On the ninetieth anniversary of the 1918 Armistice that ended the Great War, it is more obvious than ever that those four years inflicted a psychic wound on the nation deeper than any other conflict before or since. Even the Second World War, which killed three times as many people as the First overall, did not leave such a scar behind, as Vernon Scannell, a poet who fought in North Africa, acknowledged in ‘The Great War’:
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry …
… I remember
Not the war I fought in,
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.
Nearly a century on, as the bombardment of anniversary books amply attests, our national preoccupation, amounting almost to obsession, with the war – specifically with the trenches of the Western Front – remains as potent as ever. The reasons why this should be are many and complex. The poignant image of young men rushing from civilian life to die in a narrow, mud-splattered arena for the dubious gain of more shell-pocked mud has something to do with it. The war poetry wrung from a newly literate class of subalterns – which still finds a place in the national curriculum – is another pressing memento mori. Perhaps most potent of all, however, is the fact that it was the first war that involved the whole nation in a huge, collective sacrificial effort. Not just combatants and their families, but even conscientious objectors who rejected the war and all its works – none could escape the war’s long reach.
The dilemmas and strains to which this unprecedented mobilisation subjected society are neatly embodied in journalist Will Ellsworth-Jones’s impressive and moving debut book, We Will Not Fight … The Untold Story of World War One’s Conscientious Objectors (Aurum 296pp £18.99 hbk £8.99 pbk). Ellsworth-Jones has found an ‘ordinary’ family divided by the war, who yet managed to maintain a loving unity despite their widely divergent attitudes to the struggle. John Brocklesby, a Yorkshire Methodist minister, and his sickly eldest son, George, were enthusiastic recruiting sergeants who, while not fighting themselves, encouraged scores of young men into khaki. They included the two youngest Brocklesby brothers, Phil and Harold, who endured hellish experiences in the trenches. Their middle brother Bert, by contrast, after a short struggle with God, became an ‘absolutist conchie’, refusing any part in the war. The author sensitively explores the two sorts of courage demanded of the Brocklesby boys: the raw physical bravery of Phil and Harold on the Somme, and the subtler moral courage – some would say stubbornness – shown by Bert as he resisted every sort of pressure (including a death sentence and a spell in a medieval castle’s dungeon) to submit to the Army’s demands.
Bert Brocklesby, of course, represented a tiny minority of a minority – even most ‘conchies’ preferred to don uniforms in a non-combatant role rather than spend the war rotting in jail. And, as military historian Richard Holmes demonstrates in his Shots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914–1918 (HarperPress 240pp £20), at the start of the war most young men were not only willing, but eager to join up. This is essentially a picture book of 200 images of the war amplifying and illustrating Holmes’s earlier studies such as Tommy and The Western Front. A lecturer at military colleges and a Territorial Army colonel, as well as a TV historian, Holmes exemplifies the no-nonsense, get-stuck-in school who dominate Great War studies these days in a revisionist reaction to the bleeding hearts who emphasise the poetry and the pity over duty and patriotism. Reading his crisp and informative text one metaphorically pulls one’s shoulders back. I once heard Holmes describe the glutinous hell of Passchendaele as ‘a win on points’ for the British army, as though the war was some sort of rugger-bugger’s beanfest. But when it comes to knowledge of the average soldier’s everyday life, there is no better guide.
Robin Cross is another military historian who has marshalled the pictorial and archival resources of the Imperial War Museum – incomparably the best repository of Great War material in Britain – to produce his moving In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War (Ebury Press 272pp £20), a pictorial history of the war, at home and on the fighting fronts on land, sea and air, which accompanies an exhibition of the same title at the Museum (30 September 2008–6 September 2009). He has also enlisted satirist Ian Hislop, an unlikely figure to be caught up in the tragic saga of the Great War, to write a foreword. Hislop explains that his interest was kindled when he discovered that his grandfather had fought throughout the war in the trenches. It is probably this – the fact that nearly every family has someone who fought – that continues to fuel our fascination in an age when tracing family history has become a national pastime.
Given this interest, it is remarkable that unpublished writings from fighting men are still emerging almost a century on. One such – and a particularly poignant example at that – is For Love and Courage: The Letters of Lieutenant Colonel E W Hermon from the Western Front 1914–1917, edited by Anne Nason (Preface 367pp £20). The reason Lt Col Hermon – who died at Arras on the same day and in the same attack as his exact contemporary, the poet Edward Thomas – was able to write such candid letters home to his wife Ethel (who was also his cousin) was down to good old English class distinctions. As an officer, he was allowed to send uncensored letters, a privilege denied to the men in his command. Hermon, an old Etonian and a regular professional soldier, managed to write and send some 700 missives before he was killed leading his men into a hail of machine-gun fire. The fatal bullet that hit his heart also pierced the ‘lucky’ four-leaf clover that Ethel had given him. Characteristically, his last words to his loyal adjutant were, ‘Go on!’
Hermon’s letters, lovingly preserved by Ethel, were passed to his daughter Mary who, though only eight when her father died, could not bear to read them. That task has fallen to his granddaughter Anne Nason, who has edited them superbly. You cannot understand the Great War without understanding men like Hermon, who embodied such antique attitudes as honour, chivalry, duty, loyalty and courage – sneered, or at least smiled at, in our more ignoble age. His long and loving letters home give a frank picture of life at the Front as seen through the eyes of a fine senior officer, and are a worthy tribute not only to him, but to the generation who died with him.
A rather more worm’s-eye view of the trenches, presented through the eyes of 100 veterans rather than just one, is offered by oral historian Richard van Emden in his The Soldiers’ War: The Great War through Veterans’ Eyes (Bloomsbury 400pp £20). Not the least remarkable aspect of Van Emden’s trawl through the memories of these survivors is that they are accompanied by around 100 unpublished photos, often illegally taken by soldiers with their VPK (Vest Pocket Kodak) cameras. Since original images from the war’s sharp end are rarities, these pictures – blurred and fuzzy though many of them are – are themselves worth the price of the book. Set alongside them are stark, unvarnished accounts of such unglamorous but essential trench tasks as the shovelling away by burial parties of the heaps of muck that had been their comrades.
A bird’s-eye rather than worm’s-eye pictorial record of the front lines is presented in The Battlefields of the First World War by Peter Barton (Constable & Robinson 352pp £50 + DVD), which for the first time reproduces the gigantic panoramic photos of the trenches made by the Royal Engineers for intelligence purposes. Supplemented by some thirty German dioramas from ‘the other side of the hill’, these views show the trenches as we have never seen them before.
More oral history – of the war’s final, climactic year – bulks out Peter Hart’s massive 1918: A Very British Victory (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 552pp £20). Hart is an Imperial War Museum historian with several studies of the war to his credit. He skilfully uses the IWM’s extensive sound archives to build a chronological portrait of 1918, mainly from a British perspective, but using German witnesses also. Although in hindsight an Allied victory seems to have been inevitable, given the weight of resources tipping the balance ever more heavily against an embattled Germany once America’s Doughboys began to arrive in France in their hundreds of thousands, it did not seem like that at the time. Ludendorff’s great Spring offensives, using men released from the Eastern front by Russia’s collapse, brought Germany uncomfortably close to victory.
The story of how they were stopped is told by Charles Messenger in The Day We Won the War: Turning Point at Amiens 8th August 1918 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 279pp £20), in which he details how the Allies, using fresh Australian and Canadian troops as well as Americans, secretly prepared a great counterstroke on the flat plains outside Amiens. The attack, correctly seen by Ludendorff as ‘the black day of the German Army’, was spearheaded by tanks, used in greater numbers and more skilfully than ever before. Messenger credits this technological leap – as much as the spirit of the troops – for at last achieving victory. After Amiens the Germans were in retreat and never recovered. They at least learned the military lesson, and in 1940 returned over the same ground, ironically using tanks in a blitzkrieg that the Allies had unaccountably failed to develop.
Brian Bond is an academic historian of the older generation who has devoted his career to the Great War, and who is never less than thoughtful and cogent. In Survivors of a Kind: Memoirs of the Western Front (Continuum 216pp £25), he admirably analyses the prose memoirs produced by the war. He did the same for the poetry in another concise volume, The Unquiet Western Front (2002). Unusually among the current crop of Great War historians, who are often slightly sniffy about ‘over-sensitive’ writers, stressing that they are not typical of most of the men in the trenches, Bond recognises that the picture we now have of the war has been formed by its writers. Today, it is more Wilfred Owen’s war than Douglas Haig’s. That is the reality with which revisionist historians have to engage, and it is much to Bond’s credit that he does so.
In a series of incisive essays he analyses t