Our changing perspective of World War One

 

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Gravestones at a World War One battlefield, probably Verdun.

 

An earlier Leaf Collecting post recalled a speaker on a long-past edition of BBC’s Newsnight who suggested that a major reason why World War One was being still remembered after a century was the number of its soldier-poets who were still studied at school.

A more recent piece on the BBC website by poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan wondered whether our common view of the World War One experience as one of horror and disgust is actually false, and whether it has been skewed by one single poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Part of McMillan’s argument is that it was two poetry anthologies published independently in the 1960s, by Brian Gardner and Ian Parsons, which established and emphasised this bleak pessimistic view of the war. This was in line with the anti-war views shared at that time by many liberal writers, academics and broadcasters. This was an era of fear of nuclear war prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first wave of popularity of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and protests against the Vietnam War. The social and political climate also boosted the popularity of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

McMillan’s view is shared by Tim Kendall, who has edited a recent collection of World War One poetry. Kendall suggests that Brian Gardner actually provided false information about Owen, for example that the latter was prone to share “horror photographs” with contemporaries who had less combat experience. He adds that the Latin epithet which is part of Owen’s title was used 20 years earlier in a newspaper report by the rather more bellicose Winston Churchill and therefore its application here was not quite as “original” or “revolutionary” as Owen fans have suggested.

 My own collection of the poetry is a later one, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, in a revised edition from 1996. As well as the familiar names, it includes female poets and combatants from Austria, Germany, France and Italy. 

Whose poetic experience is the more authentic? When I was young, my impressions were in line with McMillan’s: it was Owen who was the orthodoxy, the accepted spokesperson, with Isaac Rosenberg acquiring some status as the only significant poet who was not an officer. Recently it appears that David Jones and In Parenthesis have been pushed further towards the top of the pantheon.

The one weakness in an argument that earlier readers of Owen inherited the flawed critical perspectives of the 1960s, in my opinion, is that many more of those readers had direct experience of war. Men and women alike might have served in the forces or in reserved occupations at home during World War Two, and others had done National Service. School-age readers had fathers or older relatives who had served – although admittedly, if they were like my Dad or David Hepworth’s, they never spoke about it.

I was really struck when I saw Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set film Vera Drake by that pub scene where men discuss briefly their different war experiences:  such moments must have been a powerful and intimate bond between many of those more introvert individuals.

The status of particular works of art keeps changing, because the ways audiences respond keep changing. Except for that one crucial fact, that far fewer readers or viewers of war stories today have had personal experience of the hardship and danger and sacrifice which are being described and presented to them.  

 

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A notice-board somewhere on the Western Front commemorates the vast numbers who died.

 

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