Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The British Perception of WW1 - Pt 1


Following just over four years of war, the last 100 days of which were a steady retreat, the German Army was exhausted and demoralised.  The last chance flings of the March offensives were a distant memory.  There were no more reserves to bring to the Front and the British naval blockade had all but destroyed what was left of the German economy, essentials were in short supply and starvation was a reality.  Against this backdrop; Eric von Ludendorff persuaded the Kaiser to seek an Armistice.  In all but words Germany effectively surrendered, victory belonged to the Allies.

Most adults in Britain today know that the Allies won the First World War.  This fact has never been truly forgotten but has been hidden by the interpretations of the results of victory contained within the nation’s collective memory.  My intention is to explore the evolution of this collective memory and show that the mainstream public may be on the verge of re-remembering the First World War, not as a futile national tragedy, but as a costly (in terms of lost lives) national victory.

Collective Memory

Social memory according to the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (On Collective Memory) is a collective memory created by individuals but sustained within a society’s social framework.  This collective memory especially in the case of the First World War was created in Britain through communal commemorative rituals, physical monuments, literature, and the arts.  Through repetition and reinvention the collective memory has been reinforced and carried from one generation to another.

The formation of the collective memory started with the first British fatality in 1914.  Those left at home had to come to terms with the constant fear that a loved one would be injured or killed.  When a death was experienced bereavement proved painful.  Following a government ruling in 1915 dead servicemen were not returned to Britain but were buried close to where they fell.  The bereaved had no body to mourn over, no focus for the inevitable grief, no real closure.  Many mourning families had to come to terms with their own perceived guilt for encouraging their sons to volunteer.  To some parents the deaths appeared as punishment for their own pride and desire to see their sons in uniform.  Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son at Loos in 1915, tellingly wrote from the perspective of a young soldier: ‘If any question why we died, Tell them because our fathers lied.’ .  From 1916 surrogate graves in the form of shrines began to appear on British streets, a focus for remembrance.  Some of these shrines became permanent memorials after the war.  The literary responses during the war ranged from unambiguous approval, by Rupert Brooke and Rudyard Kipling, to horror, disillusionment, and futility, as portrayed in the trench poetry written by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.  The initial impact of this trench poetry, which could only be written by those intimate with the realities of front line trench warfare, was minimal.  Those who had no direct front line experience were quite incapable of believing the horrors and the chaos that front line soldiers reported when contacting loved ones.  By the end of the 1920’s this would change.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, as Britons memorialised their dead and recorded their experiences, a central theme held by many of the bereaved and surviving soldiers was that the sacrifices of the war would have be worth their cost if the world left to future generations was one free from war.  The Great War had introduced the nation to unprecedented casualty levels, a fact that was to become indelibly burnt into the collective memory.  This theme was reflected in the commemorative rituals conducted across Britain in the 1920’s.  These rituals rearticulated the core pre-war Edwardian values of honesty, decency, and order that the country had fought to defend.  The theme was also evident in many of the early war novels based on wartime experience, particularly those written by a host of best-selling minor authors, which were predominantly romantic and patriotic.

By the late 1920’s the promises of the immediate postwar period proved to be political rhetoric, short lived post war economic boom had been rapidly followed by recession and then depression:

‘Woodrow Wilson’s calls for a ‘war to end all wars’ and a ‘war to make the world safe for democracy’ genuinely caught the imaginations of millions of Europeans sick of war and hopeful that the US president might succeed where their own leaders had failed in building a lasting peace on the continent. David Lloyd George’s pledge to make Britain a ‘land fit for heroes’ struck a similar vein. The enormous hopes that millions of Europeans pinned onto these impossible pledges could only lead to disappointment, anger and a sense of betrayal.’  Michael S. Neiberg, ‘Revisiting the Myths: New Approaches to the Great War’, Contemporary European History, 13 (4) (2004), pp. 507-508

The period of national mourning had come to an end.  Except for the bereaved most Britons would only actively think about the dead at commemoration ceremonies.  Tensions were evident between the nationally established norms for commemoration, coupled with their desire not to dishonour the bereaved, and on one side the survivors many of whom saw commemoration in the form of a celebration:

‘Large numbers of ex-soldiers gathered, often on the evening of 11 November, to mark their survival, to recreate the camaraderie and social release of the war, and to remember their comrades in a way that matched their understanding of what war had meant.’  Dan Todman, The Great War Myth and Memory (London: Comtinuum, 2005), p. 52

and on the other, survivors who viewed the nationally selected forms of commemoration as inadequate.  Ten years after the end of the war (1928), Siegfried Sassoon wrote an angry poem, ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’, attacking that form of remembrance associated with War memorials.  The disillusionment over the broken promises and the tensions over the way the war should be understood and remembered resulted in the evolution of a literary anti-war cult which came to see the war as futility, compounded by human error.

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