The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds
This is a Govian whizz bang of a book and a rattling good read, even if you don’t agree with his two main propositions that:
1. The UK was not so affected by the Great War as the other major European powers.
2. The 1960s and the canonization of ‘The War Poets’ et al has resulted in a distorted understanding of that war.
One sentence from the book to epitomize the argument: ‘Yet the British view of the conflict has remained mired in the mud and stalled on the Somme.’
The first two thirds of the book take us on a narrative to exemplify the above propositions, running from the First World War, through the 20s and 30s and so through the Second World War and the early Cold War. It’s more than absorbing, but I became particularly interested when Reynolds moved into a discussion on ‘cultural memory’ and memory theory.
He starts by looking at the proposition that individual memory is seldom the product of solitary reflection, but is rather more often socially constructed (through conversation and so on). He then moves on to Assmann’s view that when we look at social remembrance, we should distinguish between the everyday, conversational mode, and ‘cultural remembrance’, which is, as Reynolds describes, ‘conveyed through writings, monuments and cultural artefacts’.
Reynolds starts his next paragraph with this stark question: ‘Why does this memory theory matter?’ Because, he says, the 1960s saw the demise of the Great War generation who could talk about their memories, and the rise of ‘cultural remembrance, not just in print but, more influentially, through the newer media of film and television’. And, of course, this memorialization ‘was not simply an act of ‘memory’, of capturing the past before it was lost for ever’; but ‘an act of social construction shaped by the circumstances, perceptions and politics of the present’.
Reynolds suggests that initial guilt should be ascribed to Alan Clark’s 1961’The Donkeys’; he further suggests that Clark reinvented the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’, so that ‘thanks to him and despite the efforts of later military historians, the tag…has become the accepted shorthand for the story of the British army in the Great War.’
David Reynolds then looks at the impact of Joan Littlewood’s 1963 production and the 1969 film: ‘To some all this was propaganda masquerading as history…(for others) It was entertainment and nostalgia’. Reynolds says that the film, with its ‘sustained satire of the military elite…far more didactic than the play, preached a clear anti-war message’. He then finishes with the powerful assertion that ‘Above all’, the film left young generations with both an explicit and ‘subliminal’ sense that the conflict involved a narrative of ‘meandering pointlessness, teetering between tragedy and farce.’
He thinks that this absence of explanation and ‘meaningful narrative’ was also hardwired into cultural memory by AJP Taylor’s ‘The First World War: An Illustrated History’, which was published in 1963 and which viewed the conflict as one, long, blundering futility, from causation to termination. The book sold widely and was then followed by ‘The Great War’ on BBC television (1964-5). This 50th anniversary series gained 8 million viewers and although the scriptwriters’ intentions were to show that the war’s terrible ‘cost had a purpose, millions of viewers came away with a sense of futility and waste’.
This zeitgeist was further strengthened, in Reynold’s view, by the 1960s canonization of the War Poets. Anthologies appearing around the 50th anniversary, together with the embedding of the war poets in school syllabuses, all meant, for Reynolds, an undue emphasis upon the horror of the conflict. It became a ‘poets’ war’, even though, Reynolds asserts, the likes of Sassoon and Owen et al were atypical: but, ‘they became for many people the true chroniclers of Great War history’. Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’ only added to this sense of regret at the death of an innocent generation and to the condemnation of the strategy of attrition in general, and the Somme in particular.
It is apposite to note that historians such as Gary Sheffield, who have argued that he First World War was a necessary war and that the strategy at the Somme was ultimately vindicated by victory, have been typecast as ‘revisionist’ – but even so, it would seem that their contributions have failed to stop the conflict being typecast as a literary rather than military war. Pat Barker’s trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’ ‘drew on 1990s British patterns of remembrance – the axiomatic futility of the Great War, the cruciform centrality of the Somme and the dominant voice of poets such as Thomas and Owen’.
The revival of Remembrance Day, the death of Harry Patch (the last veteran), the ubiquity of family history research and the laureate poems of Carol Ann Duffy have all helped this new pattern of remembrance continue into the new millennium. Reynolds himself accepts that the fact that as so many of the 2.5 million men who chose to enlist (43% of the total army numbers between 1914 and 1918) died on the Somme, this ‘adds special poignancy ‘ to the unfolding of events.
But, we conclude: firstly, with his assertions about the ‘war poets’ - ‘these men were neither typical of the British Tommy in general nor of …writers… Their verse should not be used as historical description… Most Tommies were not hypersensitively reflective about their own manhood, sexuality or even suffering’; secondly, that even if we might not agree with the book’s main perspective, we can agree that it’s a damned good read; thirdly and absolutely conclusively, it’s time to mention David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’.That poetical first hand account of trench life is our next posting.