Magazine article The Spectator

A Lovelier War

Magazine article The Spectator

A Lovelier War

Article excerpt

THE UNQUIET WESTERN FRONT: BRITAIN'S ROLE IN LITERATURE AND HISTORY by Brian Bond CUP, L17.50, pp. 128, ISBN 0521809959

This book is much needed. Over the past 70 years the British view of the first world war has been steadily mythologised, and that myth, as Samuel Hynes has pointed out, has acquired a more potent cultural reality than what actually happened-- which, because of the giant scale of suffering, came to seem inexplicable in conventional diplomatic and military terms. In The Unquiet Western Front Professor Brian Bond, Emeritus Professor of History at King's College, makes a thought-provoking bid to claw the first world war back to history, away from popular myth.

That myth, which has gained such a grip on British minds, is of an unnecessary war, without victory, without glory, fought during four years of stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front under the leadership of incompetent generals with unchanging and criminally wasteful strategies; a home front deluded into unquestioning support by lying government propaganda; a disillusioned British army quasi-mutinous after being duped into futile fighting on the Somme and in the mud of Flanders; countless shell-shocked soldiers shot at dawn for cowardice and desertion.

This myth has been fed from many sources, from literature to popular entertainment: these include disenchanted verse by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen; novels by Erich Maria Remarque (in translation), and Richard Aldington; memoirs by Lloyd George and Robert Graves; histories by A. J. P. Taylor and Alan Clark; anthologies and criticism by John Lehmann, V. de S. Pinto, Jon Silkin and Paul Fussell - and, above all, Lewis Milestone's film of All Quiet on the Western Front; Maurice Browne's anti-war production of Journey's End; Joan Littlewood's musical O What a Lovely War, and, more recently, Ben Elton's TV comedy, Blackadder Goes Forth.

From the late 1920s, this generally disenchanted picture began to eclipse the earlier myth about the Great War: that civilisation had been gloriously saved by a selfless generation of young warriors, which found its most eloquent expression in the words of Arkwright's 'O Valiant Hearts (The Supreme Sacrifice)', at one time the best-- known war poem of all:

The newer myth, a revolt against patriotism and glorification of military prowess, intensified its hold in the 1960s when antiauthority youth culture spread, alongside protest against the Vietnam war. Bond remembers students pinning a new caption on Field-Marshal Haig's portrait at his old Oxford college, Brasenose: `Murderer of one million men'.

This perception of the Great War - an expression, many today would claim, of the humane, anti-belligerent values on which we pride ourselves - dominates newspaper journalism and teaching at schools. `The truth about the war' comes to today's schoolchildren almost entirely as the white-hot indignation of Siegfried Sassoon's and Wilfred Owen's powerful verses:

However, in the past 25 years, scholarly research about the Great War has made impressive strides. …

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