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Extract: Imperial ideas and imperial dreams – the cost of vanity during the Great War

World War I was a conflict of cultures but also an expression of social values, as the intense involvement of the educated classes showed.

Sir Hew Strachan

In honour of the 100th anniversary of World War I, we’re sharing an excerpt of Sir Hew Strachan’s The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Get a sense of what it was like to live through this historic event and how its global effects still impact the world today.

THE GREAT WAR haunted the last century; it haunts us still. It continues to inspire imaginative endeavour of the highest order. It invites pilgrimage and commemoration surrounded by palpable sadness. Almost a hundred years after the war, ‘The Last Post’, intoned every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres, still summons tears. We wish it all had not happened.

We associate the war with the loss of youth, of innocence, of ideals. We are inclined to think that the world was a better and happier place before 1914. If the last century has been one of disjunction and endless surprise rather than of the mounting predictability many expected at the next-to-last fin-de-siècle, the Great War was the greatest surprise of all. The war stands, by most historical accounts, as the portal of entry to a century of doubt and agony, to our dissatisfaction.

Its extremes of emotion, both the initial jubilation and subsequent despair, are seen as a preface to the politics of extremism that took hold in Europe in the aftermath; its mechanized killing is regarded as a necessary prelude to the even greater ferocity of the Second World War and to the Holocaust; its assault on the values of the Enlightenment is seen as a nexus between indeterminacy in the sciences and the aesthetics of irony. Monty Python might never have lived had it not been for the Great War. The war unleashed a flood tide of forces that we have been unable ever since to stem. ‘Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!’ How in the world, Mr Kipling, are we to forget?

fig_11.1 LoC_ LC-USZ62-68359 3b15821rFigure 11.1 from the Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Used with permissions from Oxford University Press.

The great literary war

The enthusiasm surrounding the outbreak of war many described as a social and spiritual experience beyond compare. Engagement was the hallmark of the day. ‘We have,’ wrote Rupert Brooke, ‘come into our heritage.’ The literate classes, and by then they were the literate masses—teachers, students, artists, writers, poets, historians, and indeed workers, of the mind as well as the fist—volunteered en masse. School benches and church pews emptied. Those past the age of military service enrolled in the effort on the home front.

Words, literary words, visible on the page, flowed as they had never flowed before, in the trenches, at home, and across the seven seas. The Berlin critic Julius Bab estimated that in August 1914 50,000 German poems were being penned a day. Thomas Mann conjured up a vision of his nation’s poetic soul bursting into flame. Before the wireless, before the television, this was the great literary war. Everyone wrote about it, and for it.

Not surprisingly, the Great War turned immediately into a war of cultures. To Britain and France, Germany represented the assault, by definition barbaric, on history and law. Brutality was Germany’s essence. To Germany, Britain represented a commercial spirit, and France an emphasis on outward form, that were loathsome to a nation of heroes. Treachery was Albion’s name. Hypocrisy was Marianne’s fame.

But the war was also an expression of social values. The intense involvement of the educated classes led to a form of warfare, certainly on the western front, characterised by the determination and ideals of those classes. Trench warfare was not merely a military necessity; it was a social manifestation. It was to be, in a sense, the great moral achievement of the European middle classes. It represented their resolve, commitment, perseverance, responsibility, grit—those features and values the middle classes cherished most.

And here for dear dead brothers we are weeping.
Mourning the withered rose of chivalry,
Yet, their work done, the dead are sleeping, sleeping
Unconscious of the long lean years to be.

Those lines from the Wykehamist, the journal of Winchester College, of July 1917 evoked both the passing of an age and the crisis of a culture.

‘The bourgeoisie is essentially an effort,’ insisted the French bourgeois René Johannet. The Great War was essentially an effort too. The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald would call the war on the western front ‘a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high-explosive love.’ Fitzgerald’s ‘lovely safe world’ was one of empire, imperial ideas, and imperial dreams. It was a world of confidence, of religion, and of history. It was a world of connections. History was a synonym for progress.

This is an extract from The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War by Sir Hew Strachan.

Sir Hew Strachan is a professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner, and a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum. He also serves on the British, Scottish, and French national committees advising on the centenary of the First World War. He is the editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War.

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