular type of employment could enlist with friends and colleagues with the prospect of staying with them for the rest of the war. In 1914-15, this break with army tradition was felt necessary to encourage mass conscription. The New Army formed- also known as Kitchener’s Army, named after the Secretary of State for War- was an army of millions, ready for active duty by the end of 1915. In fact, many of the Pals brigades first saw action in the battle of the Somme in July 1916.

The unforeseen consequence of this method of recruiting was that when a battalion faced a massacre, as the Sheffield Pals did on the first day of the Somme, the area from which the Pals brigade was taken took disproportionate and catastrophic numbers of casualties. Between July 1st and July 3rd, 1916, the Sheffield Pals- which had recruited somewhere between 900 to a thousand men in two days in August 1914- sustained 495 men dead, injured or missing. The terrible consequences of such massed death was keenly felt in the districts from which the men came. Whole cities felt the devastation of loss.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, when we judge the formation of such brigades, and certainly they played their part in the creation of a large and well-trained conscript army. Yet  it is too little noted that foresight is a wonderful thing too; would that it had been more in evidence in British plans for the conflict. Sheffield writer John Harris notes of the Sheffield Pals, they were “Two years in the making; ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history”.

‘Sheffield and the Somme’ captures this shocking moment in British history through the dignified testimony of those who suffered. It is well worth your attention, as is the rest of the series. Should you wish to read on- particularly, perhaps, if you are reading Whelan’s ‘The Accrington Pals’- there is also an excellent website, Pals.org.uk, which details the formation of several of these brigades.

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A 1904 illustration to HG Wells’ 1903 tale, ‘The Land Ironclads’.

 

The Guardian ran an interesting article yesterday on their archive blog, commemorating the centennial of another military first.

One hundred years ago this week saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches‘ reflects on the Guardian and Observer’s early coverage of this new technology. The journalistic reaction at that time to the immediate potential of these vehicles was, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic. By 1916, the ongoing stalemate on the Western Front had bred desperation for any breakthrough that might bring the war to a conclusion. For a little while, tanks seemed like they might be just the kind of mercurial invention that could smash through the stasis of trench warfare: a new cavalry, perhaps, whose momentum could help speed Britain to victory.

Tanks were only the latest invention to fail to realise this dream. The history of tanks demonstrate, of course, the invention’s subsequent effectiveness: the successful Blitzkrieg of the second world war was made possible by German Panzer divisions, for example. Yet the immediate employment of Tanks during the Somme did not lead to a lasting breakthrough. The first generation of tanks used at Flers-Courcelette, the Mark I, were mechanically unreliable and struggled on the ragged terrain. In fact, the first real success of the war using tanks did not occur until over a year later, at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, when over 400 Mark IV tanks overran German defences.

Where tanks were an immediate success, however, was in terms of their imaginative potency. I think we can get a sense of this in the early naming of tanks, highlighted in the article: the dreadnoughts of the trenches. Dreadnoughts were big-gun battleships first produced in the early years of the twentieth century, so named after the revolutionary design of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which first saw service in 1905. The Dreadnought became a public obsession in Britain during the global naval arms race of the early twentieth century. Both terrifying and effective as a weapon of war, dreadnoughts were seriously described as “a most devastating weapon of war, the most powerful thing in the world”. So, if the tank were like the Dreadnought, who then could stand in its way?

The metaphor had persisted throughout the tank’s development. Tanks were the product of a British focus on the development of armoured vehicles, led by the Landships Committee in early 1915. The name ‘tank’ in fact only emerged as a code, to hide the true intentions of those developing the vehicle (suggesting a vehicle used to move water, perhaps in hot climates like Mesopotamia). The term ‘Landship’, on the other hand, gave away too much of the designers’ intentions. The true objective was a mobile, well-armoured and armed fortress that could rove the battlefield with the impunity of a battleship on the sea.

One long-acknowledged possible source for this idea is a story written in 1903 by Britain’s greatest science fiction writer, HG Wells. In 1903 Wells published a short story in the Strand magazine called ‘The Land Ironclads‘. Ironclads- late nineteenth century steam battleships armoured with iron plating-  are the metaphorical vehicle Wells uses in this story to suggest the dreadful power and physical imperviousness of the armoured vehicles that rove his future battlefield. In the story, thirteen ironclads defeat an entire army:

“The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon-yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—sham and real—indistinguishable one from the other. The thing had come into such a position as to enfilade the trench, which was empty now, so far as he could see, except for two or three crouching knots of men and the tumbled dead. Behind it, across the plain, it had scored the grass with a train of linked impressions, like the dotted tracings sea-things leave in sand. Left and right of that track dead men and wounded men were scattered—men it had picked off as they fled back from their advanced positions in the searchlight glare from the invader’s lines. And now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

There is an interesting lesson in the power of metaphor here, perhaps. Metaphor, of course, is a conceptual habit of human beings: in using metaphor we have one set of thoughts and images (the world of the land, and battle in the trenches, or a muddy field) and carry this over to another set of dissimilar thoughts and images (an armed battleship on the sea, say, denoted by the words ‘Ironclad’ or ‘Dreadnought’). Out of the interaction of these different forms of knowledge, a novel thought or image is sometimes created: here, a ‘Land Ironclad’.

The introduction of such inventions into the otherwise realistic detail of the Science Fiction writer’s fictional world can be risky- badly handled, the effect of this new thing can be one of absurdity, implausibility, or a kind of predictable mystery. Done well however, metaphor in science fiction prompts revelation and produces strange enigmas. Wells knows this danger, and so when he describes the Land Ironclads resting on the edge of the enemy trenches, his narrator makes explicit the implicit idea behind his invention: he declares that “the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed”. Wells’ genius however- once he has admitted to the reader one of the roots of his metaphor- is to draw us back to the peculiar and personal sense of threat that such new technological possibilities always present: so, “now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

The well-judged metaphor is something more than just a plausible concept: it has an emotional, persuasive, almost pre-rational weight. Anyone who loves poetry knows this. The notion of the Land Ironclad was ultimately a thought so persuasive, and the desire for its successful realization during the First World War so powerful, that when technical innovation caught up with imaginative thought, the time of the ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches’ had finally come.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

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.

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