How I Found the Real Story of Birdsong in the Mud and Blood of Flanders; A Powerful and Moving Tribute to the Heroes of WWI by the Author of One of Britain's Most Cherished Literary Classics

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

How I Found the Real Story of Birdsong in the Mud and Blood of Flanders; A Powerful and Moving Tribute to the Heroes of WWI by the Author of One of Britain's Most Cherished Literary Classics


Byline: SEBASTIAN FAULKS

A GOOD deal has changed in the 20 or more years since I wrote the novel Birdsong. Outside academia, the First World War was at that time an almost closed book. There were occasional lectures at the Imperial War Museum; there were battlefield tours in which a handful of surviving veterans took part; small military publishers brought out biographies of generals and reassessments of battles.

But the audience for these things was what we now call 'niche'; the level of interest and knowledge in the general population was low. When I told people I was writing a novel set in this period, with many scenes in the trenches, the response was discouraging. It was as though people felt those four years had been dealt with, assimilated and filed away.

I passionately disagreed. My feeling, which was based at that time on little more than haphazard reading and some conversations with veterans of the Western Front, was that an important aspect of the conflict had not been understood.

It was difficult to be precise about what I thought was missing, but in rough terms I think it was this: a full appreciation of the soldiers' physical experience; and, perhaps more importantly, a philosophical understanding of what it meant to be part of the first genocidal event of the century - the one that made the others imaginable.

The novelistic themes that seemed to spin out of these historical questions were: What did those years tell us about our species? Was our sense of what we are for ever changed? BUT, fiction apart, there are interesting questions of memory and forgetting that the past 20 years have brought into focus. The drive to forget had clearly been irresistible, and began in November 1918.

Few strategists on either side had foreseen what actually awaited: a static killing field, in which ten million men would be annihilated by shell blast or torn apart by machine guns. The mud did not discriminate; it swallowed the reluctant with the brave. It was difficult for men who survived this holocaust to find words to describe what no living creature had seen before. Families and friends at home were sometimes reluctant to ask too much; sometimes they were disbelieving or uninterested.

To many survivors, silence seemed the best way forward: however much our view of human nature had been changed, life had to go on.

In the 1920s there were many attempts at novels, though most were really memoirs with the name of the regiment changed to 'the Loamshires' or similar. Most showed a struggle between the literary reticence of the period and the awful subject matter, with the former generally coming out on top.

Through the 1930s there was a steady flow of personal histories, such as Guy Chapman's fine A Passionate Prodigality (1933). But in 1939, just when a fresh generation of writers might have been expected to shake off the numbness of trauma and produce something definitive, a new disaster occurred.

And the way in which the Second World War was remembered was immediately different, principally in the way that the worldwide Jewish community set about naming and honouring those who had died in Nazi concentration camps.

Within a few years of 1945, a considerable new war literature had sprung up, much of it concerned with flying and escaping from prisoner-owar camps. Most of it was heroic in tone, as befitted a war in which the moral cause had been so much clearer.

Film-makers in particular relished the emerging stories of commandos and fighter pilots; these offered movement and glamour, unlike the bog of slaughter on the Western Front. In the 1950s and 1960s, while cinema screens hummed with Spitfires, artistic interest in the First World War continued to dwindle. Dramatically, interest in the conflict seemed confined to a single play: Oh! What A Lovely War, staged by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in London in 1963. …

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