Yesterday was the anniversary of British entry into the First World War and, as such, saw a rash of articles in the British press and on line reflecting on both the conflict and the forthcoming centenary. Among them was this offering from Henry Porter in The Observer. The main thrust of the piece is a discussion of the meaning and purpose of commemoration of conflict, about which Porter has a number of reservations, some of which I share. What fascinated me about it, however, was the series of assumptions that underpinned Porter’s argument about the nature of the men who fought the war.
The opening paragraph describes a piece of graffito carved into a tree in Gloucestershire: PM 10/9/13 MKN. As described, that is it, no heart encircling the initials, no indication of the sex or age of either party. Yet, from this description, Porter makes the leap to a narrative whereby these are the initials of two lovers separated a year later by the war. While I, too, make the assumption that at least one of the individuals was male (based on assumptions I make about knife possession and the desire to mark things through carving), my immediate narrative conclusion was rather different: two boys marking their friendship after school, perhaps, rather than two lovers swearing eternal fidelity after work. Yes, they might have been 18 and, a year later, found themselves in the British armed forces preparing to face the enemy. Or they might have been 13, too young to enlist until the war’s final year. Porter’s narrative, while romantic, seems to have little evidence to back it up, making his tour of local war memorials even more of a long-shot than he himself implies.
Another, similar, imposition of narrative occurs later in the article, when Porter writes of the war as ‘an event that prods Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Remarque, Gurney and Nash into great art’. By implication, the war is the sole source of these men’s artistic inspiration. Certainly experiences of war inspired great art from these men, but their artistic aspirations and labours predate the war and several of them (most notably Graves, perhaps) produced great art in the years after that drew on other sources of inspiration. We cannot begin to speculate what sort of poets, artists, musicians they might have been had the war not occurred, but positioning the war as the sole reason for their artistic endeavour is equally a-historical.
It seems to me that there is quite a lot of this imposition of narrative in relation to our historical memory of the war. The narrative runs that the Britain of the pre-war world, and all who inhabited her, were innocent and pure. The war, with its unimaginable (by us as well as by those pre-war peoples) mud and blood and violence, destroyed that innocence, leaving behind only the grief and cynicism of the modern world. It is the narrative of Paul Fussell’s literary paradigm shift writ large upon British social history.
And yet… As someone who has spent an awful lot of time reading the letters and diaries of men who fought in the war, documents which cover the complete span of 1914 through to 1920 and beyond, this narrative sits uncomfortably with me. In the first place, as I have argued elsewhere, the post-war world was not entirely bereaved or cynical. Men survived the war and came home to families who rejoiced. All had been changed by their experiences of warfare, but those changes weren’t, in all cases, for the worse. Some had gained new skills, acquired new aspirations, had their horizons widened, their philosophy and tolerance deepened.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the run-up to 1914, when questions of war enthusiasm and recruitment will be at the forefront of commemorative events, not all men who served were the lovelorn innocents of Porter’s (and I suspect popular) imagination. The men who enlisted in the first years of the war were probably fairly reflective of the population at large: some were unworldly, some were sophisticates, a few were criminals. Following the introduction of conscription, the accuracy of that social reflection may have increased as the reluctant soldiers were called up for service. Among the ranks of the army were surely, throughout the war, wife beaters, bullies, incompetents, malingerers, con men, the lazy and the cowardly, as well the idealistic, the intelligent, the grafters, the loyal, the poets and the heroes. I have read more than enough papers of young men who started the war as prigs, or fire-eaters, and remained that way until the Armistice to know that war did not necessarily change men in the ways the canonical poets would have us believe, as well as far too many of men who were killed before they had a chance to reach anything like maturity. Their stories, as well as those of the men who war changed in a myriad of ways, reflecting the myriad of personalities who were engaged in waging war, are worth listening to as well.
Over the course of the centenary it will, I know, be very tempting to look at the many artifacts of the conflict that will emerge into the public eye and impose romantic narratives on them, as Porter has done with a piece of graffito and as Philip Larkin did with a photograph in ‘MCMXIV’. We should be wary of doing so, however, lest, in our romanticism, we miss far more, and far more interesting stories of this extraordinary conflict than the ones we believe we know.