The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war has kicked off with a fight. Self-styled patriots and provocative military historians claim that our image of the war that killed eight million men between 1914 and 1918, and left 22 million wounded, has been distorted by poets and TV comedy writers. Wilfred Owen and Blackadder have apparently conned us into thinking the great war was futile, when in reality it was a "just" war provoked by German aggression.Art has an outsize influence on our view of the Great War. In one sense, that as the still scarred battlefields are all that is left at this point, when all those who participated in the struggle are dead. Another reason is that the Great War produced some truly amazing writing, poetry and art -- much more so that other wars before or after. Poet Ian McMillan writes at the BBC about how Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" has to a great extent defined the war in the minds of people since the poem achieved a renewed prominence in the 1960s. This is not unjustified. Owen's poem is short and devastating:
The pettiness of this rightwing revisionists' saloon-bar view of modern history is so tragicomic it is tempting to just go and watch Blackadder to calm down. But clearly it needs refuting.
Even without that foreknowledge, the people who defined the war as inhuman and beyond any meaningful justification were not Blackadder and Baldrick – they were the soldiers and civilians who endured it. If the eloquence of the war poets is now to be discounted as sentimental, will art be accepted as evidence?
Michael Gove needs to get to Tate Britain quick and censor its pictures. What if children were to take their view of the first world war from William Orpen's painting Zonnebeke? They might think that its despairing image of muddy, meaningless battlefield devastation is somehow the truth of the war. Instead, kids should be looking at propaganda posters I suppose.
Orpen painted this dismal view of war's landscape in 1918. Two years later, Charles Sargeant Jagger cast a bronze image of soldiers suffering in No Man's Land. They hang on the wire as if crucified. Jagger was no pacifist. His memorial, on view at Tate Britain, reflects how everyone involved, left and right, saw this war – as an inexplicable tragedy.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Owen, who died in the very last days of the war, can be seen as a sort of spokesman for the "lost generation" who left their bodies or their sanity in the trenches. Shouldn't a voice like that be taken as the final authority on the war?
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Owen was a very good poet, and the horrors he described are real. But the sense of futility he felt was certainly not shared by all soldiers in the war. I've been finishing up a book published in 1918 A Solder Unafraid, which is composed of letters that Andre Cornet-Auquier (who started the war as a reserve lieutenant in the French army and died in 1916 as a captain) wrote to his family. Cornet-Auquier also writes about the horrors of combat:
July 13, 1915: At eight o’clock the inevitable happened; the fatal shell struck us like a waterspout. It was a big 130 and burst at a yard and a half from where we were, killing wounding and destroying everything and everybody almost. The death rattle of the dying and the shrieks of the wounded in the midst of clouds of smoke and dirt; it was simply horrible. We had five killed among whom was the commander of the battalion, five wounded and four untouched, I being one of these last. A telephonist was killed so close to me that my cap which had been knocked off was filled with the poor fellow's blood. Two of my subordinate officers were killed, but my cyclist was unhurt. As the shells kept on coming, we took advantage of the cloud which enveloped and hid us to stealthily decamp, one after the other, from this veritable hell. Our faces and hair were full of earth and blackened, our temples were running with perspiration, in fact we no longer looked like human beings. What a day. And it means furthermore the battalion without a head, a very heavy inheritance for me to assume.But he retains a strong sense of purpose about the war, despite a several times repeat premonition that he will die in it. Here's part of a letter he wrote to his father (a protestant minister) in response to hearing that some in the congregation were questioning whether the war was worthwhile:
December 22  If I had a chance to address a Christian audience, or one calling itself such, this is about what I would say:Soldiers who fought and suffered in the war were, like any other group of people, persons with a range of ideas and reactions to their experiences. A soldier like Andre Cornet-Auquier, who believed the war to be a just defense against German aggression, is no less worth remembering than Wilfred Owen, who came to see the struggle as futile.
You believe in, or profess to believe in, God, in a God who is a Father. You have faith in His justice in His great kindness. You hold that nothing happens without His willing it, and this will is essentially holy, good and wise. Such being the case, you should have confidence in God and await with patience whatever comes to pass. Say to yourself that Justice will triumph, and that Right will finally vanquish brute force, because God has so willed it, because He so wishes it and because He will always continue to so wish it. The cause of Justice and Right is His cause and is ours. It is to us, the allied armies, that He has confided the task of making this cause triumph. It is we therefore who will be victorious in this struggle. When? How? I cannot say, and after all it matters little when and how. The final result is what counts. Don’t fear therefore, but believe. Stop being anxious and nervous; check all recrimination; cease every criticism. Don’t say: “If I were only Joffre or the Prime Minister!” You are not, thank God, either Joffre or Briand. If you tremble, it is because you do not believe in the final victory of Justice and Right, in the triumph of the cause of God on earth. Be logical then and say that God is not God and that for the past twenty centuries the world has deceived itself in believing in the law of love proclaimed by Jesus for, like Him, it is for love that the splendid soldiers of France die, and those of England, Belgium, Servia and Russia, too.