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Cent ans après : la mémoire de la Première Guerre mondiale

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Elli Lemonidou

Oh! What an Ambiguous War.
The Contested Memory of the First World War in Britain

William Philpott

Abstract

This chapter explains how the memory of the First World War in Britain became contested between the world wars, and how public perceptions have diverged from historical understanding of the war thereafter. It explores how a distinction between war experience and war history evolved from early war literature and history, and how it produced an ambiguous relationship with the war generation’s experience during the following century. It considers the state of knowledge and understanding of the war as its centenaries pass and these ambiguities provoke renewed debate on the war’s nature and meaning.

Testo integrale

  • 1 Priestley 2009, p. 158. Priestley had been wounded in June 1916 (thereby avoiding the impending an (...)
  • 2 Van Emden, Piuk 2008, p. 299-311.
  • 3 Gray 2000, p. 11-12.

1In 1933, the English author and war veteran J. B. Priestley attended a reunion of the 10th Battalion The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, in Bradford, an English manufacturing town in the grip of the Great Depression. His reunion with his long lost comrades was euphoric: Priestley felt that he was returning to “a whole vanished epoch […] we were happy, no doubt about that […] lines of feasting warriors”1. Priestley was one among the many thousands of young Englishmen who had answered the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener’s famous call for volunteers for Britain’s “New Armies” in 1914. He himself had been among the early wave of volunteers, joining up as a private soldier on 7 of September2: less out of any patriotic or moral impulse to save Belgium but more from a manly impulse to adventure he later claimed3.

  • 4 See French 1990. His title borrows from the concept developed by the leading inter-war critic of B (...)

2Although volunteering was not a uniquely British phenomenon, the “rush to the colours” of August and September 1914 remains one of the defining elements of British wartime experience and cultural memory. Unlike continental states, Britain did not have military conscription (which was only introduced in 1916) and the patriotic response to Germany’s invasion of Belgium and France (with its concomitant threat to imperial security) was a new phenomenon. For the first time, Britain would raise a mass citizen army to fight a continental war of attrition. This some historians and commentators later suggested was an aberration. As a world power Britain had fought prolonged wars in and beyond Europe before, but with seapower and limited expeditionary warfare rather than by taking on the principal enemy in the main land theatre4. The resulting casualties would weigh heavily on the British people ever after: the “fallen”, nearly 1 million in Britain and the empire, were the lasting legacy of this continental strategy. Whether this was a necessary sacrifice, or might have been avoided with a more traditional strategy (or even by staying out of the war), still provokes argument one hundred years later. This is the root cause of the ambiguity in British historical and popular memory of the First World War.

  • 5 Blunden 1928; Graves 1929; Sassoon 1930 –in fact a heavily autobiographical novelisation, part of (...)
  • 6 They were only one strand of war literature produced between the wars, with more traditional forms (...)
  • 7 Remarque 1929; Milestone 1930.
  • 8 Fussell 1975.

3More than any group of British society, those enthusiastic young men who leapt to their nation’s defence represent Britain’s Great War, because they bore disproportionately the burden of blood-sacrifice. The sailors and merchant seamen who ensured that Britannia continued to rule the waves, the home front war workers who produced the wherewithal to fight and the conscripts who sustained Britain’s military effort for most of the war, while perhaps more significant for the development and outcome of the conflict than these early-war volunteers, are not central to British war memory. This is often explained by the suggestion that it was these young men who fashioned the later memory of their war in postwar memoirs. A certain archetype of combatant –the young, educated, middle-class officer– commented on his war as it was taking place (as often as not in verse) and later as his literary career developed. Alongside Priestley (who never wrote a specific war memoir), Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon, to name just the most famous of many, bombarded society with wartime memoirs in the late 1920s and early 1930s5. These memoirs, like Priestley’s recollections, were very much products of their time6. But their publication coincided with a more general shift in representations and perceptions of the war, symbolized by Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 book All Quiet on the Western Front and by Lewis Milestone’s 1930 Hollywood film of the novel7. These literary works were to become what the literary scholar Paul Fussell would later define in a seminal examination of the cultural legacy of Britain’s war as the “modern memory” of the war8. By the time Fussell was writing in the 1970s, the memory of the war had shifted further from that which Priestley was presenting: there had been a Second World War and a younger generation, the grandchildren of the Great War generation, had started to challenge the values and actions of their forebears in a rising counter-culture movement.

  • 9 See Winter 2006, for a discussion of the phenomenon of historical remembrance in general and that (...)
  • 10 For example by the then Conservative education minister, Michael Gove, at the start of the centena (...)

4The essential ambiguity of Britain’s cultural memory of the First World War can be found in the contrast between this iconic literature of war experience with its limited perspective (focused as it is on the trenches of France and Flanders) and the war’s actual historical range and impact. One hundred years later, perceptions of “futility and slaughter”, largely derived from this literary representation of a stalemated trench war that wasted young life and achieved nothing, persist. Meanwhile, scholarly history has spent decades examining the reality of the war, both its military campaigns and human experience, in an attempt to establish the origins, nature and validity of such cultural remembrance myths9. There is a certain degree of right-wing reaction against this so-called “poets’ war” in the ongoing centenary commemorations10, suggesting that historical scholarship is starting to influence public memory; and also that the memory of the war remains a cultural battleground. It remains to be seen whether the passing centenaries establish an alternative cultural memory, with a broader perspective based on more solid historical foundations.

  • 11 The juxtaposition of perspective and differences in interpretation were already apparent in such w (...)

5Britain’s ambiguous war memory is more complex than a mere contrast between the literary memory of military service and a historical narrative of military events. The young men who sat down to write their war memoirs were not only trying to narrate and to come to terms with their own war experience, but were also representing the shifting memory of the war that had started to form in its aftermath. Their own memories were intertwined with the earliest “histories” of the war, which were to be found in the contrasting memoirs of the war’s statesmen and soldiers11. These presented them with a bigger picture of the conflict, one that they had lacked as participants, but one which had been refracted through wartime civil-military rivalry and postwar experience.

  • 12 Priestley 2009, p. 158.

6Priestley’s voice will have to represent the perspective of the war generation as it attempted to come to terms with its experience. When setting down his recollections fifteen years afterwards, his memory of the war was conflicted, as evidenced in his lament for his fallen friends: “they were slaughtered in youth; and the parents of them have grown lonely, the girls they would have married have grown grey in spinsterhood, and the work they would have done remained undone”. Priestley was elaborating one of the prevailing perceptions of the war, that it resulted in “a lost generation” of talented men sacrificed for no purpose. In going on to proclaim why that was so, Priestley neatly encapsulated all the negative socio-political tropes of British war memory12:

They were killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story, by hysterical women waving flags, by grumbling debenture-holders, by strong silent be-ribboned asses, by fear or apathy or downright lack of imagination.

  • 13 Ibid., p. 160.
  • 14 Ibid.

7By this time the memory of his war had become bitter, although the memory of being at war remained powerful; and like so many between the wars Priestley evoked the unifying spirit of the trenches as an antidote to the class divisions and economic hardships that had dashed his generation’s hopes for a better tomorrow: “they had known [the] endearing quality of affectionate leadership in war but not in peace […]. Are such emotions impossible except when we are slaughtering one another?13” By the 1930s Britain’s willing volunteers had recast their war as a crime against its combatants by its directors. There had been no winners in this global trauma which produced a postwar world of poverty and social conflict: “it is not war that is right […] but peace that is wrong, the civilian life to which they returned”, Priestley judged, implying thereby that the effort made in the war was wasted14.

  • 15 Ibid., p. 161-162.

8The negative perspective of the war that had developed by the 1930s is not a unique British phenomenon. Priestley’s musing followed the internationalist anti-war timbre of the times. It is no coincidence that inter-war pacifism peaked in these years. Perhaps they represent less a rejection of the war in which he had fought, more a realisation that it had been neither the “war to end war” or the wellspring of a better world. It is the contemporary poverty of his former comrades that angers Priestley –Britain like the rest of the world was gripped by the Great Depression at this point– more than the nature of the war that brought the world there15.

  • 16 Winter, Prost 2005, p. 6-33. See Jay Winter’s article infra, p. 23-45.

9Although these were particular issues and ambiguities of the inter-war years, this bitter memory of the First World War became fixed in Britain’s cultural landscape long before professional historians were able to engage with and explain its events and outcomes. To understand why it is necessary to engage with the process by which memory and history have changed from generation to generation. Jay Winter and Antoine Prost’s survey of the evolving historiography of the war, The Great War in History, posited three broad generational “configurations” of history: “military and diplomatic” between the wars; “social history” after the Second World War; and “cultural and social” analysis around the turn of the xxith century16. This is a useful framework within which to analyse British war memory, although it should be acknowledged that the appearance of new configurations of history does not supplant or gainsay the debates generated by earlier configurations that rumble on in studies by modern historians, if not in the mass media’s representation of the war.

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  • 17 Discussed in Beckett “Frocks and Brasshats”, in Bond 1991, p. 89-112.

12Priestley’s judgements on his experience of the war must be identified as an unconscious product of the first configuration of Great War history formed before 1939. The virulent “battle of the memoirs” between statesmen and soldiers had set out the context for understanding the war in the 1920s and early 1930s: in essence, was it well managed by statesmen and badly fought by generals, or was it fought as best as it could be by generals given the constant interference of “amateur strategists”17?

  • 18 Churchill 1923-1931. Churchill commanded an infantry battalion on the Western front for four month (...)
  • 19 One day of a 140-day battle has become symbolic both of the Somme offensive and of the war as a wh (...)

13Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis, published and widely serialised in Britain and abroad during the 1920s, was the most influential memoir, written by a statesman who was also a veteran and who therefore sympathised with the ordinary soldier18. His lengthy critique of the Western front attritional strategy conducted by the military high command, his so-called “blood test”, with its climactic dramatic set-piece, the costly British offensive on 1st of July 1916, lies at the root of future critiques of British strategy19. Of course his “memoir-history” was also at heart a post-facto argument for strategic alternatives which he had suggested but which had been rejected or had proved equally disastrous. In effect, this readable and powerful indictment was a personal reaction to the horrific reality of modern industrialised war (as were many memoirs) wrapped up in a polemical evaluation of what had happened and why. “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”, Churchill famously quipped, although in laying the foundation for many British myths and debates about the First World War Churchill has not been kind to history.

  • 20 Liddell Hart 1930. The book is analysed critically in Strachan 1991, p. 45-53.
  • 21 Lloyd George 1933-1936. For a critical discussion see Suttie 2005.

14Moreover, lacking archives, early historians took such material, that did have privileged insight into policy making, as the source for their own widely read yet judgemental histories. The most influential inter-war historian (and veteran), Basil Liddell Hart, essentially sided with the statesmen in The Real War (1930) and popularised their perspective owing to his own disagreements with the inter-war British army establishment20. For Liddell Hart, the war was a strategic aberration: raising a mass army for continental war with its concomitant sacrifice was inappropriate for a maritime imperial power. This perspective endeared him to wartime Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who turned to Liddell Hart for historical guidance when writing his own war memoirs. It is no coincidence that the first volume of Lloyd George’s scathing War Memoirs appeared (and was serialised widely) in 1933, the year in which Priestley was writing: incompetent generals stonewalling imaginative statesmen was becoming the leitmotif of Britain’s war in its first historical configuration, and the lengthy casualty lists were the consequence21.

15The opening of Britain’s 1914-1918 archives in the 1960s and subsequent historical revisionism suggests that the generals actually understood and conducted the war better than Britain’s politicians. Readers still reach for their memoirs rather than modern histories, however. No doubt Priestley and others would have read such military and political memoirs and these would have helped to shape the opinions on the broader nature of the war that were forming among its participants by the early 1930s. Priestley’s summary assessment would suggest that the statesmen had got the better of this debate in the public’s eyes. Yet while Priestley censured the “strong, silent be-ribboned asses” of the military command, he was equally scathing of the groups in modern liberal society that sustained their war.

  • 22 Winter, Prost 2005, p. 83-85.
  • 23 There is no equivalent for British writers of the masterful analysis of the changing literary voic (...)
  • 24 Becker, Audoin-Rouzeau 2002 recognize individual and collective “mourning” as one of the central e (...)
  • 25 Philpott 2011, p. 14.

16Winter and Prost identify that ordinary soldiers were omitted from this early history which followed established parameters of diplomatic and military history22. But the common soldier’s war was recorded in war memoirs and novels which became historical documents in their own right. By the 1930s, “the voice of the trenches” was heavily refracted through postwar experience and reflection. But the influential and supposedly “anti-war” memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and others are, if read carefully, all ambiguous about the war and being a soldier23. As with Priestley, the positives of wartime are occluded by the negatives of peacetime and undermined by the repressed grief of societal loss24. By the 1930s, Tommy’s voice had become one of disillusionment. This might be contrasted with disenchantment which is a product of painful war experience, disillusionment being a product of postwar disappointment with the world the war made and the looming prospect of another war25. Now that it was clear that the war had not ended war, what meaning if any could be found in the war? The war which was represented as a necessary sacrifice in the early 1920s had been reshaped by the mid-1930s into a badly managed slaughter. The persistent ambiguities in British war memory were established early on.

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  • 26 For example, Gardner 1961, on the Battle of the Somme and Pitt 1962, on the final campaigns. Most (...)
  • 27 Bond 1991, p. 6-7.
  • 28 Taylor 1963 and Clark 1961, are the most notorious of these works. That such books remain in print (...)
  • 29 For example, Horne 1962; Farrar-Hockley 1964 and 1967; Terraine 1960 and 1963. John Terraine was t (...)

19The second configuration of history would follow and be shaped by another world war, while remaining rooted in inter-war writing and interpretations. A second world war had a profound effect in two ways. First, it became very difficult not to view and judge the First World War through World War Two’s distorting lens; and second, everyone forgot temporarily about the first war because there was another war to historicize. Then there was a sudden resurgence of interest in the First World War in Britain around the time of its fiftieth anniversary in 1964, to be represented (it would be wrong to say reinterpreted) to a new generation in a new wave of popular histories, through a second outpouring of soldiers’ memoirs and in the mass media. The First World War history at this point had three elements. First, a number of popularizing summarizers (journalists or popular historical authors) retold tales of the war in lively, readable narratives26. Second, sensationalists repackaged the controversies and critiques of the inter-war years into populist critiques: Liddell Hart had a strong influence over such works27. The most influential and long-lived, television historian A. J. P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History, was an anti-war book of the 1960s written by a pacifist intellectual rather than a thoughtful scholarly re-examination of the war28. But the first historical interpretations freed from the constraints imposed by personal experience also appeared. These attempted to strike a balance between the “grand narrative” of soldiers and statesmen and the experience of the ordinary soldiers29. This three-way distinction has continued in First World War historiography ever since.

20These histories had a Western front focus and were particularly concerned with the more notorious attritional battles that had imprinted themselves on national memory. Wider dimensions of the war as conducted at sea, in other military theatres and on the home front, received rather less attention, a bias which it would take some decades to address. While these studies were intelligent and influential, what they had in common was a reliance on published sources, since national archives were only just starting to open to professional historians.

  • 30 The Great war 1964.
  • 31 Taylor 1963.
  • 32 “Aftermath of War”, in Bennett et al. 1963, p. 26-31: 29.

21Around the same time in Britain the mass media discovered the war, particularly television. The broadcast by the newly launched channel BBC2 of the twenty-six part documentary series The Great War in 1964 was ground-breaking30: both in its contribution to the art of television documentary through its extensive use of contemporary source quotations and “talking head” veterans, and also because it popularized the history of the war. The stage and cinema also played a role. The left-wing Theatre Workshop’s successful anti-war play and director Richard Attenborough’s later film Oh! What a Lovely War popularized Liddell Hart and A. J. P. Taylor’s anti-high command perspective at a time of a rising counter-culture and growing anti-establishment feeling associated with the baby boom generation. A. J. P. Taylor’s Illustrated History31 was dedicated to Joan Littlewood, the director of the play. That the play says more about class politics in Britain in the 1960s than it does about the First World War has not detracted from its popularity or longevity. Inevitably, it was revived in the war’s centenary year, suggesting cultural myths have a life of their own, independent of historical judgment. The war as slaughter perspective predominated among a younger generation detached from the war itself but living in a conservative society whose values were those of the war generation that had led and governed Britain in the 1940s and 1950s –Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan were all Great War veterans. The war’s fiftieth anniversary coincided with a step change in government and society as power passed to the children of the war generation, whose opinions and values were shaped by the Second World War. Meanwhile their own children were coming of age and seeking to distance themselves from the values of their forebears. The popular and highly influential Cambridge footlights satirical review Beyond the Fringe included a powerful sketch in which one Second World War RAF officer called upon another to sacrifice his life: “We need a futile gesture […]. It will raise the whole tone of the war32.” Although the setting was the later war, the irony clearly harked back to the first. The values of military leadership were being mocked and the question was being asked of a new generation, whether they would be prepared to sacrifice themselves for their country as their parents and grandparents had done?

  • 33 Chandos 1968, p. 83-84.

22Watching the BBC’s documentary series The Great War, Oliver Lyttelton (a Guards officer in the war and now a retired conservative Cabinet minister and peer, one of the generation being lampooned)33:

had many times to exclaim, “No, it wasn’t like that”. We, by which I mean both officers and men, did not feel so doom-laden, so utterly disenchanted. We thought we were fighting in a worthy cause and had no idea that our efforts would one day appear… as merely absurd. No one who has not experienced it can know the heart-beat of a battalion, or its discipline and corporate spirit, and how they sustain the individual man, and how the whole greatly exceeds the sum of its parts.

23The fiftieth anniversary reinterpretation and belittling of their war by younger generations juxtaposed with some veterans’ deeply held sentiment that the war had been right and, whatever the world that came afterwards, there was much that was positive in their war experience. To that extent, Lyttelton echoed Priestley in his judgement.

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26The fiftieth anniversary reengagement with the war was informed and shaped by inter-war controversies and Second World War experience. It also provided a broad canvas to which professional historians could add details over the following decades. In time they would start to paint new pictures. As they developed from the 1960s, the second and third configurations of the war’s history were formed by two parallel developments. First, official archives were opened and university historians began to study the war. Second, social and cultural studies were developed alongside the political and military history of earlier years. Central to this new historiography were themes of war experience and representation; although old controversies about conduct and command were re-examined from a more detached, scholarly perspective.

  • 34 French 1986 and 1995; Philpott 1996.
  • 35 For a scholarly evaluation of this perspective, see Travers 1987.
  • 36 Seminal texts supporting this thesis are Prior, Wilson 1992, Griffith 1994 and Sheffield 2001.
  • 37 For example Boff 2012 and Beach 2013. Much of this work is at the level of the doctoral thesis, no (...)

27The debate on how the war was fought and won has been drawn out and productive. British strategy has been re-examined both as a national enterprise and a coalition effort34. But most attention has been focused on the battlefield. The long-lived perception of poor military leadership and badly managed battles has been challenged in a systematic re-examination of the commanders and the methods employed on the battlefield35. The concept of a “learning curve” appeared early on in this reassessment –the appreciation that the army faced difficult challenges on the entrenched, industrialised battlefield, that early battles were traumatic, but that from this experience emerged modern and effective military methods that underpinned victory on the Western front in 191836. As the “learning curve” thesis developed it was informed by contemporary social science theories of military learning and the transformation of armed forces. The idea of the British army of 1914-1918 as a learning organisation now predominates (and British historians are applying this model to other armies) and its many component substructures have been investigated to explain how it worked and adapted to the challenges of modern war37. This re-examination has kept military historians busy for twenty-five years and shows no sign of reaching an end. It remains to be seen whether it impacts on public perceptions of the military conduct of the war over the passing centenaries.

  • 38 See note 10.
  • 39 The trench memoir remains a publishing staple, although soldiers’ diaries and antiquated veterans’ (...)

28Meanwhile, war experience has become a staple of popular historiography. What the war was like has almost completely eclipsed what it was about in the mass media’s engagement with the war. To some extent this has provoked the public controversies associated with the centenaries38. Also, the focus remains firmly towards the Western front and the period of trench warfare from 1915 to 1917, which has become a representational motif of the war, devoid of historical context or nuance39. It is hoped that the centenaries will encourage the exploration of the war’s other military fronts and experiences at sea and on the homefront.

  • 40 Bond 2002 and 2008; Todman 2005.
  • 41 Fussell 1975.
  • 42 Bracco 1993; Watson 2004.

29Examination of the memory of the war –how the war was remembered by its participants, how war myths evolved, and their basis in historical events– has been a flourishing subgenre of historiography40. Such studies are an element of the third configuration of historiography that was starting as the negative perception of the war was firmly set. Fussell’s defining text The Great War and Modern Memory (a work of literary scholarship that has profoundly influenced historical approaches and controversies) suggested that “irony” was the defining motif of British war experience and memory as reflected in its literature and poetry41. This central juxtaposition between the “poets’” representation of the war and the historical war as experienced characterised this configuration, although its tropes come from the early memoir history as much as postwar literature. The teaching of such war poetry on the British school curriculum with little historical counterpoint has served to widen the gulf between popular perception and historical understanding. In fact, such ironic war poetry was read much less by the war generation than by their grandchildren. Recent examination of the conception of “heroic sacrifice” strongly held by the war generation and its cultural legacy have started to redress this imbalance42.

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  • 43 Neillands 1998; Corrigan 2004.
  • 44 Laffin 1989; Winter 1991.
  • 45 For example, the reputation of British Commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig. See Harris 2008 and Sh (...)

31In the third configuration, the tripartite distinction in history identified above persists. For example, in the debate on the British high command, which remains lively and shows no sign of reaching a definitive verdict. Popularizing summarizes attempt to sway public perceptions43. Sensationalists persist in immoderate and methodologically weak condemnations: such books sell well and are widely read because they pander to the prevailing perception of the war44. Scholars revisit long-running controversies and restate the case for or against command and commanders with archive-based assessments45. Although their assessments are more nuanced and balanced, their subject matter precludes simple, definitive judgments.

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34Undoubtedly it will be some time before the balance in modern historiography is reflected in public understanding of the conflict, but it is to be hoped that as its centenaries pass sustained reengagement with the war will furnish such an opportunity. The long-standing ambiguities persist, but historical scholarship has moved on.

  • 46 See for example Philpott 2009, which attempts to situate the events of 1916 in their wider domesti (...)

35The cultural representation of the war became detached from its history long ago and certain tropes of the war (viewed through the distorting lens of the Second World War) have supplanted the real war story. The pity of war overshadows the purpose. In the most influential representation of the war of the last twenty-five years, the 1989 BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, in the memorable and poignant final scene the heroes go “over the top” as machine-gun fire rattles round them. It is an iconic image evoking the cultural myth associated with 1st of July 1916. The scene then fades to a field of poppies, symbolic of the losses of the Western front, echoing the ending of the film version of Oh! What a Lovely War that climaxes on endless crosses representing the dead. Military historians will tell you that in 1917, the year in which Blackadder is set, a British offensive was likely to take most of its objectives with relatively limited casualties –three out of four of Blackadder’s heroes would most likely have lived to fight another day, but such prosaic detail does not suit the sentimentality with which we choose to endow our war memory. “Certain death” was the lot of the First World War soldier, even though 89% of those who put on a British military uniform returned home at the end of the war. The difficulty has perhaps been to establish a sense of perspective on the war. Certainly it had its horrific aspects, and the three-year stalemate on the Western front was unique. Still, war and warfare between 1914 and 1918 was an element on a longer continuum of conflict and war experience and should be judged as such46.

  • 47 Becker, Audoin-Rouzeau 2002, p. 1-2.

36Reflecting on the eightieth anniversary of the war, Annette Becker and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau highlighted the xxth century cult of the victim and “the weight of the dead on the living” as the factors which have entrenched this memory of the First World War47. This was perpetuated into a new century by the cult of the war veteran associated with the war’s ninetieth anniversaries. This in itself revealed the confusion in memory and the ambiguities that veterans themselves had had to live with thereafter.

  • 48 Parker 2009, p. 55.
  • 49 The Sunday Times 2004.

37Harry Patch, one of the last surviving British veterans, “remembered” that when he fired his machine gun he aimed it low at the enemy soldiers’ legs48. One wonders if this is a vivid memory ninety years later, or a latter day attempt to reconcile Patch’s doing his duty as a soldier with modern sensibilities about “humanity” in war and sensitivity about killing. In a Sunday Times interview in November 2004 Patch stated: “To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?”49 Patch eventually perceived his war in terms of the national war memory. Since veterans signed up to their grandchildren’s view of the war rather than challenged it, “false” memory has taken hold.

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40While the history of the war has changed from generation to generation as participants and historians have explored and argued over its purpose, nature, impact and meaning, essential ambiguities persist. The fact that it has been interpreted and reinterpreted by participants as they aged alongside evolving history contributed greatly to such ambiguity. The war generation’s great grandchildren have the opportunity to construct a fourth configuration of history as the war’s centenaries pass, moving beyond the ambiguities of the earlier history and transcending the false memories of survivors, shaped as they are by later events. It is doubtful that such a configuration will establish a consensus about the history and significance of the war, although it is certain that professional historians will, in the absence of veterans, be key figures in shaping such a configuration.

  • 50 Winter, Prost 2005, p. vii.

41Jay Winter and Antoine Prost emphasise the need to move from narrow national histories of the war into a shared history. “It may be refreshing for English readers to recognize how unusual their own thinking is on the Great War, when placed alongside that of readers who bring to this subject entirely different assumptions”, they state50. Above all perhaps, the English perspective needs to emerge from the trenches to form an appreciation of the wider and multi-faceted war at home and abroad.

42The wartime sacrifice still hangs heavily in Great Britain, while flawed understanding of the events that precipitated it misconstrues the effort and achievements of Britain’s victorious armies and the people who sustained them in their struggle to defeat German militarism. Because this had to be done a second time the first encounter became imbued with a sense of “futility” in popular memory, grounded in inter-war arguments about the conduct and purpose of the war, but solidified by ironic post-Second World War representations of the war established as the values of a youthful generation clashed with those of authority figures formed by the war. Through this process, a false memory of the war, detached from history, had solidified by the 1980s. Professional historians have been challenging it for the past twenty-five years, although with limited success.

  • 51 Parker 2009, p. 21-22, author’s emphasis.

43As the war’s centenary has come, the ambiguity in modern Britons’ relationship to the war and memory of it is becoming apparent: renewed arguments about the meaning of the war are breaking out. The old division persists however: “By giving a scholarly overview of campaigns and strategy military historians can usefully and instructively tell us what the war was about; but what really interests us is what it was like51. Potentially, however, the country is passing through national reengagement with the war while there is now nobody left alive to tell people what it was like –increasingly people were being told it was like what postwar commentators and later generations had told veterans it was like! It remains to be seen whether historians can seize this opportunity to reconcile the ambiguity in national memory and historical understanding of Britain’s war experience, and to finally shape an informed understanding of the war’s place in British history. They will still be contesting against the summarizers and sensationalists, and it will be a long struggle to reverse deeply entrenched perspectives.

  • 52 Gov.Uk 2014.

44In Great Britain today the Second World War is remembered more positively that it should be –it was A. J. P. Taylor’s “good war” against fascism– and the First World War more negatively than it ought to be. The Second World War has become a prism through which the first is viewed: what was an unfamiliar, difficult but essentially positive and nation-shaping war experience between 1914 and 1918 is now dismissed as the fount from which the xxth century’s traumas sprang. The British government’s centenary plans to reflect this, but these have also caused their own controversies52. There are arguments about whether this horrific war should be marked at all –and if so, what should be the tone of the commemoration? Should we acknowledge effort and outcome rather than dwell on trauma and disaster: mourn for the losses of the Somme and Passchendaele once more, but also recognize the success of 1918? What is clear is that if we are to reconcile such ambiguities historians must offer dispassionate, informed judgment on the events and outcomes of the war, to rebalance national memory. It remains to be seen if they have been.

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Note

1 Priestley 2009, p. 158. Priestley had been wounded in June 1916 (thereby avoiding the impending and costly Somme offensive) and had been commissioned and posted to another battalion after his recovery. Hence he was meeting with men with whom he had served after volunteering in 1914 and from whom he was violently and abruptly separated by an act of war.

2 Van Emden, Piuk 2008, p. 299-311.

3 Gray 2000, p. 11-12.

4 See French 1990. His title borrows from the concept developed by the leading inter-war critic of British continental strategy, Basil Liddell Hart. For a review of the strategic background, see Howard 1972.

5 Blunden 1928; Graves 1929; Sassoon 1930 –in fact a heavily autobiographical novelisation, part of a trilogy covering the life of the fictional George Sherston. Bond 2008 discusses these literary works and others in the context of their authors’ actual war experience.

6 They were only one strand of war literature produced between the wars, with more traditional forms being the “best sellers” in the 1920s. See Bracco 1993.

7 Remarque 1929; Milestone 1930.

8 Fussell 1975.

9 See Winter 2006, for a discussion of the phenomenon of historical remembrance in general and that of the First World War in particular. See Todman 2005, for a discussion of certain military myths versus historical reality. Parker 2009 offers an accessible introduction to how memory has developed down the years.

10 For example by the then Conservative education minister, Michael Gove, at the start of the centenary year, Gove 2014; and by the journalist and popular historian Max Hastings in Hastings 2013, p. xvii-xix.

11 The juxtaposition of perspective and differences in interpretation were already apparent in such works as the former Chief of the Imperial General Staff’s memoirs, Robertson 1926, and the former First Lord of the Admiralty’s memoir-history, Churchill 1923-1931.

12 Priestley 2009, p. 158.

13 Ibid., p. 160.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., p. 161-162.

16 Winter, Prost 2005, p. 6-33. See Jay Winter’s article infra, p. 23-45.

17 Discussed in Beckett “Frocks and Brasshats”, in Bond 1991, p. 89-112.

18 Churchill 1923-1931. Churchill commanded an infantry battalion on the Western front for four months in 1915-1916. The historical basis of his memoir is assessed in Prior 1983.

19 One day of a 140-day battle has become symbolic both of the Somme offensive and of the war as a whole. Attention returns again and again to this deterministic event, which has become a shorthand metaphor for the war devoid of context or appropriate comparison. For an up-to-date assessment, see Philpott 2009.

20 Liddell Hart 1930. The book is analysed critically in Strachan 1991, p. 45-53.

21 Lloyd George 1933-1936. For a critical discussion see Suttie 2005.

22 Winter, Prost 2005, p. 83-85.

23 There is no equivalent for British writers of the masterful analysis of the changing literary voice of France’s First World War combatants in Smith 2007.

24 Becker, Audoin-Rouzeau 2002 recognize individual and collective “mourning” as one of the central elements of the experience and memory of the war.

25 Philpott 2011, p. 14.

26 For example, Gardner 1961, on the Battle of the Somme and Pitt 1962, on the final campaigns. Most influential perhaps was Tuchman 1962, a Pulitzer Prize winning study of the start of the war by an American journalist.

27 Bond 1991, p. 6-7.

28 Taylor 1963 and Clark 1961, are the most notorious of these works. That such books remain in print fifty years later, their tone being imitated by many other authors, that they sell steadily and are still taken as authoritative judgments on the war indicate how entrenched such perceptions are in British national memory. See Danchev, “‘Bunking’ and Debunking: The Controversies of the 1960s”, in Bond 1991, p. 263-288.

29 For example, Horne 1962; Farrar-Hockley 1964 and 1967; Terraine 1960 and 1963. John Terraine was the most enduring and influential of these non-university historians. More balanced than other works of the time, these remain classics of military history, although historical knowledge and understanding have developed in the last half-century and their judgments are now dated.

30 The Great war 1964.

31 Taylor 1963.

32 “Aftermath of War”, in Bennett et al. 1963, p. 26-31: 29.

33 Chandos 1968, p. 83-84.

34 French 1986 and 1995; Philpott 1996.

35 For a scholarly evaluation of this perspective, see Travers 1987.

36 Seminal texts supporting this thesis are Prior, Wilson 1992, Griffith 1994 and Sheffield 2001.

37 For example Boff 2012 and Beach 2013. Much of this work is at the level of the doctoral thesis, now being published in scholarly monograph series.

38 See note 10.

39 The trench memoir remains a publishing staple, although soldiers’ diaries and antiquated veterans’ memoirs add little to understanding of the phenomenon.

40 Bond 2002 and 2008; Todman 2005.

41 Fussell 1975.

42 Bracco 1993; Watson 2004.

43 Neillands 1998; Corrigan 2004.

44 Laffin 1989; Winter 1991.

45 For example, the reputation of British Commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig. See Harris 2008 and Sheffield 2012.

46 See for example Philpott 2009, which attempts to situate the events of 1916 in their wider domestic, international and historical context.

47 Becker, Audoin-Rouzeau 2002, p. 1-2.

48 Parker 2009, p. 55.

49 The Sunday Times 2004.

50 Winter, Prost 2005, p. vii.

51 Parker 2009, p. 21-22, author’s emphasis.

52 Gov.Uk 2014.

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