Tag Archives: World War One

Reading World War One

Although several of my father’s favorite anthologies date from the period following the First World War, they contain little of the poetry now seen as representative of that war’s experience. J.C. Squire’s three volumes of Selections from Modern Poets include nothing by Isaac Rosenberg and only one Wilfred Owen poem: “Strange Meeting.” Three of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poems are included, but the central theme of many of Squire’s choices is of nostalgia for a lost English ruralism, a credo embodied in the opening lines of Gordon Bottomley’s “To Iron-Founders and Others”: “When you destroy a blade of grass/ You poison England at her roots.” The industrial-scale warfare of the Great War, as well as industrialism itself was seen through this “Georgian” lens as threatening a long-lost Country Life view of  a stable, sunny Britain.

It was the First World War rather than the Second that resonated most with my father’s sense of history and continued to rumble away as a kind of ground bass in his consciousness. All three of my father’s older brothers had enlisted and two of them died in their early forties from the effects of being gassed. Many years later I learned that his mother

At her oldest son's wedding 1919

At her oldest son’s wedding 1919


My father (L), Jack (Centre) and Morley( R) in 1914

My father (L), Jack (Centre) and Morley( R) in 1914

may have managed to prevent my father’s enlistment when he turned eighteen in September 1917. It seems, according to local legend, that she took the bus to the recruiting office and announced, “You’ve had three of my sons and you’re not having another,” with sufficient emphasis to keep my father out of the war. Whatever grain of truth belongs to the legend, it appears that she was reluctant to see a third son sacrificed to the war, despite the  deluge of propaganda urging mothers and wives to send their men to war. women of britain 2However, his father seems to have had a taste for the iconography of military propaganda. He devoted some of his spare time to meticulous reproduction of some of the militaristic images in vogue during the war. Years later, one of these efforts—presumably a copy from a poster or newspaper drawing––dominated one wall of my brother’s bedroom.  A framed, poster-sized coloured drawing showed a mounted cavalry officer in the mid-nineteenth century uniform of the 17th Lancers trampling a dragon underfoot. The caption, borrowed from the Lancers’ regimental motto, “Death or Glory” proclaimed, “No surrender! Death or Glory!” It mirrors the typical imagery of the innumerable posters propagandizing the First World War, though the uniform shown harks back to the style worn by the regiment at the time of the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade.

"Charge of the Light Brigade," James Edwin McConnell (detail)

“Charge of the Light Brigade,” James Edwin McConnell (detail)

The painstaking copying of such a piece of military propaganda seems an odd choice of hobby for a man who was to outlive two of his sons—their health irrevocably destroyed by an industrialized form of warfare quite unlike the prancing cavalry triumph in the picture. Odd too that my father would have chosen to preserve and display such a piece of sentimentalized homage to military force. Probably though, both father and son saw little or no connection between such iconography and the carnage of the First World War. For most of my grandfather’s adult life popular culture was suffused with the cultural ephemera of imperialism and his taste for militaristic iconography was common enough at the time. In South Riding (1936), Winifred Holtby describes the Beddowes family placidly sitting at the “well-spread table below photogravure pictures portraying those scenes of carnage so popular in Edwardian dining rooms. Horses lashed about in agony, soldiers fell face downwards in the snow unable to answer roll call, cavalry charged across the trampled corn . . . but the Beddowes family ate with excellent appetite, quite undisturbed by hate and slaughter.” Images like that of the “Death or Glory” poster abounded in advertisements, newspaper illustrations and cigarette cards.

Players Cigarette card, 1915

Players Cigarette card, 1915

Both my grandfather and his sons had spent countless hours in Methodist chapels, where, since the 1860s, the favorite non-conformist hymns fused Christianity with militaristic rhetoric. “Christian soldiers” were urged to “Fight the good fight” and “Soldiers of the Cross” were exhorted to “obey the trumpet call” and “Stand up for Jesus.” With such rhetoric and iconography so all-pervasive, no wonder that that it became detached from the reality of war. “Play up! Play up and Play the Game!” my father would expostulate in any number of contexts, sometimes associated with sport, but always remote from its original source in Newbolt’s  “Vitai Lampada” in which the lessons of the public school cricket pitch are transferred to bloody desert warfare in the Sudan,“. . .the regiment blind with dust and smoke./The river of death has brimmed his banks,/And England’s far, and Honour a name,/But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:/‘Play up! play up! And play the game!’”

World War One is now seen as the most literary of all wars of modern times. Its relationship to literary culture has been extensively analysed  by such critics and historians as Paul Fussell. The brilliant work of Fussell and others has tended to focus our attention exclusively on the writers such as Owen and Sassoon who exposed the futility, cruelty and squalor of the war. However, as Peter Buitenhuis has shown in The Great War of Words, Buitenhuis covera cast of established writers (H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett,  Galsworthy,  Masefield, John Buchan, Edith Wharton and even Henry James) systematically  generated jingoistic texts at the British government’s behest, lending a degree of sophistication to the crude imagery of recruitment posters. The theme of the propaganda was the necessity of defending British “decency” and civilization against the onslaught of the brutal “Hun.” It would have been difficult to remain entirely unaffected by this barrage of propaganda from both widely revered “bookmen” in addition to the ubiquitous militaristic imagery. My father’s eldest brother, Wilfred, who was never posted to the front, would refer cholerically to the “Hun” in reminiscences for the rest of his life. The other brothers, Morley and Jack, both severely injured by gas, the latter much decorated for bravery for service in the non-combatant R.A.M.C. in the Somme and the Battle of Ancre, maintained a life-long silence about their war experiences.

Jack in uniform, 1915

Jack in uniform, 1915

On the back of the postcard of Jack in his Royal Army Medical Corps, in what looks like my father’s handwriting, are the lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses:”

                … that which we are, we are;

  One equal temper of heroic hearts,

  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.





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