ANTHEMS (Part 1 of 4)

This is a somewhat quixotic attempt to write a cross-blog entry inspired by recent reading, viewing and listening. Whether or not it works, well, it’s up to you…

Auth. Richard Holmes

It wasn’t intentional. As with so many of my recent reads, this one just turned up among the checked-in books at the library. I figured from the title that it might have something to do with the British Army or soldier and so it proved, the full subtitle being “the British soldier on the Western Front, 1914-1918.” I’m always filling in details and trying to learn more or something different about, well, anything of interest, and though I’d read some detailed personal accounts, most recently John Garth’s enjoyable study of Tolkien’s WWI experiences, as well as reviewing various histories and accounts of that war over the years, this seemed worth a chance. Which it was, though it also led me to a brief bout of studying other takes and reflections on that distant-but-close conflict.

The last time I’d indulged in any detailed thought or study of the War was the US public TV series on The Great War in 1996 or so, a study that followed in the vein of Ken Burns’s documentary style, with various actors of note reading various famous and not-so-famous texts and reflections and studies and more over a regular collage of black and white photos and film clips. Obscurer tales were presented, a broader scope was given to the whole milieu of the war in all involved nations, at the front line or not. It was a fairly standard take on the war in many ways, though — an endless impression of brutality and muck and endless, endless sorrow and compromise. Which actually IS my take on the war and war in general regardless of motive, so I was not sympathetic.

Holmes himself, though, is part of a self-declared school of revision, trying not to romantically glorify the war as such but to try and restore a perceived lack of balance. He does not deny there was much bitterness and anger in retrospect at how many veterans were treated after the war in Britain, which combined with the quicksilver power of such writers as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the undeniable fact that the war on the front closest to home was the most static of them all, four years of grinding stalemate that appeared to do nothing but kill people as messily as possible, resulted in the vision of the war which is still dominant in English retrospective consideration. But he tries — with I think mixed success in the end, though often the efforts are worthwhile — to rely on the texts of the time rather than those of retrospective reflection to argue that there was still a core of unwavering positive feeling that kept the Army together without resulting in a destruction of morale. Compared to the various mutinous collapses at one point or another of Germany, Russia and France, the point is well observed, and there is something to taking primary texts of the time — letters, comments, discussions, reports — rather than those following the Armistice at whatever remove.

He doesn’t always, though, often using after-the-fact publications — and how many memories could be colored more positively as negatively, after all? — and more often than not has to run into the fact that there’s no disguising the horrors. But to his credit, he doesn’t shy away from them, or from his own conflicted views on what happened. It’s so often the case that military historians can reduce everything to depictions of armies as masses victorious or defeated, of listings of losses of casualties as merely part of what does happen. Holmes speaks directly more than once over his conflict of head and heart when he tries to restore some of the reputation of Field Marshal Haig or debate over what the state of mind in the trenches was, when he quotes some of the ‘standard’ approaches — the rage of soldiers for comrades seemingly needlessly killed, the incompetence of leaders, more besides — and frankly admits that he cannot resolve things neatly. He sticks to his thesis but the mutilated bodies and ruined lives and visions of horror aren’t simply the consequences of war but the loss of lives, people, dreams, relations — he dwells for a long time on the importance of interaction among soldiers in the trenches, and how death can shatter as much as render a survivor potentially callous.

A good book in the end, an attempt to sum up hundreds of thousands of lives and experiences in one text is by definition impossible but he does his best to balance off the anecdotal with the broad to create a portrait with a different scope than before, or at least a slightly different one. But as I was reading it I started thinking more and more of other favored takes on the war I enjoy, which led me to a rewatching…

(Part two will continue on Do You See?)