Playing Fields, Flanders Fields

Paul Delany

  • War Diary 1913-1917: Chronicle of Youth by Vera Brittain, edited by Alan Bishop
    Gollancz, 382 pp, £8.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 575 02888 2
  • The English Poets of the First World War by John Lehmann
    Thames and Hudson, 144 pp, £6.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 500 01256 3
  • Voices from the Great War by Peter Vansittart
    Cape, 303 pp, £7.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 224 01915 5
  • The Little Field-Marshal: Sir John French by Richard Holmes
    Cape, 427 pp, £12.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 224 01575 3

When Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth was published in 1933 it struck a deep chord among those in England who felt, as she did, that their youth had been ‘smashed up’ by the Great War. Nearly a million men of their generation lay buried in Flanders and Gallipoli; many of those who remained felt condemned to hollow lives, haunted by loss and grief. They believed that those sacrificed had been men of special grace, the irreplaceable flower of the nation’s youth; and they blamed the post-war decline of Britain on their absence. The survivors – guilty, perhaps, simply of having survived – were left to bear the burden of a disappointing and mediocre peace.

Brittain became a leading spokeswoman for this national myth. What substance did it have? Economically, not much: the Twenties slump was caused by government policy rather than loss of manpower, though this did not become obvious until the boom years that followed the Second World War. Nor was the myth confirmed by the memoirs of excombatants, so many of which were published at about the same time as Testament of Youth. The real power of the myth was psychological, deriving from the particular way in which British losses had been registered on the national consciousness. The first and heaviest blows had fallen on the Regular Army, which suffered casualties of more than 50 per cent in the battles of 1914. Yet the decimation of the Old Contemptibles never became central to the war’s legend. For the original British Expeditionary Force was Kipling’s Army: half of it had been permanently abroad, its numbers were relatively few, and its roots in civil society had never been deep. The Navy had always stood higher in the nation’s esteem, and England might tolerate a Prussian monarchy but not a Prussian military caste.

When conscription was introduced in 1916 it was recognised that the country could no longer shirk the draconian measures that Germany and France had adopted long before the war began. But the gap between the BEF of 1914 and the conscript army of 1917-18 had been filled by a second force of 2,500,000 volunteers, and it was the fate of this group that gave birth to the ‘lost generation’ myth. The professional army never quite lost the stigma of being professional, nor did the conscript army lose the stigma of having been forced to fight. Only the volunteers could claim to be of the true warrior race, rallying to Britannia in her hour of need.

What kind of men were they? Predominantly single, young, eager, and without technical skills. Most were channelled into the Infantry, where they could be taught the rudiments of trench warfare in a few weeks. A few of them, however, already possessed the most crucial skill of such a war: the ability to discipline and inspire small bodies of soldiers under nasty conditions. These were recent graduates of public schools, where Haldane had introduced Cadet Corps in 1907 as a gesture towards national preparedness for war. Such fledgling officers were few in number, but few were needed: a typical British Infantry battalion had only 30 officers to lead 800 other ranks. This small group became central to the national myth of the Great War – by virtue, to be sure, of their actual dreadful fate. The number of Rugby boys killed in the war – 556 – equalled the total enrolment at the school in 1914, and many other schools had similar tolls. Infantry officers ran greater risks than the rank and file, and some forty thousand of them died. Their sufferings were not mythical: nonetheless, one may question the way their particular sacrifice came to dominate the nation’s collective memory of the war (the memories of France and Germany were quite differently constituted).

Still very much an insular nation, Britain could not easily comprehend the extent and mass of the European conflict, in which 65 million men had been mobilised and some ten million killed. But there was an immediate emotional identification with its gallant band of Infantry officers, whose names daily filled the obituary columns of the Times. Often there was little to report of their lives but the names of their schools, since they had gone straight from the sixth form to the local depot. They had been singled out for destruction by the accident of having been born in the wrong year: but this very arbitrariness could be made to seem providential. The opening line of Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnets proclaimed an Infantry subaltern’s credo: ‘Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour.’

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