This year marks the centennial of the First World War: an epic, transformative global conflict that lasted just over four years and claimed the lives of seventeen million soldiers and civilians. Today, there are no living survivors of the Great War; we must rely solely on collective memory to understand what happened amid the blood and the mud, the writing and the waiting, one hundred years ago.
There is, of course, an inherent problem with this. The British remember the war in a particular way; as, indeed, every country involved does. For us, the war was futile, horrific, catastrophic – a war of ‘lions led by donkeys’ – that stripped our country of its bravest and brightest. Interestingly, this was not the common belief in the immediate aftermath of the war; this idea only really gained traction during the economic slump of the 1920s. But despite this fact, and even in the face of a recent boom in scholarship around the First World War, there has been little impact on popular remembrance. The war is still understood in Britain as the ‘bad war’ – especially in contrast to its successor – and this over-arching narrative is emphasised and promulgated by popular culture.
Actually, as with any event of such a colossal scale, there was no single, universal experience of the Great War. Around six million British men were mobilised as a result of voluntary enlistment and mandatory conscription from January 1916, plus there were many more men and boys too old, young, handicapped or ‘important’ to be sent to fight. Each of these men (and let us not forget each and every woman) had an experience that was wholly unique to them. For some, the war was an adventure; a chance to see countries like Egypt and Malta that they could otherwise only have dreamed of visiting. For others – in fact, for the majority of soldiers much of the time – the war could actually be quite dull.
Typically (this varied depending on where you were on the frontline and how heavy the fighting was at the time you were there) British soldiers in the Great War spent just over a week in the frontline trenches, then four days in the reserve trenches and four days resting. When you remember, as well, that frontline troops were not always engaged in an offensive, this means there were a great many days spent in a monotonous cycle of waiting, repairing and marching.
Eighteen year old Jim Davies of the Loyal North Lancashires, 1/5 Battalion, to name one example, joined the war in 1917, but spent six months invalided out because of illness, returning just in time for the liberation of France. Likewise, rankers’ letters to their sweethearts frequently contained apologies for the brevity of their letters, but ‘there is really not much news or anything to write about, dear’*. While we should not ignore the fact that these men were often unable or unwilling to share their more traumatic experiences with those at home, there is also a risk of reading too much into letters such as these. Often, there was little to write about because there really was nothing new to report.
This is not to say that the war was not fundamentally awful; far away from home, plagued by mud and lice and forced to fight in a style of warfare as brutal as it was bloody, 1914-18 was filled with tragedy and terror. I’m just saying that there was more to it than that – the Great War was a lengthy, complicated and multifaceted experience, personal to each man and woman and when we paint over the canvas with one, all-encompassing, epic narrative of ‘the pity of war’, we miss a far more real and human story.
The problem, however, is that this ‘more real and human story’ doesn’t always make for the best war film, not least because the more ‘boring’ aspects of conflict don’t conform to public understanding of the First World War. The war that we know, the version that has been passed down to us and that we, in turn, pass on to others, is based almost entirely on the great volume of literature published by the upper-middle- and upper-classes who fought in the war. These men had been brought up to believe in a type of ‘muscular Christianity’, where to die honourably for one’s country was one of the greatest deaths a man could earn. This belief, as evidenced in numerous letters and memoirs, quickly fell apart when applied to trench warfare, where death was seldom glorious. It is this crisis of faith that helped produce much of the contemporary literature we have from the conflict.
After the war, the majority of men who survived wanted nothing more than to return to normalcy, to forget what they had experienced and to live out the rest of their lives in peace. Many of these men came from humble backgrounds and thus lacked the connections with journalists and publishers, the money and, especially, the inclination to print written accounts of their wartime experiences. What little survives of their handwritten accounts – if they ever existed at all – has either been lost or remains in private hands. Thus we are met with a two-fold problem: a lack of available ‘alternative’ information, and a lack of inclination to bring what ‘alternative’ information we do have to life. The most popular war story, in terms of both quantity and ‘quality’ aligns so perfectly with our collective memory of the Great War that it is incredibly difficult for other accounts and theories to gain any traction outside of academic spheres.
Of course, autobiographical and fictional stories from the Great War that evoke the horror and pity of conflict are important; they remind us of the tragedy of war and of mistakes we hope never to make again. But I think it’s time that we accept that a blanket narrative of the First World War can have a negative, limiting effect on how we remember our history. Instead, by sharing and appreciating the more ordinary and less ‘epic’ accounts of the war, we can finally grant each soldier his rightful place in our collective memory.
*Extract taken from the letters of Christopher Fautley to his sweetheart Emily Margetts. (IWM 20/16/1)