The Cause of Nowadays and the End of History: First World War Historical Fiction
Dr. Esther MacCallum-Stewart, University of Sussex
The public accepts ordinary novels as fiction, but takes war novels seriously, as if they were depositions (Jean Norton Cru, Temoins, Paris: Les Etincelles, 1929. 50).
In 1961, Alan Clark described the First World War as being 'as remote as the Crimean, its causes and its personnel obscure and disreputable' (Clark, 1961: 11). At the time he was unaware that his book, The Donkeys, was shortly to become only one of many in a wide scale revival of First World War studies. This revival had a huge impact on popular perceptions of the war, forming one of a series of waves that have changed the way the war has been understood as a cultural, social, and political event throughout the century.
Most readers know the First World War not through a historical context, but instead, 'witness' it through the lens of the war poets. Richard Holmes has commented that 'However passionately I talk to a school about the First World War, I am always up against Wilfred Owen (Holmes in Monahan: 2002), and in 1994, Ted Hughes called the war 'our number one National ghost. It's still everywhere, molesting everybody' (Hughes, 1994: 70). The perception of the war as a literary event has profoundly affected the way it is read, a reading which has exasperated historians throughout the century and has lead many literary critics to tire of it, abandoning research in the actual and metaphorical mud, under the disillusioned impression that a few authors have monopolised its literary output, and that this output only exists in a very limited scope. It might surprise both readers and critics alike to know that this is not a new perspective, and in 1930, Douglas Jerrold was already arguing passionately against the views of the war poets and writers rapidly establishing themselves as a canon:
They are not statesmen, humanitarians or religious leaders, but merely authors, and their books do not claim to show the whole war. They only show 'a significant side of it'. To which I reply that half the truth is a lie.(Jerrold, 1930: 42)
Why is this construction so problematic? From outbreak to present day, the First World War has remained a popular subject for fiction. This interest crosses genre and reading gradients; from canonical fiction to popular romance, from intricate realist texts to preludes in science fiction epics and family sagas. However, the constant reinvention of the war in literary texts also dictates the ways in which it is understood, and it is this trend that this paper investigates, arguing that the skew presented through emotive perceptions of the war is detrimental both to the myriad of available accounts which are used too infrequently, and to the historicism of the war which is too often overshadowed by the emotively concepts of 'pity' and 'disrespect'. This paper attempts to dissolve some of the tensions between literary and historical academia, arguing that for a more realistic (and multi-faceted) view of the war to emerge and be fully understood by the popular reader, both disciplines must work together to facilitate change. Indeed, this understanding is rapidly becoming the prevailing sentiment in both historical and literary studies.
Ten years after the war ended, the voices now recognised as those who define the war experience finally found favour in the public market. In 1929, Richard Aldington wrote in haste to his American publisher:
Referring great success Journey's End and German War Novels. Urge earliest full publication Death of a Hero to take advantage of public mood. Large scale English war novel might go big now.(Richard Aldington, Telegram to Covici Friede: May 1929, quoted Cecil, H, BBC, Nightwaves: All Quiet on the Western Front: 2004, radio).
Amongst these works, including Journey's End (1928) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), were novels, new and re-edited anthologies of poetry and semi-autobiographies by Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Vera Brittain and Wilfred Owen1; the voices now recognised as having defined the experience of WW1. Yet although their texts sold in great numbers, these books were also received with some distain, called 'The Lavatory School' (Squire, 1929: 1-2) and demonstrating nothing but 'the murky side of war and the bad side of human nature' (Charteris, 1930: 5). The shock generated by their publication, exposing a more vicious side to the war, led to the so-called War Books Controversy. The previous ten years, and indeed the war years had been no less full of war stories, many of which acknowledged the conditions of war in some form. However, none had collectively been so politicised or graphic. Despite the reading public's demand for accounts that revealed 'the truth' of war, the popularity of these texts was in part because of their shocking nature.
The war writers began a trend that was to have a huge impact on subsequent representations of the war. Their texts appeared socially cohesive -- many had served together or in similar locations (usually the Western Front), and either came from similar social backgrounds or became members of interlocking literary circles. Their texts appeared on the surface at least to support a homogenous vision of war. At the same time, virtually all of them had chosen a semi-fictitious medium in which to make these statements, or, as in the case of Robert Graves, deliberately included exaggerated or sensationalist elements:
That Good-bye to All That is selling well does not surprise me, because I have been able to put into the book all the frank answers to all the inquisitive questions that people like to ask about other people's lives. And not only that, but I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into other popular books.(Graves, 1930: 13)
This precedent meant that from the very beginning, the war was primarily interpreted through authors of fiction who appeared to be writing authentic autobiography. Restrictive media practices and widespread censorship throughout the war had also made the population (both civilian and combatant) more receptive to fictionalised accounts, since their awareness of the truth/lies dichotomy in the news they were allowed to receive during the conflict was acute. From 1928-33, the War Books writers appeared to suggest that even their 'half' of the truth was better than what had gone before. Significantly, they also implied through this very action that any writers who had published accounts before theirs had been either deliberate obfuscators, were not telling the whole story, or subscribed to an ethos now seen to be based on the 'lie' of patriotism towards ones country and glory in battle. This viewpoint was gradually adopted by the reading public, and whilst texts such as children's stories and genre fiction, especially adventure and detective stories, continued to endorse what Michael Paris calls the 'pleasure culture of war' (Paris, 2000: 8), the opinion of highbrow literature gradually changed to the one which criticised the war for its unforeseen casualties, the perceived military incompetence through this, and for the horrific devastation of total war.
The Truth of War.
Popular literary products can make no claim to insight and truth. Yet, although they have become a powerful force in the life of modern man, their symbols cannot be overestimated as diagnostic tools for studying man in contemporary society.(Lowenthal, 1985: x)
Throughout the century, First World War fiction has taken precedent over historical perception with the popular reader. However, this also means these narratives exist in a different context to much historical fiction. The distinction that Lowenthal makes -- that popular literature 'can make no claim to insight and truth', is not present in WW1 fiction, since from its inception, the two have been blended together.
For instance, readers are aware that Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe (Cornwell 1980 - present) is not a real person, but that he is located in the 'true' historical context of the Napoleonic wars. Cornwell himself is happy to identify his novels as exploiting historical events, and his introductions to each novel teasingly refer to both 'real' history and the fictional progression of Sharpe and other supporting characters. The reader is left in no doubt they are reading about a fictional character and that history is being 'bent' to fit him in. Cornwell's research is excellent, but he is the first to admit that the very action of creating fiction makes his texts broadly ahistorical and that complete realism, as well as maintaining Richard Sharpe's own historical chronology (many of the books have been written out of sequence), is not always possible; 'I don't always keep it straight and there are inconsistencies' (Cornwell, 2005).
This distinction does not exist in First World War fiction. The early war writers were assumed to be telling the truth since they were there, but also because they were clearly writing at a remove from their circumstances. Siegfried Sassoon's creation of an alter ego, George Sherston; or Graves's later acknowledgement that he wrote Good-Bye to All That for 'a lump of money' and his claim that 'I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into other popular books' (Graves, 1930: 13), introduced obvious double standards. Fiction is an accepted location for war writing, and at the same time it is understood to be presenting the 'truth'. This overlap has gradually become endemic and because of the blurring that happened at the very beginning, it is also difficult to separate. To criticise the fictitious nature of war texts is also to criticise the War Books writers, who struggled to produce what were, at the time, immensely shocking texts which still expressed a picture of the war that had hitherto been largely suppressed. In The Literature Machine, Italo Calvino recognises this dichotomy, which is rarely considered in First World War fiction, arguing that there are 'levels of reality in literature', and these levels within a text should not be confused with levels of truth outside it (Calvino, 1989: 101-21) However this separation is rarely, if ever carried out in war literature, where the internal fact is often carried over and assumed to be historical, often generic truth.
Ironically, despite the awful difficulty in accepting any historical fiction as anything but a personalised, subjective recreation of the past, First World War fiction is also known for its distinct style -- that of uncompromising 'reality'. In this case, 'reality' is often read as shorthand for 'the uncompromising reality of the horror of the trenches and the futility of war'. The emotive qualities of this interpretation dominate any literary reading of the war, lending it a specific bias towards reality meaning anything that expresses the most graphic stages of war. This often means that the more graphic, gruesome and dehumanising a situation, the more 'realistic' it is assumed to be. Over the century, desensitisation to these images means suitably 'real' war experiences have become increasingly more extreme as the century progresses. As an example, Graves writes:
Major Swainson . . . seemed to be wounded in lungs, stomach and one leg . . . we bandaged Swainson and got him into the trench and on a stretcher. He begged me to loosen his belt; I cut it with a bowie-knife I had bought at Béthune for use during the battle. He said: 'I'm about done for'2 (Graves, 1957: 140-1)
However in Otherworld, Tad Williams, a writer who is by no means unrepresentative of the popularist perception of the war, takes this much further:
It was a figure, hanging upside down like a discarded marionette, one leg caught in the high angle of bough and trunk. All its joints seemed to have been broken . . . The front of the head was a tattered, featureless mass of red and scorched black and gray, except for one bright staring yellow eye, and intent as a bird's. (Williams, 1996: 8)
This capitalisation on events designed to provoke shock in the reader was a trend that gathered pace throughout the century, and as Williams shows, if anything, the potential for the First World War to produce horror and graphic accounts of the combat involved became greater.
Changes in attitudes
First World War fiction, like most historical fictions, is closely linked to contemporary political and social trends, reflecting a more recent cultural awareness than the period it is nominally located within. For First World War literature, the War Books Controversy writers of the 1930s -- whose raison d'etre was to educate those who they perceived to know little of the conflict and to put right the vainglorious tone of other writers both during and after the war -- set the tone for overtly politicised writing. War has always been a subject for propaganda, but the war books writers ensured that the extremes of both sides could be heard by providing dissident voices. They were so forceful that it is commonly assumed today that their opinions totally overwrote those of more patriotic or supportive voices. This was supported by the fact that they used a more accessible (and creative) medium -- fiction.
During the years that preceded the War Books Controversy, and indeed those that followed them, alternatives in fiction and in history were available to the reader that suggested different perspectives, and were also more accommodating of other sentiments towards war. In the years immediately following the war itself, many texts were concerned with recovery and celebration, as well as having more of a focus on military detail and accomplishment. Memoirs were written by generals and soldiers alike that lauded the experience of the war, and children's stories, which continued to be given out as school prizes well into the 1930s, encouraged ideas of noble patriotism and honour in combat. W.E. Johns' famous wartime hero Biggles trod a narrow line in which shock and valour went hand in hand -- in his first book The Camels are Coming (1932), Biggles defeats his enemies and survives many dogfights in his trusty Sopwith Camel, but he also nearly succumbs to shellshock after the death of a friend and can be found crying over dead pilots in the story 'The Decoy'. W.E. Johns, himself a fighter pilot in the war, demonstrates a subtlety in portrayal of the war; although later stories become more vainglorious, Mary Pletsch has suggests that the earlier tales, initially published in the magazine 'Popular Flying', have a more adult attitude towards the war and incorporate themes that both suggested the frightening or emotional perils of being at war as well as the excitement, and sometimes, fun (see for example 'The Boob' or 'The Packet').
Similarly, John Hammerton's The Great War, I Was There! (29 September, 1938 - 19 September, 1939), one of several fortnightly magazines about the war, also showed that at first, the reactions to war after the War Books Controversy remained mixed. The magazine's claim to contain 'Undying memories of 1914-1918 war' is only borne out in part. The magazine, which contained first person accounts, images, condensed or extracted versions from previously published biographies and the occasional poem is as likely to have articles called 'I trained the dogs of war!' as it is to contain poetry by Owen or Rosenberg. However the predominantly positive 'undying' aspect of these memories is notable for its absence in modern recountings of war. Both historical and fictional accounts of the war were available to readers, in particular through this type of periodical series and books such as Buchan's Nelson's History of the War and Hammerton's A Popular History of the Great War (twenty-four and six volumes respectively).
It could be argued that these themes remained in war writing for a significant part of the century -- indeed until WW2 most of these books were available to the popular reader. It is also a mistake to assume that the ideas of the War Books writers were immediately adopted by the general public, and it is also noticeable that many of the aspects of WW1 writing that are now 'expected' were still missing. The War Books Controversy writers are marked by their intensely social attitude towards the war -- they have little time for the boarder picture, discussion of military tactics or indeed, criticism for senior command. However this social attitude did mean a fundamental shift away from military accounts and towards more personalised recollections. This in itself caused an important divergence in the way that the public saw the war, and readings from this point change gradually from clinical or militarily constructed recollections towards more nostalgic (both positive and negative) personal accounts. As a result of this, the First World War was almost certainly the war that spawned the growth of the lone soldier as a literary archetype representative of all war, replacing the omnipotent and revered warlord.
From the 1930s, popular writing concentrated on amalgamating the demobilised officer back into society and either naturalising the war experience or discussing its effect on a post war society. Since the War Books Controversy, narratives of duty to one's friends and growing dissatisfaction with the 'brass hats' began to emerge discussing the themes of Shot at Dawn or survivor memory. In the light of the Second World War, the First emerged as a more innocent combat, one in which surprise and loss of innocence had predominated. Winning through became more important than ever, echoing the popular myths of unity constructed in WW2, and extending from the outspokenness of the War Books Controversy writers, individualist heroism began to predominate.
First World War writing underwent a relative lapse after the second World War, after all, the nation had a more pertinent (and frequently more local) conflict upon which to direct attention. The question 'Where are the war poets?' was asked by many, including Robert Graves in an radio interview in 1940, and an editorial in the TLS in 1939 'To the poets of 1940'. However, these rather pre-emptive demands for literary production are not, in fact, borne out by either poets or authors, as Adam Piette (1995) and Gill Plain (1996) have clearly demonstrated. In fact, World War Two produced a far more viable and often more socially recognisable arena (the Blitz, the Home Front) for popular writers in particular to exploit, one which is still used extensively today. Romantic fiction leapt upon the mythologies of the second World War as a family orientated site of female struggle, empowerment and sexual redemption, and has used these motifs ever since as a dominant theme. This did, however, mean that the First World War slowly became a more 'historicised' event, and both historical and literary accounts of the war underwent a relative lull.
The Parable of War
. . at the end of the twentieth century popular notions of the First World War in general, and Britain's role in particular, were largely shaped in the 1960s, in part reflecting the very different concerns and political issues of that turbulent decade, but in part resurrecting 'anti-war' beliefs of the 1930s. (Bond: 2002)
In 2002, Brian Bond's The Unquiet Western Front tackled popular representations of the First World War since the 1960s for the first time. Bond expressed an almost uniform annoyance at modern representations of the war by arguing that they were largely dictated by literary accounts and supported by the anti-war feelings that had developed throughout the century. Bond attributes this development to the Peace Movement's adoption of World War One as a potent argument against military aggression, coupled with previous assumptions that the War Books Controversy Writers were clear spokesmen for their generation. Bond's argument rightly pointed to both the selectivity of these texts, and the subsequent construction of a linear discourse of war as a result. However, as he argues, the war experience was far more complex, and was also regarded in a very different light. In particular, the perception of the First World War as a military disaster was almost entirely created by writers who had very little knowledge of military technique, whereas histories and public opinion at the time believed it had been a success despite the casualties. However, whilst The Unquiet Western Front often dismisses cultural production in favour of historicism, Bond also highlights the influence of these later texts, which may have presented an overtly negative picture of the war, but nevertheless were responsible for a wide scale revival in war studies, both in popular and academic mediums. In the 1960s, these new fictions were responsible for a significant change in the ways that the war was perceived, but they also returned it to a position of popularity, recreating an arena in which First World War writing was seen as a challenging, interesting medium.
These texts moved across the spectrum of culture from low to highbrow output, very often presenting an apparently highbrow text that was both comprehensible and easily read. These texts included Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1962), the Theatre Workshop's Oh What A Lovely War (1963), quickly filmed by Richard Attenborough in 1969, and several new anthologies of poetry, including one of Wilfred Owen's poems by Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis (1963), which was a key text responsible for the high level of regard accoutred to Owen today. Owen had hitherto been largely unknown by the common reader, but both Day Lewis's anthology and Britten's use of nine of his poems in War Requiem3, broadcast live on Radio Three during its premiere at the re-dedication of Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed in the Second World War, both helped elevate Owen into the position he now occupies as WW1's foremost spokesman.
These texts not only took up the mantle of representing the war, but they also did so in a way that was intended to inform and instruct. Reviews of Oh What A Lovely War reported that it expressed 'an unusually well developed sense of truth' (1963:16) despite the fact the play was constructed from a predominantly literary viewpoint using soldier's songs, and encouraged a very modern reading of the war. Dan Todman argues that their inclusion in the show recognised that since the war 'These songs quickly became a site both of identity and, in latter years, of memory' (Todman: 2005, web). The play also used as its historical source material several contemporary historical texts as its cornerstone, namely Clark's The Donkeys (1961), and Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (1962), both of which presented a strongly anti-war viewpoint. OWALW therefore substituted real experience for a fictionalised version, combining it with a deep sense of the irony of these songs which may not have originally been present. This fictional reconstruction of the war, which combined an emotive sense that the war was so terrible that to view it in anything other than a profoundly negative way must be 'ironic', was to become a dominant part of the literary war in future texts, presenting a 'parable' of the war -- an imaginative retelling which also encoded strong moral and emotive elements.
Fiction absorbed these ideas, and in the early 1970s a series of texts were produced which depicted the war in an exclusively negative context. These texts also clearly used the figures and friendships of the war poets as grounding for their narratives, blending these with politically topical themes such as the recent disclosure by the government of details about the men Shot at Dawn after courts martial. From this point onwards, although historical accounts continued to be produced, fictional writing gained not only a high profile, but began to be used interchangeably with historical accounts. War poetry was seen as a suitable way to teach students about the war and its corresponding social attitudes, and more recent fictions started to dictate ideological readings of the war. This can be seen especially in the cultural impact of texts such as Steven Macdonald's Not About Heroes (1983/87)4, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), and the recent decision by book groups around the country to choose both Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong (1993) and Eric Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) as 'future classics' in a new line by Vintage books, published as a set in 2005.
As the century drew to a close, the war continued to haunt literary representation and to enforce the idea permeated in the 1960s. It is not my intention to discuss the multitude of these books in great detail -- rather to move on to a specific discussion of how the parable functions in a series of texts from this point onwards. Their sheer persistency, and the fact that many reinscribe similar literary devices, plots and ideas is however notable. In the 1990s, prompted in part by the 80th anniversary of the war, several texts were produced that fully amalgamated the literary parable of war into their writing. Several of these were extremely influential, in particular the aforementioned Birdsong, which became a popular classic almost immediately, and Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy (1991-5). The latter has also gained the attention of literary scholars and critics, most notably for the ways it apparently reconceptualises trauma for a modern reader (an expressed intention of the author) (Monteith: 2002) and in its recreation of the war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and psychotherapist W.H.R.Rivers. Barker's writing was heavily based on a series of critical texts, including Elaine Showalter's work on the hysterical male, and it refigures the war in an exclusively modernised way. This has been both influential, and damaging to the perception of attitudes expressed during the war (MacCallum-Stewart: 2006), although Barker's work has been extremely important in recovering the potential to explore new ideas and representations of the war, for example the diverse roles played by non-combatants and soldiers not serving directly on the war fronts.
Case Study: Shot at Dawn
An example of how understandings of the war have developed in literature can be seen through the changing ideological forms of Shot at Dawn narratives. A common literary device throughout the century, the idea of soldiers Shot at Dawn is a potent narrative theme. Although its retelling has remained consistent throughout the century, the attitudes expressed towards it have altered substantially in order to reflect changes in attitudes and belief. The rest of this paper examines three historical fictions: A.P. Herbert's The Secret Battle (1919), Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon (1974), and Micheal Morpurgo's Private Peaceful (2002), and the ways in which literary developments in war fiction -- from literary myth to parable -- have affected these retellings.
The Secret Battle, published shortly after the war, tells the story of Harry Penrose. Penrose begins his army career as an exemplary soldier but is subjected to a series of horrific experiences which often revolve around his determination to be a good soldier and his consummate pastoral care of his men. Penrose is also victimised by two senior officers; Burnett, an officer who develops a strong enmity for Penrose after stealing his mess tin, and Philpott, a senior officer and crony of Burnett who refuses to believe in Penrose's worth, indeed, often places him in dangerous or unpleasant situations in lieu of himself. Penrose gradually succumbs to shock, although not without considerable provocation, including having to sleep in a room of decomposing corpses, many of who are his own men, and enduring almost unceasing activity in the front lines during the Gallipoli campaign. Finally, he is caught running away from enemy lines by Burnett, sentenced to death and shot.
Through the unnamed narrator, Herbert is extremely specific about Penrose's worth as a soldier. He is the sort of godly figure that boy's stories of the time were constantly extolling -- brave, honourable, profoundly patriotic and utterly devoted both to the cause and his men. Herbert continually reinforces this throughout the text: Penrose is 'like none of us' (25), elevated to a position of moral superiority which conforms totally with pro-war idealism. 'Harry alone was all eagerness to reach the firing-line with the least possibly delay' (25). He has the consumptive appearance and sensitivity of the Edwardian hero -- which makes him both unsuited to war in every way but also a natural hero automatically placed in a position of struggle. Whilst 'his heart would have not passed a civilian doctor' (38), the narrator makes it clear that Harry's delicate yet noble soul is also unsuited for the rigours of war despite his 'idealism' (28).
After the narrator visits him in military prison, it becomes clear that Penrose was not, in fact, running away from the enemy, but was leading his men to safety after being commanded to carry out a sortie during an exceptionally heavy bombardment. This was engineered by Philpott, who sent Penrose 'off with a working party like a shot out of a gun' (186) only an hour after his being posted back to the battalion. To compound the injustice, Burnett witnesses and reports the event as seeing 'the officer in charge and some of the party running down the road -- demoralized' (190) to cover his own cowardice; however when Penrose and his men reach the shelter, they discover that Burnett has been cowering in it all along.
The distinction is clear here -- Penrose is a saint whilst Burnett is a 'bogus' officer and a thief (29). He spends most of his career in the army avoiding the Front Lines 'Town Major here, Dump Officer there, never in the line . . . ' (184), tasks which conveniently place him in a position to cause as much damage as he can to Penrose's reputation. Lt-Col (Temp'y) W.K Philpott (Substantive Captain) (138) is cut from the same cloth; a stickler for 'The Book' who knows nothing of military rule or discipline:
He left everything to somebody else . . . He would not say what he wanted (he very seldom knew), and when in despair you made out his orders for him, he invariably disagreed. When he did agree it took half an hour to explain the simplest arrangement. If you asked him to sign some correspondence for the Brigade, he was too lazy and told you to sign it yourself . . . (Herbert: 139)
These figures of bureaucratic cowardice become persistent characters in Shot at Dawn narratives.
Crucially, Penrose does not disobey orders or act in a cowardly manner, but is represented by drastically unreliable and malicious witnesses as having done so. The default role of a senior officer is military incompetence and self-serving shirking, epitomised through the grasping Burnett, who crawls his way into a position of power without 'doing his duty' in the front lines, and Philpott, an old sweat with little comprehension of real warfare. On the other hand, Penrose is an exemplary soldier despite personal disadvantages -- ill health, sensitivity and exposure to wars excesses. His sentencing demonstrates a fundamental misinterpretation between what constitutes good soldiering, and obeying (or twisting) military law to the letter.
The Secret Battle sets the benchmark for a second factor in Shot at Dawn narratives. In later literature, the soldier has technically committed the crime he is accused of, but that crime is provoked by an ethical and frequently selfless decision which overrides military protocol. There is always a perfectly justifiable reason for his actions, which are in turn deliberately misinterpreted by senior command, and are ignored or not allowed voice in the official trial. As time passes, the conditions in which this crime has been committed become more horrific and the soldier more of an individual, fitting with later perceptions that the war stifles individualism. After The Secret Battle, the implication that soldiers were more frequently shot for military crimes than has been reported was encouraged by the war writers and sustained several through subsequent fictions. Shock also plays a significant part in accusations where this selfless act has not taken place, such as in R. L .Hodson's Return to the Wood (1955), which later became the film King and Country (1964) and the stage play Hamp (1966). Both narratives encourage the belief that executions were commonplace, and this is borne out by repetition in popular literature. In fact, most cases brought before the military authorities were either dismissed, or punishment was commuted to something less severe than the Death Penalty. In total, 306 British soldiers were executed during the war.
The unjust accusation has one notable exception: Blackadder Goes Forth (Curtis and Elton: 1989). In the first episode, 'Corporal Punishment', Captain Blackadder disobeys the order to advance by pretending to mishear a telephone message he receives, and is thus guilty of the charges of cowardice and disobeying orders. However, this crime is displaced by the fact he has also deliberately killed General Melchett's favourite carrier pigeon 'Speckled Jim' and eaten him for lunch. At the trial, he is accused thusly:
'The charge before us is that the Flanders Pigeon Murderer did deliberately, callously and with beastliness afterthought murder a lovely innocent pigeon . . . and disobeyed some orders as well'
(Curtis & Elton, 1998: 372)
In this case, the subversive potential of Blackadder actively disobeying orders is contained by the entirely spurious charge set in its place, reflecting once again the popular belief that Capital Courts Martial proceedings were entirely misguided.
In The Historical Romance, Helen Hughes outlines a pattern that is also true to war literature. Her discussion of romance fiction argues that the socio-political attitudes that characters or texts express is frequently more appropriate to the present time, rather than representing the past accurately. This distinction can be applied to all genre fiction, including war writing:
If the romances fulfil varying functions at various times, it is through slight differences of presentation and focus rather than through radical changes in the nature of the stories or the characters, which have remained essentially the same throughout the twentieth century . . . Moreover, the changing functions have one general function in common: that of normalizing traditional attitudes and patterns of behaviour when rapid changes in society seemed to threaten the status quo.
In helping texts to fulfil this normalizing function, the historical element is useful because it appears to provide a 'background' of neutral fact to an imaginary story -- whereas in fact it is an imaginative creation itself, infused with authorial ideology.
(Hughes, 1993: 134)
Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon (1974) exemplifies this shift clearly. By the mid 1970s, the perception of the war was one of total destruction, and that the men involved in it were to be pitied for the unilaterally horrific circumstances in which they had constantly lived. In fact, although the Western Front was well-known for its terrible living conditions, a soldier stayed in the line only approx ten days per month and on average gained one stone in weight during his service. Military service was dangerous and unpleasant, but it was by no means as dramatically awful all of the time as authors like to portray it, and in recent years considerable scholarship has tried to displace these mythologies.
In How Many Miles to Babylon Jennifer Johnston deliberately plays upon the perceived horror of war to produce a convincing narrative. She also introduces the idea that class divide is responsible for prejudice. Her plot builds upon previous texts to give a greater impression of the injustices apparently in action during the war. How Many Miles to Babylon's narrative concerns two friends; Alexander Moore (Alec) and Jerry Crowe, who after growing up together amidst scenes of terrible class repression in Ireland, enlist within a week of each other shortly after war breaks out. They are sent quickly to the front lines, where a senior officer, Major Glendinning, takes an instant dislike to Jerry because he is working class, and to Alec because he is friends with Jerry. Shortly afterwards, Jerry's father (serving elsewhere in France) is reported missing and his mother writes a letter asking Jerry to find him. Even though it is a futile task, Jerry goes Absent Without Leave to find him. On his return, Jerry is arrested for desertion and Glendinning sadistically commands Alec to lead the firing squad. Instead, so that Jerry's family are not humiliated by this public execution, Alec visits Jerry in his cell and shoots him. Alec is arrested in Jerry's place, and the narrative begins and ends with Alec's musings in his prison cell the night before he dies.
Johnston's novel preys upon contemporary controversy surrounding military executions, which had received considerable press previous to the publication of How Many Miles to Babylon and possibly accounts for her choice of theme. In 1972, the British government released documents detailing the men shot for military crimes by the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) during the war. This was debated in Parliament when M. P. Don Concannon asked the House whether the surviving records should be destroyed 'to prevent the names ever being released' (Corns and Hughes-Wilson, 2001: 441). Although these were subsequently made public, the emotive issues involved provoked public concern and considerable press attention was given to the decision. Following this in 1974, Moore's The Thin Yellow Line argued that many of these men had been unjustly condemned. Moore was unable to view the records and had to rely on secondary testimony, so his argument is erratic and at times, inaccurate, but his impassioned argument was persuasive, and contained enough circumstantial evidence to have a dramatic impact on popular belief about those executed.
Johnston's book is an interesting social document as it makes the mistake of thinking that the First World War is so well known that it does not require considerable explanation or research. The novel treats the war as a poor cousin to the subtexts of the novel; most notably investigations of class injustice and the political instabilities that this causes between working and upper class Irish. This allows a number of historical errors to creep in, including fundamental flaws with the central pretext of the book. Additionally, many things are inferred rather than explained, pointing to an assumption of values by the reader and the obvious existence of a wartime 'shorthand' that connotes the war itself.
Historical detail is problematic throughout the novel, and this is linked almost exclusively towards facilitating the Shot at Dawn narrative itself. Initially, Jerry goes Absent Without Leave to locate his father. Jerry explains that he needs to find him because; 'If he's dead itself she'll [his mother] get the pension' (Johnston: 130). However, by 1916, soldiers reported 'missing, presumed dead' already secured the war pension for their spouses (Public Records Office: PMG 47/1). This first premise is tenuous, because Jerry may have left to find his father regardless, but ultimately flawed -- historically there is no financial need for him to do so. Jerry is then able to navigate his way across the Western Front to locate his father's battalion and discover that his father has been killed by stepping on a landmine. This information means that he is no longer 'Missing, presumed dead', but 'Killed in Action'. This death is in itself entirely a product of later anxieties, possibly the high incidence of civilian deaths reported in Vietnam as a result of landmines, since during the First World War, mines were neither sensitive enough nor designed to be triggered by human weight.
This detail might be irritating but not serious, if it were not for what happens as a result of Jerry's disappearance. Upon his safe return to the battalion, as he is arrested, tried, and then sentenced to death for Desertion. However, it was simply not in the BEF's best interests to execute everyone convicted of a crime, especially if it was going to be bad for morale or seemed exorbitant given the offence. Of the men arrested by the military police and sentenced to death during the war, more than nine-tenths were pardoned before reaching trial, had their sentences commuted, or were given alternative punishment, for example imprisonment. Jerry would not have automatically been sentenced to death or have had the sentence carried out. Seventeen men from Irish regiments were sentenced and executed during the war, however, relatives were often not informed why or how each soldier had died. More often, the Army tried to avoid embarrassment and public shame by telling relatives that those executed had simply 'Died of Wounds', which was of course technically true. Individual names were not released until the authors of Shot at Dawn (Putkowski & Sykes, 1992) decided to name each man killed, and when they did so this caused considerable controversy and distress for families who had hitherto been unaware how their relatives had died. Johnston appears to assume, wrongly, that the name of a solider shot at dawn was made public knowledge, as this finally engenders the final dilemma in the book. Alec kills Jerry to save his family from the shame of discovering their son was executed for desertion.
Faced with historical fact, Alec's decision to save his friend's honour, and thus the premise of the entire book, collapses spectacularly. There is simply no valid reason for him to take the action he does -- it achieves nothing except to condemn him as well. How Many Miles to Babylon does however, suggest that emotive readings of the war were easily taking precedence over historical truth. The fundamental premise of the novel appears to have survived unchallenged by critics and reviewers, none of whom noticed the string of historical faults in the text and instead praise the book for its condemnation of Shot at Dawn and its subtlety in portraying the balance between the characters and their depiction of class antipathy. Whilst it might perhaps seem rather unfair to compare a novel for its lack of historical validity, the fact that nobody has hitherto picked up upon these plot-holes demonstrates not only a blank acceptance of fiction as portraying 'real' circumstances, but also a desire for them to portray a specifically politicised wartime scenario -- one which privileges negative circumstances and disenfranchises the individual in wartime. That the overtly judgemental assumptions about Shot at Dawn were not challenged also shows a similar supposition that military authorities frequently acted unjustly and that the war had a predilection towards such situations of cruelty.
Johnston adds a final component to the Shot at Dawn narrative; the condemned man's diary. How Many Miles To Babylon is Alec's recounting of his tale whilst he awaits execution; and the book begins and closes with the lines ' Because I am an officer and a gentleman they have given me my notebooks, pen, ink and paper. So I write and wait.' (Johnston, 1974: 1 & 156). This motif was later repeated in Private Peaceful, in which the author marks the opening of each chapter with a countdown to Peaceful's death. The vast irony is obvious in both cases -- from the implication that the army makes a mockery of the qualities inherent in 'an officer and a gentleman', to the inevitable death of the prosecuted despite the vast array of extenuating circumstances disregarded during the court martial proceedings.
The last text presented here also conforms to the pattern laid out by Helen Hughes. Private Peaceful, by Children's Laureate Micheal Morpurgo, details the life of Private Thomas 'Tommo' Peaceful, whose beloved brother Charlie is sentenced to death after disobeying an order to advance from his senior officer, the sadistic Sergeant Hanley. Peaceful recounts his life in a journal as he matches his waking hours to the last of his brother, describing how the rural idyll of their lives have been shattered by war. The reader is led to believe that it is Tommo who is sentenced -- only at the last moment is it revealed that it is Charlie who is facing the charge. At the close of the book, Charlie charges Tommo with the duty of surviving to look after their family and live well, finally echoing How Many Miles To Babylon as the two sing the nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons' together as a symbol of innocence lost and homosocial unity. In How Many Miles To Babylon, Alec and Jerry sing 'The Croppy Boy'; 'Now Father bless me and let me go' (Johnston, 1974: 135), an identical sentiment echoed by Tommo and Charlie's unwritten 'We all fall down' (Morpurgo, 2003: 181).
Despite Morpurgo's contention that 'I want people to rethink how we face the shames and injustices of the past' (Morpurgo in Abrams: 2003), the book is in fact notable for its utter lack of disruptive thought. Peaceful's family, who one suspects would be just as happy sitting and listening to The Archers as they are the brass bands heralding the start of war, are so politically correct that they have absolutely no place in the 1914 household. From brother Big Joe, brain damaged by meningitis; to their widowed but progressive-thinking mother, the family are impossible to locate within the wartime era in terms of attitudes and beliefs. This in many ways helps to guide the reader towards the 'correct' response to Peaceful's sentence -- as part of an idealised family with clearly established patterns of tolerance and charity within their family, Peaceful himself is portrayed as an honourable 'lad' (he signs up slightly underage), and heightens the inherent sense of 'wrongness' in his conviction. Morpurgo was unequivocal about his agenda in this construction and wrote the last chapters of the book 'in a state of considerable anger' (Abrams: 2003).
Perhaps the most notable thing about Private Peaceful is its intended audience -- young adults. This demonstrates not only that such a hideous subject is now deemed suitable for younger readers, in itself implying that the repetition of Shot at Dawn narratives have familiarised and desensitised readers, but that the response presented is considered morally 'right'. Morpurgo may have claimed that his text was intended to be controversial, but the 'accepted' public perception of the soldiers Shot at Dawn is that they should be pardoned. Therefore any text that reflects this is not courting controversy in any way, and by reinforcing the idea that all of the soldiers executed were underaged, suffering from shock and acting in a morally correct manner when they disobeyed orders, it serves more to repeat and lend strength to common perceptions of the war. The fact that this was released as a book for older children, also draws direct links between youth and the men executed, implying lines of similarity which are supported by the ahistorical family, who contribute ideas of social familiarity.
Private Peaceful was extremely successful and was shortlisted for the Whitbred Prize. The book was also made into a stage play and is, like many of its fictional contemporaries, is now recommended by educational syllabi across the country. Alongside the Regeneration Trilogy, Birdsong and Blackadder Goes Forth, more recent texts are steadily replacing the old, causing an ideological shift away from the more diverse and contradictory texts of the War Books Controversy in 1928-33, and the voices of the poets themselves. Early texts are now often interpreted through a miasma of ideals that do not represent belief during the war, but are supported, like the Shot at Dawn narratives, by a series of literary constructions. The confusion, begun by the war writers themselves, between historical 'truth' and literary 'fiction', has meant that readers willingly comply with these constructions, although increasingly this is through cursory mentions to the war which present an assumed collective knowledge of the events of 1914-18. This then, is the 'parable' of the war in fiction -- an emotive retelling with a specifically literary overture. And whilst many may argue that fiction is simply a form of entertainment, it is concerning that so many readers seek history from these pages, and often appear to find it.
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2Graves includes a footnote to this incident describing how Swainson survived despite these wounds and was returned to Active Duty at the 'Middlesex Depot'.
3These are (in order of inclusion): 'Anthem For Doomed Youth', 'Bugles Sang' (Britten alters some lines which in Owen's version are illegible). 'The Next War', 'Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action', 'Futility', 'The Parable of the Old Man and the Young', 'The End', 'At a Calvary Near the Ancre' and 'Strange Meeting'. The poems are notable since only a few of them are now in the recognised canon of Owen's poetry.
4Two very different versions of the playscript of Not About Heroes exist, both of which reflect the changing demands of an audience and their expectation of what a play about the war should entail. In this case, the 1987 version of the play is far more specifically directed towards a love story between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, additionally encouraging a less self-determined Owen, and adding more detail about the two men's respective histories which both inform and guide the reader in a direction that encourages 'the pity of war'.