The Memoirs of George Sherston: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer; and Sherston's Progress
Blasting and Bombardiering
The naïve idealism involved in World War I, that idiot’s tale, was first supplied by the British. In most nation-states, the keen fighters believed that they were defending their own fatherland, by invading some other territory. Our hunting fathers, in Britain, feeling quite secure and sheltered behind the Grand Fleet, were unselfishly concerned with the independence of Belgium. Right from the beginning, they liked to think that their actions were building a better world. Later on, as A. J. P. Taylor remarks, “their idealism was echoed in other countries. The British started it, and their disillusionment afterwards was therefore greater also.”
Why was this so, in an advanced industrial country which should, according to the cruder kind of Marxist prediction, have sponsored international working-class solidarity against capital’s imperialist mess? The Italian Socialist attitude to the war, praised by Lenin, was “Neither support nor sabotage”; but in Britain the rankers and the officer class were relatively united in noble, national beliefs. The most perceptive Italian Socialist, Gramsci, explained that the bourgeoisie had created in Britain an “ethical state,” which ideally stood above the interests of persons and classes: liberalism was meaningful to the British, as authoritarian justice was meaningful to the people of Germany. “Where fundamental laws of the State are not trampled on, where arbitrary acts of the dominant class are not seen, the class struggle loses its harshness.” Italy, not having reached this stage, was still ethically intolerable—in a condition comparable with, say, Batista’s Cuba, French Indo-China, or present-day Bolivia. Loyalty to the nation-in-arms could not be commanded.
IN ENGLAND, the officer class was eager to drive the Germans from Belgium, and most rankers accepted the principle. “Of course, there were other criteria—but they were only criteria.” When Siegfried Sassoon set down his wartime experiences and considerations in fictional form, he made his principal character, George Sherston, worry about the possibility of disgraceful personal motives. Very like Crouchback, in Waugh’s World War II novel, he suspects himself of succumbing to the “test-of-manhood” temptation. In Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, he shows Sherston’s development as a sensitive boy training himself to be a brave rider. In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sherston remarks: “Six years before, I had been ambitious of winning races because that had seemed a significant way of demonstrating my equality with my contemporaries. And now I wanted to make the World War serve a similar purpose, for if only I could get a Military Cross I should feel comparatively safe and confident.” Sherston and Sassoon both won this medal, and then felt confident enough to throw the thing away, to refuse to continue killing, and to work with pacifists. Then comes the third volume, Sherston’s Progress. Back home in safety, considerately treated by the Army, Sassoon-Sherston is once again nagged by an “inward monitor.” Making a separate peace, like one of Aristophanes’s heroes—“extremely convenient for you, isn’t it? Doesn’t it begin to look like dodging?” Further doubts: perhaps he enjoyed some of that fighting; he…
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