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.’
The public school ideal, heightened and purified by the war, forms the passionate core of Vera Brittain’s newly-published diary. Her devotion to the ideal was more muted in Testament of Youth, where its inconsistency with her later feminism and pacifism might have been too obvious. She had become a convert just before the war began, during a visit to her brother’s school, Uppingham, for prize day. ‘For girls,’ she lamented, ‘there is nothing equivalent to public school for boys – these fine traditions – unwritten laws that turn out so many splendid characters have been withheld from them – to their detriment.’ The most splendid character of all, in her eyes, was Roland Leighton, who had carried off the school’s seven chief prizes (‘most glorious books in the Uppingham binding’). This proof of Leighton’s ‘wonderful intellect’ answered Brittain’s deep need to combine love with ambition: they fell in love, became engaged on Leighton’s first leave from the Front, and were on the verge of marrying when he was killed in December 1915.
They had spent only a few days together in all, so that the rubs and frets of everyday life never had a chance to tarnish Brittain’s ideal vision of her betrothed. It was another ten years before she married, and then she did so on far more sober and pragmatic terms. Meanwhile, the memory of Leighton ruled her life: he became for her the paragon of Britain’s youth, and a tragic precursor for the other three young officers she loved – Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow and her younger brother, Edward, all killed in action.
When one reads Brittain’s diary, it is hard not to resent the way Leighton cut across the natural line of her development. In the early entries, despite some priggishness and superior airs, she cuts a very appealing figure. She charts her course like a heroine from her favourite novelist, George Eliot: first the escape from a stifling provincialism, then a place at Oxford, followed by a vocation among ‘the poor and striving and thoughtful’. Her feminism was both instinctive and brave; unwilling to be traded on the Buxton marriage market, she swore never to marry except on terms of companionship and equal opportunity. When Leighton gave her a copy of Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm, it seemed that he must be her destined lover, for Lyndall, the novel’s ill-fated feminist heroine, answered so exactly to Brittain’s own cult of independence and spiritual fulfilment.
Leighton, then, provided a single focus for all of Brittain’s scattered and indefinite ambitions. Her natural inclination was to view people either with idealism or with contempt, so ideal Leighton had to be: but he can scarcely seem so to today’s reader. At first, his faults are merely those of a puffed-up schoolboy prize-winner. The war, however, shows him in a steadily worse light. During his snatches of leave he torments both his fiancée and his mother by his aloofness: he browbeats shop assistants by flaunting his service at the Front: his emotional repertoire consists of being glacial, or being condescending. He sits down to read Rupert Brooke near the graves of a major and a private, and muses thus: ‘I cannot help thinking of the two together and of the greater value of the one. What a pity it is that the same little piece of lead takes away as easily a brilliant life and one that is merely vegetation. The democracy of war!’
Brittain might be hurt or angered by Leighton, but she could not see through him. She had to exalt him in order to validate her own sense of being special. At Somerville, she seems to have consciously modelled her career on Leighton’s at Uppingham. Having struggled so hard to get to Oxford, she must now be nothing less than ‘exceptional and brilliant’. Within a month of arriving, she can dispassionately note early signs of success: ‘I have of course got my usual reputation of being insufferably conceited, hard – cold, without a scrap of sympathy or kindness. Alongside of this goes the usual interest in me.’
Brittain was doubtless no more insufferable than many other bright undergraduates, and the world can usually be relied on to knock the corners off them. But when Leighton was killed a year after her arrival at Oxford, she put up the shutters against any further outside influences. She convinced herself that his sacrifice both consecrated his character and justified the flaws in her own. Not that she was unaware of those flaws – far from it. She merely determined to give them free rein, and to face down anyone whom they offended. She would live as ‘an egotist with a grievance’, grimly getting on with the job of coming out top in every real or imaginary class.
Dressed in mourning after Roland’s death, she passes through the ‘overdressed chattering crowd’ feeling ‘sadly distinguished and infinitely lofty’. Having left Oxford to become a nurse, she complains about the arrival of ‘a new batch of VADs with strange accents and stranger underclothes’. Then she complains, inevitably, of being ‘terribly ... desperately ... unutterably lonely’. The only recompense in this wretched life was a stoic sense of having done her duty, and a dogged pursuit of worldly success. Anyone so driven, and so clever, was bound to get some measure of what she craved, yet her post-war career seems marked by a retardation in her intellectual as well as her emotional development. Her youthful ideals had been rendered largely irrelevant by the war. At Oxford, she learnt how to shine in examinations, but not to become a critical thinker or master the idioms of modern thought. We can forgive her for cherishing Leighton’s fustian poetry: what is less pardonable is her apparent lack of any standard by which to measure the limits of his talent – and even less, the limits of her own.
Leighton may have been a bad poet, but it is remarkable that he should be a poet at all, given the conditions under which he had to write. But then the volunteer army of 1915 produced a veritable constellation of poets. The phenomenon is so striking that it has been exhaustively chronicled; and an inevitable drawback to John Lehmann’s survey of The English Poets of the First World War is that so many of his poets seem already chosen for him, so many of his conclusions already foregone. The excellence of the illustrations, the urbanity of the author’s prose, tempt one to think that every horror of our century must end up packaged and sealed on the coffee-tables of the West. The poets Lehmann discusses, with one or two exceptions, are the same as those featured in Ian Parsons’s 1966 anthology Men who march away; the only one whose reputation has shifted much since then is Ivor Gurney, now admired as a kind of wartime reincarnation of Christopher Smart.
Gurney trained as a musician, David Jones and Isaac Rosenberg as artists; they all served in the ranks and were excluded from the mainstream of literary life after the war – Rosenberg was dead, Gurney mad, Jones given to arcane pursuits. Once again, it was the public school volunteer officers who defined the central tradition of war poetry. Their best work is often categorised as poetry of disillusionment, but this may be misleading. Sassoon’s famous bout of insubordination did not last long, and all the other poets dutifully soldiered on until the end – or their end. Four of them – Blunden, Owen, Read and Sassoon – won the Military Cross. Robert Graves’s hard saying might stand as their watchword: ‘the only way out of the war is the way through it.’ Intellectually, they had much in common with pacifist Bloomsbury, but they had bound themselves to a separate caste and remained faithful to its code. This allegiance also cut them off from the giants of British Modernism – Yeats, Lawrence, Joyce, Pound, Eliot – all of whom chose to distance themselves from the war effort.
One of Lehmann’s major themes is this profound isolation of the war poets from the cultural and political life of the home country. Though the guns of Flanders could regularly be heard in England, the reality of trench warfare was largely hidden from those on the safe side of the Channel. Newspapers and magazines were compulsively cheerful, while those who served were reluctant to distress their families with the grisly truth about life at the Front. By the time Wilfred Owen’s savage poems of disillusionment were published the war was over, the author a voice crying from the grave. One understands well why the poetry of the latter stages of the war is so painfully claustrophobic: it is as if the fagging, the boredom, the arbitrary punishments of public school have somehow been transported overseas and magnified beyond endurance – while messages keep arriving from home, urging the wretched victims to ‘stick it out’.
The French, German or Russian soldier-poets felt less abandoned. They had a closer relation to the land over which they fought, and they could see more clearly the ultimate consequences of their struggle. British poets tended to ring the changes on two obsessive themes. One took up where the pre-war Georgian lyric left off, contrasting the lost idyllic landscape of England with the man-made defilement of Flanders and the Somme. The other great theme also had pre-war roots, in the public school cult of male comradeship.
Love that might have been merely naive, sentimental or tawdry at school became darkly intense under the shadow of the guns, and the consciousness of Homeric precedent. But the ideal of these war poems is spiritual intimacy, rather than sensual fulfilment. ‘Never was such antiqueness of romance,’ Graves wrote later, ‘Such tasty honey oozing from the heart.’ Intimacy alone could make life at the Front bearable or, when projected onto the whole body of the Army, give some meaning to the collective insanity of the war. Once the propaganda about Britain’s war aims ceased to carry conviction, faith in one’s comrades became, by default, the highest surviving value – and the highest subject for poetry.
Scepticism about their country’s cause may have contributed, paradoxically, to making the war so rich in poets. None of the combatant armies were saturated in ideology to the degree reached in the next world war. They fought, rightly or wrongly, for humanistic motives: love of their comrades, their leaders or their country. When the great millstones of Fascism, Stalinism and Democracy began to work, they soon ground the life out of poetry: only the sturdier weed of propaganda was left.
Peter Vansittart’s engrossing anthology, Voices from the Great War, brings out the ideological weakness and confusion that prevailed in the war, especially at the start. For some, the war gave proof of a long and deep sickness in European culture; for others, like Lloyd George, it was just something that Europe happened to muddle into. Allied intellectuals agreed with Henry James, for whom the war was a ‘bleak and hideous tragedy’ that would ‘undo everything’: German ones were more likely to welcome it, whether as a long-desired reunion of ‘might and mind’ (Thomas Mann) or quite simply, as for Rilke, ‘a god at last’. And Guillaume Apollinaire spoke for all in announcing that, on 31 August 1914, everything had changed:
Nations were rushing together to know each other through and through
The dead were trembling with fear in their dark dwellings.
What no one foresaw was that the nations, after rushing together, would be pulled up short and gripped in that new and dreadful phenomenon – the war of attrition. Nowadays most people blame this on the stupidity of the wartime generals, but Richard Holmes’s sensible biography of Sir John French should give them pause. Like most of the British High Command, French was a cavalryman who had made his reputation on the open fields of colonial warfare. He dreamed that one day massed horsemen would charge again, with their sabres – his beloved arme blanche – at the ready. Nonetheless, he very quickly realised what the Great War would be about: ‘Siege operations will enter largely into the tactical problems – the spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle, and the heaviest calibres and types of artillery will be brought up in support on either side.’ When French lost his command of the BEF in December 1915 he had done as well as most other generals; nor did Haig, his successor, make any major change in British tactics. Tactics were never the problem: the question was how to get out of the trap those tactics had caught everyone in.
For a period of only fifteen or twenty years, the Cavalry arm had been rendered ineffectual: history’s grim jest was to place the Great War within that period. Entrenchment and the machine-gun gave the advantage to the defence: if a gap was made in the line, efficient transport allowed the defence to be reinforced faster than the break could be exploited. By the end of the war, air power and the tank were starting to return the initiative to the offence – but millions of men had died in the stalemate, waiting for the balance to tip.
In essence, Europe’s leaders had started something they didn’t know how to stop. But how unbearable to think that so great a catastrophe had no definite reason for being! Reasons therefore had to be invented: though outsiders like Hemingway felt they did nothing but make things worse: ‘I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.’ In the English-speaking world Hemingway’s view of the war is now more or less the conventional wisdom; Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli is an eloquent new expression of it. But the trouble with wars – short of the final holocaust – is that they can scarcely be as futile as Hemingway claims: if they were, there would be fewer of them. The First World War did begin in a muddle: but it acquired purpose in going along, as the belligerents scented the various opportunities that were opening up. What Lloyd George was saying by 1916 – what everyone was saying by 1916 – was ‘we shall finish this war when we have got what we want.’ On the Eastern Front, always a more fluid and arbitrary theatre of war, emerging nations or an emerging proletariat were able to realise their ambitions. In the West, however, the war had been fought to a standstill rather than a conclusion: the nations knew what they wanted, but would have to await the next round for another try at getting it. In the meantime, wounds could be healed, histories written, a new generation raised, and an official title conferred on the events of 1914-18. The final choice was ‘The Great War for Civilisation’: public memory, shrewd and economical as always, struck off the last two words.