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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
As part of my self-publicising , self-publishing programme, I am producing some of my past writing that appeared in now defunct magazines. In particular, some of the 70 odd poems that I published in various small poetry magazines, those most ephemeral of publications. The first of these can be found in a series of poems entitled Winter River, which I wrote over one winter at Wolfson College, Oxford. Thirteen poems and four linocuts inspired by the changing seasons, and the Medieval water meadows that Wolfson College has preserved.
For a mere £3.99, you too can enjoy the beauty of the Medieval water meadows on the banks of the River Cherwell:
Poems and linocuts, A5 booklet, 26pp.
Price includes postage.
Not long after the end of Soviet Communism in Europe, the academic publication, Journal of Contemporary History (JCH), asked itself what constituted ‘contemporary’ history? Hitherto, the JCH had focused on the period between 1900-1945, particularly on inter-war questions. The JCH decided that as Europe had moved into a post-Soviet age, so it was time for the journal to consider the new period as ‘contemporary’, relegating the inter-war age to just ‘history’. For those of us, like myself, who had lived in the shadow of the Cold War, there was a sense to this, but it was still the case that its tensions and conflicts seemed to be present. Now, over 30 years later, that seems far less so, and it was brought home to me even more by the surprising lack of coverage that the recent 60th anniversary of the ‘Bay of Pigs’ received. The Historianran a piece about President Kennedy and the failed invasion, but I saw little in the press or media. That surprised me, not least because I had hoped that my recent book, Amateur Armies, which contains a chapter on the events on the shores of Castro’s Cuba in April 1961, might receive a small, very small, spin-off boost from coverage.
In my look at the Bay of Pigs, I attempted to do something different from most previous English language coverage of the failed invasion by Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA. There are some interesting books available about the background to the invasion, the events of those few days, and the aftermath. The focus is largely on the role of President Kennedy, who inherited the project from the Eisenhower administration, the CIA’s role, the fighting itself, and the international political fallout following the defeat of the invading force of Cuban exiles, known as ‘Assault Brigade 2506’. The memoir by Grayston L. Lynch, the CIA officer who was most closely involved, and the oral history account, The Bay of Pigs; the Leaders’ Story of Brigade 2506, give fascinating insights into the inside story, and, particularly in Lynch’s book, the sense of betrayal that most of the exiles came to feel over decisions by Kennedy relating to air strikes. However, in my chapter I shifted the viewpoint to that of the Castro regime and its preparations to defend its still uncertain power.
In early 1961, Castro headed a new regime that was far from stable, and whose continuation was not a foregone conclusion. Opposition from a wide range of sources was strong, not least from former comrades of Castro in the 26th July Movement, his anti-Batista group which had brought down that dictator. The CIA, which was still a relatively new agency, only being established in 1947, was keen to assert its value to Washington policy makers and was attempting to supply anti-Castro forces inside Cuba. The Castro government failed to buy arms from the British, and the US was able to limit other arms sales from Belgium and West Germany. However, the Soviet Union was quick to fill the gap, and weapons of all types were promised and began to be delivered. The immediate problem was that Castro’s regular army was small and many of its officers had been sacked, arrested or had joined over 100,000 exiles. Time was running out, both for the exiled Cuban plotters and the CIA, as well as for Castro’s defences.
The solution to the problem of the defence of the Castro regime was provided by the two most committed Communists in his government, his brother Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara. It was Guevara’s experiences and observations in Guatemala in 1954 which convinced him that any government facing the sort of threat Castro’s regime faced, needed a large, politicised militia. Guatemala was the CIA’s greatest coup in the 1950s, and also informed, erroneously, its thinking into the problem of Cuba. Like many other Latin American countries, Guatemala’s economy was dominated by US business interests. In Guatemala’s case, the United Fruit Company held extensive tracts of the country and drew large profits based on the brutal exploitation of the rural workforce. But in the late 1940s, Guatemalan politics entered a reformist period, with successive governments attempting to bring in land reforms, undertake development projects and improve living standards. The 1950 presidential election was won by Colonel Jacobo Árbenz, who intended to maintain the advances that had been made. None of those developments were welcomed by US business interests, the CIA, which saw the hand of Communism in the Árbenz government, or, from 1953, the new US president, Eisenhower.
As pressure grew on Árbenz, he realised that he would not be able to rely on Guatemala’s small army to defend his government. Instead, he attempted to establish a pro-government militia, but the steps taken were too late. Using Árbenz’s move to finally ‘prove’ that here was a Communist government in the making, the CIA were able to mount an audacious attack on the Guatemalan government. On 18 June 1954, a tiny force of 200 CIA-backed rebels crossed from Honduras into Guatemala, advanced a few miles then halted. Meanwhile CIA radio stations bombarded the country with propaganda and a few CIA-flown aircraft attacked. Within weeks, the Árbenz government collapsed through a lack of self-confidence, the ineffectual and ill-armed nature of its new militia, and the combination of radio propaganda and a few air attacks. Che Guevara witnessed all these events, and his experiences helped drive the creation, five years later, of the Castroist Cuban National Revolutionary Militia (MNR).
The MNR expanded rapidly, and was, from the outset, a highly politicised force. Its remit was to help enforce the Castro regime, combat urban and rural guerrillas, and mobilise hundreds of thousands of Cubans for the government. Within months, it was able to deploy 150,000 personnel, and was key to the drives against anti-Castro guerrillas operating in the Escambray mountains. By the time of the Bay of Pigs action, the MNR consisted of over 200,000 members, acting as early warning groups along Cuba’s long coastline, and taking a central role in the defeat of the CIA’s attempt to replicate its success in Guatemala. It also suffered heavy losses, particularly to the Brigade’s bombers, in a conflict that demonstrated the power of air attack.
The events of 17-21 April 1961 were world news. The defeat of Brigade 2506 was a major humiliation for the Kennedy presidency, and a significant step in the final consolidation of the Castro regime as a Soviet style Communist country. From then on, with increasing militarily and economic backing from the USSR, the Soviets had both a foothold in the western hemisphere, and a proxy for the wars that it would fight in Africa in the 1970s. Yet all this drama, these historic events, seem to have faded already, if the lack of popular coverage of the 60th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs is anything to go by. That the Cold War should fade so quickly is, for those of us of that generation, a surprise. But, then, that’s history.