Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Peronne Historial 1

L’Historial beside the lake of the Somme at Peronne

The Historial de la Grande Guerre is an excellent museum of the First World War in Peronne, the small town straddling the upper reaches of the Somme which was my base during the time I spent exploring the memorials and cemeteries there. The museum was opened in 1992 and houses presentations in three languages – French, English and German – to show how each nation experienced the war in this sector. It is not a military but a cultural museum which seeks to show how the lives of combatants and civilians were affected by the war. For me, the main attraction was a display of a complete set of Otto Dix’s series of etchings, Der Krieg (The War), his harrowing cycle of prints in which he documented the horrors of his own wartime experience.

Peronne Historial 2

The entrance to the Historial, through the gateway of the Chateau

The Historial is housed in the partly-ruined medieval Château de Péronne, in a modernist building of white concrete  on the banks of one of the placid lakes (etangs) of the Somme which make a stroll around Peronne such a pleasant experience.

Peronne Somme 2 Peronne Somme 3 Peronne Somme

Peaceful scenes on the Somme and the etangs around Peronne

Inside the museum there are displays of posters, lithographs, press clippings, objects, uniforms, postcards, photographs, and many other documents which provide an international panorama of the conflict. Among the most interesting of the exhibits are the tables on which is displayed the detritus of war – coils of barbed wire, helmets, some pierced by bullets, lead shot, water bottles, trenching tools, and so on – still being found in the fields of the region, as today’s farmers dig and work their fields with tractors.

Historial display 2 Historial display 3 Historial display

Displays at the Historial, Peronne

For almost the whole of the war, Péronne was occupied by German troops. It was finally liberated on the 2 September 1918 by Australian troops.  Life under German rule deeply affected the inhabitants of Péronne and the town suffered heavily with bombardments, fire and destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, almost 30% of the town’s inhabitants became civilian victims of the war.

Ruins in Peronne, Hôtel de Ville, Arthur Streeton watercolour with pencil

Arthur Streeton, ‘Ruins in Peronne: Hôtel de Ville’, watercolour with pencil

The ruined church, Péronne, France, 5 September 1918

The ruined church in Péronne, 5 September 1918

Within days of Peronne being captured, the Australian troops had made their mark on the streets with signs painted on bits of old timber that reflected the Australian sense of humour:  Wallaby Lane, Ding Bat Alley, Digger Road, Dinkum Alley – but best of all, Roo De Kanga. The sign was photographed on  3 October 1918 and collected for Australian War Records shortly after.

‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne 2 ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

Rue de Kanga, Peronne, in 1918

Few towns in France have retained the street names given to them by the Australian forces.  However, in 1997 the commune of Peronne restored the name Roo De Kanga to a stretch of the rue de St Savour, by the Hotel de Ville, where the sign had hung briefly some seventy nine years before.

Street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

The street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’ in Péronne today

In the Historial, I was keen to see the complete set of Otto Dix’s etchings, Der Krieg.  Displayed in a dedicated gallery, this disturbing 20th century equivalent of Goya’s Disasters of War makes troubling viewing.

In 1914 Otto Dix, a 24 year-old student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts, enlisted in the German army and was sent in 1915 to serve on the Western Front. It was not until after the war, from 1920 onwards, that his work became overtly anti-militarist under the influence of Grosz, portraying his hatred for war in a style close to expressionism, full of pathos and violence.

The series of fifty etchings entitled Der Krieg, completed in 1924, sprang from the artist’s need to confront the horrors of his wartime experiences:

The fact is, being young at the time, you just don’t realize how profoundly scarred you are. For at least ten years after the war I kept getting dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through. The ruins were always there in my dreams. . .

In these etchings, destruction, deformation and appalling human mutilation emerge from encircling gloom to form a vision that is apocalyptic. Most of the scenes depicted recall memories of things seen by Dix in Somme or in Picardy, where he fought (he was at the Somme during the major allied offensive of 1916).

In Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940, GH Hamilton describes Dix’s series as:

Perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art… It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist, not even by [George] Grosz  …

Like the equally devastating Disasters of  War, Goya’s account of the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of Independence from 1808 to 1814, Der Krieg uses a variety of etching methods and exploits the potential of a long sequence of images. Der Krieg mirrors Goya’s unflinching, stark realism and, like Goya’s cycle, reveals the artist both horrified and fascinated by the experience of war. For Dix, these prints were like an exorcism. The portfolio was circulated throughout Germany with a pacifist organization, Never Again War (for which Kathe Kollwitz created her memorable image of the same name). Dix, however, doubted that his prints would have any bearing on future wars.

Before I left for France I heard cartoonist Martin Rowson, whose own work is similarly direct and uncompromising to that of Dix, give a talk on Dix and Der Krieg on Radio 3’s The Essay, in a week of excellent talks entitled ‘Minds at War’ that also included Ruth Padel talking about Kathe Kollwitz’s Grieving Parents sculpture, and Heather Jones on Henri Barbusse’s novel Le Feu.

Rowson began his talk by placing Dix in the context of the New Objectivity artistic movement that flourished in Germany in the 1920s – challenging Expressionism by its unsentimental focus on reality and the objective world, as opposed to the more abstract, romantic, or idealistic tendencies of Expressionism. Otto Dix was one of its main practitioners, along with Max Beckmann and George Grosz. Their mercilessly naturalistic depictions portrayed Weimar society in a caustically satirical manner.

Otto Dix, 'Mealtime in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’

Speaking specifically of the engravings that form the sequence Der Krieg, Rowson described the effect of viewing them as claustrophobic, ‘just like being stuck in a trench eating lunch among your comrades’ rotting corpses’ (here referring to ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’, the thirteenth print in the series).

These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness,
But even skulls have their humour,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
And we,
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
That murks our foul, damp billet,
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.
– ‘Grotesque’ by Frederic Manning

Rowson explained the elements of the engravings which define them as modernist – in particular, Dix’s use of over-drawing, ‘one of the defining tricks of modernism: that transgressive line that breaks all the rules by breaking across all other lines’. For Rowson, ‘breaking the rules of realism, of reality, is the only real way of getting to the truth’.

In a key passage of his talk, Rowson compared John Singer Sargent’s Gassed with the third plate from Dix’s Der Krieg, ‘Gas Victims’, in which, ‘faces blackened by lack of oxygen and unrecognisable as being even human’, the victims of a gas attack lie apparently unnoticed while two medical orderlies stand nonchalantly by them. Sargent’s painting, Rowson argued, could only have emerged from the victorious nation –  exhibited in the new Imperial War Museum, whose name would have provoked a gunfight between armed militias in Germany, the nation defeated and therefore deeply divided about the meaning of the war. Even the act of remembering – as Otto Dix did in his etchings and paintings  – could be conceived as being in the worst possible taste.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Gas victims – Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916

Otto Dix, ‘Gas victims  (Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916)’

Rowson concluded by asserting that Der Kreig is ‘less about the Great War than its aftermath: while Dix claimed to be remembering the war and its horrors, the Nazi’s whole point was to re-enact them’.  In 1933 Dix was dismissed from his post as an art tutor at the Dresden Academy by the Nazi regime. Shortly afterwards his work appeared in the Nazi government’s exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ (to be burned afterwards).  In 1935 Otto Dix left Germany for exile in Switzerland.

In 1963, explaining why he had volunteered in 1914, Dix had this to say:

I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Soldier's grave between the lines

 Otto Dix, ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’

The first plate from Der Krieg is ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’, a chaotic image of a churned up battlefield which is also a cemetery, constantly ploughed by continued shelling.

Next to the black, waxen heads like Egyptian mummies, lumpy with insect larvae and debris, where white teeth appeared the hollows; next to poor darkened stumps which were numerous here, like a field of bare roots, we discovered yellow skulls, stripped clean, still wearing a red fez with a grey cover as brittle as papyrus. There were thigh-bones protruding from mounds of rags stuck together in the red mud, or a fragment of spine emerged from a hole filled with frayed material coated with a kind of tar. There were ribs scattered all over the ground like broken old cages, and nearby blackened pieces of leather, pierced and flattened beakers and mess tins had risen to the surface. Here and there, a longish bulge – for all these unburied dead finish up going into the ground – only a scrap of material sticks out, indicating that a human being was annihilated on this particular point of the globe.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

While the series began with a soldier’s grave between the lines, the second plate provides a graphic depiction of how such graves are produced. Soldiers react in horror as the earth collapse around them. In the instant before they are swallowed, Dix depicts them not as they are but as they will become, their faces reduced to depictions of skulls.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Corpse of a horse

Otto Dix, ‘Carcass of a horse’

The First World War produced many artistic renderings of dead horses – a reflection of the fact that there was nearly one for every man, and that the connection between horse and man was very close. This three-legged corpse, with its side ripped wide open is terribly realistic.

Otto Dix, Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares

 Otto Dix, ‘Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares’

Already by plate number four you sense that this is no ordinary series of etchings. Here, a night time flare illuminates a lunar landscape, illustrating the command of various print techniques which Dix demonstrates throughout the series.

A constellation like day; the horizon behind it by lights
and flares fingered and shrouded,

That went and came, fell or stood, restless, phantom-
like; and if it went, deep night fell,
And if it came, then somewhere a town lay, white,
shifting furtive a forest was made and a vale
Full of sleep, with torrents and indeterminate things,
with graves and churchtowers, smashed, with
climbing mists, moist, big-clouded,
With huts, where sleepers lay, where a dream walked,
full of fever, full of strangeness, full of animal
splendour,where abruptly a screen
Of cloud split open; and behind it swelled and ocean of
stars. a dominion of rockets, a light sprang from the
Terrible, roaring, rumble of wheels on roads, and a
man stepped darkly into the dark,by a dreadful
nightmare amazed,
Saw the flight of fires migrating, heard butchery below,
saw behind the darkness the city that ceaselessly
Heard in earth’s belly a rolling,ponderous, gigantic,
primeval, heard traffic travelling the roads, into the
void, into the widening night, into a storm, grim in
the west. Frantic, the ear
With the front’s countless hammers, with the riders
who came, stamping, hurrying, with the riders who
rode away, to turn into shadows, melt into the night,
there to rot,
Death slaughters them, and they lie under weeds,
heavy, fossil, with hands full of spiders, mouths
scabbed red and brown,
Eyes full of uttermost sleep, the circlet of shadow
around their brows, blue, waxen,decaying in the
smoke of the night
Which sank down, threw shadows far which spread its
vault from hill to hill, over forest and rottenness,
over brains full of dreams, over the hundred
none carried away,
Over the mass of fire, over laughter and madness, over
crosses in fields, over pain and despair, over rublle
and ash, over the river and the ruined town…

– ‘Nocturnal Landscape’ byAnton Schnack, 1920, translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Wounded soldier – Autumn 1916, Bapaume

Otto Dix, ‘A Wounded Soldier (Autumn 1916, Bapaume)’

Dix was a machine gunner during the battle of the Somme, an experience that left him with obsessive memories of death. Here he depicts unblinkingly the agony of a comrade wounded in the abdomen, expressed in his bulging eyes, clenched right hand and twisted left arm. This image is an unmitigated symbol of human suffering.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

Dix fought in Champagne, on the Somme, near Verdun, in Russia, and in Flanders – the latter experience leading him to paint Flanders in  1924: with its echoes of Breugel’s apocalyptic visions, it was subtitled ‘Adapted from Barbusse’s Under Fire‘.

Now, in the sinister light of the storm beneath black dishevelled clouds, dragged and spread across the earth like wicked angels, they seem to see a great livid white plain extend before them. In their   vision, figures rise up out of the plain, which is composed of mud and water, and clutch at the surface of the ground, blinded and crushed with mire, like survivors from some monstrous shipwreck. These men seem to them to be soldiers. The plain is vast, riven by long parallel canals and pitted with waterholes, and the shipwrecked men trying to extract themselves from it are a great multitude . . . But the thirty million slaves who have been thrown on top of one another by crime   and error into this war of mud raise human faces in which the glimmer of an idea is forming. The future is in the hands of these slaves and  one can see that the old world will be changed by the alliance that will   one day be formed between those whose number and whose suffering  is without end.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu, chapter 1

Otto Dix, Flanders, 1924

Otto Dix, ‘Flanders’, 1934

When Dix began painting Flanders, he had already been dismissed from his post as art tutor at the Dresden Academy. Dix’s dismissal letter said that his work ‘threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves’. In addition, two of Dix’s paintings, The Trench and War Cripples, had appeared in the exhibition in Dresden Town Hall of ‘degenerate art’  intended by the Nazis to discredit modern art. Dix’s response was to begin painting Flanders – another powerful anti-war painting.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Stormtroops advancing under a gas attack

Otto Dix, ‘Stormtroopers advancing under a gas attack’

‘Storm-troopers advancing under a gas attack’ is probably the print from the series that is most often reproduced. Dix portrays five soldiers in close-up, as seen through the eyes of French defenders, their faces covered by their gas masks, advancing on an enemy line through No Man’s Land during a gas attack. When soldiers wore their gas masks they lost all signs of humanity and Dix presents them as symbols of terror.

Otto Dix, 'Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

Otto Dix, ‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

What is this war? It is mud, trenches, blood, rats, lice, bombs, pain, barbed wire, decaying flesh, gas, death, rain, tears, bullets, fear and a loss of faith in all that we once believed in.

– Otto Dix

Otto Dix, 'The Ruins of Langemark

Otto Dix, ‘The Ruins of Langemark’

Langemark was where gas used by the Germans for the first time in April 1915.  During the Third Battle of Ypres, British troops captured Langemarck (which is close to Passchendaele). A German counter-offensive then re-captured most of the ground around Langemarck. This print probably depicts Dix’s memory of what was left of the town after he and the Germans returned.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, A Dying soldier

Otto Dix, ‘A Dying Soldier’

The Historial’s caption to this print gets it exactly, terrifyingly right, pointing out that the title is ‘dying’, not ‘dead’ despite the unprecedented wounds inflicted by artillery and gunfire.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Lens bombarded

Otto Dix, ‘Lens is bombarded’

Lens was located in German occupied territory, still inhabited by elderly French civilians, women and children.  Dix focusses on one street.  A British or French plane flies low over homes in order to bomb enemy targets, but killing civilians in the process. Dix portrays the terror of women in the foreground, while bodies lie strewn across the street behind them.  Here is where it all started – the concept of ‘total war’ in which civilians are deliberate targets (in order to demoralize) or are simply ‘collateral damage’.  Think Gaza, Syria, Ukraine right now.

Otto Dix, 'Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches’

Dix represents what no war photos could show – the act of a German soldier stabbing with force a knife into the heart of his enemy.  The tension of the arm, the direction of the body, the blade piercing the body – force us to look at the killer’s grinning action

We are unfeeling dead who, through some dangerous trick of magic, are still able to run and kill. A young Frenchman falls behind; they catch up with him and he puts his hands up; in one of them he is still holding his revolver; we cannot tell whether he wants to shoot or to surrender. A stroke with a shovel splits his face in two. Another seeing this tries to escape, but a bayonet whistles into his back. He jumps in the air and, arms outstretched, stumbles screaming as the bayonet moves up and down in his spine.

– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Otto Dix, 'Shelter in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Shelter in the Trenches’

By a lamp, German soldiers sleep, play cards, smoke.  On the left, a naked soldier kills fleas on his shirt with his finger nails. Looking at this brought to mind ‘Vigil’, a poem dated 23 December 1915, by the Italian, Giuseppe Ungaretti which I first read in Jon Silkin’s 1979 Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – still, I think, the best collection.

A whole night long
crouched close
to one of our men
with his clenched
grinning at the full moon
with the congestion
of his hands
thrust right
into my silence
I’ve written
letters filled with love

I have never held
so hard
to life

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt, 1914

Otto Dix, ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt’, 1914

See also

The Beauty and the Sorrow: a wonderful summer, then an abyss of horror

The Beauty and the Sorrow: a wonderful summer, then an abyss of horror

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie in car before assassination

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie moments before before the assassination

The summer was more wonderful than ever and promised to become even more so, and we all looked out on the world without any cares. That last day in Baden I remember walking over the vine-clad hills with a friend and an old vine-grower saying to us: ‘We haven’t had a summer like this for a long time. If this weather continues this year’s wine is going to be beyond compare. People will always remember the summer of 1914.
– Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, 1942

Yesterday marked, as we have been reminded across the media: one hundred years since the assassination in Sarajevo that proved to be the trigger for the First World War.  Recently I finished reading The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund: if you only read one book on the war in this centennial season, I would recommend this one.  Subtitled ‘an intimate history’, The Beauty and the Sorrow tracks the progress of the war through the experiences of twenty unknown eyewitnesses whose letters and journals Englund has drawn upon to create a work that is novelistic in structure and sensibility, elegantly written, deeply humane and gripping.

For Englund’s protagonists, the war begins in an explosion of optimistic patriotism but descends inexorably into cynicism, horror, suffering, privation and exhaustion. Through it all their words reveal how they endured, trying to make sense of it all whilst preserving their humanity.  Among Englund’s interesting cast of characters is Elfriede  Kuhr, a German schoolgirl, twelve years old at the outbreak of war.  On 10 October 1914 Elfriede records in her diary the mood of intense patriotism in her school. Although Englund will sometimes quote selected passages from his sources, more often he paraphrases, as here:

This loud roar whenever another German triumph is announced has become a ritual in her school. Elfriede believes that many of them scream simply because they are hoping that victory will be celebrated with a holiday. Or that the headmaster, a tall, strict gentleman with pince-nez and a pointed white beard, will be so affected by their youthful patriotism that he will at least let them off the last lessons. (When the outbreak ofwar was announced to the school the headmaster was so moved that he wept and found it difficult to speak at times. He is the man behind the ban on using foreign words in school and sinners have to pay a five-pfennig fine: the word is ‘Mutter’ not ‘Mama’, ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ not ‘Adieu’, ‘Kladde’ not ‘Diarium’, ‘fesselnd’ not ‘interessant’ and so on.) Elfriede, too, joins in the shouting about the fall Of Fort Breendonck, not so much because she thinks that they will be excused classes but just because she thinks it is fun: ‘I think it’s wonderful to be allowed to shout and scream for all we’re worth in a place we normally have to keep quiet all the time.’ In the classroom they have a map on which all the victories of the German army are recorded by pinning up small black, white and red flags.  The mood in the school and in Germany as a whole is aggressive, arrogant, chauvinistic and and exultant.

Reading that reminded me of the scene in the schoolroom at the beginning of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

Kantorek was our form-master at school, a short, strict man who wore a grey frock-coat and had a shrewish face…Kontorek kept on lecturing at us in the PT lessons until the entire class marched under his leadership down to the local recruiting office and enlisted […]

One of our class was reluctant, and didn’t really want to go with us. That was Josef Behm, a tubby, cheerful chap. But in the end he let himself be persuaded, because he would have made things impossible for himself by not going. Maybe others felt the same way he did; but it wasn’t easy to stay out of it because at that time even our parents used the word ‘coward’ at the drop of a hat. People simply didn’t have the slightest idea what was coming […]

Oddly enough, Behm was one of the first to be killed. He was shot in the eye during an attack, and we left him for dead. We couldn’t take him with us because we had to get back in a great rush ourselves. That afternoon we suddenly heard him shout out and saw him crawling around in no man’s land. He had only been knocked unconscious. Because he couldn’t see and was mad with pain he didn’t take cover, so he was shot down from the other side before anyone could get out to fetch him.

That can’t be linked directly with Kantorek, of course – where would we be if that counted as actual guilt?  Anyway there were thousands of Kantoreks, all of them convinced that they were acting for the best [… ]

But as far as we were concerned, that is the very root of their moral bankruptcy. […] We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than [Kantorek’s]. While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.

German soldiers on way to front, 1914

German soldiers on their way to the front, summer 1914

But it wasn’t just patriotic-minded schoolmasters who were swept along by the wave of patriotic fervour. ‘How the hearts of all poets were on fire when war came!’ Thomas Mann wrote that summer. ‘It was a cleansing, a release that we experienced, and an incredible sense of hope.’  When the call-up came the poet Ernst Toller rejoiced, ‘We live in an ecstasy of feeling.’  At the beginning of the war, patriotic sentiment was widespread in Germany, and extended to many German and Austrian Jews – such as Stefan Zweig,whose memory of the glorious summer of 1914 at the top of this post forms an epigraph to Peter Englund’s book.

In August 1914, war fervour swept all the belligerent countries, not just Germany. In Britain two million volunteered in the first six months. Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV captured this mood looking back from the 1960s with a sense of nostalgia for a world that was about to be swept away:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

There were those who felt differently.  The German poet Alfred Lichtenstein wrote Leaving for the Front on 7 August 1914.  Seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead, fatally wounded in an attack at Vermandovillers on the Somme on the 24 September. Ironically, Vermandovillers was retaken from the Germans four years later (nearly to the day) by Wilfred Owen’s regiment.

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.

Few suspected what was to come. ‘It is not to be supposed,’ wrote a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian on 29 June 1914 analysing the significance of the assassination in Sarajevo, ‘that the death of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand will have any immediate or salient effect on the politics of Europe.’ Thirty-seven days later, Britain declared war on Germany and Europe was plunged into a worldwide conflict in which more than 16 million people died in four years.  In another book read recently, The Sleepwalkers, historian Christopher Clark shows how all the key players were sleepwalkers, ‘watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring in the world’.

Sunday, 2 August 1914

Laura de Turczynowicz is woken early one morning in Augustów

What is the worst thing she can imagine? That her husband is ill, injured or even dead? That he has been unfaithful?

It has been a perfect summer. Not only has the weather been perfect- hot, sunny, wonderful sunsets-but they have also moved into a newly built summer villa, tucked away by the lakes in the beautiful Augustów Forest. The children have played for days on end. She and her husband have often rowed out on the lake during the short, white nights of June to greet the rising sun. “All was peace and beauty…a quiet life full of simple pleasure.”

It has to be said that the simplicity of her life is relative. The large villa is superbly furnished. She is surrounded the whole time by servants and domestics, who live in a special annexe. (Each of the five-year-old boys has a nanny and the six-year-old girl has her own governess. The children are taken round in a special pony-trap.) They move in the society of the best noble families in the region. They have spent the winter on the French Riviera. (The journey home was fast and simple: European borders are easy to cross and there is still no need for passports.) They have a number of residences: as well as the summer villa and the big house in Suwalki, they have an apartment in Warsaw. Laura de Turczynowicz, née Blackwell, has a sheltered, comfortable existence. She screams at the sight of a mouse. She is frightened of thunder. She is modest and rather shy. She scarcely knows how to cook.

In a photograph taken a summer or so earlier we can see a happy, proud and contented woman, dark blonde, wearing a wide skirt, a white blouse and a large summer hat. We see someone used to a privileged and tranquil life, and a life that gets steadily better. She is by no means alone in that. Though there have been rumours of unrest and distant misdeeds, she has chosen to ignore them. And she is not alone in that, either.

So it really has been a perfect summer and it is still far from over. This evening they are supposed to be holding a lavish dinner party. But where is her husband? He has been working in Suwalki for several days and should have been back yesterday, in time for the party. They held back dinner for him but he did not arrive. This is not like him at all and she is growing more and more concerned. Where can he be? She waits, watches. Still no sign. She has not been this worried for a long time. What can have happened? She does not fall asleep until it is almost morning.

Laura is woken by a violent banging on the window.

It is four o’clock in the morning.

She leaps up to quieten the noise as quickly as possible, before it wakes the children. She can see a figure down below the window. Her first, confused thought is that it is one of the servants on the way to the market and in need of something-money or instructions, perhaps. To her amazement she is greeted by the pale and earnest face of Jan, her husband’s manservant. He passes her a card. The handwriting is her husband’s.

She reads: “War is declared. Come immediately with the children. Let the servants pack up what you wish to bring and come on later in the day.”

This is the passage which opens The Beauty and the Sorrow. One of the great achievements of Peter Englund’s book is to give a substantial jolt to what is perhaps a British preoccupation with the western front. By carefully selecting the stories of twenty men and women of a dozen nationalities Englund provides a vivid impression of the war’s geographical scope, taking in Mesopotamia, east Africa, the Dolomites, the Balkans and Russia as well the more familiar locations of Flanders and Verdun.

Among those whose wartime experiences Englund follows is Laura de Turczynowicz,the American wife of a Polish aristocrat, whose experience of war arriving at her doorstep opens the book. Soon her home is wrecked and then turned into a hospital for typhus victims by the occupying Germans. Among the rest are: an Australian woman who drives ambulances for the Serbian army; a Venezuelan soldier of fortune in the Ottoman cavalry; a French civil servant; a Scotsman fighting Germans in East Africa; a Belgian air force pilot, a fighter ace who wins medals but is finally shot down and badly wonded just days before the war’s end; and Elfriede Kuhr, the German schoolgirl diarist who lives near the eastern Prussian border in Schneidemühl (now Pila in Poland). She remains one contributor whose vivid observations of life on the home front begin with her descriptions of the mood of swaggering confidence at the outset of war, but soon shift to recording the daily hardships and increasing mood of pessimism. By the summer of 1917 she is writing in her diary: ‘This war is a ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it.’

In 1918 she starts volunteering at a children’s hospital and describes the privations that war has brought; Englund narrates:

They do what they can. When the babies cannot get any milk they give them boiled rice or porridge or just tea. […] Ersatz, everywhere ersatz. Substitute coffee, fake aluminium, imitation rubber, paper bandages, wooden buttons. The inventiveness may be impressive but the same cannot be said for the resulting products: cloth made from nettle fibres and cellulose; bread made from flour mixed with potatoes, beans, peas, buckwheat and horse chestnuts (which only becomes palatable a few days after being baked); cocoa made from roasted peas and rye with the addition of some chemical flavouring; meat made of pressed rice boiled in mutton fat (and finished off with a fake bone made of wood); tobacco made of dried roots and dried potato peel; shoes soled with wood.

Elfriede Kuhr

Elfriede Kuhr

It took Elfriede Kuhr some time to get used to work in the hospital, to suppress her feelings of nausea at the sight of blood or pus or bedsores. Almost all the children are suffering from malnutrition or have a disease, many of them handed in by their mothers, young soldiers’ wives who have reached the end of their tether. Elfriede senses that these children are just as much war victims as the men killed at the front. Child mortality in Germany has doubled in the last fewyears. She writes:

Oh, these babies! Just skin and bone. Little starving bodies. And how big their eyes are! When they cry it is no louder than a weak little whimper. ‘Ihere is a little boy who is bound to die soon. He has a face like a dried-up mummy. The doctor is giving him injections of cooking salt. When I bend over his bed the little one looks at me with those big eyes that remind me of the eyes of a wise old man, but he is only six months old. There is clearly a question in those eyes, a reproach really.

A few weeks later a little boy of six months dies in Elfriede’s arms:

He simply laid his head, which seemed much too big for his skeletal body, on my arm and died without as much as a rattle or a sigh.

Several hours later she goes back to look at the body, and thinks she hears a noise coming from the dead boy’s half-open mouth, as if he is trying to breathe.  Plucking up her courage, she takes hold and forces the boy’s jaws open to give him more air. She recoils in shock as a large blowfly crawls out of the boy’s mouth.

Elfriede Kuhr (right) with sisters and children at the Municipal Children's hospital, Pila, 1918

Elfriede Kuhr (right) with sisters and children at the Municipal Children’s hospital, Schneidemühl, 1918

Englund is a Swedish historian and journalist, and now permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. What he has written here is, in the words of the New York Times, ‘an unusual book:

It contains few big names, major treaties or famous battles; there are almost no ambassadors, dashing journalists or discussions of tactics and materiel. It’s not so much a book about what happened, he explains, as “a book about what it was like.” It’s about “feelings, impressions, experiences and moods.”

There are many First World War books which are collations from letters, diaries and journals, but none are like Englund’s.  What Englund does here is to allow his twenty protagonists to tell their stories, whilst quoting only sparingly from their own words. Instead he paraphrases them, in elegant and elegiac passages that skilfully condense his source materials that remain faithful to the experiences and emotional states of his subjects. Largely written in the present tense to maintain the sense of immediacy, Englund unobtrusively includes helpful background information within the text or in footnotes as the threaded narratives progress chronologically through the war years.  Occasionally, Englund makes his own sharp observations, writing, for example, that ‘the conflict has increasingly become an economic competition, a war between factories.’ He notes the arrival of what he calls ‘a new species in the bestiary of the young century: the articulate and ideologically convinced mass murderer in well-cut clothes who performs his butchery while sitting behind a desk.’

On his personal website, Peter Englund writes that the most difficult part of the project was finding the form of the book:

I have written several shorter pieces on WW1, I have taught on that subject at my old University in Uppsala, and so I was familiar with the subject. But I was also quite determined that I didn’t want to write a book following the standard format, i.e. with an over-arching grand narrative that contains snippets of individual experiences, mainly because that has already been done, and often quite well. Instead I was interested in the war as an individual experience, to give some kind of sense on how it was (and is) to experience history from below and within, without the hindsight and the rationalisations that inevitably comes afterwards.

There he also explains what it is about the First World War that fascinates him:

What made me interested in World War One in the first place, and still has a grip on me is not just that it is THE big disaster of the 20th century, the one that started all the other ones (without WW1 no Hitler or Stalin, no WW2, no Cold War even), actually the single most important historical event in European history after the Fall of Western Rome 476AD. It is also that this war can’t be reduced to a story with a simple moral, like WW2. In 1939-45 everything was much more clear cut: light against darkness, good against evil, democracy against fascism, etc, and even the story itself is so exciting, almost archetypal in its narrative curve: at first the monster rises, sets out to conquer to world, but after much hardship is forced back into his lair and eventually defeated…

Asked whether there are any lessons from the war that we can reflect on at the 100th anniversary, he responds:

One important lesson is about how easy it can be to start a war, especially in a frenzy of emotion, and how terribly difficult it can be to end it. Because the horrible logic of human conflict makes men lose control over it: wars follow their own, supremely unpredictable course, almost never achieving those goals that they set out to achieve originally. And sometimes war even destroys those very things people originally set out to defend.

Some of the most interesting personalities in Englund’s book are women. One such is Olive King, an energetic and restless Australian who drives the ambulance she has paid for herself, and placed at the disposal of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, one of many private medical units started in the first wave of enthusiasm in 1914.  Unusually, this one was founded by radical suffragettes and is staffed exclusively by women. In October 1915 King sailed with the unit to Salonika, where their role was to provide medical assistance to the Serbs in their fight against the Austro-Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians. King maintained and repaired the unit’s three ambulances herself, something highly unusual for a woman at the time.

Sarah Macnaughton is a Scottish aid worker who experiences hardship, first in Russia and then in Persia.  There, in April 1916, seriously ill, weak and disheartened, she writes in her diary:

It is such an odd jump I have taken. At home I drifted on, never feeling older, hardly counting birthdays – always brisk, and getting through a heap of work – beginning my day early and ending it late. And now there is a great gulf dividing me from youth and old times, and it is filled with dead people whom I can’t forget. In the matter of dying one doesn’t interfere with Providence, but it seems to me that now would rather an appropriate time to depart.

Florence Farmborough is a 27-year old English nurse in the Russian army, a woman who until the war had lived a fairly sheltered life.  She came to Russia in 1908 to work as a governess to the daughters of a well-known Russian heart surgeon in Moscow. She serves on the Russian western front and experiences battles as the front line shifts between German and Russian forces. In March 1916 she is in Chortkov, a town which at the beginning of the war lay in Austrian Galicia (and is now in Ukraine).  A year ago, Russian forces occupied the town and set fire to many buildings before being driven out.  Now they are back and, as Florence observes in her diary, life has taken a turn for the worse for the substantial Jewish population of Chortkov:

The position of the Hebrews living in Chortkov is most pitiful.  They are being treated with vindictive animosity.  As Austrian subjects they enjoyed almost complete liberty, experiencing none of the cruel oppression poured out on to the Russian Jew.  But under the new Government their rights and freedom have disappeared and it is obvious they resent the change keenly.

In January 1918, she returns to Moscow, a city which she records has changed enormously in the two months since she was last there.  In Englund’s words:

The darkened streets are patrolled by all-powerful and trigger-happy soldiers wearing red armbands. (Many of the people she knows intentionally dress in shabby clothes so as not to bring themselves to the attention of these patrols.) Gunfire can often be heard at night and her host family sleeps fully dressed so that they might leave the house quickly if necessary. Food shortages have grown much more severe and have reached famine proportions. The guaranteed daily ration consists of three and a half ounces of bread or two potatoes. It is now impossible to obtain even a simple basic like salt. There are still restaurants open but their prices are astronomical and the meat is usually horse flesh. The atmosphere is one of fear and uncertainty.

Famine, lawlessness and imminent civil war force Florence to leave Moscow on a dangerous 27-day trek by railway to Vladivostock, from where she sails home.

The Beauty and the Sorrow is dedicated to ‘Carl Englund, private in the Australian Army [who] died in the fighting outside Amiens, 13 September, 1918. His place of burial is unknown.’ His relationship to the author is not specified. The book’s odd title may be explained by the words of one of the individuals whose stories form Englund’s narrative.  ‘War is beautiful – to the eyes of generals,’ writes French infantryman René Arnaud as he marches away from the front line at Verdun with 30 survivors out of his unit of one hundred who had marched towards the trenches.

In an online discussion of The Beauty and the Sorrow Geoff Dyer praises the book, but notes something strange about it:

He has uncovered and found out about the lives of 20 different people from different parts of the world – some are combatants, one is a doctor, there’s this cast of characters – and he narrates the war chronologically through their experiences of particular days. This gives a real sense both of people being at the mercy of history – they’re not major actors in what’s going on – but they’re also completely shaping our view of what’s going on. I should say also that each person’s experiences are narrated with novelist-like techniques. The prose is very like that which we encounter in fiction. He also quotes a lot from their diaries.

But then quite an interesting thing happens. We have in our heads a pretty well-defined narrative of the First World War, and there are certain events that are obviously key. But one of the interesting things about this book, and perhaps one of its shortcomings, is that for us the absolutely key day of the First World War is the 1st of July 1916 – the first day of the Somme, 60,000 casualties – and in the context of this narrative it never happens, because coincidentally none of the people he’s chosen are there.

Englund’s book has a devastating ending. On the very last page a new character emerges – a young soldier recovering in hospital. A priest comes to the ward with news that the Kaiser has abdicated, and a republic has been declared.  The soldier, who has served as a runner of messages for the Austrian forces, laments the defeat of his homeland. He writes:

The days that followed were horrible, and the nights worse. […] My hatred grew during these nights, my hatred for those responsible for this evil deed.  During the days that followed I recognised what my mission was to be. […] I decided to become a politician.

The soldier was Adolf Hitler.  The words are from Mein Kampf, published in 1925.

All the suffering and torment wrought at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating theatres, under the arches of bridges in late autumn – all these are stubbornly imperishable, all these persist, are inaccessible but cling on, envious of everything that is, stuck in their own terrible reality. People would like to be allowed to forget much of it, their sleep gliding softly over these furrows in the brain, but dreams come and push sleep aside and fill in the picture again. And so they wake up breathless, let the light of a candle dissolve the darkness as they drink the comforting half-light as if it was sugared water. But, alas, the edge on which this security is balancing is a narrow one. Given the slightest little turn and their gaze slips away from the familiar and the friendly and the contours that had so recently been comforting take the sharp outlines of an abyss of horror.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, 1910 (epigraph to The Beauty and the Sorrow)

Michael Morpurgo, Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War

Michael Morpurgo, Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War

Oh What a Lovely War Somme losses

‘Oh! What a Lovely War’:  the ‘cricket’ scoreboard showing the number of dead and the ground gained

On Newsnight this week, Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse (the stage version was discussed here recently), spoke with Jeremy Paxman about how the First World War is remembered in British art and literature. Paxman asked him to respond to the case – put forward by David Reynolds recently in The Long Shadow (reviewed here), and, more assertively by  folk such as Michael Gove and historians such as Max Hastings – that our view of the First World War has been distorted by poetry and dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder and his own War Horse.

Morpurgo dismissed Gove’s assertion that poetry and drama perpetuate left-wing myths about the war and denigrate notions of patriotism and honour. Instead he argued that they simply reflect the reality of ‘one of the most dreadful conflicts that humanity has ever been involved in’.  Each work in its different way is part of the process of Britain coming to terms with the terrible losses of the war.

Morpurgo spoke warmly about the final series of Blackadder, and the extraordinary courage’ of the writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis who took beloved characters – ‘they came into people’s houses for years’ – and wiped them out’.

What did that mean?  That meant, in an extraordinary way, a huge loss.  And you thought – that’s the end of something.  … I thought it was a very significant moment, both in art and in television, and a very brave thing to do.

On the question of patriotism, Morpurgo reminded viewers of Edith Cavell’s ‘Patriotism is not enough’: patriotism, he said, has to be thoughtful.  Art – such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem that draws upon Wilfred Owen’s verses – can help express and test feelings and emotions about the war.  Marking the war’s centennial, he argued, should be done in a spirit of reconciliation and peace – not in any sense that ‘this was a victory’:

Yes, there was a victory, but at what cost?  The cost of the lives of these people – all across the war, whether they were Italians or Germans.  The Germans lost 2 million men, yet when you go and visit their cemeteries they are empty.  You know, these were sons, and these were fathers, and it seems to me to be very important that know, a hundred years later, we respect the fact that they went and fought for their country.  They weren’t all little kaisers, these people, they were sons and daughters, they were farmers, they were carpenters, just like we were.

That last remark reminded me of a passage from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

‘Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.

The full interview with Morpurgo has been uploaded by the BBC to YouTube:

Like Michael Morpurgo, I came to the First World War in the sixties, through the war poets – and the musical Oh! What a Lovely War which opened at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, in March 1963. The stage play was produced by The Theatre Workshop, led by radical director Joan Littlewood. However, it was  the film version of the stage show, released in 1969 and directed by Richard Attenborough that I saw. It features many leading British actors of the time, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith and John Mills.

Even though it toned down Joan Littlewood’s committed anti-war politics in favour of some sentimentality, the film nevertheless had a powerful impact on someone fresh from reading Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and immersed in the political confrontations of the Vietnam anti-war movement.

Devised in the form of musical hall entertainment, Oh! What a Lovely War took a satirical look at the 1914-1918 conflict.  The play was staged as a seaside concert party with the cast performing in traditional white Pierrot outfits (though the film dispensed with that aspect). In a series of sketches that utilised popular songs of the period, the show focused on the experience of working class men serving in the trenches. The military top brass were portrayed as buffoons, convinced of their patriotic mission and stubbornly refusing to accept they might be wrong.

The play was based on The Donkeys by historian Alan Clark (which had cast the army’s leadership as incompetent), with some scenes adapted from The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek. The play outraged many by suggesting that the conflict had been futile – seen most dramatically in the ‘cricket’ scoreboard showing the number of dead compared to the ground gained (top).

Joan Littlewood outside Theatre Royal Stratford

Joan Littlewood outside Theatre Royal, Stratford

Joan Littlewood’s was an interesting life: born in Stockwell, south London, to a poor family, she was the daughter of a young Cockney servant girl, and was raised mostly by her grandparents. She trained as an actress at RADA but left after an unhappy start and moved to Manchester in 1934 where she met folk singer Jimmie Miller (who was later became better known as Ewan MacColl). After joining his troupe, Theatre Union, Littlewood and Miller married.

MI5 placed the couple under surveillance early in 1939, with Littlewood described in the files as ‘highly intellectual and a keen communist’. Their home in Hyde, Cheshire was regularly watched – ‘A number of young men who have the appearance of communist Jews are known to visit Oak Cottage. It is thought they come from Manchester’, MI5 was warned in April 1939. In 1940, Lancashire’s chief constable told MI5 that Last Edition, a play performed by Theatre Union, amounted to ‘thinly-veiled communist propaganda’ because it portrayed workers’ struggles in Britain, Spain and the empire.

In 1941, the BBC banned Littlewood from broadcasting, lifting the ban was lifted two years later when Littlewood ended  her association with the Communist party, though MI5 kept her under surveillance until the 1950s. In 1945, Littlewood, her husband, and other Theatre Union members formed Theatre Workshop which toured the country for the next 8 years before taking up residence at the Theatre Royal in Stratford in 1953. The works for which Littlewood is now best remembered are Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958), which gained great critical acclaim, and Oh! What a Lovely War! 

Oh What a Lovely War Somme closing
Oh What a Lovely War Somme final 1
Oh What a Lovely War Somme final 2

Shots from the final sequence of the film version of ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’

What I remember most vividly from the film version of Oh! What a Lovely War is the final sequence in which a dead soldier rises from the trenches and follows a red cord from the battlefields of the Western Front, past the statesmen signing the peace treaty at Versailles and then out onto the South Downs where the bereaved women of the Smith family walk on a hillside covered in the white crosses of soldier’s graves.  The film finally ends with a crane shot in which the camera pulls back to reveal countless more graves.

That final sequence must have had a big influence, too, on Ben Elton and Richard Curtis when they were writing the final episode of  Blackadder in 1989. While Oh! What a Lovely War had been angry (especially in the original stage version) the last season of Blackadder had focussed on the absurdity of war.  But when it came to the poignant final scene,  comedy was replaced by tragedy as Blackadder and his men were ordered over the top to their inevitable deaths.  The final shot of a series that had run throughout the 1980s was a view of no man’s land that dissolved into a field of poppies. It was as powerful a statement as the scoreboard in Oh! What a Lovely War, or the film version’s hillside of crosses.

See also

War Horse: they had no choice

War Horse: they had no choice

War-Horse 1

While we were in London we went to see the National Theatre’s hugely successful production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse.  Beforehand I’d felt a little unsure about what to expect: would it be a little too saccharine and over-sentimental?  But any reservations I had were swept away within minutes: this straightforward story of the love and loyalty of a boy for his horse in the First World War grips from the start with its mesmerising staging and astonishing puppetry.  It’s no wonder it has been an international success, running in the West End since 2007.

Michael Billington pinpointed the factors that explain its success in a review for the Guardian in 2011:

First and foremost, it’s the spectacle. Audiences still gasp at the ingenuity of the Handspring Puppet Company who give the horses, through their bendy, bamboo frames, an articulated, individual life. It’s a truism but there comes a point when we forget the horses are manually operated and imagine them, in the words of the Chorus from Henry V, ‘printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth’. But equally remarkable is the moment when a simulated first-world-war tank, signalling the cavalry’s demise, rolls ominously towards the audience.

Technical skill alone, however, doesn’t explain War Horse‘s wow-factor. I suspect it’s also to do with the way it taps into folk memories of the First World War. The show doesn’t have the pungent mix of satire and sentiment that characterised Theatre Workshop’s dazzling Oh! What A Lovely War. Nor does it possess the vivid realism of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong, with its portrait of the subterranean lives of sappers. But we are still haunted by the collective horror and mass sacrifice of the ‘great war’.

It all adds up to a terrific evening’s theatre: an uplifting tale, superb acting, stirring music, dramatic visuals – and, not least, the incredible  technical achievements of the puppet designers and the puppeteers.

The phenomenal success of the National Theatre production owes everything to its collaboration with the South African Handspring Puppet Company.  The horse puppets are life-size, made of cable, leather and steel, brought alive with the movements and expert choreography of their handlers.  Every twitch of an ear or shudder of mane makes you believe the animals are real, helping to emphasise Morpurgo’s vision of the historic bond between human and horse.

War Horse 4

War Horse

In the original book, Morpurgo elected, like Anna Sewell in Black Beauty, to tell the story of Joey the horse from  the horse’s point of view, making the horse a witness to the brutality of the first World War. Joey is conscripted, leaving behind life on a Devon farm for service with British forces in France.  During a cavalry against machine guns, his rider is shot and killed and Joey is captured by German troops. Meanwhile, Albert, his young owner and trainer, enlists in the army by lying about his age and pursues his beloved horse.

The stage version inevitably abandons the horse’s-eye-view of Morpurgo’s novel to build the narrative around Albert and his pursuit of his across the French battlefields of the 1914-18 war. It has to be said that Albert’s character is never really developed. And though, like Oh! What a Lovely War, the play makes good use of contemporary folk song and war ballads to counterpoint the devastation of war, this is not a show which challenges the war aims and military leadership in the overt manner of Joan Littlewood’s ground-breaking production.

War Horse is in actual fact a well-oiled machine in which all the constituent elements work to perfection: the acting, stage design and back-projected video, the lighting, the music; and above all the extraordinary horses and cheeky goose brought vividly to life by Handspring Puppet Company.

War Horse horse meets tank

War Horse: horse meets tank

I was interested in how Michael Morpurgo came to write War Horse.  I learnt from the National Theatre website  that his mother was Belgian:

My mother often wept when she talked about the war. On the mantelpiece was a photo of my Uncle Pieter, who was shot down in 1941, two years before I was born. He looked back at me when I looked at him, and I knew he wanted to say something but couldn’t. I used to talk to him sometimes, I remember. I wanted to get to know him.

A friend of the family used to come to tea sometimes. My mother always told me I must not stare at him, but I always did. I could not help myself. His face and hands were horribly scarred. I knew he had been shot down in the war and suffered dreadful burns. Here’s what war did. It burned flesh. It killed my uncle. It made my mother weep. So I grew up with the damage of war all around me. I learned that buildings you can put up again, but lives are wrecked forever.

As a schoolboy I read the great poets of the First World War – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy. I read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I saw the film. I went to see Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War. Britten’s great War Requiem, the pictures of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer left an indelible impression on me.

In other interviews he has spoken of one particular meeting – with a man in his local pub – that sparked the idea for the book:

It was in my village, The Duke of York, in Iddesleigh in Devon. He was in his eighties and I knew he’d been to the First World War as a young man. For no good reason I happened to ask him what regiment he’d been in. ‘Devon ­Yeomanry’, he said, ‘I was there with ‘orses.’ He told me things beside the fire in the pub that day that you don’t read in poems or books, that you didn’t see in films. It was as if he was taking me by the hand and showing me, ­passing it on; about living with fear and horror, about how the only person he could talk to was his horse, when he was feeding him at night, alone.  He talked on for hours about the horse he’d loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat.

Then some weeks later I came across a picture by one FW Reed, painted in 1917, of British cavalry horses in the First World War charging up a hill towards the German positions, towards the wire. Some were already entangled in it. Like the private in the old song, they were ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’. I telephoned the Imperial War Museum and asked if they knew how many horses had been killed in the First World War. A million or more, they told me, and that was just in the British army; probably eight million horses died on all sides. With the real possibility now growing in my head that I might write a story about the First World War, not from one side or the other, but from the perspective of a horse that is used by both armies, so that it could be a story of the universal suffering of that war, or any war, I began my research.

I determined then and there to tell the story of such a horse. But how to tell it? I had to find a way that didn’t take sides. So I conceived the notion I might write the story of the First World War as seen through a horse’s eye, a horse that would be reared on a Devon farm, by the forebears of the village people I knew, a horse that is sold off the farm to go to the front as a British cavalry horse, is captured by the Germans and used to to pull ambulances and guns, winters on a French farm. It would be the horse’s eye view of the universal suffering of that dreadful war in which 10 million men died, and unknown millions of horses.

Beyond the specific incidents which provided the inspiration for the book, Morpurgo has spoken (again on the National Theatre website) about the more general views about 1914-18 – and war in general – which impelled him to write:

The First World War, I think, is the great metaphor for all wars because in a way, it was the most useless of all wars. This was absolutely a struggle between the great European powers, slicing up the world between them and deciding who should have the biggest slice of the cake. I think many people, many historians, look at the First World War and think, Well that was a waste, a complete waste of life. After that war, there was this short intermission of 20-odd years and then there was this Second World War, which, to my way of thinking, was a complete result of the First World War. And we know what damage that has done and continues to do worldwide.

It was all begun by this great conflagration of western powers unable to negotiate their way without humiliating one another. What seems to happen time and time again is that we fight away, we humiliate one another and we expect there to be peace. But it doesn’t work that way and we all should know this by now. Suddenly this book about the First World War becomes much more urgent and relevant because of the suffering that we all know is going on around us.

Column on the march, August 1914

A column of cavalry on the march, August 1914

After the show, I wanted to know more about the extent to which horses were used in the Great War. That figure of more than eight million seems to be the widely accepted estimate for the number of horses that died on all sides during the First World War. Although Joey in War Horse is a cavalry mount, horses served in the conflict in many different ways. On all sides – British, Australian, French, German and American – memoirs, letters, photographs and sketches reveal just how important horses really were.  The military authorities regarded horses as indispensable – they hauled guns and equipment through deep mud and over rough terrain more effectively than motor vehicles; they were used for reconnaissance and for carrying messengers, as well as pulling artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons. Memoirs and soldiers’ letters also reveal that the  presence of horses often increased morale among the soldiers at the front.

Pack horses carrying ammunition in Flanders, from 'The Horse and the War' by Captain Lionel Edwards, published by Country Life in 1918.

Pack horses carrying ammunition in Flanders, from ‘The Horse and the War’ published in 1918

How typical was Joey?  Very. Over the course of the war, the British government impressed half a million privately owned horses into the army – 17% of the country’s equine population. In France in the month of August 1914 alone, 730,000 horses were requisitioned – which means that nearly a quarter of the French horse population disappeared from the home front in fewer than 30 days.

In France and Belgium, the war was dominated by the artillery, infantry and engineers and it was these forces that employed the most horses and mules for draught work. Motor transport was important but did not supplant true horse-power. Heavy horses pulled the largest guns and the heaviest wagons. Lighter horses and mules kept the field artillery mobile, hauling ammunition, rations and equipment into the front line and supporting the vast infrastructure of camps and depots of the rear areas.

The enormous contribution that horses made to the war effort on all sides is summarised in this passage from The Beauty and the Sorrow,Peter Englund’s brilliant history of the war compiled from the diaries and letters of twenty unknown individuals on both sides of the conflict:

Weaponry has undergone great change over the past fifty years, becoming ever more deadly, but the means of transport have hardly changed at all.  This is one of the main reasons that the war so often stalls and becomes static.  Once the trains have reached their termini the further progress of the armies relies on exactly what it relied on in Caesar’s or Napoleon’s day – the muscles in a man’s legs or in a horse’s back. But these ever more complex organisations demand more and more equipment, and the weapons, with their increasingly rapid rate of fire, demand more and more ammunition.

A German army corps needed only 457 wagons for its transport in 1871 whereas in 1914 it needed no fewer than 1,168 – an increase of over 250 per cent.  All these extra wagons had to be pulled by horses, and the extra horses needed fodder, which also needed to be transported.  Weight for weight, a horse eats ten times as much as a man, which in turn demands more wagons and more horses to pull them, and so on. A contemporary head-count suggests that there was one horse for every three men.  About eight million horses died in the war, which means the horse population suffered proportionately greater losses than the human one.

Men at the Western Front, c 1916

Men on the Western Front with horses, c 1916

Some men enlisted to follow their horses to war, as Albert does in War Horse,  while others simply expressed a desire for equine companionship during the trials of war.  Sir John Moore, Director of the British veterinary services in France during the war, believed that soldiers’ relationships to horses provided ‘evidence of a pleasanter side of the picture and one which acts as a corrective and is an antithesis to baser impulses of men and nations’, while AW Curie, in a 1932 book on the subject of horses in the war wrote:

Among the few bright things of the soldier’s life none touched him more deeply than the mutual attachment of man and horse. No one who has ever had to do with soldiers and with horses can fail to acknowledge how much the horse helped to keep up the morale of the man. The very work of tending a horse was a distraction which relieved the trooper or the gunner from the otherwise unrelenting tension of warfare. The few minutes of pleasant companionship made him the more ready for the battle of a new day.

On the Western Front, the traditional cavalry charge was stopped in its tracks by two technological advances – barbed wire and the machine gun. Then, two and a half months after the Somme, a new weapon emerged. It was mobile, it could deflect machine gun bullets and it could crush barbed wire. The horse had finally been replaced by the tank.

Treating a wounded horse

Treating a wounded horse

Erich Maria Remarque expressed the view that ‘it is the vilest baseness to use horses in war’ (a sentiment echoed by Robert Graves in his war memoir Good-Bye to All That where he wrote, ‘The number of dead horses and mules shocked me; human corpses were all very well, but it seemed wrong for animals to be dragged into the war like this’).  Watching War Horse, one scene in particular reminded me of this terrible passage in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

The screaming goes on and on. It can’t be men, they couldn’t scream that horribly.

‘Wounded horses,’ says Kat.

I have never heard a horse scream and I can hardly believe it. There is a whole world of pain in that sound, creation itself under torture, a wild and horrifying agony. We go pale. Detering sits up.’Bastards, bastards! For Christ’s sake
shoot them!’

He is a farmer and used to handling horses. It really gets to him. And as if on purpose the firing dies away almost completely. The screams of the animals become that much clearer. You can’t tell where it is coming from any more in that quiet, silver landscape, it is invisible, ghostly, it is everywhere, between the earth and the heavens, and it swells out immeasurably. Detering is going crazy and roars out,’ Shoot them, for Christ’s sake, shoot them!’

‘They’ve got to get the wounded men out first.’ says Kat. We stand up and try to see where they are. If we can actually see the animals, it will be easier to cope with. Meyer has some field glasses with him. We can make out a dark group of orderlies with stretchers, and then some bigger things, black mounds that are moving. Those are the wounded horses. But not all of them. Some gallop off a little way, collapse, and then run on again. The belly of one of the horses has been ripped open and its guts are trailing out. It gets its feet caught up in them and falls, but it gets to its feet again.

Detering raises his rifle and takes aim. Kat knocks the barrel upwards. ‘Are you crazy?’

Detering shudders and throws his gun on to the ground. We sit down and press our hands over our ears. But the terrible crying and groaning and howling still gets through, it penetrates everything. We can all stand a lot, but this brings us out in a cold sweat. You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.

Some more stretchers are moved away from the dark mass. Then a few shots ring out. The big shapes twitch a little and become less prominent. At last! But it isn’t over yet. No one can catch the wounded animals who have bolted in terror, their wide-open mouths filled with all that pain. One of the figures goes down on one knee, a shot – one horse collapses – and then there is another. The last horse supports itself on its forelegs, and moves in a circle like a carousel, turning around in a sitting position with its forelegs stiff – probably its back is broken. The soldier runs across and shoots it down. Slowly, humbly, it sinks to the ground.

We take our hands away from our ears. The screaming h as stopped. Just a long-drawn-out, dying sigh is still there in the air. Then, just like before, there are only the rockets, the singing of the shells, and the stars…

Animals in War memorial

The Animals in War memorial in Hyde Park

Delving into the background to Michael Morpurgo’s tale, I was surprised to discover that in Hyde Park, London there is an Animals in War memorialdesigned by the English sculptor David Backhouse to commemorate the countless animals that have served and died under British military command throughout history. It was unveiled in November 2004.  The main inscription on the memorial reads:

This monument is dedicated to all the animals
that served and died alongside British and allied forces
in wars and campaigns throughout time.

A second, smaller inscription simply reads: ‘They had no choice’.

Trailer for War Horse at the National Theatre

Handspring: the puppetry demonstrated in a TED talk

See also