“What if one were to read heaps of personal histories all together, following perhaps a few dozen of the most rewarding writers from the beginning of the war to the end, at a distance of exactly a century? It could be a chorus of many different voices, a symphonic literary history… [a slow] build into a new way of reading—or re-experiencing, in real time—the Great War: every day a piece of writing produced a century ago, or a description of events befalling one of the writers on that day.” This was the idle musing that led to A Century Back, which is tended by Josh Levithan, a writer and historian—with somewhat significant contributions by a few score Great War veterans. While the First World War is not really my field, the interest in war literature, and in the Great War in particular, is long-standing, and thanks are due to many former students at Kenyon College, for reading so much of it with me, and so well.
Finally, while the century-to-the-day conceit naturally lends itself to an online format, this blog is not intended as a page-of-literate-suffering-a-day calendar. Reading along at the pace of actual events may lead to new insight into historical experience, and there is value, too, in the exercise of reading a too-easily-stereotyped literature as it was being written (i.e. striving not to apply what we have learned from later literature to things written earlier, not to see the mature writer in his or her 1914 enthusiasms). Hence the academic extravaganza below.
A Century Back—
Writing the Great War, Day by Day
Each post either excerpts something that was written or discusses something that happened a century ago to the day. Posts will appear irregularly until August 4th, then daily through November 11th 2018; each will concern the First World War as it was experienced by those who wrote about it. The goal is to build a long, slow literary history of the British experience of the Western Front. Posts will fall roughly into three categories: a sizable quotation from something written on that day; a sizable quotation or discussion of an account written later—a memoir, a poem, or a letter—about what the writer had experienced on that day; or a description of events that befell a particular writer on that day, although gleaned from another source. There will typically be commentary, too, intended to explain or contextualize the material and to gather the posts into loose conversations on common themes. Because there is a lot less material for the first year of the war—a small British army, and relatively few writers then serving—things may be a little spare and sparse at first, especially during the grim first winter of stalemate. But we’re in it for the duration, and when the New Army arrives in France in 1915, it will bring with it a most remarkable quantity and quality of war writers.
1) Why the Great War
1a) The Simple Explanation
There is a lot of very good poetry written, in English, during and about the First World War. A few poems are very well known, especially in Britain, and stand in the public mind as perhaps the first great humane protest against modern war—but there are many more. There are, too, a number of very good memoirs about the experience of fighting on the Western Front—some still well-remembered, others largely forgotten or read only by specialists and committed war buffs. Together, they constitute a written record of literature’s encounter with industrialized warfare, a troubled time for art and history and humanity. Also, many are very beautifully written, and nothing holds the interest of a reader like good prose. Also, I have read them—and when you’ve done the reading you might as well share with the class.
Anniversaries hold a strange fascination—why should round numbers and elliptical orbits seem significant? Is it really the best way to mark the recession of experience into memory, or to return to memory select morsels of preserved history? Perhaps it is just the most convenient way. And so with a nice round century as our hook, we have an excuse to “watch” or “experience” (but, really, read) history unfold. And it will unfold at its original pace, as it were. Some writers will show up regularly, and you will come to remember where they have been and what they are doing. Gradually you will get to know them, a little, over time, and thus the fact that he was enduring a bombardment or writing to his mother or mourning the loss of a friend on this particular date a hundred years ago might start to feel meaningful. Then terrible things will happen to them, they will write about these things, and you will be interested because you have come to know not only this particular writer but also their collective experience. And, although it seems prurient and strange to write it plain we seem to be drawn to a particular trajectory of story: these young people are talented, brash, beautiful, kind—and many will not be coming home again.
1b) The Complicated, Lengthy, and Rather Scholarly Explanation
This project arises from an intersection of interests in war writing and in history, specifically in the enormous amount of good writing produced by the British soldiers of the Great War and in how history struggles both to express the ordinary passage of time and to connect the experiences of many individuals.
The first part is easier to explain. The Great War was a very literary war, more intensely written than any other, or any that is likely to be. There had been a few big wars fought by more or less literate armies, but not by Britain. In 1914, Britain had not fought a truly major war in a century, and neither the sporting gentlemen and aristocrats who provided its small volunteer army with most of its officers nor the impoverished and working class men who largely made up its ranks had been much inclined—or able—to write about war. (There had been a few notable exceptions, and there were several very literary young men in the army when war was declared—we will be leaning heavily on them for the autumn of ’14—but British writers were rarely warriors, before 1914.) By the end of 1914, hundreds of thousands of men of all classes had enlisted in the “New Army.” These young men and boys had no real way to know what they were getting into. There were no local veterans of major wars to talk to, no war movies, little in the way of realist reportage. Instead, they had a popular literature that trumpeted the achievements of empire and loved to celebrate military exploits as akin both to the ethic of the amateur sportsman and the literary ideal of a chivalrous knight. The highly educated members of the upper middle classes—the men who became the officer corps of the New Army—had in many cases read deeply and widely in classical literature and in the poetic traditions that celebrated the heroism and glory of war.
There will never be another cultural moment quite like this. Larkin’s MCMXIV is both the poetic prologue to the war’s experience and a sort of filial epilogue to the writing it would produce, at once a historical observation and an exhortation: “Never such innocence again.” Well, there won’t be—because of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest of the writers that will be drawn on for this project. The Second World War, given its size and duration, produced a greater quantity of writing, surely, as well as some notable poetry and a handful of great books—but there was no beginning in innocence, no testing of essentially pre-modern values against the realities of modern war. By then, poetry had at long last lost its standing at the head of the verbal arts, and few teenagers read as seriously as their parents had. But many budding intellectuals had read All Quiet on the Western Front and many more had seen the movie. Radio, the movies, and, soon enough, television continued to shape both the expectations and the artistic ambitions of later soldiers.
Whereas the men and boys in those long uneven lines wanted to be writers. There were probably more working writers per capita in this society than at any other point in human history, and, in poetry-saturated England, perhaps more schoolboys who thought seriously about writing as vocation or avocation than ever before or since. In any case, young men from privileged backgrounds with literary ambitions do not often join the army, and if they do, they rarely join the infantry and see the worst of it—but in this war they did.
The disillusionment of all of these brave literary young men will probably be our dominant theme over the next few years—yet there will be much variation, too. Going day by day, there will be ample opportunity to watch other perspectives and styles develop. Many writers who will figure into this project share nothing of tone, literary affiliation, or political intent with the best-remembered poets of pity, protest, suffering and rage. These daily bulletins will eventually form a corpus that seems to describe a sort of narrative arc—or several—a progression, tracking the ways the war changed, the way it changed the men who waged it, and how these changes transformer their writing. Seems to: such arcs are later, backwards-looking inventions. But more on this later. The point here is that the writers whose work I will draw on over the next four years are held together not by any similarities of self or literary production, but by the gravitational force of their intensely compressed, shared experience, the density of a war fought by so many men, with so little change or movement.
A world war should be a sprawling affair, but the Great War was, for most of its participants, a relatively local affair—continental, perhaps, but “world” only in consequence and retrospect. For the British, it was smaller still: there were a scattering of diversions and minor campaigns in the far-flung empire, and there was France, where the vast majority of their effort was concentrated. Now, any responsible history of the war must include balanced discussion of the naval war, the war in Africa and Asia and the Middle East, and the enormous campaigns across central and eastern Europe. But this project takes its scope not from historical reality but from the intensity of English language war writing. Any historical discussion should give due weight to the experiences of soldiers from all countries and colonies and it should strive to represent the experience not merely of those who wrote well and saw their writing published, but of the far less socially privileged mass of combatants—not to mention women participants and civilians in the combat zones and on the home front. But this project is much more narrow, narrower, even, then the English-language war experience. Australia and New Zealand’s national memories of the war center on the Gallipoli campaign, while even England’s most widely famous war writer won that fame in (or of) Arabia.
Here we will be almost entirely concerned with the Western Front, that long scar of trench and wire that ran from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Here the war was small, static, and intensely contested. The British sector of the front was initially only around twenty miles long and, although it grew to more than eighty miles in the war’s later years, combat was concentrated along only a few miles of the line in two places: the Ypres salient in Belgian Flanders and the Somme valley in French Picardy. Here millions of British troops marched, labored, wrote, and fought the Germans, rarely advancing or retreating more than a few miles in four years, and sometimes occupying the same position for years at a time.
If the machine guns that would wreak such havoc on attacking soldiers throughout the war were the “concentrated essence of infantry,” then the British experience of the Western Front gave rise to the concentrated essence of war literature. History, then, can efficiently provision the needs of the student of literature: the concentration of historical experience becomes a shortcut to deeper understanding, a skeleton key, waybread that can power more reading than everyday historical nourishment, an efficient multiplier for the forces of your understanding. It is one of the milder ironies of the Great War that mass armies and the warfare of attrition provide the reader with the benefits of an economy of scale. Not only were so many incisive, frightening, and beautiful books written about the same campaign of the same war—with the same official terminology, the same slang and jargon, the slow progression of tactics, weaponry, and the social structures of enlistment, training, and home leave—but even the landscape itself stays the same. The historian of the first battalion of the Irish Guards notes that they first heard the guns on the 22nd of August near La Longueville, almost exactly where they stood at the armistice, more than four years later, and private Frank Richards of the Royal Welch Fusiliers found himself at Le Cateau in August 1914 and in November 1918, having marched thousand of miles up and down the front and back and forth from the trenches, only to end up in the same place.
Being in the same place, they saw the same things. Most modern wars tend to acquire a handful of definitive images, after the fact, through photography. There were witnesses to the Soviet soldiers who planted their flag on the Reichstag and the U.S. Marines who raised theirs on Mt. Suribachi or pulled down the statue of Saddam—the photographers being of course the most significant. And all those images were more complicated than they may have first appeared, capturing brief and contentious moments. But hundreds of thousands of men, and dozens of our authors, saw the shell-damaged Virgin of Albert, poised for years just behind the lines, in the act of hurling her child down into the ruined town below.
Every bit of historical context will go a long way, here, from a deepening understanding of the general conditions to a rough grasp of the physical situation to an insider’s knowledge of quirks and strange chances. You must read a few dozen descriptions of the hauteur of older regular army officers or the mud near Passchendaele before you begin to believe in them, for instance. But once you’ve read a few accounts of how snipers are to be avoided or what emotions the arrival of a Stokes team among the infantry are likely to occasion, you will have become an initiate. The regimental peculiarities of the Royal Welch are not of earth-shaking importance, yet the authors of five or six important war books served in that regiment, and when they mention them you will nod, already pleasantly in the know. 2/RWF, the battalion of poets, is an extreme example, and not representative. Yet, as we bring more and more memoirists into the project as the war stretches on I expect to find many writers crossing paths with each other or passing close by in the night, hunching under the same bombardments, inhabiting the same trenches, writing of the view from different flanks of the same assault…
This defense of concentration has declined into a sales pitch—The best war books ever, and more bang for your buck!—so let us move on.
Left dangling from the first paragraph of 1b, above, is the question of how exactly “history struggles to express the ordinary passage of time.” Here is what I think that might mean: despite the reassuring precision of clocks and calendars, our experience of time is subjective, our processing of it mysterious. Time flies and time drags, and as our personal time-hoard amasses, we discover that we have more and more trouble keeping track of it. Part of growing older is to realize that vivid memories tend to loom, by dint of their brightness, in the foreground of our backward glances through time. “That was last year, wasn’t it?” But no—a resort to the historical record will prove that it was, in fact, three years ago. And in between are scores of blurry weeks, a hundred utterly forgotten days, a million lost moments. If we lose track of the ordinary days and hours of our own life so quickly, is it any wonder that we tend to experience history like a finicky child with a remote control, blurry images scattering back and forth between brief alightments on memorable moments?
The conventional wisdom is that all this is getting worse: once you would have had long minutes to read introductory essays, but now you have long since skittered away to some other, speedier, smaller, chunk of online language, because our chittering digital lives have decimated boredom’s half-life, thus both slowing and stuttering our perception of the passing minutes. Which is a pity, and which is a partial apology for an unusually long piece of internet-writing. Read on!
The problem here is not anxiety about passing time, and the solution is not a Proustian delving into our own memory. It’s much more simple: how do we get a sense of the “ordinary” or “typical” life of the past when we ignore the subjective sense of time’s passage? Nothing routinizes time like history, with its unequivocal dates and precisely-scaled timelines. Even if we are very good about avoiding our knowledge of a historical figure’s future as we read in her “present,” how are we, for example, to understand what a soldier feels when first back under fire after being hospitalized for shell-shock? For him that madness was months ago, for you it was in the last sentence.
And nothing distorts time like a historical narrative. It might take you a half-hour to read a book chapter on a battle that lasted hardly that long, or a few days, perhaps, to plow through a book that spans only the last moments of an assassin’s act. More common is an experience like reading a harrowing account of two years in the trenches in an afternoon. The compression of time is not only that of your reading, but, first of all, that stemming from the author’s selections. Temps perdu indeed, and a regretful necessity, unless history is to veer off after Borges and become the same size as the past it describes. Historical narratives must compress, but the flexibility of compression is always limited by the rigid skeleton of time, the simple chronicle of known past events that precedes any historical writing. Good history must first be unswervingly loyal to the facts, especially the facts of time, and it rarely finds itself able to complete disregard the facts of its historical moment’s future. Only really excellent historical writing plunges through the thick crust of accumulated historical fact into contact with the living minds of the moment, giving them the proper ignorance of the strangely singular course of the future which for them did not yet exist. Without freedom in thought of the future, there is no real life for the historical “character.” This seems especially regrettable when the historical subject is a writer. How are we to understand the emotions of composition when we know the future and they do not? Especially when the future, as it comes to seem for a young soldier, is essentially binary. One way to preserve this freedom of historical will, to treat the writer’s lost moment of existence with the full creative potential it once had (and not the destiny it acquired) is to be an incomparably brilliant historical writer. Another approach would be to fake it, and write brilliant historical fiction (on which see 5, below). Or one could turn Borges’ map into a chronicle, and live in the moment, a century back.
So here you have a sort of historical narrative—it should be more or an annotated literary-historical collage, but you or I will bend it into narrative, unconsciously, inevitably—that transpires in real time. The problem of authorial selection will still be there, since I decide who to quote or discuss each day (constrained, of course, by the evidence and by my heroic-but-really-not-superheroic research efforts—diaries were officially banned in the trenches, and it is not always a simple matter to figure out who is doing what on a particular date). I may be guilty of favoring one interpretation over another. I will certainly favor some authors over others and I will confess, below, to certain fascinations, elitisms, and disproportionate intentions. But I will not compress time for you. When Wilfred returns to the front from his transformational stint at Craiglockhart, that experience will have been as long ago for you, dear reader, as for him. Even worse: I will be using letters from the front as much as possible, so you will often know what a young soldier was thinking on the eve of battle, but you won’t know if they survived until they—or their commanding officer—have a chance to write again. To be clear, this project will proceed as if you know little about our writer-protagonists, that you are ignorant of their eventual fate. This may be a silly conceit, and I hope it will not come to feel like a distraction from the writing: the idea is to share with the living writers their ignorance of the future, not to feel the cheap sort over suspense about the possible demise of a fictional character in a horror film. (See also 6, below.) In any case, I think the interest of the writing is so great that this should be worthwhile reading even if you know a great deal about the future careers and eventual fate of the writers.
This is not a terribly original undertaking. There are “day by day” books for both world wars, and the internet makes it very easy to trawl history for events and paste up a daily timeline. Simply reading the century-ago papers every day would be a more reliable act of historical re-experience (issues of propaganda and censorship aside), and the ambition here is not to create a digital tear-off calendar, either of warlike bons mots orliterary happenings. And there is greater depth elsewhere: many good books have been written about the literature of the Great War, with more scholarly insight into language and literature than can be mustered here.
What we do bring to the screen here are novel combinations of history and literature and of brevity and mounting complexity). Stay; learn something. But yes, this is a sad little act of defiance by a rumpled humanist, stale from the bookstacks, shaking a lonely fist toward the towering waves of the digital sea: I have read! I have thought deeper thoughts about war literature than any search engine! I will type with the taut fingers of passion, not the louche, key-smacking drawl of online content hacks!
There will, at least, be interesting long-term questions to answer. Since the pace of this project is the pace of real time, will we experience these old unhappy, far-off things more intimately? When we look back on the war from the centennial of the armistice, not even five years older, will the guns of August sound like an ancient memory, or a recent one? What will we remember, and what will we forget? What will we have ourselves compressed? Will we struggle to remember whether Robert Graves was wounded at Loos or on the Somme in much the same way we begin to forget whom we know from high school and whom from university? But this is a digression—our experience of history is a secondary interest. After all, the dates are known and will not change no matter how slowly we watch them scroll by during this long centenary season. But what about the effect of reading literature in this odd way?
3) History vs. Literature—critical justifications
I will be important to remember—for reader, and writer as well—that the project is All About Writing, and only circumstantially about military history (but what circumstances!) We take our cue from an event that took place on a certain day. Any “event:” a letter written or a poem drafted is an event, just like a fateful decision to enlist, a wounding by stray bullet, or the launching of a major attack. But exactly what happened that day, exactly what that event was and what its significance in the unfathomable matrix of causation that shaped other military events of the war might have been—these are the questions of history, and not our concern here. We want to know how it was written, and how it affected the writing of the person who experienced it.
This is not to say, though, that only a framework—the lattice of 1,561 dates to fix eventfulness upon—is borrowed from the discipline of history. No, for two reasons.
First, such a simple view of the past doesn’t belong to history either, but precedes it. We learned to count days and years long before we affixed the memories of past events to their reckoning, and even such simple records of the past—“in year X the harvest was good, on day Y of year Z the king died”—are chronicles rather than true histories. Historical narratives never really go day by day (unless they are extremely focused, in which case we could ask whether they truly pace off each past hour), but must elongate and compress for the sake of narrative. History is writing, too.
Second, literature takes from history the notion that context matters. (Once upon a time this was a natural or relatively unexamined assumption. It was then abandoned for a sordid fling with New Criticism and Deconstruction, and is now being sheepishly picked up again, with all the warm, guilty appreciation of a returning adulterer.) Let us concede that writers converse with other writers, long dead, and that this conversation can be followed in the text without any reference to the experiences of the writers, with much glory to the intrepid discoverers and commentators. That’s one way of reading things. But it is not our way. Writing comes from minds and minds are shaped by experiences, and here we are interested in all three.
So this is, for lack of a better word, too personal a project to pass muster with the purest of literary critics, nor is it good military history. It’s more, and better, than both. The fact that this was so literary a war is often an obstacle for historians seeking to teach a nuanced understanding of the facts: how can you explain successful tactical innovation and the intelligent strategies of later generals when you are “up against” Owen and Sassoon? But the goal here is to understand the writing, not the events. Literary criticism will have to accept our biographical interests, and history must let us work from, and not merely among, the facts.
There are certain heretic historians and snooty professors of capital-T Theory who will tell you that once you begin to write about the past you have left reality behind: now all you have is language strung into story. And that’s fine with me. Every historian, even and especially those who are skeptical of the liberties taken by others, believes that he or she is doing an honest job of representing the past in narrative. But it is still a story told— a sibling to the novel and as closely related to the facts on which it is based as a person is to their portrait.
This will be a story strung together mostly from letters and memoirs, with diaries, poems, essays and other forms making due contributions. All are subjective, most are unverified, and while some authors assert a claim of historical truth (others fictionalize and most stand aware of the subjectivity of what they write) I make none. Verifiable historical truth is a German invention, anyway, like the General Staff and the Minenwerfer. As for narrative, it’s all one song: an argus-eyed, hydra-headed, legion-named, big-battalioned story about the past.
3a) Tactical Defense
If you tell a literary-type friend that you’ve been reading some blog about what writers were doing a century back, he is likely to tell you that it really doesn’t matter what anyone was doing, that only the writing itself matters and only a fool seeks enlightenment by snuffling after facts. Here are four ways to respond:
1) With the blithe, shrugging dismissiveness of a kid far cooler than the literary friend is, e.g.: “Whatever man. Either way, it’s just stories.”
2) If you are less sophisticated, but larger, than the literary chap, and/or if he has used any French, including but not necessarily limited to the phrase “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (“eel NYAHpa duh OAR text”), smack him one. If he falls, you may follow up by kicking him in the chops and bellowing “I refute it THUS!”
3) Alternatively, you might imply that, while you knew full well that your interlocutor was a hopeless phony-intellectual git, you are still shocked that he does not support the troops.
4) If, however, your critic is worthy of a serious response, you might look both ways before whispering “don’t look now… but I think New Historicism is in the ascendancy!”
So: while we will strive to avoid any simple reduction of literary output to experience, this is a critical enterprise with biographical roots and a healthy interest in the full flowering of adjacent culture. This requires taking an interest in the maps, the jargon, the weapons, and the trenches, all in the service of comprehending a little better the writing itself. And, if you like, in the lives that the writing sought to record and explain, the strange experiences of a terrible time that so many felt compelled to write about. If Edmund Blunden worked so hard to “snatch long moments from the grudging wars,” shouldn’t we read widely to read them better?
3b) Wait—A Sentimental Interest?
Indeed! We should acknowledge an emotional component in the attraction to war writing, especially to the war writing of a generation now truly lost, yet within living memory.
Their vanished world is still half-familiar: near enough in sensibility to be culturally accessible, far enough to seem appealingly quaint, with a little of the glamour or a bygone age rather than the mere outmodedness of a parent or even a grandparent’s youth. The old-fashioned approach to literary criticism, then, offers better protection to an intellectually uncovered flank than history might. The historian is right to ask why the experiences of the writerly folk matter more, especially when the general reaction (but we will deal in many, many specifics!) of the better-known writers was so different from many of the men, very much at odds with the national collective memory at the time. Isn’t it wrong to focus on the suffering of a talented few?
Yes, historically speaking. Yet art is always somewhat elitist (more on that below), and deals often enough with emotions more exaggerated than the non-artistic norm. We’re not concerned with the historical fact of war and pain and likelihood of imminent death, but rather with the literary impact of those facts. It will make us sad, sometimes neurotic, sometimes hysterical, more often bitter. And these churning emotions spin out a scrim of sentimentality that we would do well to acknowledge here at the beginning, since it will foul the chariot wheels of Calliope as well as Clio. Some were good writers, some were hacks, some were foolish children made into good writers by the scorching cautery of battle, some were promising talents battered into ruined bards of dubious beauty. And if the war writers were not the greatest writers of their era, well then bully for you, Tom and Jimmy—but try standing in liquid mud for a few weeks with shrapnel bursting overhead.
There is a sort of elitism too, in suffering. Ask any infantryman. Our writers were mostly boys; they wanted to be poets, of all things, and joined out of naïve idealism or perhaps a sense that they could not refuse even so awful a challenge. They mostly lied to, led into a novel sort of misery, and left there to suffer or die (or, it is true, to discover some desperate avenue of retreat to blighty or a sort of safer work). Many were beautiful and talented, and almost all were very brave. Should we not be drawn to them, even in their unbeautiful deaths or miserable survival into impotent disgust or shell-shocked despair?
4) Who Will Be Who: Narrowness and Breadth
4a) A Narrow Slice of Experience
On the one hand, this will be a fairly narrow project. Of the millions who served, we’ll be reading, and reading about, perhaps fifty people—or a hundred, or, who knows, perhaps two hundred, when all is said and done. Not many, especially considering that only a dozen or so—those who wrote memoirs or whose lives have been the subject of painstaking and precise biographies—will appear regularly (weekly or bi-weekly, say) instead of intermittently.
Of the many theaters and battlefields of the war, we will focus exclusively, or almost exclusively, on the Western Front—a focus both practical (it was the heart of the effort by the English-speaking nations) and tautological (because that is what most of our writers wrote about). Gallipoli holds a very important place in Australia and New Zealand’s literature of the war, but it will not be much discussed here.
Of the dozens of nations, colonies, possessions, and protectorates which sent troops to defend France and Belgium, we are limiting ourselves to only a handful. African and Indian troops served by the tens of thousands, but all of our writers are white.
Of the many arms of service, we will be overwhelmingly focused on the infantry. Because they saw the worst and suffered the most, and, again, because that is where the writers mostly went. The most significant exception is the number of nursing memoirs written by women either in France or in close proximity to the worst of its wounds. We will hear from a gunner or two and, especially in the war’s first months, some cavalrymen, but thereafter it will be largely an infantry affair.
The vast majority of our writers will be officers. This means that, since the British class system moved fairly seamlessly, at first, across the civilian/military divide, most of our writers came from a privileged background, somewhere from quite-comfortable-and-looked-after-by-servants to very-grand-indeed. Even when the complete identification of officers with gentlemen broke down in the later expansions of the army, it was still the better-educated and more wordy types were likely to become officers. Although there are several important poets and memoirists from the ranks, the experience of officers will be wildly overrepresented.
Among other problems of representativeness, there will be only a few female voices in a preponderantly male chorus, and no real, open declaration of non-heterosexual identity. This is not, though, another sin against history, or at least not one on the order of our privileging a few privileged subalterns. The gender ratio should be close to that of the British experience, since significant numbers of nurses and auxiliaries were eventually welcomed into the preponderantly male British war effort. We will read several gay writers, surely, but their identification, in both senses, is complicated. Not only was homosexuality illegal at the time and not often acknowledged openly or in print, but to parse historical sexual identity with today’s finely-tuned terminology can be a sticky business. It doesn’t seem to do much good to place a label on a man which, even were it translated into his own idiom, he might not acknowledge, or even feel able to accept. Robert Graves will broach the subject of British male homosexuality with typical flailing mischievousness, but it would be a mistake both to assume that there is not often a strong homoerotic component of soldiers’ love for one another and to take every instance of physical affection or apparently erotic sentiment in an all-male sub-culture as evidence of a repressed or closeted gay identity. In any event, since there is little or no discussion of sex in all but a handful of the works we will be reading, it can hardly become a major topic here.
Another natural limitation is language. You read English, and so do I. I don’t read other languages well enough to make a significant sample of their war writing, and while we might go to a few famous books (Jünger, Barbusse) in translation, this is an English language project because it is and because I can’t make it otherwise. It is also more or less a British project, although here there is some small diversity. In addition to a few real Welshmen, Irishmen, and Scots, and we will read a few Australians and Americans who came to serve with British units in France. Who knows: when 2017 roles along we may read widely in the Yanks, despite the lack of top-notch writing by their infantry combat veterans.
So there’s a bit of a problem, here. Isn’t this an awfully big undertaking about an awfully small class of people? Can a war of millions be understood, even as literature, if the writing of so many is dipped into while we drink deeply of a mere handful of bookish upper middle class public school boys? Yes and no. Yes, because they were very good writers, that lot.
4b) Breadth and Butter:
And no, because it would be wrong to hew to a too-narrow definition of “good” writing. Alf Pollard went from compiling a remarkable record of old-school military heroism to a career of ham-handed pot-boiling, and left a bluff, brave, often engaging, occasionally dubious memoir of battle. It has a place in the project because it represents a different experience, a different take on that experience, and a different approach to memoir. As a matter of good politics, philosophy, or history, Pollard is worth as much as Sassoon. But as to the literary merit of his book… I’d recommend reading all six volumes of Sassoon before him, perhaps thrice. Here we hope to drive a bargain between inclusiveness and excellence: Pollard deserves a place, but a smaller one.
I am confident, then, that we can live high off of the best poets and memoirists while varying the diet with different experiences and different sorts of books. There are many, many books about the war, and, within the limitations noted above in 4a, anyone may qualify for inclusion. Were you part of the British war effort on the Western Front? Did you write in English? Then welcome to “A Century Back.”
There are three basic categories of writer/contributor/subject. At the heart of the project are the soldier-writers whose subsequent literary careers were built in no small part on what they wrote about their war. Then there are those who wrote about the war, during the war—but not afterwards, either because they simply did not continue to write or because they did not survive. (The dead poets, yes, but also many letter-writing non-writers. There are also many approaches to the letter home—Tell mother nothing? Only the good parts? Only the recognizable parts? Everything?—and their variety will carry us through many days on which the Great War Great Writers did nothing of particular note.) This sort of amateur writing, like the literarily bland combat memoir, has its own interest, and each genre has its fine points and excellences. Finally, there are the writers who shared the experiences of the other two groups but did not write at length about it, yet contributed valuable non-war books to our literary patrimony. So any middling or major British writer who experienced the trenches may pop up here, no matter how much work it might take to find traces of the Western Front in their work. There will be Tolkien. I’m still working on A. A. Milne.
As the project continues, the course of the war—specifically who was fighting in it at any particular time—will also dictate the mix of writers. The first autumn and winter will see most of the central group of writers agonizing about joining up or volunteering and beginning training. Actual combat was borne by the professional soldiers of Britain’s small regular army and, as the autumn wore on, by Territorial units (equivalent, for our American readers, to the National Guard). So we will, at first, have a lot about “Oxford vs. War,” and training marches, and Georgian poetry, while the voices from the war itself will be those of a handful of more or less aristocratic officers and a very small handful indeed of writers from the other ranks and the lower-middle or lower classes. By 1915 the first units of the New Army (also known as Kitchener’s Army), composed of 1914’s volunteers, will reach the trenches, and the literary tone of the war will change dramatically. Not only because of the change in the outlook of the soldier-writers, but because so many people will be writing for so many different reasons: to record their experiences for posterity; to work to understand themselves or to cope with terror and danger and physical hardship; to try to teach those at home how much the realities of war differed from its traditional literary portrayal and the propagandistic newspaper accounts; or, increasingly, because they saw themselves as writers, who must simply write, and could hardly write about anything else.
There are even a few exceptions to the rule that the writers must have at one point seen combat on the Western Front or nursed its wounds. A few non-combatants with especially close claims of blood to the suffering of the infantry are included here as well: if you wrote with great intensity about the war because your brother or son was killed, you may earn a certain analogous authority to write about the war. This may seem like an odd decision, or one calculated merely to add interest to the selection of writers at the expense of the project’s coherence. Certainly. But there is another reason, too: however much soldier-writers might work to convince us to (buy and) read their work, there is very often an implicit sense that those who have not experienced war cannot ever understand it. Probably not—and certainly not if we insert a sensible adverb. We cannot fully understand war without experiencing it. But we can go some of the way toward understanding if they write well and we read well; if not, this enterprise would have no point and humanity would be a step or two closer to self-destruction. But enough of that: I don’t imagine that many readers of this screed have seen combat. For most of us, then, the inclusion here of the bereaved writers who embraced, as a subject, the thing that took their loved ones, is the propping-open of a postern gate to affiliation with a subject that, fortunately for us, is not really ours.
This means that we are not likely to discuss either of the American volunteer ambulance drivers who got quite close to the war and later flew higher in the literary stratosphere than the combatant writers. Nor, as noted in 3b, above, will you find the very greatest of the English-language Modernists, who tended to be conveniently Irish, American, or female, and responded to the war more as a general catastrophe and artistic challenge than as something catastrophic to specific minds, challenging them to survive without the loss of sanity or the ability to make art. Nothing (much) against the movement—Herbert Read and David Jones will represent its interests pretty well, here, even if the flowers-to-mud tone of Georgian-to-post-Georgian war poetry will be the dominant note. We cannot go too far from the trenches. A world war affects every writer, some more, some less, and the floodgates could open too wide. It is the common experience of the Western Front that matters, not the quality of the writing as it later came to be assessed.
But Thomas Hardy is in, on which more later.
4c) Literary Conclusion
The approach here is, then, a sort of fine-grained and thorough-going New Historicism, which is to say something rather like reading as it should have been. Will reading three years of trench life and the war of attrition equip us well to understand the changes in Blunden or Owen’s in 1917? Surely. So too will reading Owen’s famously forthright letters to his mother. But will it help us to understand Henry Williamson’s growth from youthful clerk into exhaustive novelist if we track his lengthy, sock-heavy correspondence with his mother during the early months of his service? Will we be better readers of Sassoon if we understand the tactical context of traumatic events revisited in diary, “memoir,” and verse? Does reading Ralph Mottram’s account of his experience as a sort of divisional fixer enhance our understanding of his trilogy’s unrecognized place near the head of that rich 20th century sub-genre, Novels of Bureaucracy Unhinged? Will having read a dozen different men on the sensation of having a tired, outstripped five-nine drop behind bring home the bitter fitness of Owen’s famous lyric? Will reading the weirdly naïve enthusiasm and Tennysonian bravado of the early months of the war prime our ironic faculties for an appreciation of not only furious Graves but gentle Blunden?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
4d) And Elitism.
But first, that irony. It doesn’t seem quite right to make irony the hallmark of a literary elite: it is not subtle allusion or a double-twisting theoretical judo throw. Yet most of the finest, most literary writers of the First World War worked often in a deeply ironic register, and so will we, to a certain extent. Here we are under the influence of Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory is a wonderful book; and its story of the war as a huge irony of circumstance ripe for literary transmutation is inescapable here. It is a flawed masterpiece by a great critic with his own bone to pick with war, and must be very much out of fashion by now, rebutted and perhaps reviled by some—but it is the best sort of old, emotional, all-encompassing cultural and literary criticism.
Almost all of our authors were volunteers (conscription would come to Britain in 1917)—and with only a bit of generalizing, convenient lumping and edge-smoothing, and sepia-toned idealizing it is possible to seem them all, in 1914, as belated Victorians, boys believing in fair play and the cleanliness of battle, and the rightness of their cause and the decency of their leaders. They willingly walked out of idyllic boyhoods (again, a reflection of an over-representation of those from comfortable circumstances and the relative absence of men who joined up because that meant regular food and some money to send home) into a miserable stalemate of mud and barbed wire, from the playing fields of Eton into artillery barrages and traversing machine gun fire.
This ironic reading works brilliantly for a number of great (that adjective again!) books, but not so well for the hundreds of memoirs and thousands of poems (dating not just from 1914 but from later in the war, immediately after it, and even long after its sequel) that celebrated military achievement and the benefits of the combat experience without much emphasis on the psychological shock of confronting modern combat, the inability of the traditional literary vocabulary to cope with it, or the gap that remained between the official view of the war and the soldier’s experience. Although Fussell went to the archives of the Imperial War Museum and broadened his study well beyond the borders of the well-known memoirs, he was still an unabashed wielder of aesthetic criteria.
Which is to merely insist that all books are not created equal. Again, the goal here is some sort of balance between the weight of history (or the weight of numbers) and the power of art. Time is short, and the bad books are many. We will surely include some maddeningly inarticulate letters, some poetry that can only be cringed or nervously chuckled through—because they show another side of the war and its writing, because they have something good to fasten neatly onto one of the long days of the grudging war—but there will be much more Blunden and Graves and Brittain, because they were better writers, and better writing is better. The irony and the elitism are not identical, but neither are they loosely connected. We will learn to read more deeply than the well-known mud and suffering, than the lions and donkeys, but not in order to claim that, based on an inferred referendum of the British reading public circa 1920 or the fact that, yes, generals do have jobs to do that do involve getting men killed, literature’s true heart is the simple celebration of the virtues of the military life and Britannia’s great victory. War is bad, lies are bad, lies about war are very bad, and combat does nothing so reliably as damage young men, often beyond repair.
Owen and Sassoon—the pity and the rage—are not the only story here, but their sort of voices will be the dominant ones. This project is narrow, blinkered, balanced, and biased, in the last and most fundamental place by the aesthetic criterion itself and its historically un-dodgeable “class” (i.e. “socio-economic”) elitism. There are a few good oral history collections of the war, and some great histories written from them—but this project is about writing. So it will feature those whose parents could afford the education that prepared them to write, those whose cultural identity valued not just literacy but letters, and, to a lesser extent, those who wrote well enough to make a career of it or retained privilege enough to write all the time anyway.
Lord Dunsany’s story about the humble men of Daleswood is for us an awkward placid lunk of a bellwether. Not that we will necessarily hear from as many lords as rustic other ranks—we probably will—but we will mostly be hearing from the sort of “writing fellow” who took it upon himself to work through the experience of the war on paper, and not the laborers-turned-infantrymen who, in the story, thought to seek him out.
These writing fellows have not been neglected. The Western Front has been overexposed, commercialized, and its best writers are familiar enough, at least in the UK. But exposure and familiarity are not comprehension and in any case it is the job of the academics to rebalance old imbalances (or, if you like, injustices) whether in the manner of war, and the exploits of privileged white men therein, or of influential works of criticism, and the mistakes/infelicities/chauvinisms therein. This project, by contrast, is blithely unresponsive to responsibility, a solitudinous rambling. As such, there is little need to apologize for a certain fondness for its material, a thing that eludes full explanation or critical discipline. And why not, if one loves books? As we have learned, no English-speaking nation had ever before sent such a large proportion of such literate young men out to war. Nor will any again. Of all those lettered young creative types, very few indeed aspired to be auteurs of the popular song, cinematograph, or televised drama. They were going to be writers. Never such commitment to the written word again. Ergo, never again such awful riches for the connoisseur of war writing.
5) And Fiction
Almost done. But here’s another strange thing, and a much more simple demonstration that this project is aligned more with literature than with history: we will be including novels. I’m not really certain at this point whether this quirk will extend as far as including books written years later, by non-participants—perhaps the excellent Great War novels of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks. That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, although really only one kettle fishier than the chowder we have already cooked up. We will be using the novels that Ralph Mottram, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Williamson, Frederic Manning and (perhaps) others based closely on their experiences in France. The simple, best reason for doing so is that this broadens our perspective: reading writers as they transmute memory to narrative fiction (instead of into verse or the presumably non-fictionalized letters and memoirs we will see more frequently) will provide more insight into the writing of the Great War and the relationship between words and days.
A difficulty here is the scarcity of dates in fiction. A diary writer conventionally provides the date of writing, as do many memoirists; in the novels we will often be struggling to connect bare months or even seasonal references to events from the known biography of the writer or the military history of his unit. The novels, therefore, will generally only complement entries fixed to dates that have been otherwise gleaned from non-fictional writing or the historical record.
It is worth noting too that this is no real breach of convention. Our culture has recently indulged in manufactured horror over memoirs with manufactured events, and we have always been fascinated with finding the clef to any clearly “topical” roman—the storming of the generic walls is no new thing. They suffered a good deal of attrition, in fact, at the hands of Great War writers. There are many differences between the many volumes of Henry Williamson’s A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and Siegfried Sassoon’s trilogy of Memoirs about “George Sherston,” but Philip Maddison has nearly as much claim to be Henry Williamson by another name as Sherston does Sassoon. If the former is a novel and the latter a memoir than they could be chatting amiably over a garden fence (generically speaking; the fox hunter and the otter-imaginer were not otherwise of a literary kindred) which we may as well kick down in order to sit to tea together.
6) The Spoilers of War
One of the great differences between history and fiction is that we are generally supposed to go into a history book already familiar with the “ending”, while novels should be approached with our innocence held strenuously intact. But these are nearly empty formalities, in most cases. If either sort of book is any good it grips the reader with the progress of its story—the “how” is much more important than the final “what.” Jane Austen is well loved and well respected, and, dear reader, you enter into the thing well aware that they will marry in the end. So with novels—and, at this cultural moment, with our episodic video entertainments—we are on hair-trigger alert, primed for flight from spoilers, ready to begin shrieking hysterically and spin around with switch-blade at the ready if we sense the presence of a garrulous and more-advanced binger threatening to huff and puff at the mists of our personally undiscovered country. History is not supposed to work that way largely because history is serious. To take pleasure in what is essentially manufactured suspense would thus be odd and indulgent. For why choose to allow emotional interference with our logical probing after historical truth? And yet, isn’t it possible that these are compromises rather than purities? Can’t our admiration for an author’s skill be enhanced by reading their inventions with full knowledge of the coming twists? Wouldn’t a historian of an unknown world leap at the chance to tell a story with full control over the foreshadowing and revelation of assassinations, wars, and disasters?
If you come to read here regularly, you will do so at least in part out of an interest in the development of the “main characters” over time, in the ways in which their experiences change their writing. To refer to events that lie in the future of our lockstep century would, then, be an unfair advantage over the writer we are reading—well, my good fellow, let us see if you still write like that after your experience at the battle of Loos!—and an infidelity to the “real time history” aspect of this project. Of course, to think about writing without knowing the whole course of a writer’s work is to do literary criticism under a restrictive arms treaty.
I am conflicted about all of this, so the “policy” on references to the “future” of each century-day may change. But, as we begin, the plan is to avoid reference to specific events that have not yet come to pass. Neither, though, Will I try to awkwardly suppress awareness of basic characteristics of one person’s future experience—that Vera Brittain will not remain a carefree Oxford student but become a nurse, or that Wilfred Owen’s flowery early poetry is of greater interest because of the turn his writing would take once he began to write about the war.
And there is the spoiler to end all spoilers. Many war poetry anthologies come with a list of contributors, a large minority of whom are adorned with an asterisk, a blurry little star of valor. Much of what seems to attract readers of war writing and military history is its air of fatality, the sense that an existence in such proximity to death, with all the imminence of exciting violence and terrible suffering, is “more intense” or “more real.” The same idea, as we will see, drove many young men to enlist in 1914, and continues to do so. It seems a little foolish: youthful, misguided, explained better by reference to evolutionary biology than a careful consideration of human happiness and the potential value of life. But we are digressing. It is natural to be interested in knowing whether the journal entry, letter to mother, or draft poem that was written a century back is from the pen of a young man who will die within a year or two, or one who will grow old as a writer and reviser of those thoughts. Natural. So Google him.
Again, I will try to steer a middle course. No asterisks or regular references to a writer’s impending death. But neither will I be coyly hiding facts that must be obvious from the way in which we approach the writing. This would seem to damage the literary goals of this project and at the same time turn the calendrical conceit into something more like a blindfold game then a long experiment involving time and historical (or narrative) awareness. Much can be figured out, of course: the tone and tense of memoirs sets survivors apart, and, try as I might, it will probably be impossible to separate the day-by-day lived life of a famous poet-casualty from the emplotment of his life story as a sort of literary martyrdom. Since the experience of war is of interest here, it will not be hard to spot, for instance, why the love of two brothers draws our attention, or the budding attraction between a provincial girl and a serious young student who enrolled in the Officers’ Training Corps. I think, in the end, that death is part of the draw…
References and Footnotes
- Several early-adopting Century Back-ers pointed out that a lengthy and anonymous screed was not the most welcoming “about” page, and one reader had the temerity to suggest that I had already written a punchy little introduction to the idea elsewhere. So I have inserted these lines, taken from this article at The Millions, ahead of the long table-setting and throat-clearing (i.e. the explanation of methodology and intent) that follows. Yes: I am quoting myself in order to more concisely explain myself. ↩
- The historian was Rudyard Kipling. It is doubtful that more than perhaps a handful of men were actually there on both days. The battalion’s roll of honour for the intervening period runs to twenty-four columns of text in the regimental history, and many more were disabled by wounds, of course. ↩
- All violence is to be construed as metaphorical. This is a war blog! ↩
- Geoff Dyer: “In terms of rememberance the years 2014-2018 will represent the temporal equivalent of a total eclipse. By then no one who fought in the war will be alive to remember it.” (The Missing of the Somme, 111.) ↩