The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, by David Reynolds

Alex Danchev on how Britain has remembered and misremembered the First World War

November 7, 2013

A century on, there is no end to the fighting and the writing. The remembering is over – they are all dead – but the remembrance has hardly yet begun. Who better as remembrancer than David Reynolds, with his customary lucidity, his long view, his comparative perspective, his contemporary sensitivity, his scholarly sanity and his crisp humanity?

The Long Shadow is a characteristic work. It takes on or takes apart a big subject, and puts it back together again, clearly and judiciously. In a sense the book is an account of this process; the author shows us the workings, yet the proof retains a certain simplicity, of organisation and argumentation (or recapitulation, for the arguments are often recapitulated). This is the work of a master historian.

It may be that the subject is not quite as big as advertised, inasmuch as the focus of attention is Britain and the British. In a reflective conclusion, Reynolds himself offers a fair summary of a project which, although it considers all of the major participants in the conflict, puts the UK in the foreground: “The British…were distinctive in their experience both of the war and of its post-war impacts. Britain also stands out in the way that it has remembered the conflict in public culture. All this contrasts with the broad patterns of experience and memorialization on the continent…For the British, 1914-18 has become a problem that will not go away. Its vexed interpretation is wrapped up with many ongoing debates, including the United Kingdom’s troubled relationship with the European Union.”

He is more interested in the canon than the cannon. A work called The Long Shadow is naturally much concerned with how the war has been understood and misunderstood, prized and misprized, represented and misrepresented. There is an old debate about a “British way in warfare”; for Reynolds, there is something akin to a British way in war remembrance, or perhaps in war stories. He makes a strong point about “the lack of a meaningful narrative of the Great War”, citing A. J. P. Taylor’s brilliant best-seller, The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963), a book as mordant as it was mischievous, not least in the captions to the illustrations. (“He relied on divine help, became an earl and received £100,000 from Parliament: Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.”) The force of that book stemmed from Taylor’s argument, constantly reiterated, that the war had a damning simplicity: it was pointless. “No one asked what the war was about. The Germans started the war in order to win; the Allies fought so as not to lose.” Taylor’s The First World War revealed, not a “good war” like the Second, but an utterly senseless one. The mud has stuck.

Reynolds goes further. He argues that we have “lost touch” with the Great War, in large measure because of a “peculiar British preoccupation” with the poetry rather than the history: “1914-18 has become a literary war, detached from its moorings in historical events”. On this account, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon have a lot to answer for. For Reynolds, “the pity of war” tends to reduce the conflict to a series of personal tragedies, obscuring the bigger picture; the poetry effectively reinforces the Oh! What a Lovely War view of the war – a mischief-making, donkey-baiting caricature. Is this overdone? Some of the poetry, such as David Jones’ extraordinary In Parenthesis (1937) may give us access to a historical truth unavailable from the documentary record. However that may be, the contrast with France is illuminating. Many of Reynolds’ readers will be surprised to learn that Paul Fussell’s massively influential literary exegesis, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), has never been published in France, and that the poetry of Owen and Sassoon was not translated into French until the very end of the 20th century. “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” Those lines are almost unknown beyond these shores.

For the British, the meaning of the Great War centred on “one sacred day”, the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916, “understood as a holocaust moment”. Reynolds shows us the paucity of that understanding. The Long Shadow is a salutary lesson, and a summons to rethink.

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century

By David Reynolds
Simon & Schuster, 544pp, £25.00 and £18.39
ISBN 9780857206350 and 206381 (e-book)
Published 7 November 2013

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