Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1975, 2000.
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell looks at the literature produced during World War I and how it has shaped our modern ideas of the war. By taking several bodies of work he is able to show how they became an instrument to express the events of a large group. He critiques the responses from the participants of the war who wrote of their experiences, particularly of their time in the trenches. Fussell writes that he “…focused on places and situations where literary tradition and real-life notably transect, and in doing so…the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life.” (p. ix)
The Great War was such a shock in its magnitude of slaughter and devastation that it changed the perceptions of the men who fought, which changed how these men expressed their feelings. There is a similarity in them, whether in letters to home, or in poetry and essays, even in the macabre humor. The prior romanticism of prewar awareness changed to a tough realism, highlighting the foibles of man. In this book he has learned the answers from men like Graves, Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden on what it felt like to experience trench warfare and how they managed to survive so that he could assess how they transformed “…their feelings into language and literary form.” (p. 336) Though Fussell did not serve in WWI he did in WWII and believes that by living through a life and death situation that he can relate or commiserate with these men. In this 25th Anniversary edition the author has included a new Afterward in which a profound wisdom is seen. He wonders if the experiences of young infantry officers, irrespective of calendar date, “…occasion some unique interest in humanity and society and one’s relations to them.” (p. 336)
The book begins in 1914 after the British troops have been fighting for five months. Casualties were mounting at a spectacular rate, and people were realizing with a gut-wrenching clarity, that the war would in no way be over by Christmas. A Thomas Hardy poem is used that deals with irony to show that the war itself is satirical. Fussell writes that wars are all ironic because they are worse than man ever expects, and “Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” (p. 7)
The author’s grasp of the Somme is evident, and his list of the three main reasons that it was a disaster is coming from a place of an obvious understanding of the situation. The first reason was a lack of imagination. Haig fired one and a half million shells over a week’s time at the German trenches, never considering that they had dug them deep enough to withstand the onslaught. The Germans were able to get their machine guns taken to the deepest recesses of their trenches, and wait out the storm. It was also not considered that they would be able to get the guns set up so quickly after the bombardment ended. The second reason was the British class system. Kitchener’s Army brought in new, untrained recruits, mostly Midland workingmen whom the planners anticipated, “…were too simple and animal to cross the space between the opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows…” (p. 13) So because they were considered too ignorant to understand the finer points of war, they were presented as the easiest of targets for the Germans. The third reason was the complete lack of surprise. Haig’s bombardment lasted a week and upon its cessation, the troops line up in what became a funeral march. Haig never considered starting and stopping the bombing to keep the Germans unaware of Zero hour.
The chapter titled The Troglodyte World focuses on how literature assimilated trenches into metaphor and myth so that it is difficult to now find what is fact or fiction. Several writers refer to the sunset or sunrise in their works, like Evelyn Waugh, Laurence Binyon, and George Sherston. Fussell explains that the use of the sun in literature ended by World War II. The use of the dawn quite often represented a new beginning of some sort, or in the case of Thomas Hardy’s Men Who March Away, the dawn refers to volunteers. Fussell explains the difficulty for the soldiers of the Great War to comprehend their life as it was in the trenches. For most of the men, they were not that far from their homes, they could in fact still receive their magazine subscriptions and newspapers. They knew that it was only a few miles away that life moved on, undisturbed for the most part, while they expected death at each explosion. This proximity to home is “…what makes experience in the Great War unique and gives it a special freight of irony.” (p. 64)
Another characteristic of trench warfare was how the enemy was viewed. Weeks might go by where a soldier never saw one German. Imagination would take hold, and yet the enemy was usually described in grey terms because of his uniform. It also does not take long for a new soldier to lose his prewar self. Stuart Cloete, for example, was cheerful about going to France, however not two weeks later he is writing about living in a seventh hell. The soldiers’ new reality created anger toward officers, who they considered were uncaring and unaware of what was happening on the front lines, and even toward the civilians, who through no fault of their own, knew nothing of the soldiers’ hardships. Civilians were kept ignorant by censorship of the media, and by the soldiers themselves, who tended to gloss over their hardships to save loved ones worry. If a soldier tried to include what it was really like the letters would have been censored anyway.
There was a lot of literature that was created from myths and legends. Stories of the crucifixion of a Canadian officer, which Fussell says fueled writers like Robert Nichols, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen to include crucifixion elements in their stories. Rumors of farmers behind the lines cultivating the land in a certain direction or using a certain color plow horse were indications of troop movements. A story of a German soldier that would appear in the trenches before attacks were the basis for several stories, two by Edmund Blunden and George Coppery. Good luck charms and the powers they possessed became legend, and the number three held special meaning to the soldiers and is seen often in WWI literature.
Oh What a Literary War is a wonderful inclusion for the reader as it thoroughly discusses the changes the English language morphed into. A single word like death was not enough and phrases like going west, going out of it, and going under would take its place. Some phrases like ‘goes over the top’ and ‘behind the lines’ are still in use today, which brings the realization that the war did truly change the English language. “The war began for the British in a context of jargon and verbal delicacy, and is proceeded in an atmosphere of euphemism as rigorous and impenetrable as language and literature skillfully used could make it.” (p. 175)
Personal memoirs are addressed in Persistence and Memory. “The further personal written materials move from the form of the daily diary, the closer they approach to the figurative and the fictional” (p. 310) Even Graves, in Good-Bye To All That admits to embellishment. Of Sassoon, Graves, and Blunden, Fussell believes that “The fictions of these three are subtle enough to be credible.” (p. 311) The reader knows, most of the time, when an author has inflated as well as fabricated a tale, and yet because most of the story is indeed varying degrees of truth these blips of falsity are forgiven.
The harshness of war is a recurring theme in this book. This is one of the main reasons that language changed and was adapted to be able to describe this new reality. Though many books have discussed the harshness that permeates the Great War, this book focuses on how people chose to write about these experiences through literature. Another obvious theme is how the overall English template, or British way of life, colored the war literature. Fussell writes that this book is about the British experience, and so it is in keeping with this theme that the literature showcased within these pages are of this model. Gardening was big in Britain during this time and there is a lot of symbolism and allusion connected to this as well as the local flora and fauna.
If five people read the same poem or short story, there would inevitably be five different interpretations. The explanations in this book are, for the most part, Fussell’s opinion. His expertise is evident, however, the reader should never forget that to fluctuate from Fussell’s narrative path is beneficial. In the chapter Soldier Boy, the author’s opinion goes slightly awry in places. He writes that a successful campaign promises rape and looting, that “Prolonged sexual deprivation will necessitate official brothels…,” and “The atmosphere of emergency and the proximity of violence will always promote a relaxing of inhibition ending in a special hedonism and lasciviousness.” (p. 270) First, there have been successful campaigns that do not include rape and looting. Sexual deprivation may encourage brothels, but surely naming this a necessity is going too far. Lastly, the author’s use of ‘always’ is a giant red flag that any historian should normally seek to avoid. That being said, he does manage to force his audience to think. Whether one agrees with every finding in this book, they will be forced to have an opinion, and there seems no better way to learn than that.
Once the reader has finished this book they will realize two things. Paul Fussell is fluent in war and his comprehension of literature is astounding. This book will force the reader to read the Great War works of literature with a new appreciation for each word and phrase that passes the eyes.
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