Oh What a Lovely War--And All That
We are in the midst of the centennial remembrance of World War I. That war commenced one hundred years ago in 2014 and the centennial remembrance will conclude next year in 2018. From New Zealand's perspective some of the "stand outs" in terms of our national remembrance have been the respective exhibitions in the Dominion Museum and the national museum, Te Papa, both in Wellington.
For some reason, World War I has been a war which in the telling of popular history has been vilified repeatedly. World War II (which was arguably a continuation of World War I) has by contrast been celebrated as a great and glorious triumph.
Why has WWI been so scandalous in popular memory? And how scandalous has it been? Historian Robert Tombs has pointed out that antipathy towards the Great War, as it has been named, emerged well after the event. This probably is an instance of populist history being, once again, a trick that the living are playing upon the dead.
Tombs surveys the modern canon of poetry to illustrate how sentiment towards WWI has changed from positive to negative in our lifetimes. He writes:
The modern canon of war poetry was created from the 1960's onwards, selected to reflect modern beliefs and sensibilities. It became part of the school curriculum, as in no other country. Those who served in the Second World War are by comparison ignored: their poetry unknown, their letters unread, their novels unstudied, their sufferings and struggles overshadowed. We cherish the memory of those we think died for nothing. [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p. 650.]Clearly, World War I failed to deliver what had been claimed: it manifestly did not turn out to be the "war to end all wars". Thus the "Great War" failed to live up to its press. Yet it has become a powerful symbol--an anti-war symbol--in our day.
. . . the Great War retrospectively changed its meaning. Unanswerably, it had not "ended war". Many came to see it as the fault of lying diplomats, blundering generals and ignorant civilians, compounded by a political and social elite that was callous, incompetent and exploitative--"hard faced men who . . . have does very well out of the war," in John Maynard Keynes famous phrase.Doubtless English readers, along with their cousins in Australia and New Zealand, can identify with much of this material. Blackadder going forth was (and remains) an excellent vintage amongst the barrels of satire and black comedy. And so it has come to pass that entire generations have been captured by re-works of history by less-than-objective historians and those who followed in their train of cynical disgust.
These messages, mixing indignation, mockery and pathos, fitting the anti-Establishment 1960's, whether for left (such as the socialist Joan Littlewood, director of the satirical musical Oh What a Lovely War) or right (the proto-Thatcherite Alan Clark, author of a military history, The Donkeys . . . )and including long-time pacifists such as Bertrand Russell and Benjamin Britten, whose War Requiem . . . chose texts from First World War poets.
The fiftieth anniversary BBC television series The Great War (1964) used archive footage and sound effects to bring the obscenity of trench warfare to a vast audience. But, significantly, the war also became the subject of mockery. Oh What a Lovely War (1963), filmed in 1969, made it a pantomime. The Oxford historian, A. J. P. Taylor, in The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963) . . . combined satire and scholarship. The 1989 television series Blackadder Goes Forth features endless attacked aimed to "move [(General) Haig's] drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin." This use of black comedy seems to be uniquely British--it would be unthinkable in France, and probably meaningless elsewhere. [Ibid.]
Tombs reckons that those who attend memorial ceremonies do so, these days, to honour those who suffered and died, rather than to celebrate the beliefs, the principles, the ideology upon which the war was based. There remains, it seems, no convincing answer to the questions, Why were they fighting? What was the Great War really about? Yet, he offers a caution:
But while lamenting their fate, must we reduce those who really did fight and suffer, mostly by choice and in the belief they were doing right, to deluded victims or simpletons? [Ibid., p. 651.]Given modern sensibilities about the Great War, the fact that in Britain millions volunteered to fight ought to give us pause, lest we fall prey to hasty generalisations and a superficial, facile, self-righteous rage over the meaninglessness of it all.
Yet the question of the meaningfulness of the war remains. The force of that question--which deserves a much more comprehensive answer than the satirists of our generation have given--remains. This is especially the case when we recall the following:
On 11 November  at eleven o'clock, fighting stopped. The BEF [British Expeditionary Force]--now 1,859,000 men, half of them teenagers--halted just north of Mons, where it had begun. [Ibid., p. 646. Emphasis, ours.]