Remembering the First World War: blood, poppies and poetry

David Reynolds explores how commemoration of the First World War has changed over the past 100 years...

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Foreign ministers ratify the birth of the European Economic Community (EEC)

Foreign ministers ratify the birth of the European Economic Community (EEC) in Rome, March 1957. (Getty)

 

At first sight, British remembrance of war has changed little over the last century. The Cenotaph and the Two-Minute Silence date from 1919, the Poppy Appeal from 1921. Yet the continuity of ritual masks profound changes in British attitudes to remembrance. To explore these changes takes us into broader issues of national identity and even foreign policy.

The Great War was the deadliest in Britain’s history, with nearly three quarters of a million killed. It was impossible to bring such a large number of bodies home. Indeed many soldiers had been literally blown to bits by shellfire and their remains were never found. So the dead were interred and commemorated along the battlefronts in nearly a thousand cemeteries and monuments constructed by the Imperial War Graves Commission in one of the biggest public works projects of the 1920s.

Among the missing was Jack Kipling – only son of the celebrated author Rudyard Kipling – who was last seen stumbling in agony across the battlefield of Loos in September 1915 with half his face blown off. Jack could have got a medical exemption because of short-sight but he and his father were gung-ho patriots. After 1918 Kipling threw his energies into the war graves project, like the architect Edwin Lutyens and the administrator Fabian Ware. Too old to fight, these were men consumed with grief and probably guilt about the young men who had been sent to their deaths.

During the war itself the public knew little of the gruesome reality of modern industrialised killing. Press reporters were strictly controlled and there was virtually no film footage of combat or bodies. But during the twenties, the veil was partially lifted in veterans’ novels and memoirs. Particularly powerful was the play Journey’s End by RC Sherriff. Set in a gloomy dugout on the western front, it depicted British soldiers bickering and drinking as they psyched themselves up for the next German onslaught. The 1928 play had little action but it proved a runaway West End success, praised for its ‘realism’ in bringing alive the horrors of the trenches. The author JB Priestley called it “the strongest plea for peace I know”.

 

A second war

As the thirties progressed, this link between peace and remembrance tightened. Many people felt that the dead would not have died in vain if 1914–18 proved, in the cliché of the time, ‘the war to end war’. In other words, peace would be the truest form of remembrance. By the mid-1930s Britain had the largest peace movement in the world. Over a third of the population – 11.5 million people – signed the so-called ‘Peace Ballot’ of 1935, with an overwhelming majority registering support for the League of Nations and for an end to the arms trade. And, as war clouds gathered in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his own bid for peace in a desperate deal with Hitler at Munich.

Chamberlain was another of the generation who was too old to fight. He had never recovered from the death in action of his younger cousin and closest friend, Norman.

But on 3 September 1939 Britain was at war once again with Germany: all the peace-talk and peace-making had come to nothing.

This new war was profoundly different from the last. All through the Great War there had been a western front, but in 1940 the fall of France in four weeks left Britain fighting on alone. Unlike 1914–18, the country was heavily bombed and menaced by imminent invasion: 1940 became immortalised in Churchill’s celebrated phrase as Britain’s ‘finest hour’. And this war, unlike the last, ended with Germany’s unconditional surrender and complete occupation by the Allies, by which time the utter bestiality of Nazism had been revealed in camps such as Belsen and Buchenwald. This seemed clearly a ‘good war’ – and it had been won at half the human cost of the last for Britain.

In the 1920s and 1930s the British continued to refer to 1914–18 as the Great War. But after 1945 they adopted American terminology, and spoke of ‘the First World War’ and the ‘Second World War’. This accentuated the sense that 1914–18 had been an inconclusive opening round, which needed another round to finish the job.

After 1945, both Armistice Day on the 11th of November and the Two-Minute silence fell out of fashion. Instead, the dead of both world wars were honoured on the nearest weekend, known as Remembrance Sunday. In the 1950s and 1960s the British seemed obsessed with Hitler’s war – commemorating, even celebrating it, in more than a hundred colour movies showing squared-jawed, stiff-upper-lipped heroes such as Jack Hawkins and Richard Todd fighting evil Nazis in films such as The Cruel Sea and The Dam Busters.

Preoccupied with the era of Churchill and Hitler, the British paid little attention to 1914–18, but the 50th anniversary brought the conflict alive for a new generation. The blockbuster BBC TV series The Great War screened hitherto unseen footage of the trenches in surreal black and white. And the meaning of the war was questioned in books such as Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, which popularised the phrase that British Tommies had been ‘lions led by donkeys’.

This theme of innocent soldiers sent to their deaths by bone-headed upper-class generals was dramatised in Oh! What a Lovely War – an experimental play that mushroomed into a West End hit and a global movie. The tragedy of the soldiers is played out in front of a news panel displaying headline points about the fighting, such as “November… Somme Battle Ends… Total Loss 1,332,000 Men…Gain Nil”. At one point, Field-Marshal Haig (played by John Mills) asserts with aristocratic insouciance: “The loss of, say, another 300,000 men may lead to really great results.”

In fact Oh! What a Lovely War revealed more about sixties’ attitudes to class and country than about what actually happened in 1914–18, but its impact has been enduring.

This was also the decade when the British discovered the ‘War Poets’. Some 2,200 writers published poetry about the Great War between 1914 and 1918, 25 per cent of them women and fewer than 20 per cent men in uniform. Yet since the 1960s, thanks largely to 50th-anniversary anthologies, a handful of ‘soldier poets’ have become the true interpreters of the war for generations of schoolchildren through the English literature curriculum. Supreme among them was Wilfred Owen, whose poems evoked the ‘pity of war’ and whose death in action a week before the Armistice seemed to sum up its futility.

Recently some revisionist military historians have contested these sixties stereotypes of the generals, insisting that the British Army learned from the disastrous first day of the Somme, developing into an efficient war machine that combined infantry, tanks, artillery and aircraft to deadly effect in the autumn of 1918. But this ‘learning curve’ was greased with an appalling amount of blood: whether such a costly education can be justified remains a matter of debate.

 

Noble sacrifice?

It was in the sixties that British remembrance of the Great War set firm, heightening the contrast with the positive remembrance of 1939–45. All the belligerent countries, I would argue, see 1914–18 through the lens of 1939–45, but the refractions vary from place to place. Consider two examples. In France, ‘La Grande Guerre’ remains a noble sacrifice to rid the country of German occupation, whereas 1940–44 is remembered as ‘the dark years’ – humiliating defeat in 1940, and then shameful collaboration with Nazi genocide.

In West Germany after 1945, there was no denying the crimes of Nazism, even if these were initially blamed on Hitler and a criminal few rather than acknowledging the complicity of the population as a whole. But until the 1960s, Germans still thought of 1914–18 as a necessary war of defence against Russian and French encirclement. But then the writings of leftist historian Fritz Fischer persuaded many Germans to see 1914–18 as the forerunner of 1939–45, with both wars as episodes in a long story of militaristic expansion since the days of Bismarck.

And so in France and West Germany, like Britain, the two world wars were interlocked in cultural memory. But, unlike Britain, both these countries found a way of escaping from the prison of memory. In 1957, together with Italy and the Benelux states, they signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community. In effect, the EEC represented a peace treaty for western Europe, drawing a line under not only the Second World War but also the grim cycle of Franco-German wars that stretched back before 1939 and 1914 to the days of Bismarck, Napoleon and Louis XIV.

For France, Germany and their neighbours, European integration has offered a way out of their darkly entangled history, transmuting pained remembrance of the past into bright hope for the future.

 

Awkward partner

In Britain this exit strategy has never had much appeal. Not until the British empire had largely been liquidated did Britain, in 1973, join the European Community but the country remains an ‘awkward partner’, frequently at odds with majority policy. Our distinctive patterns of war remembrance are, I think, an important part of the explanation. The First World War, costly yet inconclusive, left troubling questions about whether Britain should have intervened on the continent.

The Second World War – in which Britain triumphed with the help of the ‘English-speaking peoples’ of the Commonwealth and the United States – accentuated that sense of distance, so that the Atlantic often seems narrower than the Channel.

For Britain the last third of the 20th century stood in marked contrast with what had come before. With the retreat from empire, compulsory military service was abandoned. Apart from the Falklands, foreign wars seemed a relic of the past. But over the last quarter-century, war has returned to our national agenda, in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. The deaths of young soldiers today give new life and meaning to stories and poems from Britain’s greatest war. The two-minute silence has gained new resonance, likewise the Poppy Appeal.

Yet what is being remembered is largely the sixties version of the Great War – a story of mud, blood and class conflict, a cultural memory that is stuck in the trenches and trapped in Poets’ Corner. The 50th anniversary was profoundly important for shaping images of 1914–18. Will the centenary change those rooted assumptions?

Maybe this time we shall develop a broader sense of the conflict, one in which the home front matters as much as the western front. Perhaps we shall appreciate the impact of the war on women as well as men, not least in breaking the bitter deadlock over female suffrage. We might also grasp the conflict’s global nature – its impact on countries such as India, China and Japan, its effects on the Middle East, which endure to the present day in Syria, Iraq and Israel/Palestine.

Above all, after the catharsis of the centenary, maybe we shall start to move on from remembrance to understanding. After all, no veterans are alive today who served in the conflict: quite literally, no one can ‘remember’ the Great War. In fact, we are now as far from the men who marched away in 1914 than they were from the Redcoats who fought Napoleon at Waterloo. Of course we should honour the dead but I believe we must also try to understand the Great War as history – history that still casts a long shadow across the world today.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at the University of Cambridge.

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