World War I is more than just mil­i­tary his­tory

The Asian Age - - Books - Mark Bostridge

Re­flect­ing on the scenes of cel­e­bra­tion, the “over­pow­er­ing en­trance­ments”, that he had wit­nessed in Novem­ber 1918 on the first Ar­mistice Day, Win­ston Churchill wrote that their mem­ory was all too fleet­ing, and that the spirit of wild rejoicing that had erupted at the end of the first world war was in a sense ir­recov­er­able.

Through­out Bri­tain it had been a mag­i­cal day, re­peat­edly de­scribed as “won­der­ful be­yond words”. Yet the spon­ta­neous out­pour­ing of joy, in­ten­si­fied by sad­ness, the feel­ings of re­lief and broth­er­hood, to­gether with the con­vic­tion of a bet­ter fu­ture, left no per­ma­nent legacy. In­stead, across the cen­tury that now sep­a­rates us from the end of the Great War, Ar­mistice Day, and sub­se­quently Re­mem­brance Sun­day, be­came as­so­ci­ated with solem­nity and si­lence, and re­spect­ful com­mu­nion with the dead.

Guy Cuth­bert­son’s book aims to re­trieve some­thing of the ex­cite­ment and pan­de­mo­nium — as well as the sheer strange­ness — of the Bri­tish ex­pe­ri­ence of the Ar­mistice. Read­ing it is a bit like watch­ing a day un­fold in slow mo­tion. It opens in a sta­tion­ary rail­way car­riage in the mid­dle of a French for­est at 5.12 a. m. GMT. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Al­lies and Ger­many meet to sign a doc­u­ment bring­ing to an end 1,560 days of blood­shed, en­shrin­ing a vic­tory for one side and a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat for the other. Mar­shal Foch, re­sem­bling “an el­derly ticket in­spec­tor on the Ori­ent Ex­press”, is the first to sign, on be­half of the French.

Mean­while, in Birm­ing­ham, at eight o’clock, a white rain­bow is vis­i­ble, a per­fect sig­nal for the ar­rival of peace on what hap­pens to be St Martin’s Day ( com­mem­o­rat­ing the fourth- cen­tury sol­dier in the Ro­man army who re­fused to fight). A man on his way to buy his morn­ing news­pa­per sees a flag tied to a child’s chair in a cot­tage door­way, as if wait­ing for the mo­ment. Al­ready boats on the Tyne are decked in bunt­ing, their sirens sound­ing. By eleven that morn­ing, when church bells start to peal, guns fire and ma­roons sound — caus­ing some to panic in an­tic­i­pa­tion of an air raid — most peo­ple know that it’s “peace at last”, though in some places, Ban­bury for in­stance, news doesn’t reach the in­hab­i­tants un­til mid­day ( and in Lon­don also, the bongs of Big Ben don’t strike un­til noon).

The Mayor tells the cit­i­zens of Ch­ester that he leaves it to their con­sciences how they should be­have, while the Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd George says that peo­ple are en­ti­tled to do “a bit of shout­ing”. How­ever, the “very

Cuth­bert­son makes a sig­nif­i­cant point about books like his, which are part of a by now es­tab­lished trend in look­ing at first world war his­tory in terms of much more than just the mil­i­tary story riot of un­re­straint” that fol­lows, last­ing un­til late at night, is un­prece­dented. There is yelling and singing, flag wav­ing, danc­ing ( Nel­son’s Col­umn is treated like a may­pole), the light­ing of bon­fires and the burn­ing of the Kaiser in ef­figy. Chil­dren are let off school — though not in Sheffield where some spoil­sport or­ders that pupils be kept in all day.

But, as in the dis­turb­ing im­age from Louis Gold­ing’s poem, the Lady of Peace comes with her grief and “blood on her teeth”. Pri­vate George El­li­son, killed on the out­skirts of Mons at 9.30 that morn­ing, was the last Bri­tish sol­dier to die be­fore the Ar­mistice, and news of sol­diers’ deaths con­tin­ued to reach fam­i­lies as they were at­tend­ing church ser­vices in thanks­giv­ing for the peace.

The week of the Ar­mistice also saw a sharp rise in the death rate for the flu pan­demic that was sweep­ing the world. The cel­e­bra­tory crowds en­cour­aged the spread of in­fec­tion. An­thony Burgess’s ear­li­est mem­ory was of be­ing lifted onto the shoul­ders of his mother or sis­ter to see the flag- wav­ing crowds in Manch­ester. Both women died from flu only days later.

Cuth­bert­son has worked hard in as­sem­bling his im­pres­sion­is­tic pic­ture from scores of first­hand man­u­script and pub­lished ac­counts ( it may be in­vid­i­ous to men­tion one ma­jor col­lec­tion he’s missed, but it seems dis­tinctly odd that he didn’t ap­par­ently con­sult the Lid­dle ar­chive in Leeds).

The re­sult is of­ten mem­o­rable and mov­ing, though some­times his more in­ter­est­ing con­clu­sions — for ex­am­ple of the rev­o­lu­tion­de­fy­ing im­pact of George V be­ing driven through the Lon­don driz­zle on Novem­ber 11 in an open car­riage, “with­out cops”, as Ezra Pound put it — are lost in the monotony of the flag- wav­ing. One can take only so much yelling and shriek­ing.

Cuth­bert­son makes a sig­nif­i­cant point about books like his, which are part of a by now es­tab­lished trend in look­ing at first world war his­tory in terms of much more than just the mil­i­tary story. Among re­cent transna­tional de­vel­op­ments are stud­ies of the ef­fects of the fight­ing on chil­dren and on cap­tive civil­ians.

In light of this, Al­lan Mallinson’s month by month sur­vey of the war may seem to fall into too fa­mil­iar and con­ven­tional a mould. But Fight to the Fin­ish is no­table for its clar­ity, and any­one re­quir­ing a di­gestible nar­ra­tive sum­mary of the fight­ing on land and sea would be ad­vised to start here. One thing dis­fig­ures the book and that is the author’s polem­i­cal con­clu­sion, in which he at­tacks Christo­pher Clark’s The Sleep- walk­ers for hav­ing the temer­ity to ar­gue that no na­tion, not even Ger­many, re­ally meant to wage war in 1914. Given the ex­tra­or­di­nary weight of schol­ar­ship that sup­ports Clark’s work, Mallinson’s de­ci­sion to play the old Ger­man- blame game — even to the ex­tent of ask­ing, what­ever would Lady Thatcher have thought? — comes across as sim­plis­tic and ba­nal.

By ar­range­ment with the Spec­ta­tor

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