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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Long ago, when the mighty Brontosaurus still roamed the earth, I went to an infants school in a small satellite town in south west London. There, at lunchtimes, we used to play a game of war. This thrilling game began with two kids linking arms and skipping through the playground, chanting, ‘Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game’- and so on, and so on.  Kids would link arms with a boy (more rarely a girl) on either end, until finally a long, tenticular line waved its way across the playground. And that was it. Nobody actually ever played war. The tenticular arm would swing around until everyone got bored and went off to play football. We weren’t a very bellicose bunch, to be honest. So much for the imaginations of children.

Why am I mentioning this? Well, a better planned Game of War is in the news this week. It’s not the same game, of course. This war game dates back to 1890, when British school playgrounds really were school playgrounds, and a game of war probably meant boys setting up a maxim gun near the girl’s toilets.

‘The Game of War’ was a military strategy game, based on an original German model known as ‘Kriegspiel’. It was invented as a form of training for late Victorian army officers, and a version of it from around 1890 was on sale at Bonhams Auction House on Monday. As you can see, it’s quite a box, containing incredibly detailed maps and slate playing pieces for either army– and costing between £1500 and £2000 it’s a touch more expensive than a box of Monopoly. Using it, British officers perfected their military strategems and tactics in advance of war.

The Game of War, c. 1890

Or so they thought. In the event of war, the game was rather less useful than intended. As is well known, the First World War– on the Western Front, at least–  was for the greatest part of four years a long seige of trenches, utilising machine gun emplacements, gas attacks, tanks and massive artillery shelling on a scale never before seen. The much-expected “war of movement”– that is, the rapid offensive or defensive movement across territory by cavalry or infantry, as at the Battle of Gheluvelt— was only seen at the very beginning and end of war. The Game of War only had six machine gun units for its entire gameplay. The officers who played the game were preparing for a war that would never take place.

At the end of the ninteenth century, military planners were looking backwards. They saw the comprehensive Prussian victory against France in 1870, where German troops finally occupied Paris, and imagined that the future promised the same. This retrospective attitude to war is reflected in some of the poetry at the beginning of the First World War: ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith, for example, imagines a City clerk fantasizing about the picture book victories of Roman legionaries and medieval knights. Bored, he daydreams:

Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament:
Yet ever ’twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

Asquith’s clerk, of course, decides to volunteer and is killed– lying “content”, as the poet proclaims, “with that last high hour, in which he lived and died”. Asquith wants the lesson to be that no matter how contemptible your job– and there is a patronising stink to his picture of the suburban commuter class– you too can live the glittering dream of knightly chivalry and imperial conquest. The remarkable complacency of the kind of culture that produced Herbert Asquith– and it’s too, too relaxed attitude to death– finds a mirror in the strategic unreadiness of the armies of the First World War. It is unfair to use 20/20 hindsight to criticise those who could not see what the future was to bring, but it is hard not to judge harshly the backwards-looking, even nostalgic perspective of certain members of the officer class before the First World War.

Was anyone looking ahead, anticipating the dread forms that modern technological warfare would bring? Well, in literature, certainly. Way back in 1879 Jules Verne wrote a today neglected (because pretty dire) novel called The Begum’s Fortune in which the inhabitants of a German city, Stahlstadt, build a new weapon to fire at a Utopian French City, Frankville. It is a form of artillery shell containing carbon dioxide that, when fired in a spread, will suffocate and freeze all beneath the barrage. Verne had been paying attention to the successful use of German artillery during the Franco-Prussian war; but his anticipation of the use of gas in the Great War was cannily accurate.

The second writer to grasp the shape of things to come was Verne’s contemporary and close competitor for the title, ‘Father of Science Fiction’: H.G. Wells. Wells, in a visionary 1903 short story called The Land Ironclads, imagined an armoured vehicle that would later come to be called the tank. His great imaginative leap was to wonder if heavily plated battleships (‘Ironclads’) could be imagined fighting, somehow, on land: only the battle of Cambrai in 1917 would bring his fantasy into reality.

HG Wells playing ‘Little Wars’.

And it is Wells, with his playful and aggressive imagination, that brings us back to the Game of War. For it was Wells who was the first man to bring the world of Kriegspiel into the living room, with his 1913 game book, ‘Little Wars’. Wells famously loved games– visits to his house in Sandgate inevitably meant playing them, whether the visitors were adults or children. There’s a line to be drawn from Kriegspiel to the Game of War to ‘Little Wars’, all the way to today’s computer games, like ‘Call of Duty’. War games are some of the oldest games there are: and I suppose, on some deep level, there might be something frightening about having them in our living rooms. Yet war games are about playing imaginatively with the highest stakes possible, but without the terrible consequences that actual war brings. It is The Game of War as an officer training tool, however, that shows the tricky middle ground between imaginative play and war: where a lack of imagination has profound consequences in not little, but Great Wars.

The Volunteer

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

NOTES

This poem tells the story of an office worker who has died in battle on the front. Once he was a frustrated clerk living a boring life, living out his heroic fantasies through books. Dying for his country he finds true satisfaction, having lived out his heroic dreams. Asquith wrote this poem in 1912 when working as a lawyer in the City [many thanks to the excellent blog Great War Fiction for correcting my own previous error and therefore an erroneous reading].

STRUCTURE: Written in a rather rigid iambic pentameter— obviously attempting a high-flown, elevated style— this is comprised of two octet stanzas of the same rhyme scheme, ABBACDCD.

‘The Volunteer’: this poem praises the noble death of a volunteer who chose to go and fight for Britain.

Herbert Asquith: Herbert Asquith was the son of the liberal British Prime Minister of the same name who led Britain from 1910-16.

“Here lies a clerk”: the poem begins in the style of an epitaph for a clerk, or office worker.

“toiling at ledgers in a city grey”: the office worker’s life is boring and undemanding: as grey as the city.

“…no lance broken in life’s tournament…”: a picturesque metaphor for seeing action in war: medieval tournaments saw knights riding and fighting against one another for the approval of the king. A lance broken would mean defeat for the knight. The metaphor reflects the kind of romantic literature that the clerk obviously reads for amusement; the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, and so on.

“ever ‘twixt the books… The gleaming eagles of the legions came ”: the clerk’s imagination goes wild while reading the boring ledger books. Images of marching Roman legions distract him and so come ’twixt, or between the ledgers and his “bright eyes”.

“horsemen… went thundering past beneath the oriflamme”: the Oriflamme was the red battle standard (flag) of the French King’s army. This is another reference to the Romantic medieval fantasies of the clerk.

“And now those waiting dreams are satisfied…”: the second stanza is concerned with the fulfillment of the clerk’s heroic fantasies on the field of battle.

“twilight to the gleaming halls of dawn”: the half-lit spaces of the office are compared with the “gleaming halls” of the afterlife. The imagery of light and luxury expresses the contrast.

“His lance is broken: but he lies content…”: The imagery here is of a knight defeated in a tournament. A lance was a long, large spear that the knight would bear as he rode on his horse. The broken lance means defeat in the tournament (in a curiously phallic image): by this euphemistic metaphor, the clerk has died in battle, but is happy (“content”).

“Falling thus he wants no recompense”: dying in this pleasing way, he needs no other compensation for losing his life.

“Nor need he any hearse…Who goes to join the men of Agincourt”: No hearse (funeral car) is needed because the clerk lives on in name and glory. He is elevated to a place among the greatest historical heroes that have died in France for England: the men of Henry V, who though outnumbered defeated the French army on French soil at the Battle of Agincourt.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The naive style of this poem means that it can be usefully compared with the work of Pope. This poem can also be compared with the attitudes expressed in Kipling’s epitaph, ‘Ex-Clerk’ (p.214). As a mixture of patriotism, some little social snobbery and old-fashioned Romantic fantasy, it is a fascinating snapshot of the attitudes of some prior to the beginning of the war. The poem also references the great patriotic work of Shakespeare, Henry V: which retells the story of the victories of Henry V in France, which includes the Battle of Agincourt.]