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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
An Unadmirable Admiral October 22, 1992