Making amends to the dead

The Flower of Battle - Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning - Irish Voices from the Great War
October 4, 1996

These three books about the Great War demonstrate its seemingly endless scope for research and interpretation. No sooner has one critical approach to it become established than revisions, refutations and new information start to appear and another cycle begins. Current received wisdom says that the war helped to bring about a complete break from traditional forms of expression, so that "modernism" became the only adequate response. "Modern memory" after 1918 is supposed to be somehow intrinsically different from whatever went before. This has always seemed a tendentious view, put forward by academics committed to the modernist cause.

Jay Winter's Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning challenges it head on by going back to the ways surviving soldiers and civilians remembered and came to terms with their experiences.

Winter's "sites" are not only places, ranging from the Trench of the Bayonets at Verdun to village war memorials, but also "sights" - paintings, posters, spirit photographs, films - and a great variety of other material, including themes and imagery in war literature, the "fictive kinship" set up by charitable agencies, and the boom in spiritualism during and after the war. The strange sense of paranormal vision individuals often feel after a bereavement; became briefly communal. Winter's central image is the return of the dead, as portrayed in Abel Gance's 1918-19 film, J'accuse, when dead men (played in the film by actual soldiers) rise from their graves and shake the consciences of the living. Never before in history had so many people been willing to hear messages from what spiritualists called "the Beyond".

Much of the popular response to the war had to do with making amends to the dead and saying farewell. Winter convincingly argues that war memorials should be seen not as symbols of state power, as some recent critics have claimed, but as one of the many ways society coped with the phenomenon of mass bereavement and he disposes of other readings that have been imposed on war art, including the daft suggestion that Lutyens's great arch at Thiepval represents a monstrous, silently screaming mask. When people in France, Germany, and Britain came together during and after the conflict to deal with shared feelings, they looked back to tradition, just as Lutyens looked back to the Roman triumphal arch even while designing an unmistakably "modern" monument. Winter points out that modernism alone could never have provided the healing, reconciling power that was needed. "Traditional modes of seeing the war, while at times less profound, provided a way of remembering which enabled the bereaved to live with their losses, and perhaps to leave them behind."

That phrase "at times less profound" shows where Winter is most vulnerable. In seeking to take the discussion beyond the modern/traditional divide, he has to skirt round some awkward difficulties. One is that his theme is too vast for a standard-length book; depth has to be sacrificed to width, and although he frequently explains what he is trying to do his subject matter seems oddly assorted. Interesting though his extended study is of the French tradition of popular posters (imagerie d'Epinal), for instance, its relevance to postwar expression is not altogether clear. Here and elsewhere the illustrations are inadequate; "we see", he often says, but more often than not we do not, because the picture is badly reproduced or not reproduced at all. He finds it hard to resist a good story, even when it is a digression, such as the extraordinary tale of the two British prisoners of war in Turkey who for two years pretended to be wizards (after much ingenuity they got themselves released as madmen, only to find that the war was ending anyway).

By contrast, other topics are treated in a decidedly skimpy fashion. Winter's discussion of war verse is restricted to a scattering of well-known anthology poets, ignoring the huge numbers of lesser names whose verse is full of the very "sites" he is looking for. The commonest of all wartime images, that of soldiers-as-Christs, gets less attention than it deserves. Above all, he does not tackle the simple objection, which modernism's champions would surely raise, that some works of art are better, more "profound", than others and therefore more important. But perhaps such criticisms are by the way. The value of this book is that it opens up many areas of cultural history that have scarcely been explored before and suggests a way of approaching them that allows the old, tired debates to be put aside.

Hugh Cecil's The Flower of Battle is less ambitious and more accessible, but it, too, is refreshingly new. Anyone accustomed to conventional studies might expect a book on "fiction writers" to offer critical assessments, probably in the exclusive language that academics have developed for each other. Instead, The Flower of Battle consists of scrupulously biographical essays. Some of Cecil's 12 chosen authors are well known, such as Richard Aldington and Herbert Read, some are almost or quite forgotten; all are very different from one another. Readers who have not attempted the kind of research that has gone into this book may not notice the excellence of its scholarship. Borrowing almost nothing from other researchers, Cecil has worked from primary sources, searching files of letters at Austin and elsewhere, persuading near-centenarians to revive long-distant memories, and reading hundreds of obscure novels. The result is splendidly informative, interesting and readable, despite occasional echoes of the obituary style.

Much that Cecil records about even the better-known figures is not available elsewhere, while others, hitherto only names at best, now emerge as rounded characters for the first time. None is unkindly treated: even the dreadful Gilbert Frankau is not condemned or apologised for, although Cecil seems unduly generous in assuming that one of Frankau's unpleasant war poems is a recantation of others that are equally disagreeable. Cecil's aim is to build a link with writers of the war generation before the last living memories of them disappear, and to understand why 11 men and one woman - Katherine Tynan's daughter Pamela Hinkson ("Peter Deane") - wrote as they did. Faced with the detail and variety of these lives, generalising critics ought to be abashed; as Cecil points out, the war's fiction cannot be described in any single statement.

The Hinksons were Irish, yet sympathetic towards the British. Such sympathy seems to have been rare in postwar Ireland: according to Myles Dungan's Irish Voices from the Great War, the Irish contribution to the British war effort was more or less deliberately forgotten in the South. In the North, of course, things were different, although the short-lived wartime fellowship between northerners and southerners has probably been forgotten, too. In recreating the story of soldiers from all of Ireland, Dungan does a valuable service to both communities.

It is a pity that his historical fairness does not extend to most of the generals and politicians, whom he damns unheard in the routine way as "cynical" and "callous" exploiters of the common people, but his accounts of the men on the battlefields are vivid and well-researched, with plentiful quotations from diaries, letters, and interviews. Mons, Gallipoli, the first day of the Somme, Passchendaele, and other stages in the war are traced as an Irish experience. The British experience, which several British historians have described with the methods that Dungan uses, was in most respects very similar. One day, perhaps, the fact that all the peoples of both islands have a shared history of courage and suffering will be a bond rather than an embarrassment.

Dominic Hibberd's most recent book is Wilfred Owen: The Last Year, 1917-18.

The Flower of Battle: British Fiction Writers of the First World War

Author - Hugh Cecil
ISBN - 0 436 20290 5
Publisher - Secker and Warburg
Price - £25.00
Pages - 415

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