How accurate are British popular memories of the Great War?

Introduction

Most of the British adult population will have grown up hearing stories of a relative’s experience of the Great War.[1] However, since the late 1970s, the number of veterans alive rapidly diminished and today – 100 years since the Armistice – there are no surviving veterans.[2] As a result, the younger half of the population have had their understanding of the war shaped by literature, images and popular discussion. In fact, English (as opposed to History) teachers have had more influence on young peoples’ understanding of the war through the teaching of poetry. Consequently, young people generally possess “a very limited view of both the war as a whole and the experience of frontline infantrymen”, according to military historian Gary Sheffield, due to the war poets being a small and unrepresentative sample of junior officers.[3] This has led to a selective memory of the war as the circulation of sensationalised ‘myths’ has dominated over the mundane historical evidence.[4] In order to determine how accurate British popular memories of the Great War are, I will firstly compare the perception of life in the trenches with testimony from veterans. I will then dispel the myth of the ‘lost generation’ which has been exaggerated with the mainstream popularisation of families who suffered more than the average. Finally, I will evaluate whether the public are right to criticise the generals for distancing themselves from the front line. Throughout this essay, there will be a particular emphasis on the Battle of the Somme as this is considered to be “probably more deeply ingrained in British folk memory than any other episode of the Great War”, as several historians have concluded that the ordinary person generally believes that “what was true of the Somme battle in 1916 was true of the First World War as a whole.”[5]

Main Text

On asking a member of the public what the Great War was like, they would probably respond in a similar fashion to Private George Taylor (1st West Yorkshire Regiment) when asked by the Telegraph: “It’s not hell!…it’s worse than hell. Hell could never be anything like so bad.”[6] Gordon Corrigan, former soldier and historical writer, perfectly summarises the ordinary person’s understanding of the average soldier’s experience: after he had marched “all the way up to the front… he is put into a filthy hole in the ground and stays there until 1918… He never sees a general and rarely changes his lice infested clothes.”[7] There are two myths here that need addressing: firstly, the perception of living in constant ‘filth’ as a result of constantly being exposed to rain and mud; secondly, the belief that soldiers never left the firing line. Indeed, across the first winter of the war it “rained incessantly”. Between 25th October 1914 and 10th March 1915 there were only 18 dry days, 11 of which had a temperature below freezing; a shortage of sandbags left the Ypres salient almost permanently waterlogged during this period.[8] The 107th Brigade war diary highlights this issue, stating that their trenches were “in a very bad state” between 4-7th December 1914, with communication trenches rendered “flooded and impassable.”[9] However, the common misconception is that these conditions prevailed throughout the entirety of the war. The Battle of the Somme in particular, is thought to have been five-and-a-half months of mud and rain; this was not the case. Throughout July and August 1916, the temperature was at least 60°F; October was between 50-58°F, and November 37°F. Furthermore, July had only 1.3 inches of rain across 4 days, August had 2 inches of rain over 12 days, and October had 2 inches of rain in 16 days; there was under 1 inch of rain over 10 days in November.[10]On the 1st July, Captain Charles May (22nd Battalion, Manchester Regiment, 91st Brigade, 7th Division) wrote at 5:45 “it is a glorious morning and it is now broad daylight.”[11] The account of Private Harry Baumer (10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, 101st Brigade, 34th Division) matches this, stating that “at approximately 6am…we had a breakfast on a beautiful summer morning.”[12] Indeed, war poet Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from the front stating that “in two and a half miles of trench which I waded yesterday there was not one inch of dry ground. There is a mean depth of two-foot water.”[13] Owen probably experienced some rain on the Somme, however, his middle-class background, he would have found the muck and grime of the trenches a world away from his life of relative luxury; therefore, we must be wary of exaggeration regarding his description of conditions such as these.[14] The same can be said of Vera Brittain, who wrote to her brother Edward after receiving the possessions of her fiancé in December 1915: “everything was damp and worn and simply caked with mud…The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud… it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies.”[15] Brittain most likely did spot some dirt on Roland Leighton’s uniform; however, her description is clearly heightened with grief and therefore cannot be taken at face value as it is clear she is more fixated on the mud as a symbol of death – and coming to terms with Leighton’s – than the mud itself and what that implies about conditions on the Western Front. It is not surprising that popular memory remembers persistent the rain and mud, as the British general public are familiar with these two sensationalist literary figures of the war period; their work, letters and biographies have been republished for the masses several times for commemorative anniversaries of the First World War. On the other hand, the ordinary man’s diary – which may offer information on the contrary – tends to be read exclusively by historians as it is considered too mundane to be enjoyed by the public. In military historian Dan Todman’s opinion, it is only the Third Battle of Ypres during the late Autumn of 1917 that was as awful as popular myth.[16] Veteran Jack Christie would agree with this, recalling some happy times on the Somme, in contrast to Ypres which was “hell from beginning to end”.[17]

Figure 1: Passchendaele, Belgium 1917

Figure 1 illustrates this ‘hell’, capturing wounded soldiers struggling to walk across the swampy terrain.[18] In his memoir, Edwin Campion Vaughn remembers “sinking [in the mud], and struggle as I might I was sucked down until I was firmly gripped around the waist and still being dragged in” at the attack at St Julian, Ypres on the 27th August 1917.[19] However, the general public are wrong to suppose that these conditions were a constant feature of war, just as they are wrong to assume that all soldiers were constantly in the firing line. No one experienced the most awful aspects of the front line all the time; in fact, “laughter, drunkenness and camaraderie were as much as much a part of the war, for many men, as horror, violence and obedience.”[20] The trenches consisted of three lines: the front line, the support trench line, and the reserve line – each 100 yards apart.[21] Trench duty was typically rotated between these three lines every 3-7 days.[22] Furthermore, a Division would put 2  Brigades in the front line, of this two Battalions would be at the front and two at the rear; one Brigade would rest.[23] In fact, Junior Officer Charles Carringdon worked out that he had spent less than a third of 1916 in positions ‘under fire’. He spent 146 days away at schools, hospitals or on leave and was only in action four times across twelve tours in the trenches.[24] These insights into trench life show that – contrary to what the public believe – soldiers were certainly not on the front line for the entirety of the war; anyone on front line knew that they would soon be “eating hot food and with a hot bath and clean clothes available” after a few days.[25]

Another of the greatest misconceptions of the war is that “the massacre of young men left a generation of parents without sons, wives without husbands, children without fathers,” a view that is reflected in the title of Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ which appears to condemn the whole generation.[26] This myth is generated by the reiteration of the 704,208 British deaths each November on Remembrance Day which emphasises the scale of destruction.[27] The First World War has been considered futile since the 1930s, particularly with regards to the Battle of the Somme.[28] Indeed, 1st July was ‘the most expensive day of the war”, with three square miles costing 57,000 casualties.[29] Private W. J. Senescall (11th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment) recalls: “we had no roll-call after we got back, because there was only about 25 left out of 800. There was nothing to count.”[30] Major Alfred Irwin (8th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment) gives a similar account, stating “we’d come down from about 800 to under 200. It seemed to me a dreadful waste of life.”[31] However, it is often forgotten that 74% of those participating in the battle emerged without a scratch.[32] Furthermore, as this battle is most ‘deeply ingrained’ in popular memory, and in some cases is all the general public knows of the war, it is assumed by the ordinary person that the casualties for every day of every battle were this high, endorsing the myth of universal bereavement.[33] Popular culture’s remembrance of casualty statistics results in the gradual neglect of there having been people who survived the war. The general population has forgotten that only 7.17% of the British population was mobilised. Of this small fraction of the population, 8.4% were killed or died as a result of serving on the Western Front; 10% of these were actually caused by factors other than enemy action, such as disease or food poisoning.[34] Furthermore, people generally believe that nearly every family had a member killed during the Great War. In 1914, there were 9,800,000 households in Britain, only 1 in 14 of these lost a member, proving this ‘memory’ to be inaccurate.[35] This is not to ignore the fact that there are cases where families lost more than one member of their family. Certainly, the hometowns of men who had joined the Pals Battalion would appear to suffer universally as deaths tended to occur at once as a result of friends from the same hometown fighting in the same area. Bradford for example, lost 345 men on the first day of the Somme, 217 of which were in the Bradford Pals Battalion.[36] In addition, families with a larger proportion of males were more likely to suffer several losses. Mr Stillaway testifying in 1933 in the comic novel England, Their England states that he “had to give three sons and eight grandsons to fight for national honour…and three were killed and two lost legs.”[37] Vera Brittain’s case was also unfortunate, as her husband Roland Leighton was fatally wounded in December 1915; her brother Edward was killed in action two months before the Armistice and their closest male friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow also became casualties of the war.[38] The Times labels Brittain’s mass-published Testament of Youth ‘a haunting elegy for a lost generation’, which although may seem appropriate in this instance, it is not true on the whole as men did come back from the Western Front; a  whole generation was not wiped out.[39] Knowlton (rural Kent) for example, sent 12 men off to war; all of them returned.[40] Ultimately, the statistics have shown that there was still plenty of potential for marriage after the war, although one may have opted against remarrying; although this generation suffered a heavy human and emotional loss, it would be impossible to conclude that a generation of men had been lost and a generation of spinsters created.[41]

Whilst it is clear that the British public tend to falsely generalise the conditions of the trenches and the scale of death, it is less clear whether their memory of the generals is ‘correct’. The popular British view is that patriotic soldiers (lions) were slaughtered by stupid generals (donkeys) who were never near the front line.[42] I do not aim to determine Haig and the other generals’ character or decisions, but instead will evaluate whether the generals were as removed from the trenches as the ordinary person believes. The idea that the generals were never close to the action can immediately be countered with statistics showing that 17% of officers were killed between 1914-1918, in comparison to 12% of all other ranks. 4 British Lieutenant Generals, 23 Major-Generals and 81 Brigadier Generals died or were killed during the war; a further 146 were wounded or taken prisoner.[43] From this we can assume that these officers must have been close to the front line at some point.[44] The perception of the generals being detached from trench life, most likely comes from soldiers resenting them for being “comfortably ensconced in their chateaux well behind the lines, oblivious to the trials & tribulations of the men in the trenches.”[45] This view is adopted by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem ‘The General’ in which he blames the absent general for the deaths of his fellow comrades:

“ ‘Good-morning; good morning!’ the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.”[46]

From this we can infer that soldiers resented “the anonymous ‘they’, believing them to be “completely out of touch with all that is happening on the ground.”[47] Certainly, the generals were frequently absent from the front line, and with good reason; if they were to go too far forward they would not be able to do their jobs properly as they would not be able to keep in touch with their own headquarters and access reserves.[48] Furthermore, the British Army could simply not afford to lose such highly trained men if they were to win the war.[49] Whilst it is true that Douglas Haig lived in relative comfort, he also had the stress of commanding the largest army Britain had mobilized in a drawn-out global conflict; he would be no use to the ordinary man if he endured the trenches therefore.[50] Although literary historian Paul Fussell makes the sarcastic comment that “G.H.Q…had heard of the trenches, yes, but as the West End hears of the East End – a nasty place where common people lived,” most brigadier and divisional commanders were somewhere in the front line at least once a day, briefing, inspecting and evaluating, whether the testifier saw him personally or not.[51] Particularly during the Somme, generals spent most afternoons inspecting units close to the front and gave occasional visits to rest areas for the purpose of boosting morale.[52] Sir John French was even criticised for visiting troops at the front too frequently and absent from headquarters as a result.[53] Taking this into consideration, I would suggest that, with regards to the proximity of the generals, public opinion reflects the feelings of the ordinary soldier; however, it is likely that the generals just went unnoticed by the majority when they did visit, thus creating the myth that they never set foot on the front line, although they are somewhat correct as the likes of Haig and French did not endure the trenches alongside the soldiers they were commanding.

Conclusion

In conclusion, contrary to public opinion, soldiers were not confined to a hole in the ground for the entire war and were not constantly under fire; nor were they constantly exposed to rain and mud. The diaries of individual soldiers have shown that the majority of their time was actually spent elsewhere and that the weather was generally quite bearable – with the exception of Ypres which was as bad as popular memory. Furthermore, the popular myth of universal bereavement is inaccurate as it completely forgets to acknowledge that there were people who survived the war. This is not to ignore that there were individual families or towns who suffered more losses than others, however it would be impossible to conclude that a generation of men had been lost. Finally, although soldiers might not have seen a general, this does not mean they did not visit the front line. The individual giving this testimony might not have seen them because they weren’t in the front line every day. Ultimately, today’s population generally have a very limited and fragmented ‘memory’ of the war, which is largely as a result of the repetition both particularly unique or exaggerated experiences which have in turn been generalised to the war in its entirety.

Bibliography

Books

Brittain, Vera, Testament of Youth (London: Virago Press, 2014).

Clark, Alan, The Donkeys (London: Pimlico, 1991).

Corrigan, Gordon, Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2004).

Fussell, Paul. The Great War & Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Gardner, Brian (ed.). Up the Line to Death (London: Methuen, 2007).

Grayson, Richard, S. Belfast Boys (London: Continuum, 2010).

Gregory, Adrian. The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946 (London: Berg Publishers, 1994).

Hart, Peter. The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (New York: Pegasus Books, 2008).

Levine, Joshua. Forgotten Voices of The Somme (London: Ebury Press, 2009).

Mead, Gary. The Good Soldier: The Biography of Douglas Haig (London: Atlantic Books, 2007).

Orr, Philip. The Road to the Somme (Newtownards: Blackstaff Press Ltd, 2008).

Prior, Robin; Wilson, Trevor. The Somme (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006)

Sheffield, Gary. Forgotten Victory (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).

Todman, Dan. The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Continuum, 2007).

Images:

Toronto Star File, in Andrew Chung, ‘The Forgotten Battle of Passchendaele’, in The Star (2007), https://www.thestar.com/news/2007/11/11/the_forgotten_battle_of_passchendaele.html [accessed: 29/12/18].


[1] Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Continuum, 2007), p.70.

[2] Todman, p.xi, p.115.

[3] Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2001), pp. 18-19.

[4] Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946 (London: Berg Publishers, 1994), p.12.

[5] Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2004), p.249; Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.1.

[6] Richard S. Grayson, Belfast Boys (London: Continuum, 2010), p.45.

[7] Corrigan, p.77.

[8] Alan Clark, The Donkeys (London: Pimlico, 1991), p.37.

[9] Grayson, p.64.

[10] Corrigan, p.299.

[11] Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (New York: Pegasus Books, 2008), p.109.

[12] Hart, p.110.

[13] Paul Fussell, The Great War & Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.51.

[14] Todman, p.9.

[15] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (London: Virago Press, 2014), p.225.

[16] Todman, p.4.

[17] Grayson, p.120.

[18] Toronto Star File, in Andrew Chung, ‘The Forgotten Battle of Passchendaele’, in The Star (2007), https://www.thestar.com/news/2007/11/11/the_forgotten_battle_of_passchendaele.html [accessed: 29/12/18].

[19] Todman, p.3.

[20] Todman, pp.4-5.

[21] Fussell, p.44.

[22] Fussell, p.48.

[23] Corrigan, p.112.

[24] Todman, pp, 4-5.

[25] Corrigan, p.93.

[26] Sheffield, p.6; Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ in Up the Line to Death ed. by Brian Gardner (London: Methuen, 2007), pp.136-7.

[27] Corrigan, p.9.

[28] Corrigan, p.13.

[29] Philip Orr, The Road to the Somme (Newtownards: Blackstaff Press Ltd, 2008), p.243; Prior and Wilson, p.112.

[30] Joshua Levine, Forgotten Voices of The Somme (London: Ebury Press, 2009), p.132.

[31] Levine, p.135.

[32] Corrigan, p.229.

[33] Corrigan, p. 249; Prior and Wilson, p.1; Todman, p.46.

[34] Corrigan, pp.54-58.

[35] Corrigan, p.10.

[36] Corrigan, p.71.

[37] Todman, p.130.

[38] Mark Bostridge, ‘Introduction’, in Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (London: Virago Press, 2014),p.x.

[39] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, cover.

[40] Corrigan, p.71.

[41] Todman, p.45.

[42] Corrigan, p.10.

[43] Corrigan, p.194.

[44] Corrigan, p.10.

[45] Corrigan, p.189.

[46] Siegfried Sassoon, ‘The General’ in Up the Line to Death, p.97.

[47] Corrigan, p.209.

[48] Corrigan, p.196.

[49] Corrigan, p.196.

[50] Gary Mead, The Good Soldier: The Biography of Douglas Haig (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), p.241.

[51] Fussell, p.91; Corrigan, p.197.

[52] Mead, p.240.

[53] Corrigan, p.196.

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