Condy’s Fluid

P.N. Furbank

  • A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture by Samuel Hynes
    Bodley Head, 514 pp, £20.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 370 30451 9
  • Killing in Verse and Prose, and Other Essays by Paul Fussell
    Bellew, 294 pp, £9.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 947792 55 4

That the ‘Great War’ is still deeply disturbing to the imagination came home to one last year, when a First World War tank stood on display in the forecourt of the British Museum. One reacted to the sight with a shudder of horror, and also an obscure resentment – at the idea, which seemed to be implied, that we must now proudly regard this appalling object as part of our ‘heritage’.

The truth is that the Great War was, and remains, unassimilable. For 16 years, that is to say from 1914 to 1930, the British people struggled to assimilate it and give it significance; and then in weariness, and no doubt wisely, they gave up. In this they were following, in some measure and according to their capacity, the brilliant example of Robert Graves, whose coming to maturity as a poet was a matter of saying a decisive ‘goodbye’ not only to the war but to all ghosts and rubbish (including cast-off language) that threatened the living. It was in 1930 that T.S. Eliot wrote in Criterion, with cold common sense: ‘Perhaps the most significant thing about the War is its insignificance; and it is this insignificance which makes it so acutely tragic. Perhaps fear of war is now rather an incentive, than a preventive, of war.’

If we assume this to be so, we might feel that Samuel Hynes, in completing his trilogy (the one which begins with The Edwardian Turn of Mind and ends with The Auden Generation – it was not originally planned as a trilogy), had a rather special problem on his hands. For in his approach, the calendar is all-important. His method is to follow the sequence of events in the national culture from very close up, laboriously registering each flux and reflux, each ripple and eddy, of attitude. It is a demanding method – the whole trilogy is a monument to tenacity – and historically it pays handsome dividends, allowing for none of the telescopings and falsifications of hindsight. It worked excellently in The Auden Generation, which dealt with a period of rapid movement and successive crises. Matters are somewhat different for him, however, when it comes to the Great War. For, as is well known, one of the most gruelling aspects of the war was its sheer stasis. The same small tract of soil in Flanders was fought over time and time again; and the same is true of the arguments about the war. These baffled theories and jockeyings and recriminations revolve in a circle or set up elaborate cross-currents, which the scrupulous historian has to chart: and yet two years later, ten years later, things look much as they did, and the same weary debate seems to be continuing. From the perspective of 1930 one might tell oneself that everything had changed (it was what one was supposed to think) or that maybe practically nothing had changed.

The rewards of Hynes’s mole’s-eye view are certainly great, and are as rich in the present book as in its predecessors. He burrows in all the media and always comes back with some choice morsel between his jaws. How significant it is, or so he makes it seem (but we need to ponder what the significance is), that, in the government-sponsored film of the Somme offensive in 1916, there was one detail, a soldier sliding back dead as his regiment is scrambling out of a trench, which everyone remembered and even still remembers. It was prized by some and condemned by others for bringing home the full horror of the war (the Dean of Durham and the zoologist Ray Lankester thought it a disgrace), and it was the one scene in the film that was not authentic and had been faked up behind the lines.

Hynes brings the same flair to advertisements. He reproduces a deliciously modish Bond Street tailor’s advertisement depicting ‘The Man of Today’: an infantry officer in superbly-cut uniform, stationed between the pile of his discarded top hat, white waistcoat and silver-topped cane and a mighty shell-burst labelled ‘WAR’. Again, one of the mushroom-growths of the war was ‘Reconstruction’. Asquith appointed a small Reconstruction Committee, and Lloyd George enlarged it into an entire ministry. Many was the pamphlet and committee-report produced on the subject, though Beatrice Webb complained that nobody ever seemed to read them. Hynes recaptures the whole thing in its aptest possible form, a Sanatogen advertisement: ‘And now for Reconstruction! But first Reconstruct Your Nervous System.’

Hynes is gifted in iconology and has an alert eye here, as in his literary criticism, for confused or unresolved intentions. How much we seem to learn, or recognise, about the Great War from his paragraphs on William Orpen and his commission from the Imperial War Museum for some pictures of the Versailles Peace Conference. Orpen felt in a rage against the whole event (‘The “frocks” had signed the Peace! The Army was forgotten’), and, finding he could not complete his formal group-picture, he painted out all the delegates, leaving only – set against the oppressive splendours of the Hall of Mirrors – a flag-draped coffin, guarded by two mad-looking half-nude soldiers in steel helmets, with two putti flying above carrying a wreath. This weird parody of a baroque funeral-monument (was it a joke? was it a ‘problem picture’?) was the hit of the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1923 but was turned down by the War Museum Committee; and upon this Orpen painted out even the soldiers and the putti, leaving only the coffin. They are pictures, as Hynes says, that posed all the problems of monument-making, in that moment of bitterly mixed feelings, without solving any of them.

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