Monday, January 20, 2014

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


It is amusing to think how often the general image of some past age is the product of works of imaginative literature. Be honest, now. Think of the Victorian Age and, before your rational mind kicks in, you find yourself immediately going all Dickensian and seeing images of pitiable waifs; or jolly comic characters with humorous names; or melodramatic villains with devilish schemes; or idyllic domestic scenes as the reward for life’s travails. And then you realize that you are not thinking of the Victorian Age as it was in objective reality, but as it was in the imagination of a literary genius. And likewise the eighteenth century is rational enlightened chaps expressing themselves in heroic and balanced rhyming couplets. And the Elizabethan Age is chaps in tights talking in iambic pentameters. And so, fictionally and unrealistically, on and on.

I’m thinking in these terms because I’m thinking about the First World War.

Here is a schoolbook version that is often given in less sophisticated surveys: In 1914, everybody was wildly enthusiastic about the war, rushing to recruiting offices and thinking the lads would be home for Christmas. Hooray for patriotism. But by 1917 and 1918, everybody was completely disillusioned with the war, horrified by the slaughter and lining up to become pacifists. There was general revulsion from the war. Hooray for common human decency.  The contrast is illustrated by quoting first from Rupert Brooke in 1914, talking about “swimmers into cleanness leaping” and “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”; and then quoting Wilfred Owen’s excruciating account, much later in the war, of a soldier dying under gas attack with “blood…gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”, or Siegfried Sassoon sarcastically condemning the general who “did for them both with his plan of attack”.

So there it is in black-and-white, from the actual time the events were taking place – a shift from buoyant patriotism to anti-war feeling.

The trouble is, this very selective use of the evidence doesn’t really tell us about the general mood at the time. It tells us what three good poets were writing, but that is not the same thing as a general public mood. And, as has often had to be pointed out, while Owen and Sassoon were later regarded as the best of the soldier poets, they were known to only a tiny readership at the time their work first appeared in print.

During the First World War, there were indeed changes of public mood as the war dragged on, and there were indeed small groups of pacifists in belligerent countries. Socialist pacifists who appealed to the workers of the world. Christian pacifists who appealed to the Gospels. Conscientious objectors who got a hard time in a number of countries (including New Zealand, whence the later canonisation of Archibald Baxter). But at all times, right up to the end of the war, pacifists were an insignificant minority, no matter how much we may now agree with their stance. The change in mood did not generally express itself in terms of pacifism.

But what of the extensive mutinies in the French Army in 1917?” I hear you ask. Sure, there were extensive mutinies, but it was noted that the soldiers never turned on their officers, never asked to be withdrawn from duty and certainly never questioned the necessity of the war itself. They were simply insisting that their lives not be thrown away on pointless frontal assaults against entrenched machine guns. They were not turning pacifist, they remained patriotic poilus and (despite later legend) the mutinies were put down with minimal loss of life while (again despite later legend) French high command basically came to agree with the soldiers’ viewpoint and changed their tactics.

This was not pacifism. It was rational soldiership.

So where has this myth come from – the myth of a pacifistic spirit late in the war?

Basically from sloppy research conflating war-weariness in 1917-18 with a crop of anti-war novels (like All Quiet on the Western Front) which appeared about ten years after the war was over, when a more negative mood had descended and people were asking if the war had achieved anything. The myth also comes from reading the satirical poetry of Owen, Sassoon and others and assuming it represented a widespread viewpoint at the time. In fact, as scholarly scrutiny of publishers’ lists and sales figures has shown, even in the last year of the war, patriotic memoirs, novels and poetry were still the massive bestsellers while dissenting literature was hardly known. Rupert Brooke, though dead in 1915, was still the war poet in England.

So if there was a change in public mood in the last years of the war, how did it express itself if not in anti-war feeling or pacifism?

It expressed itself in wild rumours and the awful anxiety that the war might be lost. As the slaughter dragged on, there were demagogues to tell people that occult forces were at work to thwart the cause of patriotism. In England, in 1917-18, the MP Noel Pemberton-Billing gained a remarkably large following with his fantasies of a “Hidden Hand” of German agents, systematically corrupting British morals to weaken the fibre of the British fighting man. In New Zealand, the Baptist parson Howard Elliot ran about the country saying that Catholics and the pope, in league with the devil, had a plot to destroy the British Empire and were deliberately prolonging the war. If this sounds like nonsense that no sane person would listen to, it is worth remembering that at its height (before it rapidly fizzled away in the 1920s), Elliot’s Protestant Political Association claimed a membership of over 100,000 and had the ears of at least some members of the ruling party in government. It is interesting to note that all mention of this sectarianism – the worst outbreak of sectarianism in New Zealand’s history – is carefully avoided in Paul Moon’s “History” of the Twentieth Century wherein, as in some of Moon’s other works, the author sometimes expresses his own sectarian views.

The hysteria that gripped some countries was not pacifism. Despite everything, most of the public still supported the war. What they feared was that their struggle might have been for nothing and that the war might be lost after so much. All this was plain for observers to see at the time. For example, just two years after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, young Aldous Huxley’s first real novel Crome Yellow (1921) devotes a whole chapter (Chapter Nine) to a parson still angry that his wartime anti-papal visions of Armageddon have not come to pass after all. His fantasies are exactly those of a Howard Elliot, and Huxley attributes his ideas to a real English parson of the time.

So – sorry – but even four years of war did not make most people pacifist lovers of humanity, much as we would like them to have been. Instead, in those who wanted scapegoats, four years of war bred paranoid fantasies. We really would like to believe that soldiers became Paul Baumers, weeping over the French soldier he killed; or Wilfred Owen greeting as a friend, in a strange meeting, the enemy he had killed. But if we believe this, we are confusing literary representations with history – and they are not the same thing. Soldiers in 1917-18 did not all suddenly start writing anti-war poetry.

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This is beside the point of what I’ve just been discussing, but I’ll give it to you anyway.

I know Philip Larkin could be a grumpy old sod in all manner of ways, but for a later perspective on a public mood during the First World War, I don’t think anyone has beaten MCMXIV, his wistful version of the rush to volunteer for service in 1914. Here it is.


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 wheat's 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.

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