Saturday, May 7, 2011

The British Perception of WW1 - Pt 3

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A Warning from History

Under normal circumstances robust historical research could have been expected to challenge the inconsistencies and ambiguities evident in the inter-war years, but these were not normal circumstances.  In the space of 35 years warfare had changed beyond recognition and, during the latter stages of World War Two, had shown the potential to destroy whole countries.  With the advent of the Cold War this potential appeared only a small step from reality.  This coupled with other contemporary concerns, a new class war associated with the influence of communism and the growth of an anti-authority culture (the 1960s protest generation), provided a framework for the production of a series of works that were to have a significant impact on the evolution of the nations collective memory.


In 1963, the play Oh What a Lovely War was created by Joan Littlewood.  It was produced as a warning from history, the warning being the First World War, with the added socialist emphasis of class differences played out through the put upon working class soldiers and the stupid upper class officers. The idea for the play came from the book The Donkeys by Alan Clark published in 1961.  Significantly Liddell Hart had vetted the books manuscript (Holmes, ‘War of Words’, p. 20).  The Donkeys, was a vicious attack on the British military hierarchy of the Great War and was heavily critisised by historians when it was first published.  Michael Howard described it as a ‘petulant caricature of a tragedy’.  Central themes within the play also came from two other works August 1914, later called The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman published in 1962, and In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff published in 1959.  Tuchman's style is engaging and pacey and leads the reader to the feeling of confusion and indecision surrounding the route to war in 1914.  Wolff, despite extensive research, failed to deliver a non partisan account of the 1917 Flanders campaign.  As Richard Holmes states; Leon Wolfs In Flanders Fields . . . confirmed the primacy of a school of historiography which is not interested in the facts because it has already made up its mind. (Holmes, ‘War of Words’, p. 19)  The military advisor for the play was the future Labour MP Raymond Fletcher, a journalist whose socialist influence on the play was underlined in 1999 when he was named as a KGB spy.  Fletcher was a huge fan of Liddell Hart and anti John Terraine, or anyone else who attempted to rehabilitate the war time record of the military high command.  John Terraines Douglas Haig:The Educated Soldier was published in 1963.  The plays success was due mainly to its music hall nostalgia rather than its transparent political message.



Oh! What a Lovely War's real lasting influence was the spawning of the Richard Attenborough film version Oh! What a Lovely War Brian Bond in a lecture described the film as:


'The perfect TV extravaganza', not least because of its all-star cast. The setting on Brighton Pier, was frivolously satirical, and the dialogue displayed little concern with historical accuracy or fairness. Though obviously 'anti-war', it was more specifically anti-authority and especially anti-officer.  Brian Bond, ‘A Victory worse than a Defeat’.


The historical consultant for the film was the historian A.J.P. Taylor.  Both of Taylors parents were pacifists, who vocally opposed the First World War, they sent Taylor to Quaker schools as a way of protesting against the war.  Taylor was sympathetic to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, though he was strongly critical of Stalinism.  He blamed the United States for the Cold War.  The USA, in his opinion, was carrying out policies that increased the risk of World War Three.  During the 1950s and 1960s he was a key member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  In 1963 Taylor had written what is now arguably one of the most widely read and pervasive histories of the Great War The First World War: An Illustrated HistoryThis book has been described by Gary Sheffield as brilliant but unreliable (Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities, (London: Headline, 2002), p. 17), and by Richard Holmes as ‘a triumphant flamb√©ing of the left-overs of the 1930’s’.  This book is still in print and widely available.  Like Clark and Fletcher, Taylor had an affinity to Liddell Hart; Taylor had the utmost respect for him as a historian.  The theme of Liddell Hart running through the play, film, and key texts, establishes a direct link to the prejudices of the inter-war years, reinventing and reinforcing the collective memory.


'For a younger generation of Britons, [brought up in the last quarter of the 20th century] the first encounter with the Great War often came either in the pages of Taylors history, or through a Bank Holiday television repeat of the 1969 film of Oh What a Lovely War. Dan Todman, World War One: Misrepresentation of a Conflict, BBC Website.


The War Poets

In parallel with the Oh What a Lovely War productions interest grew in the publications of the War Poets.  This poetry, in particular the trench poetry written by the likes of Owen and Sassoon spoke powerfully to the protest generation in the 1960s.  (Jeremy Paxman, Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale, (BBC1, 11 November 2007)).  Before commenting on the influence of this poetry I want to try and establish, using Wilfred Owen as an example, why the poetry was written, what was its intended meaning, and how representative it was.  Ive chosen Owen as he is currently one of the most widely read and quoted War poets, and arguably provides the material that best illustrates, for many, the futility of the war.


Wilfred Owen did not volunteer with the initial surge of patriotism following the declaration of war in 1914, but waited until September 1915.  His reasons for volunteering were quite clear:


[He] feared that a German victory would mean the extinguishing of the English culture and language.  [He wanted to fight] to save the language of Keats and Shakespeare.  Paxman, Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale



Owen went to war with his eyes open; he had seen the effects of war during a visit to a French military hospital before he volunteered.  Owen proved himself a brave and courageous soldier, voluntarily returning to the front after recovering from shell shock.  It was during this recovery, under the guidance of Sassoon, that he wrote at least half of his most well known poems.  It was in one of these poems The Calls that he provided the why:


For leaning out last midnight on my sill, 
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill 
To speak of their distress, no, nor will! 
A voice I know. And this time I must go. 
John Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 266



Owen wrote his poetry to represent the distress of his literary challenged men.  The meaning proves more problematic but can be implied from his PROPOSED VOLUME OF POEMS PREFACE and associated notes (Jon Glover & Jon Silkin, The Penguin Book of First World War Prose (St Ives: Penguin, 1990) p. 389).  In it he states All a poet can do today is warn, but warn of what?  Attached to the preface he wrote:


(If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives survives Prussia my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders)Glover & Silkin, The Penguin Book of First World War Prose. p. 390


The key words here are survives Prussia.  Despite the obvious horrors of war he still held on to his initial reason for volunteering!


In light of Owens willingness to return to combat voluntarily, and his adherence to his original motives for fighting, the accepted perception of the meaning of Owens poetry, that depicting futility, may be suspect!  An alternative interpretation would be.  War should only be used as a mechanism of last resort because this (his poems) is what it is really like!


Before poetry first gained prominence as a way of understanding the First World War questions were raised over how representative it was.  The debate is ongoing and illustrates a conflict in approaches between what Gary Sheffield describes as the cultural or Paul Fussell school:


The Great War and Modern Memory [Paul Fussel, 1975] has exerted a profound influence on research into the First World War and stimulated a shift in interest from the old military history (battles, strategy and diplomacy) to a new sort of history which focuses on culture, psychology and social transformation. Even those who disagree with its arguments acknowledge its influence. Robert Darby, ‘Oscillations on the Hotspur-Falstaff Spectrum: Paul Fussell and the Ironies of War’, War in History, 9 (2) (2002), p. 307

And the politico-military, school, adopted by the latest set of revisionist historians, himself included (Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, p. 19).  Irrespective of the ‘representative’ debate, since the revival of Owen’s poems in the 1960’s their meaning has been selectively hijacked and used to reinforce the themes of waste and futility. 

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