How our view of the Great War has changed
pro-war. Later, encountering the war poets in prep school English lessons, I sensed the horror, but still saw their story as essentially heroic – a tale of endurance in appalling conditions. As a teenager, I began to wrestle with the question of whether we should have sat the conflagration out (probably not, I currently think, though it’s an agonisingly tough call).
But the real change came when the dead became closer in age to my children than to me. Suddenly, the tragedy felt overpowering. I recall a Remembrance Sunday service at my children’s school five years ago. The names of the fallen pupils were projected on to a screen, being too many to recite. Included in the lists were what appeared to be two sets of three brothers. To look at the assembled children during that roll-call was unbearable. Glancing away, I noticed that several of the parents around me were blinking back tears. But, of course, for the kids it was just another chapel service.
I was no different at their age. The rituals and phrases that now make me choke up used to wash right over me. My school, Marlborough, lost 749 old boys in the Great War. I was half aware of that statistic as a schoolboy, and dimly conscious that some of the buildings around me were quasimausoleums, memorials to the fallen raised by devastated parents. I was reading plenty of war literature: Siegfried Sassoon was an Old Marlburian, as was the more talented but less famous Charles Hamilton Sorley, killed at the Battle of Loos when he was 20. But I had no more sense of mortality than has any adolescent. Back in one of those memorial buildings yesterday for an armistice concert, I found myself speechless at the vastness of the bereavement.
Our collective national memory has likewise altered with the years. For the first half-century after 1918, the prevailing view was that our country had saved Europe from despotism and savagery.
Wilfred Owen who, more than any other writer, shaped our modern perceptions, was seen as a marginal figure and an indifferent poet. WB Yeats, who edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, refused to include any of Owen’s works, calling them “unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper”.
Our sense of loss never slackened; but, with each passing decade, our cynicism grew. Britain passed, so to speak, from Journey’s End through Oh What a Lovely War to Blackadder Goes Forth – that is, from bitterness through resentment to something that borders almost on sneering.
Our current view of the First World War – as an exercise in unforgivable futility – dates largely from the era of anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam protests. It was then, as the historian Robert Tombs has shown, that we elevated the most morbid literature: “The modern canon of war poetry was created from the 1960s onwards, selected to reflect modern beliefs and sensibilities. It became part of the school curriculum as in no other country”.
Why? After all, terrible as Britain’s casualties were, other countries suffered worse. In proportionate terms, the United Kingdom lost fewer men than Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Romania, Serbia or Turkey. Yet none of these nations matches the intensity with which we memorialise our losses.
In part, it’s because they have suffered more recent horrors: defeat, occupation, tyranny. Britain, unusually, came through the Second World War unconquered, its democratic institutions intact. The First World War, therefore, stands out for us as a uniquely traumatic experience, unmatched by anything in the following century – or the preceding one, come to that.
Yet there is something else. Tragedy depends on a sense that the calamity was avoidable. Unlike most of the participants, Britain could have opted for neutrality. The sense that we chose to get involved, that the young men who went over the top might instead have stayed at home and raised families, gives our memory its peculiar poignancy.
That poignancy has not lessened with the years. On the contrary, poppy-wearing, extended silences and other rites of commemoration have grown as the veterans have dwindled. Florence Green, who served in the WRAF, died in 2012, a few days short of her 111th birthday – the last surviving human being to have participated in the Great War.
Now, it is not only the veterans who are disappearing; it is those with any first-hand memory of them.
Yet we continue to mourn – and to mourn sincerely. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, because our grief is second-hand, it is formulaic. Regiment by regiment, profession by profession, village by village, we make remembrance part of our identity. In these post-Christian times, we have almost forgotten what sacrifice and collective redemption mean; but, on this one day of the year, we remember.
At first, the fallen were sons and brothers, fresh in the survivors’ thoughts. Then they became fathers and uncles, lingering, perhaps, in fragmentary childhood picturememories. Now they are faces in yellow photographs, names on family trees. Soon they will be only notches on slabs.
Yet we will remember them.
The young men who went over the top might instead have stayed at home and raised families