One of the unlikelier books in the house where I grew up was Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War. For us, “the war” meant the one that ended in 1945, in which our parents had served and in whose shadow we lived, and for the moment it had eclipsed the previous war. But as a schoolboy in the early 1960s I began to read the history of that war understandably called “Great” at the time, and also its “war poets,” Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and the greatest, Wilfred Owen. He was killed days before the Armistice in November 1918, but the others survived to write memoirs of the war, all published around ten years after it ended: Blunden’s Undertones of War, Graves’s Good-bye to All That, Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. These are the books that have since conditioned our view of the Western Front, with all its horror, squalor, and futility.
And that was what made Mr. Punch’s squat green quarto so jarringly incongruous. As its name said, it was a wartime anthology from Punch, the supposedly humorous weekly (which we certainly didn’t take at home; the book must have been bought by my mother’s father when first published in 1919). It condenses vigorous and sarcastic commentaries, sneering at the Irish, pacifists, and other favorite targets (“Mr Winston Churchill, the greatest of our quick-change political artists”), with cartoons amid the text. You would expect the bluff patriotism, but not the breezy tone, war as boisterous lark. One Punch cartoon shows an infantry officer approaching a deserted pile of rubble and saying, “My village, I think?” to another officer, who replies, “Sorry, old thing. I took it half-an-hour ago.”
That appeared in April 1917. The coming July would see the start of the enormous, pointless bloodletting of Passchendaele, and the previous summer the British army had endured another indelible horror. “Mr. Punch” couldn’t overlook it, although he is blusteringly evasive. The latest offensive had seen “substantial gains,” he says in July 1916—quite falsely, since almost no ground had been taken—though with “heavy losses.” What that flat phrase meant is that the Battle of the Somme had begun on July 1, and 21,000 British soldiers were killed or mortally wounded during the first day. We have heard much about nearly 4,500 American deaths over eight years in Iraq; given respective populations, the present-day equivalent of that July 1 would be 280,000 GIs killed between dawn and dusk.
Since I first looked at those pages from Punch, the war has grown in our imagination. The rather trite stage satire …