Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The British Perception of WW1 - Pt 2

Back to Part 1

The Literary Anti-War Cult

This literary anti-war cult was underpinned and expanded by post war works from surviving trench poets.  Key contributions to this cult were Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which reached ‘iconic’ status when produced as a film, Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That, and Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised three volume autobiography Sherston's Progress.  Following publication these wartime accounts have been shown to relate more to events between the wars, the sense of disillusionment and disappointment (with the results of victory) felt by the authors when writing, than to the war itself.  The initial reviews of All Quiet on the Western Front were far from universally positive and cast doubt on the authenticity of Remarque’s representation of the war.  The extent of Remarque’s direct war experience was in question, ‘it would seem that he never actually fought in the trenches’.  (David Taylor, ‘Blood, Mud and Futility? Patrick MacGill and the Experience of the Great War’, European Review of History, 13 (2), (June 2006), p. 2)  The authenticity of the other two novels was not questioned, just their accuracy:

‘Robert Graves frankly admitted that, in writing Goodbye to All That, he not only cashed in on the boom for wartime memoirs but also exaggerated aspects of his experience to maximise sales.  Equally problematic was the purpose of Siegfried Sassoon in writing Sherston's Progress. Although based on a reworking of his wartime diary entries, he stated unambiguously that in 'the art of reminiscence' his purpose was 'to show myself as I am now in relation to what I was doing during the War’.  Taylor, ‘Blood, Mud and Futility?’ p. 231

In some so called ‘anti-war’ works the message delivered was at times ambiguous.  Both Robert Graves and R. C. Sherriff, who produced the play called Journey's End, resented being called ‘anti-war’ authors.  Both men remained proud of their military service after the war.  Literature from this cult, which originated from a far from representative well-educated segment of middle-class English men, which was often misinterpreted, would go on to dominate the literary interpretations of the Great War for generations.

Historical Genre

In parallel with the literary cult there grew an historical genre which was equally influential.  This genre had its roots in the two major schools of British wartime strategic policy.  The Westerners saw the defeating of the German army in the field, by implication the Western Front, as the only route to victory.  The Easterners took their lead from Lord Kitchener who, in a letter to John French in 1915, suggested that due to the strength of the German front in France there could be merit in looking elsewhere, hence Gallipoli.

This debate over strategy was brought to the fore from the mid 1920’s with the publication of The World Crisis by Winston Churchill (1923 - 1931), which heavily criticised the offensives on the Western Front and Lloyd George’s War Memoirs (1933 – 1936) which as George Egerton states did most damage to the generals and their part in winning the war.

‘Lloyd George’s version of the war, particularly the chapters on the Passchendaele battle, probably did as much as any other single source to stigmatize indelibly in popular memory the role of the military elite in war.’  George W Egerton, ‘The Lloyd George “War Memoirs”: A Study in the Politics of Memory’, The Journal of Modern History, 60, (1), (March 1988), p. 90

Criticism of both publications has focused on both Churchill’s and Lloyd George’s perceived need to defend themselves against both implied and explicit criticisms of their wartime policies.  Leon Craig has argued that as with other of Churchill's interwar writings [The World Crisis], is crafted with a special concern to rehabilitate his status as a political thinker and actor.’  (Leon H. Craig, Rhetoric in a Noble Cause: Churchill's World Crisis as Apologia’, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott Wardman Park, Omni Shoreham, Washington Hilton, Washington, (September 2005))  Whilst Churchill sought to rehabilitate his status following the Dardanelles disaster, Lloyd George was in part countering a series of published diaries and memoirs by the likes of John French, Ian Hamilton, and William Robertson who had, almost immediately after the war, published works vindicating their war records, but was also trying to re-establish his credibility following government failures and ‘broken promises’ made in the aftermath of the war.  Lloyd George could obviously write!

‘By the close of the first two chapters of the memoirs, ……. Lloyd George had demonstrated masterful narrative skills that demanded the attention, if not the agreement, of his readers.’  Egerton, ‘The Lloyd George “War Memoirs” ‘, p. 74

What he produced was heavily critical of individuals who had crossed his path and incredibly vindictive towards the military high command.

This post war Easterners school, driven by the premise ‘there must have been a better way’, ( Richard Holmes, ‘War of Words: The British Army and the Western Front’, CRF Prize Lecture, Aberdeen and Edinburgh (26 & 28 May 2003), p. 18) was closely supported by publications and theories from two key inter-war historians, Liddell Hart, who had aided Lloyd George on the military aspects of his memoirs and is still regarded as ‘a commentator of rare insight’, (Holmes, ‘War of Words’, p. 18) and J.F.C. Fuller, a vigorous, expressive, and opinionated writer of military history.  Both were caught up, and collaborated, in attempts to push forwards British Army mechanization between the wars, Fuller with his doctrines on the employment of tanks, Liddel Hart with the evolution of his theory of the ‘indirect approach’.  Brian Bond captures the current perception of their contribution.  As critics of the inter-war Army many of their shots were probably on target, but as influential historians of the First World War their approach was too polemical.’  (Brian Bond, ‘A Victory worse than a Defeat? British Interpretations of the First World War’, Annual Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives Lecture, (20 November 1997)  The lack of closure for most of the bereaved led, it has been argued, directly to a search for scapegoats. (Neiberg, ‘Revisiting the Myths’, p. 511)  This search played itself out in this historical genre; the losers were the wartime military high command.

Between 1914 and the late 1930’s the formation of the nations collective memory transitioned from grief, and the shattering of the wartime idealism, through mourning, and the disappointments with the results of victory, and on to recrimination and the search for scapegoats.  When viewed in retrospect this process seems logical and simple.  The limitations of the literacy cult are evident.  The influence of the most famous war poets at that time was nowhere near as great as is now assumed and the works originating from the anti-war cult were far from representative:

A large number of literary works produced by a host of best-selling minor authors during the inter-war years, [what Rosa Maria Bracco calls ‘middlebrow’ fiction] cannot be construed as anti-war.’  Nicoletta F. Gullace, ‘Memory, Memorials, and the Postwar Literary Experience: Traditional Values and the Legacy of World War 1’, Twentieth Century British History, 10 (2), (1999), p. 239

The historical genre was no better having been written as a form of ‘self-defence’ to vindicate the writer’s wartime record.  The results were usually biased, overly critical, and often vindictive.  Common to both areas was that much that was written and produced was as much a reaction to the circumstances of the inter-war years encountered by the authors and producers than to the war years themselves.  With these obvious inconsistencies and ambiguities surrounding the perception of the Great War in the inter-war years why is it that futility and military incompetence still feature so prominently in the nation’s collective memory?

Next: Part 3 - 'A Warning from History'

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