“The Great War and Modern Memory”

An excerpt from Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.

The start of this month coincides with the centenary of a momentous calamity. There will be commemorated every possible consequence of that event, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the birth of the modern Middle East. They are all historiographic philistinisms !

Instead of contemplating great affairs of state, I heartily recommend the following as the best book on the calamity:


Instead of describing it in great detail, I quote some passages which I think give a flavour of the book.

It’s definitely not an “oral history”, but it is a book which explores the war through the diaries, the letters, and the poetry of an educated, cultured generation who had the first hints of ‘modernist’ thought. But, unlike the actual modernists, they still wrote in high Edwardian style. At least a third of the book is quotations.

For better or worse, the British intercourse with literature was … instinctive and unapologetic— indeed, shameless. Consider a letter written home by Alexander Gillespie in May, 1915. Lurking behind Gillespie’s words are the lively presences of Housman, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Hardy, Tennyson, and Wordsworth. Intact and generative are the traditional values associated with traditional symbols— white blossoms, stars, the moon, the nightingale, the heroes of the Iliad, pastoral flowers. What purports to be a letter is more like an unfledged poem:

“I wandered about among the ghostly cherry trees all in white, and watched the star-shells rising and falling to north and south. Presently a misty moon came up, and a nightingale began to sing. … It was strange to stand there and listen, for the song seemed to come all the more sweetly and clearly in the quiet intervals between the bursts of firing. There was something infinitely sweet and sad about it, as if the countryside were singing gently to itself, in the midst of all our noise and confusion and muddy work. … So I stood there, and thought of all the men and women who had listened to that song, just as for the first few weeks after Tom was killed I found myself thinking perpetually of all the men who had been killed in battle— Hector and Achilles and all the heroes of long ago, who were once so strong and active, and now are so quiet. Gradually the night wore on, until the day began to break, and I could see clearly the daisies and buttercups in the long grass about my feet. Then I gathered up my platoon together, and marched past the silent farms to our billets.”

To write like that you have to read all the time, and reading the national literature is what the British did a great deal of in the line.


By the end of the book you get the distinct impression that the war fundamentally altered our rhetoric and modes of thinking. I don’t know if it’s true, but it certainly feels that way:

…the Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful “history” involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future…the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about.

Certainly the author of a personal communication in The Times two days before the declaration of war would not have understood:

PAULINE— Alas, it cannot be. But I will dash into the great venture with all that pride and spirit an ancient race has given me…

Another index of the prevailing innocence is a curious prophylaxis of language. One could use with security words which a few years later, after the war, would constitute obvious double entendres. One could say intercourse, or erection, or ejaculation without any risk of evoking a smile or a leer. Henry James’s innocent employment of the word tool is as well known as Browning’s artless misapprehensions about the word twat. Even the official order transmitted from British headquarters to the armies at 6:50 on the morning of November 11, 1918, warned that “there will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.” Imagine daring to promulgate that at the end of the Second War!

In 1901 the girl who was to become Christopher Isherwood’s mother and whose fiancé was going to be killed in the war could write in her diary with no self-consciousness: “Was bending over a book when the whole erection [a toque hat she had been trimming] caught fire in the candles and was ruined. So vexed!” She was an extraordinarily shy, genteel, proper girl, and neither she nor her fiancé read anything funny or anything not entirely innocent and chaste into the language of a telegram he once sent her after a long separation: “THINKING OF YOU HARD.”

In this world “he ejaculated breathlessly” was a tag in utterly innocent dialogue rather than a moment in pornographic description. Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology.


There’s also an amazing section on how Ruskin and Turner had influenced the way educated Edwardians looked upon sunrise and sunset, and how that influence interacted with morning and evening stand-to’s of the army in the trenches. And there’s also the brilliant reflexion on the “Uses of the Pastoral” in war imagery. But both are too long to quote.

The Great War and Modern Memory is unsentimental, mordant, and ironic in that subdued 18th century way. But by the time you finish the book, you will think to yourself, has there ever been such a moving book of literary criticism and history ?

On 1 August 2014, Germany declared war on Russia. Three days later, Britain followed suit with the following announcement :

“Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by his Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium will be respected, his Majesty’s Ambassador to Berlin has received his passports, and his Majesty’s Government declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11 p.m. on August 4, 1914.”

With such an inauspicious rhetorical beginning did Britain launch her Last Literary War.

About pseudoerasmus

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5 Responses to “The Great War and Modern Memory”

  1. Toddy Cat says:

    Fussell was an astonishing writer, and his reflections on war were shaped by his own absolutely unsentimental and cynical take on his own experiences in World War II, itself shaped by the disillusionment generated by the first war. You can disagree with him (and I do, in many areas) but you can’t remain unmoved by him. They literally don’t make them like him anymore.


  2. Good book. However, Fussell did not know anything about modern scholarship on the war, and he presents the stereotyped view of the war as utter futility, and the leaders as callous imbeciles. This is not what really happened. The British Army in particular has been the subject of much recent revisionism on this point. Fussell’s cynicism is perfectly suited to the jaded view of the war, and makes for good reading. but it cannot be taken as gospel.


  3. That may be true, but it’s not a military-political history of the war. It’s a cultural history of the war and how it was remembered by literary men. Historians’ view of Douglas Haig et al. hardly matters. What matters is Wilfred Owen’s opinion or Lytton Strachey’s or even Bernard Shaw’s.

    The book has been criticised on cultural grounds as elitist and overfocused on the written memories of the educated classes. But I’m content the book wasn’t about the doodles and graffiti of the unschooled. Actually those were more important in the second war, as Fussell himself documented in Wartime which is not nearly as good as The Great War and Modern Memory.


  4. FredR says:

    “On 1 August 2014, Germany declared war on Russia.”

    A strangely underreported event.


  5. Pingback: browse around this website

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