Was the pity all in the poetry?

November 8 1998 / The Sunday Times

When Sebastian Faulks, in the late 1980s, began telling friends that he planned to write a novel about the first world war, many were incredulous.

Who wants to read about that, they seemed to say. Or, as one colleague bluntly put it, when Faulks mentioned that he was accompanying veterans on a trip to the battlefields of the western front: “I couldn’t think of anything more boring.”

The motivation for the writer Geoff Dyer, who began work, in 1992, on The Missing of the Somme, his study of mourning and memory, was the anxiety that such indifference would mean that, once the last of the Great War veterans died, their lives would be forgotten and their memory would “fade with the generation after mine”. Dyer would agree that the struggle for historic truth is the struggle of memory against forgetting, and he wrote of how, almost from the moment it began, the Great War was overlaid by memory, the truth of what actually happened obscured by a literary cult of doomed youth.

Dyer ought not to have worried unduly: now, as we prepare for the 80th anniversary of the armistice of November 11 1918, writing about the first world war has assumed the exaggerated dimension of a publishing “boom”. Far from being forgotten, the Great War, it seems, is in the process of being over-remembered, our response to it overdetermined by revisionism, nostalgia and commercial opportunism. Among new books offering “definitive” readings of the events of 1914-18 are, To the Last Man: Spring 1918 (Viking), Lyn Macdonald’s account of the final, failed German assault on the western front; John Keegan’s First World War (Hutchinson), a magisterial military history drawing historical parallels with other great conflicts; and Niall Ferguson’s revisionist The Pity of War, in which he suggests that the war was “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history” and that the actual “victors” were not the allies but the central powers. There are, too, countless minor works, including Christopher Moore’s slight travelogue, Trench Fever (Little, Brown), in which he ploddingly follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, an infantryman in the Leicestershire Regiment; Vera Brittain’s Letters From a Lost Generation (Little, Brown); the Virago Book of Women and the Great War, and The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War.

Novelists, too, are increasingly preoccupied by the events of 1914 to 1918. There is, most recently, Faulks’s million-selling Birdsong (1993), with its vivid description of trench warfare; In Desolate Heaven, Robert Edric’s study of shell shock; and Pat Barker’s Booker-winning Regeneration trilogy, in which she not so much follows the combatants into the trenches of the Somme and Passchendaele as, through the central character of W H R Rivers, a medical psychiatrist, attempts an imaginative reconstruction of the psychological aftershock of 1918, drawing onthe actual experience of figures such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

What we are witnessing here is something more than a literary fad -it is nothing less than what Stephen Wraysford, the young narrator of Birdsong, calls the “long perspective of forgiveness”, a process through which the past is reclaimed by later generations and the act of remembering becomes as important as what is being remembered. And the 80th anniversary of the armistice is the last significant anniversary in which anyone with direct experience of the Great War will play any part.

There is a problem, however. The first world war is a peculiarly, perhaps uniquely, literary war. The poems of Rupert Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and others are among the first most of us ever read as schoolchildren. The power of these moving, often homoerotic poems, written by an educated, sophisticated young men steeped in the classics and from a largely upper-middle-class background, means that the experience of hundreds of thousands of ordinary soldiers, most of whom rose from impoverished backgrounds without the miraculous gift of literary language and left behind no poems or diaries, has passed unacknowledged. As a result, these poems have helped to frame a popular conception of the Great War as one continuous, remorseless exhibition of atrocity: the Battle of the Somme amplified over four long, desolate years. The popular view of those who took part, too, is of innocent martyrs, young men with “froth-corrupted lungs” led to their slaughter by a blimpish military elite.

Other artistic media have played their part too. The shattered war landscapes of the painter Paul Nash, who enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in 1914 and whose representations of combat in paintings such as The Ypres Salient at Night and The Menin Road have an experimental vigour so often absent from the Georgian traditionalism of the poets; the several Hollywood films of German Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, perhaps the greatest novel to emerge directly from the war; the play Oh! What a Lovely War, which was such a countercultural success in the Sixties, and the celebrated and elegiac last episode of the television comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, with its remorseless hostility to Field Marshal Haig and the entire military elite - all these have contributed, as Niall Ferguson puts it, to “the persistence of the idea” that the war was an evil thing. Yet, as Lyn Macdonald told me as we toured the northern battlefields of the western front together recently, the truth is darker and more complicated. It is perhaps even, though she did not say so, closer to Ferguson’s contention that many soldiers actually enjoyed fighting.

I recently chaired a discussion on the first world war between Macdonald and Faulks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. The festival programme confidently stated that we would be talking about literary representations of the “horror” of war. But as Macdonald - who has spent the past two decades recording thousands of hours of interviews with veterans - told her audience, “horror” is too glib an appraisal. In fact, horror is the one word she has seldom heard any veteran use. Rather, they talk about the boredom of combat, of the long periods of inactivity broken by sudden and abrupt skirmishes, and even of the “adventure” of battle. In To the Last Man, one veteran, a wire-cutter, describes how he relished going out on night patrols into no man’s land because at least, after weeks of indolent frustration, he was contributing something - anything - to the war effort.

“I have nothing against the war poets,” Macdonald explained. “By definition, their work distils the war to the essence of drama. But they focus on terrible events at the expense of the whole truth. What has to be remembered is that most of our soldiers were volunteers; they believed in their country and in the empire. They thought that these things were threatened. They were caught up in the adventure of the experience. Every veteran I have ever interviewed I have asked the same question: ‘Would you do it again?’ And not one has said no. You see, they thought it was the right thing to do. And we did win, of course. Only recently has it been made to look like a pyrrhic victory.”

She is surely right. Yet who would deny that the Great War represented a terminus: the end of Victorian optimism and the beginning of what we now call modernity, a harder, technologised age of mass communication and industrial slaughter, an age in which we hurried towards a second war without ever allowing ourselves time enough properly to understand what had contributed to the the first. The Great War, as Keegan says, “damaged civilisation, the rational and liberal civilisation of the European enlightenment, permanently for the worse”. It marked the beginning of the end of the hegemony of European imperialism, too.

It is a sense of something irretrievably lost, rather than of something won, of the Great War as a narrative of catastrophe, not a noble cauuse, that continues to absorb the popular imagination. Dick Diver, the doctor-hero of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), understands this when, on a journey to the battlefields in northern France, he says: “This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time…This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes…All my beautiful, lovely, safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high-explosive love.”

One cold afternoon, two weeks ago, I walked among the bleached gravestones of the British war dead at the Gouzeaucourt cemetery, behind Gauche Wood, where the South African Scottish fought a valiant rearguard. The ordered tranquillity of the cemetery was so much like an arcadian English garden. As the wind got up across open scrubland, I was surprised by how easily I surrendered to popular convention and allowed my response to what had happened here once more to be prescribed by the poets and by Edmund Blunden in particular. Reflecting on the experience of the western front he had written that “here was peculiar grace”. Nothing, I realised then, and certainly no amount of revisionist interpretation, could ever erase such peculiar grace, nor, it seems, prevent the Great War from floating free of its historical moorings and drifting out into the clear blue sea of unreliable memory.