Posts Tagged ‘Bloomsbury’

Patriotism, Idealism and Cynicism in First World War Britain

January 8, 2014

Jubilant Crowd War

Photograph of a British Crowd Cheering the Outbreak of the First World War.

I’ve posted three pieces this week and reblogged others from Vox Political, criticising Michael Gove’s comments in the Daily Mail, trying to defend World War One as ‘a noble cause’, and the courage, honour and patriotism of the troops and the tactical expertise and competence of their leaders from misrepresentation by ‘left-wing academics’ and biased TV programmes like Blackadder and films like Oh, What A Lovely War! Far from the British public being alienated and cynical about the War, they actively supported it as a ‘noble Cause’, according to Gove. Mike, the Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice, and myself have already demolished this, complete with quotes from some of the soldiers, like Harry Patch, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, were fought in the War. Now I want to go further, and examine where Gove possibly got the impression that most people supported the War.

Now there was massive enthusiasm amongst the British for the War when it broke out. The photograph above shows a crowd thronging the street cheering it when the news broke. Such crowds gathered in Parliament Square and the Mall, and sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. This enthusiasm was shared by many artists, writers and intellectuals. Malcolm Brown, in his book Tommy Goes to War, recorded one artist as saying, ‘Would they (the Germans) invade us, I wondered. By George! If they should they’d find us a t5ougher nut to crack than they expected. My bosom swelled and I clenched my fist. I wished to something desperate for the cause of England’.

The modernist writer and artists, Wyndham Lewis, wrote ‘You must not miss a war … You cannot afford to miss that experience’. Lewis, it should be said, was an admirer of the Italian Futurists, who praised war and combat, calling it the ‘sole hygiene of the world’ and denouncing anything that smacked of pacificism, liberalism and feminism as ‘passeism’. Lewis founded the Vorticists, a similar movement in Britain, and was later strongly suspected of Fascist sympathies because of his authoritarian political views, expressed in the book, The Art of Being Ruled.

This war fever was also shared by Baden-Powell and the Scouts. The motto ‘Be Prepared’ is an abbreviation of Baden-Powell’s statement urging his movement’s young members to ‘Be prepared to die for your country … so that when the time comes you may charge home with confidence, not caring whether you are to be killed or not!’ Baden-Powell had other, highly unpleasant political views. Among the reasons he founded the scouts was to indoctrinate working-class boys with healthy, British Conservative patriotic values to take them away from Socialism, trade unionism and other subversive ideas. His idea of using a uniformed organisation, patterned on the military to inculcate its members with comradeship, patriotism and social solidarity, and support for militaristic, authoritarian politics was later taken up by the Fascist movements on the Continent. It’s because of this that Baden-Powell has been the subject of criticism in parts of the Left.

Poems celebrating the War, and urging soldiers to join up, were printed in the press, such as Julian Grenfell’s Into Battle, which was published in the Times in 1915. This had the lines

The naked earth is warm with Spring
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And life is colour and warmth and light,
And a striving ever more for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase….

As the War went on, and lasted far longer than the six months they originally believed it would last, disillusionment and despair set in. A Radio 4 programme on the First World War noted that this started a year or two after the outbreak of the War, when the younger brothers of men already at the front became increasingly aware of the reality of the War from their brothers’ letters and conversation when home on leave, and became very much afraid for their own lives. Among those who expressed this disillusionment was Isaac Rosenberg. In his poem, Dead Man’s Dump, Rosenberg wrote

‘The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.’

D.H. Lawrence, in Kangaroo,sharply criticised government propaganda and the patriotic exhortations to fight and die in the popular press: ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended … The integrity of London collapsed and the genuine debasement began, the unspeakable debasement of the press and the public voice, the reign of the bloated ignominy, John Bull‘.

Sassoon photo

Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon shared this cynicism, and his poetry includes sharp criticism of recruiting sergeants, who encourage others to go to their deaths while keeping themselves safe and sound:

‘If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my putty petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour, ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.’

In my opinion, this should be printed above any statement made by Bush and the other ‘chickenhawks’, who have destroyed a country and sent thousands of brave men and women to their death or mutilation in Iraq, whenever they give any kind of statement about the invasion and occupation of that country.

Sassoon himself was strongly influence by the 1916 work, Le Feu, written by Henri Barbusse in France, who inveighed against the War and the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, that had died defending Verdun from bombardment. It was translated into English in 1917, and not only influenced Sassoon but also Owen, who was also inspired to carry on his campaign against the War after meeting the former in a hospital near Edinburgh.

Wilfred Owen photo

Wilfred Owen

Owen was only one of a number of servicemen, who wrote about the War and their experience of it in order to prevent a similar conflict ever breaking out again. These works and memoirs include Robert Grave’s Goodbye to All That, Montague’s Disenchantment – surely a title that itself refutes Gove’s statement that the British people were largely supportive of the War, Blunden’s Undertones of War, as well as the more recent accounts by Harry Patch, the last British Tommy, who died only a year or so ago. In 1962 Benjamin Britten incorporated nine of Owen’s poems into his War Requiem.

Many Left-wing intellectuals were opposed to the War from the start. These included the Bloomsbury Grou, including Lytton Strachey and Bertrand Russell. Russell was fined by the government for ‘statements likely to prejudice the recruiting and discipline of His Majesty’s forces’. George Bernard Shaw also condemned the War and the fervid patriotism that sustained it. In an article in the New Statesman he declared that the best way of ending the war would be if the troops shot their officers and went home.

Now I’ve written that modern scholarship has suggested that there was much less disaffection and cynicism amongst the British public and servicemen than previously considered. There are, however, real problems in assessing just how widespread anti-War sentiments truly were. The problem is that much of the writings about the War from the men, who fought in it has been lost. It may be stored in attics and cellars, long ago thrown away, or lost with the rest of the fortifications and camps in which it was written. The material that has survived, from Sassoon, Rosenberg, Owen, Graves and others, did so because of the social connections of those officers to the middle and upper classes. The accounts of the War belonging to those lower down the social scale has been less fortunate. Nevertheless, it has survived, as the Angry Yorkshireman has pointed out in his piece on Gove’s attempt to revise the War. Another problem, highlighted by Lawrence in the above passage from Kangaroo, is that the government and media at the time were concerned to make sure that work critical of the War had a very limited circulation. This meant that not only was the pro-War sentiment preserved from much criticism, but it’s difficult to tell how many people actually agreed with it because of restrictions on its dissemination. The amount of material surviving, that patriotically supported the War, may actually be out of proportion to the number of people, who actually shared these views, simply because it was actively promoted by government and media while critical works were not.

I have, however, pointed out that even if the numbers of people disillusioned with the War is overestimated, nevertheless, the disillusionment still existed. I also pointed out that the servicemen’s newspaper, The Wipers Times, was very much like the depiction of the War and the black humour in Blackadder Goes Forth. This episode in the War’s history has been recently explored by Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye. It is therefore quite likely that further research will reveal much more material like this to challenge the revisionist accounts so loudly endorse by Gove.

Now Gove stated that children should be allowed to study opposing views. I actually agree with him about this. It is, however, hypocritical coming from Gove, who then goes on to attack the view of the War promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’, which, as the Angry Yorkshireman has also shown, includes such notorious radicals as, er, Ken Clarke and Winston Churchill. Well, perhaps in a few years time, when Cameron has effectively turned this country into a one-party state and made the unemployed either beggars or state-owned slaves. Coming from Gove, these comments do pose a threat, as they strongly suggest that he believes that the state should dictate what views about the past should be taught in schools and universities.

Gove is wrong, often horribly wrong about the First World War, though others should certainly be free to share his views, if they agree with them. The danger is in the use of the power of the state to ensure that only the approved, Conservative version is taught. This must be strenuously resisted, so people can make their own minds up. This is the difference between education and indoctrination.

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