Thursday, 29 January 2009

The 'Horror and Futility' of War?

Congratulations to George Simmers, whose superb Great War Fiction blog has just welcomed its 100,000th visitor.

Simmers reports that 'Naughty Julie' is the most popular search engine term for finding his site. He also comments that many visitors are students looking for quick answers to questions about 'the horror and futility of war' in relation to the same small number of texts. And he sides with those military historians who grumble over what they see as a relentless caricaturing of the Great War. The coercions of the curriculum, or so the argument goes, do not allow texts to differentiate themselves in all their nuanced richness: all Great War texts become one text, setting out to prove that the war was horrible and futile. Several of the revisionist historians have even been heard to despair that the obsession with the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon has seriously distorted the general public's understanding of the war. War is not futile, the historians argue, if it is necessary. And the Great War, they insist, was necessary to defeat Prussian militarism.

In 1917, Sassoon came to the conclusion that the British government was deliberately prolonging the war; what had started as a defensive campaign had become an opportunistic assault ignoring the possibilities for an early peace. Sassoon quickly persuaded Owen of his position when they met in Craiglockhart. But it was (and among historians, still is) a minority view, and their soldier-poet contemporaries did not share it.

Were Sassoon and Owen the creators of the futility narrative, or its beneficiaries? I have always felt about Owen that the wrong poems are valorised: 'Dulce et Decorum Est', for example, takes issue with Jessie Pope ('my friend'), whose crude patriotic verse makes an easy target. Owen meets one kind of propaganda with an equal and opposite kind ('like a devil's sick of sin', etc.). Subtler poems such as 'Miners' and 'Apologia pro Poemate Meo' cannot be shoehorned quite so comfortably; they have more to say than that War is a Bad Thing. And as for Owen's letters --- 'When I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies, I felt no horror at all but only immense exultation at having got through the Barrage'. As a teaching aid Owen is not always credited with full humanity: in fact, he was a welter of contradictory emotions.

Owen and Sassoon are as important as their reputations suggest. But until recently, other poets who did not dwell on 'the pity of war' were unfairly neglected. After Owen and Sassoon, it can come as a huge surprise to find Gurney writing poetry about drinking cafe au lait, or Grenfell writing about shooting partridges (when he isn't shooting Pomeranians), or Rosenberg exploring ancient Jewish history. Those voices need to be heard on the school curriculum, too. The poetry of the Great War is far more diverse than the focus on Owen and Sassoon has led generations to believe. For that matter, Owen and Sassoon are more diverse.

Simmers implies that, in terms of internet traffic, the naughty Julies of the Great War are Birdsong and Journey's End. If it's horror and futility you're looking for, I recommend them.


  1. Thanks for the mention of my blog.
    I've become interested recently in the way that Journey's End was promoted by Maurice Browne, its original commercial producer. He'd previously presented (unsuccessfully) some rather didactic anti-war plays in London, and after the Stage Society club performances of JE he took up the play, giving it a huge publicity campaign. (London buses were plastered with "All roads lead to Journey's End". Browne added an ending, where the soldiers stand still, as though statues on a war memorial.
    Sherriff had seen the play as a study of men under stress; Browne saw that its understatement was a more powerful argument against war than his previous preachier efforts.
    Sherriff's wartime letters home certainly do not suggest that he thought the war futile, though he certainly had no relish for soldiering. He write to his father:
    "I simply feel that we have been set a task which has got to be carried through, and which will probably be unpleasant."
    A grim task, but not a futile one.
    If one sees only futility in Journey's End, I think one diminishes the play, because that means viewing the characters only ironically, which diminishes them. (They think the war is worth fighting, so must be misguided. We know better.) If one accepts what I think was Sherriff's premise - that the war was worth fighting, but at the same time terrible - then it becomes a richer play. It's that "welter of contradictory emotions" again, which is probably where most good art comes from.

  2. I would include Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' in this list of works that present a false picture of the war. Although it's an entertaining read, it is subtly deceptive. For example, that line that you quote from Owen's letters is put into the mouth of another character. Barker does this quite a few times throughout the novel. Worse, she tries to suggest that Sassoon virtually taught Owen to write whilst the two were at Craiglockhart, which is simplistic and untrue.
    What you say about Owen is quite correct; people admire the wrong poems. 'Strange Meeting' or 'The Next War' are far more interesting, unsettling, and profound than 'Dulce et Decorum Est' or 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'.

  3. Thank you for those interesting comments. I first read Journey's End (and Owen) at school when I was in my early teens, and was force-fed the futility narrative at the time. I must confess that whereas I persevered with Owen and could soon see him more clearly, Journey's End never inspired me.

  4. The search item most likely to lead surfers to my site, I am pleased to report, is 'Geoff Woad', the angry shot putter who so amuses Withnail (in Withnail & I): 'Look at him! Look at Geoff Woad! Jesus, this huge, thatched head, with its earlobes and cannon ball is now considered sane!'