David Reynolds, author of ‘The Long Shadow’
At one point in The Long Shadow, his impressive survey of the impact of the First World War and how interpretations of its meaning have changed in the past century, David Reynolds quotes fellow-historian John Keegan. Concluding his The First World War (1998), Keegan mused that the First ‘World War remained ‘a mystery’, both in its origins and its course. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success . . . choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world on the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?’
For me, too, that sums up why the conflict continues to gnaw away in my conciousness, and why, as the centennial of the war’s beginning approaches, I keep reading about it. But, it seems, the more I read, the less the mystery dissolves: the conflict continues to be inexplicable. David Reynold’s thought-provoking book is by a historian who understands that history is not a matter of science: rather, it is a process by which every generation (and every nation) reinterprets the meaning of the past. Few events in history reveal this more clearly than the conflict of 1914-18.
David Reynolds’ contention is that this was a war that changed the shape of history, that made the 20th century. At the same time, the 20th century has kept looking back on the war and seeing it in different ways at different times. The war shaped the century, and the century shaped the war. For those of us whose view of the war was shaped in the 1960s – by that decade’s critical historical reinterpretations, by the war poets and Oh! What a Lovely War – it’s a book that challenges the accuracy of our perceptions, or at least helps place them in a broader context.
In an interview published in BBC History Magazine, David Reynolds spoke about the aim of his book (soon to be translated into a BBC TV series) being to question a caricature of the war that has come to dominate perceptions in Britain:
I’m considering whether, for example, we’ve become too focused on the trenches and too readily seen war poets as the only authentic voice of the war. I am trying to move away from that perspective without in any way denigrating it. The caricature is a sense that the only real story about the war is trenches, and that sense is associated particularly with the first day of the Somme, which is 1 July 1916. It is, in terms of the death toll, the worst day in the history of the British army. Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict. That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on. This is a war that goes on for four years and it has multiple fallouts, which rumble on through the 20th century. We need to pay some attention to those as well as key moments like 1 July 1916.
Reynold’s book is unusual in that it is concerned with the two-way historical dynamic between the Great War and the 20th century. Whilst drawing extensively on the cultural turn in the work of historians in the 30 years – work that has explored the public memory and memorialization of the conflict – it contends that this approach has sometimes obscured other political, economic and social impacts of the war.
The book is divided into two parts. The first, ‘Legacies’, outlines some of the diverse and momentous ways in which the war had an impact on the 1920s and 1930s, both positive as well as negative. Reynolds examines democracy, nationalism, capitalism, attitudes to empire, attitudes to art and culture, and the question of peace – viewing them through the prism of the ‘post-war’ years, rather than the ‘inter-war’ years, seeing developments as if through the eyes of people who didn’t know that there was going to be another world war.
After 1939, however, the events of 1914-18 looked different when refracted through the conflict of 1939-45, when the ‘Great War’ became the ‘First World War’. In the second part, ‘Refractions’, Reynolds traces what happened to the memory of the Great War after 1939-45 when it came to be reinterpreted as the prelude to the Second World War and the Holocaust. So the second half of the book is about how the 20th century has reshaped our attitudes to the First World War. It was during this second phase, Reynolds argues, that the Great War assumed its iconic status (primarily in Britain) as a war fought in the trenches, captured in the amber of the war poets, a futile war of wasted lives.
This is a book which may disconcert some readers, in that it ranges in time across the 20th century – up to the end of the Cold War and beyond – and which concerns itself with each of the major belligerent countries of 1914-18. However, although considering responses to the conflict in France, Germany, Russia and America, Reynolds does places the United Kingdom in the foreground of his account. For, he argues, the British were distinctive in their experience both of the war and of its post-war impacts.
Britain stands out in the way that it has remembered the conflict in public culture. This contrasts with the broad patterns of experience and memorialization on the continent. Reynolds advances some thoughts on what is distinctive about the British story.
First, he argues that in 1914 the United Kingdom was not fighting directly for the homeland, either to protect it from invasion or add to its territory. By contrast the Belgians, the French and the Serbs were resisting invasion, while the French hoped to recover Alsace and Lorraine, and Germany, Russia and the Hapsburg Empire all justified their mobilization as an act of pre-emptive defence. It was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality (which Britain had treaty obligations to protect) that pushed Britain into war, with public anger accentuated by exaggerated reports of German atrocities against Belgian civilians. Essentially, states Reynolds:
Britain’s public case for war was grounded more in morality than self-interest: this was seen as a war to defend the principles of freedom and civilisation.
Also significant, he contends, was the fact that for two years Britain fought the war with a volunteer army. Britain, alone among the belligerent nations did not impose conscription – it was only introduced in 1916. Freely fighting for the freedom of others was what made the British feel distinctive, Reynolds suggests. Crucially, when the death toll mounted and disenchantment set in, this would lead to a more critical questioning of the war’s purpose and leadership, when set against the bravery of those who had volunteered and the scale of the losses – 720,000 dead and more than a million who came home maimed in body and mind.
In the aftermath, in order to cope with this trauma, Britain, like most belligerent nations except the Soviet Union, memorialized war deaths as ‘sacrifice’. And they did so in forms that were distinctive:
The Cenotaph, the Silence and the Poppies. The necklace of war cemeteries gracing the scar-torn Western Front. The Names chiselled on the Memorials to the Missing at Ypres and Thiepval. In time these would all become highly-charged sites of memory, expressing Britain’s peculiarly statist-democratic project of remembrance, honouring the dead as individuals but in standardized forms.
Paul Nash, Wire
Also unique to Britain was the war art. Britain commissioned over 100 artists, affording them remarkable artistic freedom, which resulted in avant-garde techniques being applied to the subject of war, ‘yet with more humanity than in the nihilistic expressionism’ of Germans like Otto Dix, Reynolds contends. Finally, there was the unusual case of Britain’s war poetry that emerged from the Europe-wide patriotic rhetoric of 1914 to flower into something quite distinctive: in the verses of Owen, Sassoon, Thomas and Gurney war poetry ‘became an encounter between bookish soldiers rooted in the English pastoralist tradition and the grotesque violations of nature inflicted by industrialized warfare’. Alongside the war memorials, British art and poetry created vivid, perhaps indelible, impressions of the war for posterity.
Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!
– ‘Aftermath’ by Siegfried Sassoon, March 1919.
Uniquely in Britain in the post-war years, art and poetry reinforced the idea that the suffering of the soldiers might still be justified if the Great War did prove to be ‘the war to end wars’. It’s interesting to learn from Reynold’s account how different were post-war responses in Britain compared to the other main belligerents – France, Germany and the United States. In the 1920s Britain had the least significant veterans’ movement of all these nations (with right-wing veterans in Germany complaining about a lost victory that could only be redeemed through another war), while by the 1930s it boasted the biggest and most committed peace movement in the world, as shown by the Peace Ballot of 1934-5. Most of those involved, Reynolds hastens to point out, were not pacifists but peace activists, hoping to mobilize the League of Nations to deter future aggression.
The Peace Ballot of 1935 – signed by 11.6 million people, over a third of the British population.
Central to Reynold’s thesis about how 1914-18 has come to be seen in the UK is how the Great War ‘took on a different aspect once it became the First World War, always to be contrasted with the Second’. Reynolds contrasts the way Britain went to war in September 1939 after a ‘gathering storm’ (in Churchill’s phrase) that had been brewing for years, rather than ‘out of the blue’ as in the July crisis of 1914. The pros and cons of resisting Hitler had been the subject of long and intense public debate since 1933.
Although the immediate trigger for war was once again Britain’s guarantee of a country’s territorial integrity – this time Poland – the war became one of self-defence once the British Isles were blitzed in 1940 and threatened with invasion. ‘The theme of Britain alone in its ‘finest hour’ offered a heroic saga at odds with anything in 1914-18′. In the narrative of 1939-45 there was nothing quite like the Somme. Then, in 1945, the war’s moral justification became evident when the Nazi death camps were opened. In short, Reynolds states, 1939-45 was ‘a good war, with Britain and its people playing a heroic role, at the end of which the enemy was totally defeated with roughly half the losses incurred by Britain in 1914-18’.
In contrast, observes Reynolds, for France the shame of defeat and collaboration in 1940-4 tended to obscure any sense of nobility in the sacrifice of 1914-18. Like Britain, the Soviet Union turned its resistance to German Nazism into a national myth, but 1914-17 remained consigned to ideological oblivion, overshadowed by the Bolshevik Revolution.
The construction of new narratives about 1914-18 did not stop in the aftermath of the Second World War. Reynolds observes how for both the French and the Germans, 1939-45 posed huge political and moral problems. Yet in the 1950s, he writes, they managed to shake off the historical burden of having gone to war three times in 70 years to forge the European Economic Community. ‘This was an astounding development, whose historical significance is often ignored in Britain today’, he states, quite rightly. Alone among members of the European Union, the UK does not celebrate Europe Day each 9 May,or subscribe to the idealism of its founding years.
Reynolds is right to state that the process of European integration was predicated on a new narrative in which the French and German peoples saw themselves as moving on from a cycle of war into a cooperative relationship that could serve as the engine of Europe’s future peace and prosperity. By contrast, when Britain finally applied for membership in the 1960s in Britain, it was not for idealistic but purely pragmatic reasons: the British Empire had fallen apart, we had lost sources of cheap raw materials and ready markets for our exports, and we found ourselves outside a booming Common Market.
In this mood, a certain national despondency set in about what had the two world wars achieved, just as the 50th anniversary of the Great War arrived in the mid-1960s. Here Reynolds steps heavily in the footsteps of cultural historians such as Paul Fussell and Jay Winter, recounting how British conceptions of the Great War became set in this period – as a human tragedy, bogged down in the trenches, illuminated only by poetry. Key cultural markers in the sixties such as the BBC TV series The Great War and Joan Littlewood’s production of Oh! What a Lovely War were followed in subsequent decades by the work of novelists such as Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks.
However, Reynolds concludes his survey of reinterpretations of the Great War with a question: What are we missing by this tight focus on the trenches, on the Somme and 1 July 1916, and on the war poets? His response is to suggest that we need a greater appreciation of ‘the whole diverse war from 1914 to 1918’. We should recognise that it was not all stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front, that ‘even in the ‘trench era’ of 1915-17, offensives were the exceptions rather than the rule and it was perfectly possible for an infantryman to spend two years on the Western Front without actually going over the top at all’. We also overlook the fact that this was a war in which the home front mattered almost as much as the battle front. Mobilizing the whole economy was crucial for modern warfare, and that included woman power in factories, transport, farming and clerical work.
Further, Reynolds adds that we should think more critically about the iconic war poets. Remarkable they were, he accepts, but typical they were not. Most of those who who wrote poems during the conflict were working class, while a quarter of the poets were women – and most poems were patriotic. We should also broaden our horizons, he argues. The war was fought in many places besides the Somme – the Balkans, for instance, where the trouble began.
He’s right on all these points – but surely misses a central point about remembrance. The historian can recall the past through a diligent and methodical sifting of all the available evidence. But how a people remember a conflict like the First World War is to make sense of it through imagery, symbols and words that capture its essential truth. It’s myth-making, for sure, and it’s not necessarily rational. But I’m heartened to be the citizen of a country that has evolved a narrative of the Great War that recalls the sacrifice of those who fought without the bluster of patriotism or nationalism, and which mourns the futility of the endeavour.
In 1964 Gene Smith wandered the Western Front, noting how the war was remembered: the monuments, memorials and cemeteries. He found one headstone with the inscription: ‘Time removes everything but the memory’. We have now left behind the years when the meaning of the conflict could be understood through its survivors. Yet the Great War endures, as Reynolds recognises in the closing passage of The Long Shadow. It endures because of the continued human presence of the past in the form of letters, journals and photographs: portraits of men taken to remember them before they marched off to war, and snapshots of women – girlfriends, wives or mothers -kept close to the heart in a soldier’s pocket book. As Reynolds points out, the significance of these photos was captured in Ivor Gurney’s 1917 poem ‘Photographs’:
Lying in dug-outs, joking idly, wearily;
Watching the candle guttering in the draught;
Hearing the great shells go high over us, eerily
Singing; how often have I turned over, and laughed
With pity and pride, photographs of all colours,
All sizes, subjects: khaki brothers in France;
Or mother’s faces worn with countless dolours;
Or girls whose eyes were challenging and must dance,
Though in a picture only, a common cheap
Ill-taken card; and children – frozen, some
(Babies) waiting on Dicky-bird to peep
Out of the handkerchief that is his home
(But he’s so shy!). And some with bright looks, calling
Delight across the miles of land and sea,
That not the dread of barrage suddenly falling
Could quite blot out – not mud nor lethargy.
Smiles and triumphant careless laughter. O
The pain of them, wide Earth’s most sacred things!
Lying in dugouts, hearing the great shells slow
Sailing mile-high, the heart mounts higher and sings.
But once – O why did he keep that bitter token
Of a dead Love? – that boy, who, suddenly moved,
Showed me, his eyes wet, his low talk broken,
A girl who better had not been beloved.
Alongside such tokens there are the stones – the war graves where the past is present on a gigantic scale, ‘fusing the pity of war for individual human beings with the epic of war in the arena of nations’. Without these meticulously tended graves, observes Reynolds, the borderlands of France and Belgium would have become simply a ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ in the words of Isaac Rosenberg’s poem – a place of mass graves and random burials that would quickly have decomposed into oblivion:
In the garden cemeteries along the Western Front and on the Memorials to the Missing at Ypres and Thiepval, the dead were religiously named for perpetuity; likewise on local war memorials in British towns and villages. Even after a century these ‘nameless names’ exert their own power over the living, stirring our imagination to call back the men from the shadows.
A poem, a photograph, a memorial stone. How we remember. The lessons we learn, the consolation we seek. All come together with an early poem by Ted Hughes that was inspired by a photograph of six young men taken just before they volunteered for war. The photo belonged to Hughes’ father, and captured six of his friends on an outing to Lumb Falls near Hebden Bridge. Six months later all six men were dead. In November 2007 the Elmet Trust placed a plaque at Lumb Falls in remembrance of those six young men:
The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.
All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.
This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.
Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.
That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.
Time removes everything but the memory.