Today marks the 100th anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany in the the First World War. Cameron, Gove and others want us to remember it as “just war”. But Matthew Cookson argues that cultural representations of the war are an explicit condemnation of our rulers’ justifications for it, and often an implicit critique of all imperialist wars.
Before he was so cruelly defenestrated as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove attempted to use the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War to launch an offensive in the battle for interpretation of the conflict. Britain’s elite are concerned that the dominant view of “The Great War” is that it was conducted in the interests of Europe’s rulers and saw millions of ordinary people lay down their lives without reason.
Gove, on the other hand, believes that the First World War was a “just war” fought against the “expansionist war aims” and the “ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites”. This conveniently ignores the breadth and brutality of the British Empire at the time, as Edmund Blackadder himself pointed out: “The British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika.”
Gove and the Tories want to portray any criticism of the British ruling class’s reason for, and conduct of, the war as a denigration of the “honour and courage demonstrated by ordinary British soldiers in the First World War”. Britain’s rulers have resorted to this contention throughout the last 100 years, partly because the slaughter of 1914-18 means that people question our rulers and war on a much deeper level today.
Britain’s ruling class accepts that it cannot convince everyone, but it wants us to keep quiet about our doubts so as not to criticise and undermine the soldiers, who are almost all working class. It is an emotional blackmail that must be rejected, not least because much of the critical view we have of the First World War comes from the writings of soldiers themselves.
The war poems of serving officers Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen have helped define our view of the war. The power of their words helps rejects the lie that soldiers and their rulers have anything in common. Their most influential works were written in the last two years of the war, and it is distinct from the poems produced by others earlier in the war.
Early war poets expressed sheer excitement at the outbreak of hostilities. They were mostly public school educated men, who believed in the honour of battle, and they wrote of the glories to come for the generation who marched off. For instance, Rupert Brooke’s poem “Peace” thanks God who has “wakened us from sleeping” and led people away from “a world grown old and cold and weary”. This theme matched the popular view of the war as a big game in which the Brits would bash the Bosch and be home in time for Christmas. Initial enthusiasm saw long queues of men signing up to join the army when war was declared.
This enthusiasm, like many of the men who enlisted, did not survive the experience of industrialised modern warfare. Cynicism towards the war and leaders began to develop among the troops, sometimes turning into outright hostility to war. The Battle of the Somme, in which the British and French armies launched a combined offensive against the German army between 1 July and 18 November 1916, was the key turning point. One million people died in the battle, with around 60,000 British soldiers being killed on the first day alone. Many of the casualties came from the Pals Battalions, friends who had signed up together meaning their deaths had a profound social and ideological effect in many parts of Britain.
Siegfried Sassoon, who came from a traditional upper class family, enlisted in the British Army in 1914 fuelled by patriotic fervour. However, his disgust at the slaughter and the suffering of the troops led him to publicly oppose the war in 1917. He refused to return to duty after leave and published a declaration against the “evil and unjust” war which had become “a war of aggression and conquest”. He was motivated by a desire to uncover the “deception… being practiced” on the troops, and challenge the “callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share”.
The poetry he produced during the war’s latter years powerfully punctured the prevailing ideas at home. Descriptions of the “hell” of the war countered the imagery of glory from earlier poets. His poetry also critiqued the hypocrisy of the establishment, who lauded the soldiers who went out to fight, but showed little concern for them when they returned.
Sassoon’s poetry and protest had a deep influence on Wilfred Owen, who remains a better-known figure due to the strength of his poetry and the tragedy of his death. Owen was killed a week before the Armistice in 1918, the notice of his death arriving at his home the day the war ended. Owen signed up for the British Army much later than many war poets, in late 1915, without being motivated by the jingoistic excesses of many of the others. Owen’s poems document the bleakness of life in the trenches for British soldiers, where the threat of death is never far away. Rather than being woken from the “sleep” of peace by war, soldiers’ fate is the endless “sleep” of death. However, due to the horror that they face, death can be seen as preferable to life; In “Asleep” the dead soldier “sleeps less tremulous, less cold, Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!”
Owen’s most famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” exposes “the old lie” that is it is glorious to die for one’s country. The poem is addressed to his contemporary Jessie Pope who wrote poetry for children dedicated to extolling the virtues of sacrificing oneself for one’s nation. Owen describes how the troops are far from shining examples of virtue and manliness. Instead they are “like old beggars under sacks… coughing like hags”. Visions of the dead man haunt Owen in his dreams and he describes “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” as he is taken back to the lines on a cart. Owen’s imagery retains its power today, expressing sympathy with the plight of the soldiers and condemning the warmongers of his, and our, time.
The psychological damage on the participants of the war caused by the horrendous things they experienced is explored in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, written in the 1990s. Barker focuses on the experiences of British officers, including Owen and Sassoon, in 1917 and 1918 and their conflicted psychologist William Rivers, who is tasked with helping them recover the necessary mental fitness to return to service, and possibly battle. In many cases the officers have to create dual personalities in order to deal psychologically with the acts they have seen and committed. In Sassoon’s case, though he is disgusted by the prosecution of the war, he is also haunted by a sense of duty and responsibility for the men. He feels that he should be there with others facing death, anything else would be a betrayal of them. Similar feelings motivated Owen to sign up for the army, and to return to the front after his own breakdown.
Disgust for the slaughter is evident throughout works that have taken the First World War as their theme, however opposition to the conflict has not been discussed as often. This is partly due to the relative weakness of the anti-war movement in Britain. This is in contrast to Germany and Russia, where anti-war feeling merged with the disillusion of the troops to create revolutions, playing a major part in ending the war. In Oh! What a Lovely War, an anti-war speaker is viewed with hostility by the crowd, while pacifists receive a few passing mentions in Blackadder. Barker explores some aspects of the anti-war movement in Britain in The Eye in the Door, the second of her Regeneration trilogy, namely its isolation and persecution.
Much of the cultural representation of the war comes from a middle class perspective, which reflects the background of those who dominate Britain’s artistic fields. This demonstrates the dominance of the oppositional views of WWI, and also reveals something significant about the First World War, and major wars in general. During times of stability, those who are bulwarks of the system are told that they are in control of their own lives and they, and their families, will benefit from its perseverance. In times of existential crisis in society, such as war between the major powers, that message is abandoned. Everyone, particularly those in the working and middle classes, becomes fodder for the machine, to ensure its survival. Much of the artistic work produced in the last 100 years represents the middle class dismay at this break from the norm.
Blackadder Goes Forth is a justly acclaimed comedy series, which focuses upon the trench life of Edmund Blackadder during 1917. He is a career officer who cynically, though humorously and perceptively, sees to the heart of the insanity of the war. Each episode sees him come up with a different scheme to escape from “going over the top” and meeting certain death. The final scene of the series is one of the most poignant of any moment in British comedy, or drama for that matter. No longer able to escape from going over the top, Blackadder and most of the cast, excluding the boorish General Melchett who is safely ensconced miles from the front, charge vainly towards the German guns, which target them mercilessly. The scene fades to the modern, peaceful fields of France, lingering silently on them, reminding us of the millions from many different countries who vainly died there.
The final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth has some similarity to that in Oh! What a Lovely War, the 1969 film that came from the radical theatre director Joan Littlewood’s production of the same name. The play and the film ironically use the songs that soldiers sung during the war to reveal the reality of the bloodshed, with jolly renditions of musical numbers becoming moments of horror. The final scene fades from resting British soldiers to white crosses, and the camera slowly pans out to reveal rows upon rows of crosses on a hillside as a choir sings “And When They Ask Us”, which tells the listener that being a British soldier was the “cushiest job” the singers had ever had.
The silence of the dead, represented at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth and Oh! What a Lovely War, is in some ways a more damning indictment of Britain’s elite than thousands of words could ever be. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy powerfully ends with a ward full of mortally wounded soldiers chanting out in unison in support of the cry, “It wasn’t worth it”. It is the voice and suffering of the ordinary soldiers that Gove wants us to ignore.
The writers who have so movingly captured the experiences of ordinary soldiers have honoured the memory of those who underwent the hell of 1914-18. Their work is an explicit condemnation of our rulers’ justifications for the war, and often an implicit critique of all imperialist wars. That is why these poems, novels, films and TV shows should be at the forefront of any true remembrance of the unfortunately misnamed “war to end all wars”.