One November night many years ago, I watched a conversation on the BBC Newsnight programme about the imminent Remembrance Sunday. “When do you think we will stop being so affected by World War One ?” asked the presenter. His academic interviewee replied, “When we stop studying World War One poetry in school.”
Reading Jon Silkin’s anthology The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry has certainly been instructive for me, especially in introducing poems like Edmund Blunden’s “1916 seen from 1921” and “Report on Experience” , Ivor Gurney’s “The Bohemians” and “Butchers and Tombs” , Edgell Rickword’s “The Soldier Addresses His Body” and “Winter Warfare” , and Wilfred Owen’s “Disabled”.
All the poets in Silkin’s collection are long dead, but the conflict’s influence extends into the literature of the present day. Natalie Haynes, one of the Man Booker Prize judges this year, commented about the large number of novels submitted which were set during or around either of the two World Wars. Perhaps people should be banned from studying these periods at school for the next generation, she observed wryly.
Evidence abounds of the allure of World War One in particular. The narrative of Downton Abbey opened in 1912, and continued through the war and into the 1920s. R.C. Sherriff’s trenches drama from the period, Journey’s End, was recently revived in London and on national tour. Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse has become a globally successful theatre show and a Hollywood blockbuster film, and his similarly set Private Peaceful is only slightly less famous.
During the last decade media fascination focussed especially on the few centenarians still living who had fought in World War One, such as Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and Claude Choules. These men have all now died, but the forthcoming war centenary plans suggest that interest is not abating even though no one still lives who had personal experience of it.
When I was young, I fancied that the militarism and belligerence which seemed prevalent would naturally disappear as the post-1945 period extended. The war experiences of that generation of politicians appeared to influence heavily their policy choices. In turn, those born after World War Two who missed National Service led the protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons, and argued for the advantages in the new post-imperial order.
I was mistaken. Although the British families today who have direct experience of war are happily in the minority, compared to being in the overwhelming majority in the 1920s and the 1950s, interest in past and present conflict continues to be strong. Perhaps it is because direct experience is rarer that stories of individual heroism and suffering are publicised so much more; doubtless responsible too are the ever-improving visual techniques with which the media is able to depict them. This understandable sympathy for individual experience has grown alongside a tolerance of the political policies responsible which is more puzzling, especially since the responsible leaders have had no combat experience themselves.
One striking example of this sympathy has been the marked growth in popularity of the Poppy Appeal and the Two Minute Silence. Somewhere during the 1990s began the practice of two days of remembrance rather than one, the actual day of November 11 as well as the nearest Sunday. The tabloid press played a big part in this change although there may also have been successful lobbying by the Royal British Legion. Poppy wearing had already become ubiquitous on TV but now the red flower’s picture appeared on every newspaper front page. The Poppy Appeal was now launched by young pop music performers rather than elderly men wearing uniforms and medals. Possibly it was felt that the military charities should share in the youthful fund-raising habit which had already been established by Children in Need and Comic Relief.
Like many people, I find the historical period before, during and after World War One a fascinating one from all social, political and cultural perspectives, especially since a visit to some of the battlefield sites in France and Belgium. So, perhaps we should stay optimistic that any war centenary events during the next few years will provide opportunities for education and enrichment rather than for embarrassment and annoyance.
Back to poetry to conclude : I think Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s “Last Post” is an imaginative twist on regret for the horrendous destruction of World War One.
Reference : Silkin, Jon (ed) (1996) The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (2nd ed revised) London : Penguin