A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
Was the First World War, like the French Revolution, a climactic event in the Western world? After it was over, constitutional monarchy buttressed by an aristocracy was no longer normal; nor was private property secure from state intervention; nor was the conflict of classes in Europe any longer mitigated by emigration to America. In the old days you could travel without a passport to anywhere on the Continent except the two despotisms, Russia and Turkey. No longer.
But something more than social change took place. In A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes tells us that reality changed. It changed because people came to believe in a myth that the war had transformed the world and its culture.
In Britain the myth told us that the old men, the generation in power in 1914, betrayed the young and sent them for no good cause to the Front, where they were slaughtered by stupid generals. The young men were also betrayed at home by patriotic women cheering them on and by civilians and profiteers living sheltered, sordid lives. Those who survived became ashamed of the romantic patriotism with which Rupert Brooke and his immediate contemporaries had greeted the war: as Hynes observes, the early war poets were inspired not by war itself but by the idea of war. The abstract nouns that came so readily to their lips, such as sacrifice and honor, became dishonored for a generation—perhaps forever.
At first all virtues other than patriotism, discipline, obedience, and endurance were disparaged. Modernism was dismissed as decadent, the avant-garde of Eliot, Pound, Lewis, and the post-Impressionists disappeared from view. Civil liberties were suppressed, The Rainbow was banned, galleries and museums were closed to save money, and the suffragettes disbanded.
Not until the massacre on the Somme and the Easter rising in Dublin in 1916 did writers begin to deal with the war, and even then works like Women in Love and Heartbreak House scarcely mention it. Lesser writers like H.G. Wells and Rose Macaulay did so by writing more as journalists than as novelists. It was the artists Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash, and William Orpen who were the first to depict the war as it really was. By 1917 men began to ask what they were fighting for. Siegfried Sassoon refused to return to the Front. He was saved from court-martial by Robert Graves, who pleaded Sassoon was shell-shocked. Shell-shock became a medical diagnosis that was gaining currency, as the psychologist W.H.R. Rivers argued that men should not be automatically shot for desertion or cowardice (284 of them were shot during the war). By 1918 the winds of dissent reached gale force and the members of the avant-garde found their voice again. Lytton Strachey delivered his polemic against the eminent Victorians and their culture for sowing the seeds of war. Bertrand Russell, E.D. Morel, and Sylvia Pankhurst protested the war, and were sent to jail.
When the war ended, the myth spread. The warriors found themselves still fighting wars: the class war, the Irish war, and the war for women’s rights. Hynes says that the war did not really end until 1926 with the defeat of the General Strike. It is true that those who created the myth were not a monolithic group. Graves disdained Eliot and disliked Pound. But the Georgian poets and writers who idealized the English countryside were as one in hating the old men. The old men, who had led them into war, were still there, ever more reactionary, hounding homosexuals and harassing the advocates of birth control. Disenchantment was the dominant emotion. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley proclaimed the defeat of liberalism politically and culturally.
In the culture conflict that Hynes describes, one side built monuments, the other planted mines. Cenotaphs, cemeteries, the tombs of unknown warriors were built while Keynes predicted that Versailles was likely to provoke a war of revenge and more cenotaphs and cemeteries. In Jacob’s Room Virginia Woolf demythologized her friend Rupert Brooke, whom she remembered as nothing like his war image. On the other side Colonel Repington, the Times war correspondent, argued that the generals were let down by the politicians and both were let down by the frivolous upper classes. Henry John Newbolt, the author of true blue nautical poems, declared that “our grandchildren will not be much moved” by Wilfred Owen and Sassoon. Galsworthy said that Forsytes would always be Forsytes. Patriotic movies financed with government funds were met with movies such as All Quiet on the Western Front. The myth emphasized that lives were lost, not battles won; and soon people did not ask what the war was like but what it did to the combatants, to society, to hope and expectations. Lawrence, Ford, even best-selling novelists like A.S.M. Hutchinson and Michael Arlen, were convinced that civilization was ruined for good. The heroes ended as damaged men, disoriented and directionless.
What Hynes means by the myth can best be illustrated by his choice of a fact that, true in itself, was magnified and idealized to mean something else. This is the myth of a lost aristocracy, the decimation of a particular class on the battlefield. The statistics show this was indeed true. But the fact got blown up to mean that the finest of the young generation, whatever was best in English society—old families, the heroic tradition of the eldest son taking the King’s Commission as an officer—had perished.
No summary can do justice to the thoroughness of Hynes’s research. He has established himself as among the foremost critics of English culture in the first half of this century. Every eddy of opinion is charted, forgotten books that once made a stir are brought to the surface, and the countercurrents of opinion are traced with accuracy and sensibility. Typical of his accuracy is his remark that possibly the first writer to depict trench warfare as it was is the progenitor of Bulldog Drummond, a regular officer who wrote under the name of Sapper. Typical of his sensibility is his selection of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to illustrate the most lasting loss. What was lost forever was romance. Never again would men and women feel what Tennyson and Christina Rossetti felt. The war withered their hearts.
The truth of Hynes’s analysis of the myth can be seen if the story is carried to World War II and beyond. The pacifism and disgust with war bred by the horror of the trenches were directly responsible for the disastrous British foreign policy of the Thirties. They were responsible for the wary, skeptical, mocking mood of the young who fought in the Second World War. Montgomery was to be criticized for being slow and cautious as a commander. But he knew he was commanding a citizen army brought up on the story of Passchendaele; he had to convince his men that he had deployed over-whelming superiority in aircraft and artillery and had made a foolproof plan. The myth was also responsible for conscientious objectors being treated humanely and for slotting men and women into jobs that suited their talents. The notion of war as something so loathsome as to be inadmissible surfaced again over Vietnam and over the Falklands, and the pacifist tradition fueled the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, with disastrous consequences for the Labour Party in the Eighties.
Yet the myth was not so overpoweringly persuasive as Hynes’s book suggests. Or rather it became possible for a young man between the wars in England to hold two concepts in his mind simultaneously: that war was bestial and an insult to civilization, but that it might be inescapable. Charles Carrington, Kipling’s biographer, said it was untrue that all intelligent men lost their faith in the justice of the war even in the last two terrible years. Nor were all anti-German outbursts discreditable. Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Regius Professor of English at Cambridge, was indeed disgusting in his chauvinism. But Hobhouse’s critique of Hegel’s metaphysical theory of the state was justifiable. (Philosophy gets little attention from Hynes; yet one should not forget that the student who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had his head stuffed with Nietzsche; and Social Darwinism deserves more than a brief mention.) The mythologists liked to discredit atrocity stories and claim they were invented to lure America into the war. But Von Kluck’s army did commit unforgivable atrocities upon Belgian civilians before the war was a month old.
So a qualification has to be added to the myth. Many intelligent people, both those who had fought in the war and those who grew up in its shadow, realized that men had endured the unendurable but might have to endure it again. This was implicit in the work of a poet whose omission from Hynes’s account is exceedingly strange. Nowhere is A.E. Housman mentioned. Yet A Shropshire Lad was packed in many knapsacks and in 1922 Housman published Last Poems containing the “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries.” He embodied many strands of the myth. “We’ll to the woods no more, the laurels are all cut.” “Too full already is the grave/Of fellows that were good and brave, / And died because they were.” “They sought and found six feet of ground,/ And there they died for me.” But Housman also introduced the themes of fate and inevitability, the acceptance of sorrow under icy control. This austere classical scholar never pretended that to die for one’s country was sweet; but he implied that it was noble. In the postwar years Housman was read far more than the poets of the avant-garde. And in fact the dominant feeling in 1939 among the young was that although the bloody old men had got us into this mess we had to fight—only this time with no bloody heroics.
But how did Britain get involved in the war to end war in the first place? To read Hynes is like steering a course on a mountain torrent full of whirlpools and crosscurrents caused by the tributaries that pour into it. You paddle up them to peer into dense thickets on shore or rest in some inviting backwater for a chapter or two. To leave this turbulent stream for Robert Massie’s account of the relations between Britain and Germany that led to the war is to find yourself on a vast river with such majestic meanderings and on so imperceptible a current that you seem fated never to reach the estuary. Massie takes a more leisurely course. A thousand pages in his sight are but an evening gone. The reader, however, will find that after many evenings, having been led over the battlefields of the Boer War and having put down the Boxer Rebellion, he is only just about to embark at page 373 on the story of the Royal Navy’s shift from sail to steam and he does not reach the crux of the book until page 707, namely the naked rivalry between the building programs of the Royal Navy and the High Seas German Fleet.