Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?

I thought that, with yesterday’s post, I had managed to get everything I needed to say about Michael Gove’s intervention on the First World War out of my system.  Then I read this and I discovered that I had not.

I consider myself a ‘proper’ historian, a ‘careful’ researcher and, as it happens, one who spends an awful lot of time reading the accounts, both contemporary and retrospective of ‘the men who were there’.  In fact, I have written at some length about why there are historical problems of privileging ‘the men who were there’ as witnesses to the ‘truth’ of the past.  And yet, unlike Mr Mastin, and, as it happens, Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield, I do believe there is a value to showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom, not simply for what it tells us about ‘the different ways in which the past has been interpreted’, and certainly not because of what it has to tell about the lived reality of the war.  But it does have a great deal to tell us about the history of how the war has been remembered and commemorated as a major cultural (as well as military) event in British history and is thus an important historical document in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse my defense of why the cultural history of the war is at least as important as the military history, this centenary year of all years, here.  I have been making that argument in just about every piece of academic work I have published and I have a book review to write.  But I am going come out and say yes, we should be showing students of the history of the war television programmes like Blackadder and getting them to read books like Birdsong and Regeneration. They will teach students as much about how the war was remembered in the last quarter of the twentieth century as they will about the war itself, but that too is part of the history of the war.

What is more, I would add that we should also be getting students to read Sergeant Michael Cassidy by ‘Sapper’, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Kitty by Warwick Deeping.*  They should be watching Journey’s End and The Big Parade and La Grande Illusion.  Will these cultural works tell them the ‘truth’ about war experience? Only as much as Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That tells the truth of war experience.  But they do tell us a great deal about how the war was remembered and understood and interpreted by British (and French) culture.  And that, too, is the proper history of the First World War.

*I have personally cited all these works of fiction as historical evidence in essays which have been published by reputable publishers in independently refereed journals. References available upon request.

Seventeen Soldiers

With the new term upon us, the Legacies of War seminar series is about to resume.  Our first talk will take place on 10th October at 5:15 in Banham Theatre, University of Leeds.  Professor Anthony Fletcher will be speaking on ‘Seventeen Soldiers: Life and Death on the Western Front’. (For early modernists among you, yes, this is Professor Anthony Fletcher, formerly of the University of Essex. His new book, upon which his talk will be based, applies his expertise in the history of gender and childhood to the subject of the soldier’s experience in the First World War.)

Anthony Fletcher

Never such innocence again

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.

Possibly an angry post

Yesterday the Guardian published this letter.  I am currently at a conference about shell shock but, in between discussing post-traumatic cultures, I have been trying to work out why it has annoyed me so much.  The following are my conclusions; forgive me if they get a bit heated.

My main reason for annoyance lies, I think, in two aspects of the letter.  The first is the apparent belief that those engaged professionally with and in the arts (as the majority of the signatories are) have a particular authority to speak about the horror of war.  I may be wrong; it may be that these were just celebrity names associated with Stop the War, although this still begs the question of where they get their authority to speak so definitely about the war and its meaning for commemorative purposes.  Nonetheless, I cannot help feeling that some, such as Michael Morpurgo, are using their status as creators of cultural expression which use the war as subject matter to give themselves authority to pronounce on the ‘truth’ about the war, drawing on the tradition of the First World War cannon.  This tradition in British culture privileges particular narratives based on what is artistically valued, seeing the poetry in the pity as the overriding truth of the war.  Now, I have nothing against Wilfred Owen, other than his ubiquity, and much of his poetry is beautiful and moving, but his poetry is not the sole truth of the war, however artistically important it may be.  Equally, those engaged in the arts have no greater access to the truth of the war as a historical event to be commemorated than politicians, former generals or any other group with interest in said events.

The second infuriating aspect of the letter is the dichotomy it sets up between national commemoration and the promotion of international peace and understanding through a focus on its futility and devastation.  Such attempts to impose a contemporary political narrative on the commemorations feels like a betrayal of the men who fought.  (This, incidentally, applies equally to attempts to portray the war as a locus of contemporary national identity, which this letter accuses David Cameron of doing.)  There were certainly plenty of voices calling for international peace both at the start and in the wake of war.  Equally there were many who saw the war as a fight for national survival agains the threat of Prussian militarism.  And there were many who, in fighting for King and Country, were simply fighting to preserve the sanctity of the small part of that nation that they called home. Far more men enlisted in the belief that they were defending democracy, however limited that democracy might seem from a 21st century perspective, than we tend to given them credit for.  Many survived the war, just as many did not. Some were disillusioned by their experience; many incorporated it into their life stories and carried on, changed but not destroyed by war.  To deny any this is to deny those who gave voice to these sentiments, as a huge number did, the validity of their beliefs and does their memory a huge disservice.

As I say, I do not think that a commemoration of the war as a moment of great national unity is any more valid.  There was great resistance to war on many levels and from many people whose experiences of war have equal right to be commemorated.  So what do I want from the commemorations of the next four years?  For a start, a depoliticisation, an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of experience that was fundamental to total warfare, experience that ran the entire spectrum from absolutist conscientious objection to the rabble rousing of John Bull.  All form part of the history of the war that is to be commemorated; none should be ignored because it does not sit comfortably with our contemporary political narratives, be they national or global. Please let these commemorations be about the war as a whole, and all who were involved in it, not solely about those whose experiences support a contemporary sound bite.

Happy Thanksgiving

As some of my readers may be aware (yes, I do mean you, Mum), despite my Anglophilic tendencies and the facts that I hold a UK passport, have lived in England for the past 13 years, and have one of the oddest transatlantic accents to occur since Lloyd Grossman first opened his mouth, I was, in fact, born and raised in the United States.  Which appears to mean that this time every year I am hit with an unexpected bout of nostalgia and, for the second time in two years, found myself driving around the Leeds ring road on the verge of tears while listening to the particular brand of female singer-songwriter country/folk music that I favour.

There is no particular reason why this music, which I listen to quite often when I am driving, should spark deep emotion every third week in November, nor why my particular nostalgia should find its focus in my final year as an undergraduate.  Quite why the memory of cheap warm beer and long nights writing my dissertation should have such power is beyond me.  But clearly the potency of cheap music and a subconscious recollection of national ritual combine in me to stir deep emotions at this time of year.

Interestingly, nostalgia was once classified as a mental illness, related to melancholia and, during the early years of the First World War, occasionally identified as one manifestation of shell shock.  The symptoms were heightened emotionalism and a longing for home, neither of which one can imagine being uncommon among soldiers drawn largely from the civilian population and plunged into the chaos of trench warfare.  Yet clearly many men who did not suffer a diagnosable or disabling illness felt deeply nostalgic about the homes they had left behind, a fact reflected in the many and varied descriptions of Christmases in the trenches.

Of course my experiences of homesickness and nostalgia for my youth are in no way comparable to the experiences of men at war.  But for me they serve as a reminder that, while the past may indeed be another country, it’s residents are human beings and the power of their emotions is all to recognisable.  And also that today, safe and healthy, and able to say the same about my friends and family, I have a great deal to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.