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The Great War Group, and Salient Points

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The Great War Group has only been existence for just over a year, but under the dynamic leadership of Alexandra Churchill and Bethany Moore, has already made its mark. The GWG is active online, in the real world (its first Annual Conference will be this coming October), and in print. The Group’s main publication is its quarterly magazine, Salient Points. This is a high quality, 100pp plus, magazine that covers all aspects of the Great War.

The new issue of Salient Points is now out, with members receiving their copies now. Non-members can buy the May 2021 issue for £6.50. Articles in the issue include the role of Forward Observation Officers on the Western Front, the Gaza war cemetery, the execution of Roger Casement, cinema in the Great War, women in the Imperial Russian Army, the Polish Legions, the war in the Holy Land, Austro-Hungarian troops on the Western Front, and a great deal more. Included in that ‘great deal more’ is a short piece by me on British combatant writing. This piece:

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is intended to be the first in a series of short pieces about the men who saw combat and their attempts to make sense of the war in their writing.

Join, read, enjoy.

Ex-combatants making sense of the Great War

It is now more than a century since the end of the ‘Great War for Civilisation, 1914-1919’. That characterisation of the conflict features on the reverse of the British version of the Allied Victory Medal, and it now seems to be shot through with heavy irony. It is probably true to say that most British people consider the war as a monumental waste, a futile and pointless exercise. That view is what might be described as the ‘disenchanted’ view. However, we now see the Great War through the prism of the Second World War, the collapse of European empires and the end of Europe’s world dominance as the ‘Mighty Continent’. Further, the cultural interpretation of the Great War has, over the years, undergone a fundamental change. Since the 1960s in particular, the disenchanted view has held sway. In 1963 the left-wing ‘Theatre Workshop’ produced its highly successful stage version of the radio play, Oh! What a Lovely War. The play was subsequently turned into a major film, directed by Richard Attenborough. Oh! What a Lovely War satirised the conflict and helped frame a popular and enduring perception of the war as having no value at all. A similar approach characterised Bernard Bergonzi’s literary history of the war, Heroes’ Twilight, published in 1965. The view offered by play, film and academics like Bergonzi has continued to hold sway, though not unchallenged. Yet if we look at the writings of British ex-combatants in the inter-war period, we see a different, more nuanced picture.

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Poster for the 1969 Attenborough film, Oh! What A Lovely War.

Although millions took part in the Great War, and saw combat, few wrote about it and only some 250-300 books by British ex-combatants were published between 1919 and 1939. There was a flurry of books by this group of men published immediately after the war’s end. For example, Wilfrid Ewart’s Way of Revelation: A Novel of Five Years (1921), and A.H. Gibbs’ The Grey Wave (1920). Publishers soon realized that the reading public’s taste for war memoirs and novels was limited as people attempted to return to some kind peacetime world. It was not until a decade after the Armistice that there was a new round of war writing by ex-combatants. The next few years into the early 1930s saw the peak of such publications both by British authors and by a small number of others published in translation. Books that are still well-known came out in this period, including Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That (1929), Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (first publication in English, 1929), Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), and Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1929). Jünger’s book, first published in German in 1920, is a celebration of war and combatant manhood, and contrasts with Remarque’s worldwide best seller which can be seen as a total condemnation of the Great War. Yet both these books, along with those by Graves, Aldington and others, were condemned by a group of British literary ex-combatants as presenting a partial and inaccurate interpretation of the Great War.

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Edmund Blunden in 1922 by William Rothenstein.

One of these men was Douglas Jerrold, whose book, The Lie About the War (1930), attacked what he saw as the extremes of view encapsulated in the contrast of Jünger and Remarque. Jerrold, who saw action at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, stated, ‘not only was the war neither futile nor avoidable, but it was not believed to be either by the men who fought’. Instead, Jerrold posited what he termed was the ‘solid British point of view, which lies between the two extremes of despairing disillusionment and perfervid exaltation’. That ‘stolid British point of view’ was also one endorsed by another literary ex-combatant, Edmund Blunden. His own memoir of the war, Undertones of War was published in 1928, and is one of the enduring books on the war. Blunden was an academic, both at Oxford and in Japan, and a prolific writer, poet, and commentator. Along with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, with whom he shared passions for cricket and poetry, he was largely responsible for ensuring the legacy of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Blunden probably spent more time in the trenches than any other British war poet (despite suffering from asthma), like Sassoon and Owen was awarded the Military Cross, was a patriot with deep roots in the English countryside, and a careful literary craftsman. He was also one of those literary ex-combatants who argued that the Great War was not without meaning. Instead, it was characterised by widespread and sustained heroism, and the vindication by servicemen of traditional codes of behaviour, especially endurance, courage and loyalty. This approach also characterised other writing by ex-combatants, including R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (1929), Charles Douie’s The Weary Road (1929), Hugh Casson’s Steady Drummer (1935), and Guy Chapman’s Passionate Prodigality (1933).

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Edmund Blunden, Ronald Gurner, R.C. Sherriff, ex-combatant writers making sense of the Great War.

We naturally read our own times and understanding into the history and literature of the past, and in terms of Great War literature and writing it is difficult not to interpret the stories of the men who fought from our own contemporary standpoint. That standpoint is heavily influenced by the knowledge of subsequent history, not least of the Second World War, but we are also influenced by the interpretations of the generations between us and the Generation of 1914. I hope I have suggested here that we need to make greater efforts to see the war as that generation did, especially in the interwar period. I have published a longer piece in this topic in The Historian (which can be found under ‘The Historian’ tab on the home page), and in Cultural and Social History, volume 8, no: 2, 2011 (which, sadly, lurks behind a very pricey academic paywall).

History, pot plants and social class

Auricula in the author’s greenhouse. The author is not a hand loom weaver.

This is the season for admiring auriculas (primula auricula). These tricky to grow Alpine plants demand year-round attention, but one is rewarded by their marvellous flowers. The colours and textures of the blooms suggest Victorian textiles – fustian or velvet dresses. Like many plants grown in England, they are imports, but not brought here by any of the great plant collectors and explorers (David Stuart’s The Plants That Shaped Our Gardens, is a good primer on the collectors of the heroic age). Instead, it is the case that the auricula probably became popular with the arrival of Huguenot weavers who settled in Lancashire. Whatever the origin, the plant was adopted by the hand-loom weavers of that county. They called it ‘Bears’ Ears’, not just because of the shape and texture of the flowers, but also because of the rounded leaves. The hand loom weavers’ cottages, with their characteristic three floors, the top floors featuring building-wide windows to maximise the light falling on the looms, also provided ideal conditions for auricula growing. By the turn of the nineteenth century, auricula shows were popular, as working-class fans of the auricula began to grow them competitively. The little plant had joined the other working-class favourites like the tulip and the chrysanthemum as a source of delight and competition. Societies sprung up to encourage the propagation of these popular flowers. Today, much of that free association around particular flowers is just history. For example, of the many societies dedicated to the tulip, only the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society is, I think, active. Not only was the rise and fall of such clubs and societies a product of changing fashions in horticulture, but, of course, the advent of the factory system crushed the handloom weavers’ way of life. E.P.Thompson’s old, but famous, The Making of the English Working Class provides an account of that tragic loss. Doubtless, his 1963 classic has been superseded by subsequent historians’ work, but it is still very much worth a read. And, for a final reference for this blog post, let me suggest Catherine Horwood’s absolutely marvellous read, Potted History: The Story of Plants in the Home. It is a beautifully produced book, and an insight into the English potted plant.

Auricula theatre.

New publication. Out now.

Long Road to Berlin

Most people have heard of ‘Lord Haw Haw’, who, in his final incarnation was William Joyce. But very few people have heard of the woman who recruited him to German wartime radio. That was the actress and political activist, Dorothy Eckersley.

Eckersley lived an adventurous, intense life. An actress, society beauty, and mother of three children, she was in turn, an active socialist, communist, then national socialist. Following in the footsteps of her Suffragette mother, Dorothy was a long term member of the Independent Labour Party. But the failure of the 1929 Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald, led to her becoming an enthusiast for Soviet Communism. Yet that, too, proved not to be enough for the utopianism that she craved.

A visit to Nazi Germany, and attendance at the Reichsparteitag converted her to national socialism, and she became an ardent admirer of Hitler. In the summer of summer of 1939, she left England for Germany, having already sent her teenage son to school there. It was the beginning of five dangerous years.

The story of Dorothy Eckersley’s Long Road To Berlin is now told for the first time in a new book from Allotment Hut Booklets, which can be bought via the ‘Shop’ here.

First of the Free Stuff

Free stuff.

Here and there on the internet, I have written some pieces of an historical nature. You can access three articles from The Conversation: one on the British Home Guard, one on women in the Home Guard, and the other written after the last EU election that the UK participated in, which takes a different look at the ultra-right and the idea of a united Europe.

A 60th anniversary of note

For the historically-minded, pretty much every date represents an anniversary. I remember a schoolboy asking a very good history teacher, ‘Sir, what happened in 1664?’. His instant answer was, Kronenbourg. One of the more pleasant anniversaries.

This April, however, marks the significant anniversary of the ‘Bay of Pigs’ in Cuba in 1961.

The failed CIA-backed attack on Castro’s Cuba by exiled Cubans (many of whom had been Castro-ists) is seen as a key moment in the Cold War. The defeat of Brigade 2506 was a humiliating blow for the CIA, especially after its success in engineering the ousting of the Árbenz government of Guatemala.

There are numerous accounts of the events of April 1961, but almost all are from the point of view of the exiles’ Brigade 2506, or the CIA. Some of these are well worth reading, particularly Grayston L. Lynch’s Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs: A CIA participant challenges the historical record. But almost all accounts in English examine the episode from the point of view of the exiles or the CIA. In my recent book, Amateur Armies: Militias and Volunteers in War and Peace, 1797-1961, I devoted chapter 7 to the Castro-ist defence – ‘Defending the Revolution: From the Escambray Mountains to the Bay of Pigs’. This was one of the rare occasions in modern military history where a militia, the National Revolutionary Militia (MNR) made a crucial difference. Despite very heavy losses, the effectiveness of the MNR surprised both the exiles and their CIA backers. Buy the book, and read a different take on the Bay of Pigs, 1961.

More Free Stuff!

In July 1943, Mussolini’s regime fell and the new Badoglio government quickly took Italy out of the Axis and into a new alliance with the Allies. The situation in Italy was confused, but soon a civil war broke out in the German occupied part of the country. The history of the Partisans and the new ‘co-belligerent’ Army supporting the Allies, has been reasonably well covered in English. Less has been written about the various forces which came into being to support Mussolini’s new ‘Italian Social Republic’. In 2010, I published an article in the now defunct magazine, Military Illustrated, about the various Fascist para-military groups which fought the Partisans. That article is now available here as a free PDF:

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