Tag Archives: World War One

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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The elements which made this war highly effective if not lovely

 

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One of the dozens of cemeteries of named and unnamed casualties from World War One in northern France and Belgium.

 

The great World War One commemoration machine is never far from view. Recently the Battle of Jutland, imminently the Battle of the Somme. So my very first viewing of Richard Attenborough’s film of Oh! What a Lovely War has been of particular interest.

Joan Littlewood’s original production in 1962 has passed into theatre mythology, a huge influence on a generation of political theatre.

However, it has been suggested that, by the time Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969, the show and its style were already a little out of date. The success of The Great War, the 26-part BBC TV documentary with its detailed use of archive photographs and film, plus the less hierarchical social habits which were developing, had spread a more balanced and more critical, less imperialistic and less jingoistic account of the War.

At that time, too, film producers were often employing black and white film to add authenticity to war stories. For instance, in the heroic epic The Longest Day, the small-scale anti-war King and Country and more conventional masculine dramas like The Hill and Guns at Batasi. Did Attenborough ever consider that treatment, one wonders? 30 years later Steven Spielberg talked about how the decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white relieved him of pressure to make such very serious material too commercial. The Angry Silence, the working-class factory drama which Attenborough produced, had certainly benefitted from the use of black and white. But Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first big directing project and he and his co-producers probably felt that colour went hand in hand with the big budget, big stars and a long running time.

It is also interesting to compare Attenborough’s all-star cast with a similar ensemble (including literally many of the same people: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Robert Flemyng, Edward Fox, Susannah York) at exactly the same time in Battle of Britain, a film with a more familiar heroic tone. When people first went to see Oh! What a Lovely War, did they know how different in content and tone was its source material?

 

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Brighton Pavilion, undergoing refurbishment in 2006. “Oh! What a Lovely War” was mostly filmed in and around Brighton.

 

I think the film today still comes across as a notable piece of work. The more realistic trench locations blend satisfactorily with the metaphorical one of the seaside pier, which is particularly effective in the interior scenes where the hazy white light backdrops the elite power politics at the start and end of the war. That scene near the end where the solitary infantryman is led along the blood-red tape past the armistice partners and is seen by them as a distraction in their important business is no less powerful for being theatrical. In fact, it actually seems more effective to me than the famous finale of the hundreds of white crosses on the green country hillside. Olivier’s unflattering characterisation of Sir John French neatly foreshadows his last film role as the wheelchair-bound veteran in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem.

The use of period songs as ironic commentary was of course the major part of Oh! What a Lovely War. Songs with simple and sweet arrangements like “Bombed last Night”, “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang” and “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum” came across now as especially effective. Another “what if?” muse: might a jagged, dissonant Kurt Weill-esqe arrangement have been more powerful and more in tune (pun partly intended) with Joan Littlewood’s didactic sardonic staging style?

What I actually didn’t know until very recently was that the whole structure of Littlewood’s show derived from a BBC radio programme by Charles Chilton called The Long Long Trail, which also used period songs to tell the story of the war experience from the perspective of the ordinary soldier.

Oh! What a Lovely War has been revived again in this period of World War One commemoration, apparently still to considerable effect. This demonstrates not just how those Brechtian theatrical devices can still work, but also the astonishing staying power of those popular songs from so long ago.

 

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A multi-lingual sign at one of the World War One cemeteries.

 

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A period poster at a former Edwardian music-hall: the Panopticon in Glasgow

 

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The death of the Wild West, the birth of…

 

As the Western gradually became a less popular genre within Hollywood film production during the 1960s and 1970s, its writers and directors dealt more often with the grittier details of life in those US frontier states in the two or three decades after the American Civil War. Many of these films were small budget affairs, like Bad Company and The Culpepper Cattle CompanyI remember Clive James describing, on the Cinema TV programme, how the latter made the West look “about as glamorous as a clogged sink”.

Two released in 1969 were The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill. The Wild Bunch featured established actors William Holden, Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine, while Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid cast the already famous Paul Newman and made a celebrity out of his co-actor Robert Redford. Both narratives, however, are set in the early 20th century, well past the frontier’s most celebrated times. Particularly interesting are those sections in both films which highlight how the world is changing around these ageing gun-slingers.

The Wild Bunch opens in a law-abiding town, populated by well-dressed families, which is disrupted violently by a shoot-out between Pike’s band of outlaws and the band of bounty hunters hired by railway boss Harrigan.  Instead of coins or bullion, the gang’s bank break-in gains them only metal washers.  This is just one symbol of how their way of life has become old-fashioned and redundant.  Another is where these horse-riders encounter the powerful presence of the new automobile owned by the Mexican general Mapace.

The film presages the imminence of World War One through the character of the German arms expert investigating the availability of American munitions. The later use of the machine gun demonstrates the brutally efficient methods of killing which are now becoming available, while Pike’s gang are still involved in the business of stealing rifles.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid begins with a summary of the past exploits of the Hole in the Wall Gang as presented by the new whirring movie camera with accompanying melancholy music . As the film’s opening holds the sepia colours of the previous newsreel, Butch Cassidy is presented with evidence of changing times. A “beautiful” old bank has been replaced by something more secure but uglier simply because “people kept robbing it”.

Comparable to the Wild Bunch’s meeting with the automobile is a scene in Butch Cassidy where a bicycle salesman takes advantage of the crowd assembled by the marshal to raise a posse in order to publicise his new product. Just as Pike in The Wild Bunch seems knowledgeable and impressed with the new motor-car, Butch Cassidy is attracted to the bicycle. He is seen riding it both solo and with the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend Etta Place as a saddle companion, demonstrating that, although dissatisfied with the modern design of banks,  he is comfortable with other examples of technical progress.

Both outlaw gangs are aware of the need to adapt to changing times. “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns, those days are closing fast”, exhorts Wild Bunch leader Pike.  He and colleague Dutch have several reflective exchanges about personal limitation, the risks of armed robbery as a lifestyle and the importance of integrity.

Butch Cassidy suggests at first that he and the Sundance Kid should join the army to fight in the Spanish-American War but they eventually opt to move to the east coast of the USA and then to Bolivia to escape the authorities. Their plight is clarified most vividly by a friendly sheriff:  “It’s too late – you should’ve let yourselves get killed a long time ago when you had a chance … your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody and all you can do is choose where.”

Both groups of outlaws are thwarted in their efforts to move with the times.  The Wild Bunch agree to acquire weapons for the Mexican army, but the contract becomes complicated by their Mexican member Angel who wants to help local villagers in their struggle. Some of the weapons are transferred to the villagers, with unhappy consequences. Moving to Bolivia, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid find legitimate jobs as payroll guards for a mining company which immediately lead to people being killed, and to the very first time, according to Cassidy, when he has been required to shoot anyone face to face.

Towards the end of Butch Cassidy, the outlaws, returning to crime, are involved in a gunfight with the local police, which has them  wounded and pinned down. The final ending of their violent deaths at the hands of dozens of Bolivian soldiers becomes a freeze frame which changes further into a archetypal sepia newspaper photo.  The elegiac music from the opening returns;  romantic individual daring and ambition have been crushed by anonymous modern military might.

The final gunfight at the end of The Wild Bunch comes after they have failed to negotiate Angel’s release from the Mexican army. As Pike starts random shooting, his face wears an expression of scorn and anger. He first shoots the German arms negotiator perhaps because he is a character of notable corruption, but mostly they are killing because it is all they know how to do. Women, children, possessions and buildings are destroyed in the mayhem which the Wild Bunch have begun.  After the battle, the wind and the exodus of survivors from the fort suggests that it has been in some way an essential episode of cleansing.  Certainly it encourages Thornton, the former colleague who has been leading a group of bounty hunters in pursuit during most of the film, to join Sykes (the last surviving member of the gang) and the Mexican villagers in what might be a more committed revolutionary enterprise against the Mexican authorities.

Only a year after its release, around 1970, the compilers of The Sunday Times Cinema series were already confident in choosing The Wild Bunch as one of the Ten Great Westerns.  I recall that the brief recommendation about the film  (written I think by Tom Milne) ended with “this really is the death of the West”. Actually, I always felt that the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the more bleak and tragic. I might also add that, while its conclusion could be said to foreshadow the excessive slaughter which will soon be repeated a million-fold across the Atlantic Ocean, the end of The Wild Bunch might hint at how similar equipment and attitudes will be employed differently elsewhere, starting with the Russian Revolution.

 

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Changing remembrance

 

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”.

 

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The French and Belgian countrysides of the former World War One battlefields are full of cemeteries both huge and grand and (as here) small and intimate.

 

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.

 

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Belgian and British soldiers side by side in this cemetery in Hoogstade.

 

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.

 

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Talbot House, the club for British soldiers of all ranks, which was set up in Poperinge in 1915.

 

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Some visitors to Talbot House at the piano, watched over by some of the previous residents.

 

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

 

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In the shadow of World War One

 

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One of the many World War One battlefield cemeteries in France and Belgium.

 

Given our continued fascination with World War One and our post-Olympics desire to find inspiring sporting stories, I’m surprised that Hugh Hudson’s film of Chariots of Fire  does not have a higher profile. It’s still more remembered as a (somewhat old-fashioned) success of the past rather than an engaging text of the present.

Some of its race scenes are, I think, brilliantly done and can be re-watched separately for their narratives of individual effort and courage : the “college dash” round the quadrangle by Harold Abrahams and Lord Andrew Lindsay while the clock strikes twelve; Eric Liddell’s Scotland run against France at Edinburgh where he makes up a quarter of a lap watched by a disbelieving Abrahams; Liddell’s Olympics win, where his devout voice-over suggests his Christian faith has made his victory almost inevitable.

The film contains other great scenes of the psychology of the sportsman. For example, the sequence of Abrahams’ campaign of practice and progress, incited by his anger at anti-Semitic prejudice and depicted to the strains of Gilbert and Sullivan. A few minutes later, Abrahams presents his vision to coach Sam Mussabini at their first meeting, “I want that Olympic medal..I can see it there…but I can’t get it on my own”, and Mussabini wittily brings him down to earth with “it’s the coach that should do the asking”.

Mussabini anticipates Eric Liddell’s later move to 400 metres running by telling Abrahams  that the shorter distance doesn’t fully use Liddell’s gifts. The longer distance is more suitable for athletes of grit and courage and endurance like Liddell (“a gut runner”), while the 100 metres is “run on nerves” and is “tailor made for neurotics,” and therefore suited to Abrahams, who confesses to being a running “addict”. Abrahams later foresees his 100 metres final as “ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence”, an idea which I often heard recycled, if more kindly, by the media during the 2012 Olympics.

The period of Chariots of Fire is very much that of World War One. The earliest part of the story is set in 1919. No characters are specifically described as having served in the war, or having protested against it. However, both Abrahams and Liddell are presented as post-World War One characters, seeing the weaknesses in traditional national loyalties. Abrahams knows the British establishment prefers those who are Anglo-Saxon and Christian but believes these corridors of power can be trespassed by determination and dedication. Liddell believes that the Christian message is not fully heeded but that when applied it has overwhelming power.  As he preaches at the Church of Scotland in Paris, “All nations, before (God), are as nothing”.

Abrahams is too young to have seen active service at the front, and all his fellow athletes in the film are equally fresh-faced. Abrahams appreciates his good fortune in missing the war, a comment which earns the approval of the assistant porter when he first arrives at Caius , even while the senior porter is annoyed by Abrahams’ self-confidence, and comments snidely about his Jewish surname.  In the next scene of the college dinner, the Master of Caius delivers a sober welcome over shots of the lists of war casualties in the wood-panelled hall, exhorting the new students to apply in peace-time the same standards of self-sacrifice and effort shown by their predecessors on the battlefield .

A key scene comes later when the two university dons, the Master of Caius and the Master of Trinity, challenge Abrahams for infringing the university’s long- established amateur sports code. Abrahams defends his employment of an Italian-Arab professional coach as modern and fore-sighted against the dons’ “archaic” values and states, “I’ll carry the future with me”.

When Eric Liddell refuses to compete in his Olympics 100 metres heat on a Sunday, the upper-class British Olympic Committee of Lord Birkenhead, Lord Cadogan and the Prince of Wales all try to convince him to change his mind out of patriotism. However, the Duke of Sutherland, the committee President, clearly of the same generation as Abrahams and Liddell, suggests that the carnage of the war has shown that many of the old loyalties are flawed and outdated.  He sees Liddell as “a true man of principle” who should be respected. Although his sympathy is not enough to win the day for Liddell until the athletic aristocrat, Lord Andrew Lindsay, provides a practical solution.

Some other young members of the British athletics team still represent pre-war values. Although the aristocratic Lindsay is always shown in an attractive and sympathetic light, he is a stereotypical gentleman amateur who does his serious running only a few feet away from cigar and champagne. Fellow athlete Aubrey Montague’s voice-over suggests that he still responds to traditional bonds of national loyalty : “we’re here (at the Olympics) for Britain, and we know it”.

 

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In the distance, the beach in St Andrews which was the location for the Olympic squad running scenes at the beginning and end of “Chariots of Fire”.

 

Although characterised as someone fighting against anti-Semitic prejudice, the ambitious Abrahams is never shown as a practitioner of the Jewish faith.  While Abrahams uses his individual effort and Mussabini’s professional help to “take on” the Christian establishment, Liddell puts his faith in God to carry him through. Liddell believes his religious faith is entirely relevant to modern life. He explains to his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure…to win is to honour him”. That this may give him an advantage in competition with people of lesser faith is acknowledged by his US rival Jackson Schultz whose “good luck” note acknowledges that God said in the Bible, “he who honours me, I will honour”.  

On the film’s initial release in 1981, I felt that the rivalry of Abrahams and Liddell had an obvious real-life parallel in British Olympians Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. The gritty and sometimes surly Ovett seemed like Abrahams, and Coe, the graceful and more approachable record-breaker, seemed like Liddell. In later athletics, Coe probably showed as much determination as Ovett/Abrahams, although you could argue that in his political career he has shown a Liddell-like wish to see beyond the world of training and races and individual glory.

Despite its many strengths, the one feature which I do feel dates the film now is the fashion-conscious 1980s music by Vangelis. One or two rough and dissonant sections, such as the one which accompanies Abrahams’s defeat to Liddell, still work well due to their unfamiliarity, but the more swooping and bombastic parts undermine rather than enforce the visuals. I wonder how the score might work with a more restrained, perhaps Edwardian-style arrangement?  Perhaps changes were made for last year’s theatre production.

I remember the film’s writer Colin Welland saying that he found Eric Liddell rather than Harold Abrahams the more sympathetic and admirable character.  Perhaps because, as someone of left-of-centre political views, Welland saw Liddell as a champion of community with Abrahams as more individualistic.  If the narrative resonates with younger audiences now, I suspect it is for its two examples of individual striving against institutional opposition and prejudice  –  and certainly not the importance of religious faith.

Of course, it’s easy to forget in the middle of the drama how even struggling outsiders Abrahams and Liddell would have lived very privileged lives in comparison to most others in 1920s Britain.

 

 

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