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The Great War and Modern Memory

John Lee

The Great War and Modern Memory
By Paul Fussell
Oxford University Press: £8.99

Paul Fussell is an American Professor of English. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an historian, still less a military historian. In his personal view the First World War was an exercise in futility in which “eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, were shot”. His view of the idyllic nature of British society in the summer of 1914 is as selective as his reading of the war itself. This is loosely based on the only historical work cited, the ‘History of the First World War’, by that “prince of military critics”, Basil Liddell Hart. Liddell Hart would not thank him for the astonishing factual errors he makes in his short narrative of the events of the war, all of which have been pointed out in previous reviews and none of which are corrected in this latest edition.

The book is interesting as literary criticism of some British writing in 1914, and of some of the writing produced by the war. It can be read with pleasure as he describes some of the literary norms of the day – the constant references to pastoral images, birdsong, flowers, dawn and sunset, the intense bonding between men at war (which he insists on calling homoeroticism, but no harm in that), the demonising of the enemy. All this adds to our understanding of the cultural world that produced these writings and for this we are grateful. He is also surely right to point out how the war has impinged on our national consciousness in a way no previous war did. It has certainly invaded our everyday language.

For him the war is the life in the trenches, but only of the frail and helpless infantry in the trenches, and only as portrayed by the writings of a select band of poets. Just as there is no place here for gunners, engineers, tank crews, logistical troops or sailors, nor any combatants from any other theatre of war, neither is there room for war writers who do not fit neatly into his scheme of an “innocent army” made knowing by irony. He does discuss, and is clearly irritated by, David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ because this front line poet equates the experience of the infantry with that of previous wars. But you will search in vain for any discussion of Frederick Manning or Charles Carrington (a.k.a. Charles Edmonds), or any other writer who might imply that the men had a job to do and got on with it, enduring whatever came their way and refusing to quit until they won.

His hostility to the very fact of the war, which explains his lack of concern over historical accuracy, leads to other blind spots. He just doesn’t understand the concept of love of country. He certainly doesn’t understand the sardonic humour of the rank and file soldiery. Infamously foul-mouthed, they are not being ironic, they are simply taking the p**s!! A little more thought about the lives of the ordinary working-people of Britain in 1914 and what they felt about going to war would have made this a much better book.

When Fussell was described above as an American writer, it was deliberate in that he hails from a country that has never had to fight for its very survival as an independent nation in the way that many European countries have had to do this century (twice) in the face of rampant German militarism. It is simply not good enough for him to dismiss as naive and misguided any writings that smack of firm intent to see the war through until the enemy is defeated. The men of 1914 -18 knew what they were fighting for, and they suspected that the consequences of defeat would have been very much worse than the hardships endured while battling their way to victory.

It is important that you read this book. It is hugely influential, especially amongst students. It is your duty as military historians to understand its arguments and expose the way it reads back certain aspects of post-war disillusion and distorts the experience of the war as history.

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