How our view of the Great War has changed

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - DANIEL HAN­NAN

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

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