How historians today are denying the reality of World War One revealed by the poets

In the centenary of World War One, historians today are re-writing the story as a "good war". But the poets had the deeper reality.

dead in trenches

The war poets are under attack in the centenary of the First World War. Military historian Max Hastings explicitly targets 'the poets' view that the war was not worth winning'. Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman contrasts the embittered verse of Wilfred Owen with the willing sacrifice of his own Uncle Charlie, who died at Gallipoli.

'The idea of sacrifice,' says Paxman, 'entirely acceptable at the time, has been lost to us, discarded along with religious belief and replaced with a cost-benefit analysis which deems such sacrifice pointless.'

Remarks like this are revealing. The revisionists – those who argue that the First World War represented 'necessary sacrifice' to defeat 'autocracy' and 'militarism' (of the German Empire, of course, not that of the British, the French, or the Russian) – come close to saying that ignorance was virtuous. The simple-minded deference of another age, they seem to be saying, has been lost. 'Ordinary people were accustomed to being bossed about,' explains Paxman, as if, somehow, in the vanished world of 1914, that was okay.

Middle-class angst?

The poets are left high and dry. They do not represent the norm, the argument runs. It is not just that they were educated and middle-class, officers rather than ordinary soldiers; they were untypical even of their own privileged caste, most of whom were not, so to speak, namby-pamby poets, but patriotic men stoically doing their duty without complaint.

The poets' view is caricatured as a post-war invention, a cultural artefact of the 1920s and 1930s, when a steady stream of published poems, diaries, memoirs, and novels created a new anti-war consciousness. 'That was not the prevailing view at the time,' says Paxman. On the contrary, through four years of unprecedented slaughter, 'the resolve of the British people did not weaken.'

But it did. The war produced a wave of mutinies, strikes, and revolutions which swept the continent of Europe, and Britain was not immune. In 1917, around 200,000 British workers took strike action in 50 different towns, and there was a full-scale mutiny of British troops at the Étaples base-camp on the Western Front. Such was the bitterness engendered by the war that Britain was probably closer to revolution in 1919 than at any time in the last three centuries.

Revolt from below

Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the trenches, was part of that wave of revolt. He and his mates were still in uniform three months after the Armistice. When they refused to parade, an officer threatened them with a gun.

'He came out, click, click, went the hammer on his revolver, and crash, crash, went back about 30 rifle bolts, mine included, before someone shouted, "Now you shoot, you bugger, if you dare." Had he not backed down, he would have been shot, there's no doubt about it. All those rifles were loaded, one round each. Anyway, down went the revolver and he scarpered back to the mess.'

The officer was removed. There were no more parades. Demobilisation followed promptly. 'The army was keen to get shot of us. Most of us were down for immediate demobilisation and we had decided ourselves that we were more or less civilians, and that army rules no longer applied to us.'

So much for the deference that revisionist historians admire.

That so many men had at first gone willingly to the slaughter is nothing to celebrate. That they were gulled by jingoism, black propaganda, and children's stories of glory and heroism – that they were, in this sense, 'innocents' herded to their deaths in a war for empire and profit – should be cause for regret.

Experience was a harsh teacher. The 'old lie' was exposed in the mud and blood of the trenches. Immured in a living nightmare of industrialised destruction, traumatised victims of a world gone mad, men learned to think as the poets wrote. Millions were radicalised. Millions emerged from the abyss to turn their guns on their rulers in the greatest wave of revolution the world has yet known.

Artistic insight

Art often sees a deeper truth than that of political, diplomatic, and military history. The one stands back, observes the whole, and sees – what? Insanity. The other, immersed in the minutiae of cabinet meetings and staff conferences, sees only the foam of history, the self-important bustle of statesmen and generals, missing the deep waters beneath, the industrial cartels, the banking syndicates, the militarised empires.

The poets recorded the micro-experiences of the war, but these were exemplars of something vast in scale, involving immense battlefields, unprecedented firepower, relentless killing.

In previous wars, armies had come into contact only occasionally, and battles longer than a day were rare. Now the opposing armies were locked in a vice-like grip. The ingenuity and productivity of the Industrial Revolution had been harnessed to a beast of apocalyptic destruction. The global economy's fast-rising capacity to abolish human need had been nullified by the division of the world into competing empires and their war-machines.

This nightmare of alienation and reification – of humanity losing control of the products of its own labour – of these products turning on their makers and tearing them apart – is the deeper reality sensed by the poets.

Owen writes of 'the monstrous anger of the guns', of 'the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle', and of 'the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells'. This is not mere description; it is insight.

He evokes the pity of war in a hundred minor tragedies. The man dying in a green sea of gas, 'guttering, choking, drowning'. The suicide buried with 'the muzzle his teeth had kissed'. The mental cases whose 'eyeballs shrink tormented back into their brains'. The legless man whom women now touch only 'like some queer disease'.

These were not 'necessary sacrifices'. They were, says Owen, the broken bodies and broken minds of a world consumed by 'war and madness'.

Historian Neil Faulkner, author of No Glory: The Real History of the First World War. His new pamphlet, Have you forgotten yet? The truth about the battle of the Somme will be published in May 2016.

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