Parade’s End Again

Well, Downton Abbey is back on our screens. No, I haven’t watched the opening episode yet. My daughter has taken to waking up at 5:45 in the morning so I am currently retiring no later than 10 pm in self-defence. (You will probably start to notice a pattern in the interface between my home life and work revolving around the theme of sleep. Ah, the joys of motherhood!) Anyway, a review of the new season will have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest. In the meantime, I thought I would write a bit more about why I think Parade’s End is such a superb representation of the First World War.

After a great deal of thought, my primary conclusion is that the drama has had the good sense to stay out of the trenches for so long. Other than the glimpse at the end of the second episode (and arguably the brief scene in the slightly too quiet Casualty Clearing Station), all the action has been set firmly behind the lines, whether in England or Rouen. This is not to say that the war hasn’t been evident, but it has been beautifully subtle – the presence of a lorry of soldiers in the background, uniforms mingling with civilian dress, the female railway porter. Yes, the clichés are there – the clueless civilians for whom horses matter more than the lives of men, the general in his chateau behind the lines (although all the men are behind the lines as well at this point), the dangers of bombardment (with air raids substituting for artillery) – but shown in such a way as to demonstrate why they have become clichés. The myth of the war has its basis in reality. By allowing the mythic elements of the war narrative to emerge organically as the background to the story, rather than bludgeoning us over the head with them, this dramatization of a work of fiction demonstrates the complexity of the historical truth that First World War historians have been uncovering for a while now. Yes, there is a strong sense of disenchantment with the pettifogging rules and obsessions of the military with cleanliness (a theme that is very familiar from the numerous letters and memoirs that have formed the bulk of my research to date). And there is horror and pity and fear, particularly in evidence in the death of Oh Nine Morgan, but such emotions are only part of Christopher’s story. There is no disillusionment, at least not disillusionment with why he is fighting. Groby and Michael and above all Valentine, even the formal propriety of his marriage are still implicitly worth fighting for. And if they are not it is because they have already been undermined by social hypocrisy that predates the war, not simply because of his experience of warfare.

Much of this, of course, is inherent to the narrative. In my Everyman copy of the tetralogy the entire time in the trenches takes up 110 pages out of a total of 906. The focus of the novels is on the sense of continuity that Christopher embodies and the stresses that modern life place on his seventeenth-century rectitude. It is in choosing to remain loyal to this theme rather than attempting to shoe-horn the books into a more familiar understanding of what makes a First World War novel that this production is such a triumph.

All of which made me think of the BBC’s other big First World War adaptation this year. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 novel about the war, was adapted by Abi Morgan and broadcast in January to a good deal of acclaim. As with any television adaptation, some aspects of the book had to be sacrificed to the time scale, here two hour-and-a-half long episodes. Morgan removed an entire subplot concerning a young woman researching her family history, an editorial decision that worked well in creating narrative coherence. However, she also chose to seriously underplay another subplot concerning the relationship between the sapper Jack Firebrace and his son, John, who dies of diphtheria during the course of the novel. It does get a brief mention but has nowhere near the emotional impact that it has in the novel where it beautifully illustrates the continuing relationship between home and fighting fronts that was so powerful a motivation for men to fight and continue fighting. Instead, the television play’s narrative chooses to focus on the disjunction between a golden idyll of passion in prewar France and the mud, blood and horror of the trenches in the same geographic area six years later. The war is a space solely of horror and disillusion and the only motive for fighting is the sense that the protagonist has nothing left to live for. This is the more traditional view of the war dramatized by many modern war novels, yet as a narrative it is much less powerful than that of Parade’s End. So while I enjoyed Birdsong (and thought that Joseph Mawle was excellent as Firebrace), it had nothing like the effect on me that Parade’s End is having. Whether that will continue to be true next week, when Tietjens actually enters the trenches, remains to be seen.

(I do realise that I got a little ahead of myself in my last post in saying that this past week’s episode dramatises A Man Could Stand Up -. It was, of course the second half of No More Parades, which means we are going to get very little, or a highly truncated version, of Last Post, which is a pity. As I say, there are always sacrifices to be made in adapting for television.)

Statement of Intent 1

Well, I ended up not watching Who Do You Think You Are? After a two-hour struggle with my daughter, whose molars are making their presence felt, followed by three hours of insomnia, by 9 pm the following day I was in no fit state to do anything more than collapse into bed.
In my long dark teatime of the soul, however, it did occur to me that following my comments on mud, blood and futility, a brief overview of my position as a First World War historian might not come amiss. Let me say first of all that I am not a military historian. I am first and foremost a social and cultural historian (emphasis generally on the cultural), a gender historian and, increasingly, a historian of medicine. My time period happens to be the First World War, so while I might call myself a First World War historian I am less interested in the specifics of strategy, tactics, arms or logistics except in as much as they are vital to questions of discipline, morale and what is generally referred to as ‘war experience’. Most ‘proper’ military historians would certainly not classify me among their number, and I have had my work sneered upon at least one occasion as not even being proper history, let alone military history. I am, however, from the generation of First World War historians that hopes to be learning from the previous generation, one which too often divided itself into ‘military’ and ‘cultural’ strands and then refused to speak to each other. Thankfully, major historians such as Adrian Gregory, Brian Bond and John Horne has striven to bridge the divide and those of us who have had the privilege of learning from them are increasingly demonstrating that integrating the two approaches to First World War history is incredibly fruitful. Thus military historians are widening their scope of understanding to include facets of war experience that extend beyond the confines of the battlefield, while cultural historians are honing their arguments through a more rigorous understanding of strategy, tactics, logistics and the like.
So, although, as I say, I would never classify myself as a military historian, I am a historian of war and, to the best of my ability, I attempt to underpin my cultural analyses with a solid understanding of the technical and strategic realities of warfare. As far as my current project is concerned, this means that, in addition to asking questions about what medical service meant to the individuals who served and how they constructed masculine identity, I am interested in recruitment, training and the practicalities of life serving in a Field Ambulance as opposed to a Base Hospital as opposed to a Home Hospital. Questions of military organization (which is turning out to be remarkably political when it comes to the medical services) and logistics are of particular importance.
The other way in which this desire to fuse military and cultural history influences my work is in my status as part of the ‘revisionist’ school of First World War historians. And here we get back to mud, blood and futility, the more traditional and popular view of the war. This argues that the war was the slaughter of a generation of young men by the elders, that all the generals were donkeys sending their lion-hearted men to the slaughter in pointless battles, that all soldiers suffered throughout the four years and that those who survived refused to talk about it when they got back because it was all so horrible. The revisionist position is that the war was neither futile nor a complete disaster. It was fought for a purpose, to stop German hegemony in Europe which would have been the hegemony of an autocracy, and while there were disastrous aspects and individual battles, lessons were learned over the course of the four plus years, the so-called ‘learning curve’. Nor was the experience for all and without exception entirely and unremittingly horrible, as my own work has shown. For many men who fought it was a formative experience in their lives, often terrifying, uncomfortable and sad, but also (and for many of the same men) exhilarating, exciting and fascinating. Morale in the British Army remained remarkably strong throughout, something which could not have happened if the experience was as consistently bleak as some portrayals would make it appear. And the huge number of memoirs, published and unpublished, of First World War experience seem to indicate that men were willing, even eager, to talk about their experiences. Whether British society, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the war when bereavement dominated cultural discourse, was willing to listen to them is another question.  None of this is said to imply that no one had horrific experiences or refused to talk or to denigrate those individual perspectives.  Disillusionment and horror were common and valid reactions to war experience, and grief was pretty much universal.  But they were not the only reactions to the war, and for some men not even the dominant ones.  And many of those who did experience the war in part as muddy, bloody and futile also found compensations in the comradeship and strength, both physical and emotional, that they discovered in others and themselves.
As far as my current project is concerned, the revisionist arguments about the learning curve seem to be applicable to military medicine as well as strategy and tactics. Certainly Mark Harrison argues that from 1916 both the logistics of evacuation and the medical treatments of various types of illness and wounds developed rapidly on the Western Front, although he points out that other fronts were much less successful in applying lessons learned. It will be interesting to see if this argument holds true for the training and employment of support staff and what influence it had on their level of expertise and morale as the war progressed.