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Reading the Great War: The Conflict Defined a Century and Still Generates New Books

  • A patrol carries a soldier on a stretcher through knee-deep mud near Bol Singhe during the British advance in Flanders on Aug. 20, 1917. (Associated Press)

    A patrol carries a soldier on a stretcher through knee-deep mud near Bol Singhe during the British advance in Flanders on Aug. 20, 1917. (Associated Press)

  • Authors, clockwise from upper left, Rudyard Kipling, Ring Lardner, Vera Brittain and H.G. Wells wrote books during and after World War I that explored how the conflict had marked them and the world. (AP photographs [Kipling, Lardner and Wells] and McMaster University Libraries [Brittain])

    Authors, clockwise from upper left, Rudyard Kipling, Ring Lardner, Vera Brittain and H.G. Wells wrote books during and after World War I that explored how the conflict had marked them and the world. (AP photographs [Kipling, Lardner and Wells] and McMaster University Libraries [Brittain])

  • German soldiers flee a gas attack in Flanders, Belgium, in September 1917. (National Archives and Records Administration photograph)

    German soldiers flee a gas attack in Flanders, Belgium, in September 1917. (National Archives and Records Administration photograph)

  • A Bosnian Serb nationalist is captured by police and taken to the police station in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. (National Archives and Records Administration photograph)

    A Bosnian Serb nationalist is captured by police and taken to the police station in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. (National Archives and Records Administration photograph)

  • "The War That Ended Peace" by Margaret MacMillan, left, and "The Irish Guards in the Great War" by Rudyard Kipling.

    "The War That Ended Peace" by Margaret MacMillan, left, and "The Irish Guards in the Great War" by Rudyard Kipling.

  • A patrol carries a soldier on a stretcher through knee-deep mud near Bol Singhe during the British advance in Flanders on Aug. 20, 1917. (Associated Press)
  • Authors, clockwise from upper left, Rudyard Kipling, Ring Lardner, Vera Brittain and H.G. Wells wrote books during and after World War I that explored how the conflict had marked them and the world. (AP photographs [Kipling, Lardner and Wells] and McMaster University Libraries [Brittain])
  • German soldiers flee a gas attack in Flanders, Belgium, in September 1917. (National Archives and Records Administration photograph)
  • A Bosnian Serb nationalist is captured by police and taken to the police station in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. (National Archives and Records Administration photograph)
  • "The War That Ended Peace" by Margaret MacMillan, left, and "The Irish Guards in the Great War" by Rudyard Kipling.

World War I began 100 years ago this week, when Germany mobilized against Russia after a month of international crisis, diplomatic maneuvering and military preparation brought on by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28 in Sarajevo. A Gordian knot of alliances among the European countries and empires, meant to ensure stability, instead led to annihilation. By the time the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, famously on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day, some 20 million people had been killed.

Woodrow Wilson declaimed in his speech before Congress in April 1917, in which he asked Congress to declare war on Germany, that the “world must be made safe for democracy.”

But this was not what happened in the aftermath, despite Wilson’s idealistic intentions. Empires had collapsed, and a revolution had taken root in Russia. After the Treaty of Versailles, more tumult followed. International boundaries were redrawn in Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia Minor and Africa, the ramifications of which still echo today throughout the Balkans, Russia and the Middle East.

The fighting this week between Israel and Hamas in Gaza can be traced back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour that there should be a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, and, after Versailles, the subsequent dismantling and partition of what had been the Ottoman Empire into protectorates controlled by the British and French in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.

In 1914, civilians had no idea that the war would turn out to be the cataclysm that it was. But their countries’ statesmen and generals did, although even they couldn’t have foreseen the scope of the destruction. It was called The Great War, one without precedent, and the War to End All Wars. Only 20 years later, the world went to war again, on an even greater scale, and it was an apocalypse.

World War I was the defining event of the 20th century and almost everything that happened afterward came out of it, politically, militarily and artistically. There was life before the war, and life after it. It was the dividing line between the old order and a new, unstable order.

What happens when, as happened on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, approximately 20,000 British soldiers alone were killed and 40,000 wounded? The psychological implications of such slaughter were enormous.

The consequences for art were profound. Modernism had declared a new age in the years between 1900 and 1914, with such works as Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Neitzsche’s The Will to Power, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 and Matisse painted The Dance in 1909.

The years 1912 to 1915 alone saw the publication and premieres of Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, James Joyce’s Dubliners and Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

The works of prose and poetry that emerged during and after the war describing what it had been like at the front and at home were of a singular literary quality: No other war has produced such a flood of great writing, with tones anguished, bitter, ironic, betrayed and traumatized. The poets Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Guillaume Appollinaire and Edmund Blunden; the memoirists Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Henri Barbusse, Ernst Junger and Vera Brittain. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The arguments over whether the war was necessary, whether it should have been fought, how it was fought and what it means have continued over the century. Even today, unexploded ordnance is still being found on what was once the Western Front. To mark the centenary, the Valley News asked writers with an interest in the Great War to write and talk about some of the literature of and about World War I that bears revisiting. Their thoughts follow:

Margaret Darrow Professor of history at Dartmouth College

There are several new books on the origins of the First World War. Two of them are particularly good, well-researched and well-written, although both are very long. Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Random House, 2013) and Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Harper Collins, 2012).

MacMillan is a historian of international relations; she is best known for her prize-winning 2001 book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, on the Versailles Treaty negotiations. Clark is best known for his studies of Prussia. Both of these books investigate a wide range of factors in Europe as a whole that led to the war.

Germany is the focus of many studies on the causes of the war, dating back to the Versailles Treaty that placed responsibility for the war squarely on Germany and the German emperor. However, there are two excellent older books, both now classics, that provide different perspectives. Laurence Lafore, The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I, published in 1965 with a new edition in 1997, looks at the relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the crisis, after all, that set off the war. In 1984 diplomat George Kennan wrote The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia and the Causes of the First World War, which turns the spotlight on the implications of the bizarre alliance between autocratic Russia and republican France.

There is an excellent “documentary history,” July 1914: Soldiers, Statesmen and the Coming of the Great War, edited by Samuel Williamson and Russel Van Wyk (Bedford/St. Martins, 2003) that is mainly intended for college students but would interest general readers as well, especially if they like to get their history from the horse’s mouth. In a sequence of chapters, each focused on a different country, this book lays out the path to war with excerpts from contemporary letters, memoirs, newspaper clippings, cabinet meeting minutes, etc. Particularly interesting here is the impression of Serbia as a rogue state, and also of Britain, so distracted by an incipient military mutiny in Ireland that the crisis brewing in the Balkans was hardly even a footnote.

For books that evoke the experience of living through the war, you could not do better than Martha Hanna, Your Death Would Be Mine (Harvard, 2006), a study based on the letters between a French peasant couple, Paul and Marie Pireaud. Paul was drafted and served in the artillery in Verdun and later in Italy; Marie stayed at home in the Dordogne and tried to keep the farm going.

Another book that powerfully evokes the trauma of the war in France is Jean-Yves Le Naour, The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War (Metropolitan Books, 2004). It traces the case of an amnesiac French soldier and the many families who desperately claimed him as their own.

For an account of women during the war, you could read my own book, French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front (Berg, 2000). Unfortunately none of the French women’s war memoirs have been translated into English. For insight into Germany, see Suzanne Hayes Fischer, Mother of Eagles: The War Diary of Baroness von Richthofen (Schiffer Military History, 2001). Von Richthofen was, of course, the mother of Snoopy’s Red Baron. And then there is American heiress Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (in a new edition by Hesperus Press, 2008). Borden financed and ran a hospital in France from 1915 to the end of the war. Her book, a collection of brief scenes that she calls fragments, is a little gem of modernist literature.

And don’t forget the war poetry: The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (2007).

Jim Fox Editor-at-Large, Valley News

T he Irish Guards in the Great War, Rudyard Kipling, in two volumes

Kipling is not much thought of these days, and not thought much of, either. For obvious reasons, his poems, novels and stories celebrating the British Empire at its zenith do not resonate in a post-colonial world, although I think some of that work can bear a more nuanced reading. In any case, my business today is not to exhume the reputation of “the prophet of British imperialism,” as Orwell called him, but to praise his little-known masterpiece, The Irish Guards in the Great War.

Kipling’s 18-year-old son John, on whose behalf his famous father intervened to gain him a commission in the Irish Guards, was killed early on at the Battle of Loos on Sept. 27, 1915.

In his grief, Kipling eventually accepted an assignment to write a regimental history and spent five and a half years doing so, consulting both official and private records, diaries and interviews with members of the regiment. “This will be my great work,” he said. “It is done with agony and bloody sweat.”

So it is. Published in 1923, The Irish Guards in the Great War is a triumph both of literary style and of military history, of understatement and of understanding, of restraint and realism, of the particular over the general. The work is spare and sober — almost austere — piling telling detail on telling detail because, in the author’s words, “where Death ruled every hour, nothing was trivial.” His respect for the facts, as best they could be determined, combined with Kipling’s nearly unparalleled powers of description, permitted him to convey what the war was actually like for the Guards — the confusion, the horror, the quiet heroism — without explicit statement. In most instances, Kipling “let the mere fact suffice; since, to his mind, it did not seem fit to heap words on the doom.” It is above all a book that invites the reader’s imaginative participation because it is a work of inference and thus almost unbearable poignancy.

The flavor is conveyed in the following passage: “In the meantime, the 1st Scots Guards, following orders, had come partly round and partly through the right flank of the Irish, and attacked Puits 14 bis (a coal mine pithead, or entrance), which was reasonably stocked with machine-guns but which they captured for the moment. Their rush took with them ‘some few Irish Guardsmen,’ with 2nd Lieutenants W.F.J. Clifford and J. Kipling of No. 2 Company who went forward not less willingly because Captain Cuthbert commanding the Scots Guards party had been Adjutant to the Reserve Battalion at Warley ere the 2nd Battalion was formed, and they all knew him. Together, this rush reached a line beyond the Puits, well under machine-gun fire (out of the Bois Hugo across the Lens-La Bassee Road). Here 2nd Lieutenant Clifford was shot and wounded or killed — the body was later found — and 2nd Lieutenant Kipling was wounded and missing. The Scots Guards also lost Captain Cuthbert, wounded or killed, and the combined Irish and Scots Guards party fell back from the Puits and retired ‘into and through Chalk-Pit Wood in some confusion.’ ”

This is the sole mention, save one in passing, of John Kipling, whose grave was not conclusively identified by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission until 1992.

Jack Beatty News analyst for NPR’s On Point and author of The Lost History of 1914, among others

F rom the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919 , by Arthur J. Marder

Readers of Patrick O’Brian’s novels on the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars may have the appetite to take on Professor Marder’s five-volume work published between 1961 and 1970.

I came across Marder a few years ago while working on my Lost History of 1914. Biography drew me to the naval side of World War I: My father, John J. Beatty, served on the U.S.S. Mount Vernon, a troop transport torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay in September 1918 with the loss of 36 hands. He never forgot the sight of their flag-draped coffins arrayed along a Brest dock and the captain weeping during the memorial service and the tears soaking his blouse.

With the Marder books, Oxford University Press spared no expense, illustrating in fold-out colored drawings even minor engagements like the November 1914 sinking of the German raider Emden by the Australian cruiser Sydney in the Cocos Islands. The maps on the confusing Battle of Jutland, fought off the Danish peninsula between Britain’s Grand Fleet and Germany’s High Seas Fleet in the first days of June 1916, are especially welcome.

Marder is readable on the technical details of naval warfare, sound on strategy, and discerning on the strengths and weaknesses of the admirals, notably those in charge at Jutland. No admiral has been more controversial than Sir David Beatty (no relation). Winston Churchill lauded his fighting spirit at Jutland, at once a tactical defeat and a strategic victory for Britain; other commentators, granting Beatty’s spirit, have deplored his want of prudence. After sifting the evidence, Marder faults Beatty, who lost two battle cruisers during the running duel with German Admiral Franz von Hipper that opened Jutland, for trusting a signals officer who’d failed to do his job in earlier battles. Some readers will see a parallel in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s incorrigible faith in his intelligence chief, who provided catastrophic intel both in the Philippines in the first days of World War II and during the Korean War.

W.D. Wetherell Novelist

Wetherell, a Lyme resident, is the author of several novels, including a book about World War I, A Century of November. He spoke by phone about World War I, a subject in which he is deeply immersed as he is writing a forthcoming book about the literature that emerged during the war, much of which is neglected or forgotten entirely.

Many of the works that made their authors famous, such as Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Siegried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, were written well after the war. Wetherell is looking at works written during the war when, he pointed out, “they didn’t know the outcome, they didn’t know who was going to win.”

Wetherell’s first pick is Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H.G. Wells, who coined the phrase “The War That Will End War,” in an eponymous 1914 book that made the case for the war both as a halt to German imperialism, and as a kind of ghastly prophylactic that would end war forever. Wrote Wells: “This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!”

Two years later, Wells published Mr. Britling, which looks at the war from the homefront, and was an enormous best-seller. “It’s a masterpiece. I think it is the civilian novel of World War I,” Wetherell said. Britling is a writer, clearly Wells’ alter-ego, who is “leading a carefree existence. He’s concerned with literature and some politics before the war starts, but then he loses his son and that forces him to reevaluate his life and all the assumptions he’s built his life around. ... There are passages of great power and poignance,” Wetherell said.

The sports and short story writer and journalist Ring Lardner is not the first person to spring to mind when thinking about war literature, but Lardner did something unusual. “How do you make World War I funny?” Wetherell said. Even 100 years later, it’s an idea that makes us squeamish. What Lardner did was to take one of his most famous characters, the baseball player Jack Keefe, memorialized in Lardner’s first great success, You Know Me Al, and send him to the Western Front in the book Treat ‘Em Rough: Letters from Jack the Kaiser Killer, published in 1918 when Lardner was 33.

“This mordant, ironic view of WWI that eventually develops in the 1920s is already there in Lardner’s writing in the war,” Wetherell said.

In the thick of re-evaluating the war’s literature, Wetherell also lists Edith Wharton’s Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort, a collection in book form of articles that originally appeared in 1915 in Scribner’s Magazine. Wharton lived in France during the war and was active in charity work that included setting up shelters for refugees fleeing Belgium, and schools for their children. Unlike more bellicose proponents of the war, Wharton, said Wetherell, had toured the trenches and didn’t partake in the rabid propaganda of the period.

What strikes Wetherell about the era is that, in the years from 1914 through 1918, the novel held the paramount position in literature. “It was unchallenged. It was the leading art form. ... There’s just too much competition now.”

This makes the literature of the period even more compelling, Wetherell said. “Wells writes with a self-assurance that is lost to us now. They knew people were listening. They took themselves seriously, not in a pompous sense. ... They just had a self-assurance that came from being in the right profession, and the right art at the right time.”

Nicola Smith Valley News Staff Writer

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

“When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.”

So begins the English writer Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her memoir about the Great War, which killed her fiance, her brother and two male friends. There have been innumerable memoirs about that war (spelled by Brittain throughout as War, a lethal, impersonal force that chews up everything in its path), and more than a handful of those memoirs are of the highest literary quality. But few of them were written by women.

Brittain not only lost her first great love, Roland Leighton, and brother Edward Brittain, both in their early 20s, but her friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. It was a seemingly unending parade of death that, sadly, was not remarkable for any family who had sent a son or sons to war, given its catastrophic body count.

Born in 1893 to a middle-class family that highly prized intellectual achievement, Brittain was set to study at Oxford when the war began in 1914. But that was delayed because her parents feared the war might bankrupt them, which infuriated Brittain.

“I had made for myself a way of escape from my hated provincial prison — and now the hardly-won road to freedom was to be closed for me by a Serbian bomb hurled from the other end of Europe at an Austrian archduke,” she writes.

Like many women of her class she volunteered to become a nurse with the V.A.D. or Voluntary Aid Detachment, and worked hard at it in hospitals in England, Malta and then the Western Front, seeing the appalling range of injuries and deaths that the war endlessly provided.

What makes Testament of Youth, which was published in 1933, so striking is, that her literary style has a well-judged but not overdone sense of irony, and, second, her almost ruthless unsentimentality, the sense that she is subjecting her younger self to an inquisition of sorts, and finding herself hopelessly naive and self-absorbed, with high-flown, impossible ideas about Art, Beauty, Love and Truth.

It took the War to bring her rudely to earth; the successive blows she endured forged in her a compassion and keener insight that she’d lacked, and also a stubborn resilience. There are many things in life that are unendurable, and yet one endures them.

On Christmas Day 1915, Roland is expected home on leave. Anxiously, Vera dresses, makes herself look pretty, wonders what kind of Channel crossing he’s had, waits, waits for assurance that he’s safely at home. Hours pass, no word comes, but she puts it down to confusion and difficulties in communication. Unable to fight off sleep any longer, she goes to bed. The next morning the phone rings and she runs for it. The news is, of course, the worst: Roland never came home from France; he’d been shot and mortally wounded on Dec. 23 by German troops as he tried to repair the wire in front of his trench.

Brittain, who later embraced the cause of pacifism, wrote 29 books in all, including a sequel to called Testament of Experience, which traces her life post-war.

What makes Testament of Youth, in the end, so crushing is the realization of how completely the war shattered an entire generation’s illusions about what kind of world they had inherited. It was possible before 1914 to talk sincerely about the progress of civilization; it was impossible afterward.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.