In Defence of the War Poets

Katherine Edwards

Should the First World War be seen principally as a European and world catastrophe or as a British triumph? As we mark the centenary of the Great War, the debate on its commemoration has intensified, with the Education Secretary recently lambasting senior academics for their lack of patriotism.  Attacks on the influence of Blackadder are fast becoming just as much a cliché of the ‘revisionist’ school as the clichés the revisionists claim to be dispelling.  And where Blackadder is mentioned we can be sure the war poets – and Wilfred Owen in particular – will be the target of the next sneer. Hew Strachan is intent on demonstrating that ‘there was something more between 1914 and 1918 than futility and poems’.   Michael Morpurgo came under fire in the Moral Maze for citing Wilfred Owen.  More recently John Blake painted a scornful picture of teachers ‘sonorously intoning’ Owen’s poetry, placing much of the blame for what he considers to be the ‘myths’ taught about World War One on the excessive influence of Owen and Sassoon, who he claims, are misleadingly ‘sold as the authentic voice of the front-line soldier’.

Wilfred Owen was certainly no more a typical frontline soldier than Samuel Pepys was a typical admiralty official, or Walt Whitman was a typical American Civil War nurse. But his was certainly an authentic voice – and by no means a lone one.  The power of Wilfred Owen and the other great war poets comes from the fact that they were driven by their urgent need to dispel what they saw as myth, to expose the truth as they perceived it from their first hand experiences of the front line, to those who gushed about patriotic duty from the comfort of home while sending more young men to their deaths.

In doing so they were swimming against a torrent of propaganda unleashed in 1914 by state, church and the media attempting to sell to the public the British cabinet’s last minute and far from obvious decision to enter the war.  Recruitment posters touched on the rawest of nerves: implying that a man’s refusal to enlist would make his children ashamed, or make him unworthy of his lover, or would cast doubts on his masculinity.

Owen’s graphic exposure of the gulf between the reality of war and the public perception of it generated in the media is as relevant to us now as it was then. By definition exceptional thinkers, be they poets, artists or philosophers, don’t simply reflect the opinion of the majority of their contemporaries but they think outside the mainstream, see through the spin and help others reconsider their positions.

Since 1918 we have certainly reconsidered the ‘Old Lie’ of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est that prompted the jubilant crowds to cheer in Europe’s capitals in 1914 and propelled so many young men to the recruiting stations.  The fact that we now have a European Union, a mature framework for international law, a United Nations Organisation, international war crimes tribunals and a Geneva Convention, shows how much has been achieved since and as a result of the two World Wars.  Wilfred Owen’s popularity in modern times reflects our reappraisal of our readiness as human societies to resort to violence to solve our disputes.  Although we still have far to go, we no longer hand out white feathers; shoot deserters or demonise foreign conscripts as baby killers.  Dismissing Owen for being unrepresentative of his time is like dismissing Mary Wollstonecraft for being unrepresentative of her contemporaries on gender relations. He was ahead of his time.

So why are revisionists so intent on debunking Owen?  One of their frequently made arguments is that British soldiers who fought in World War One believed in the cause they were fighting for and that it is somehow patronising and disrespectful for us, one hundred years on, to question that cause.  To understand the world through the eyes of contemporaries is one thing, but to then argue that we should agree with their interpretations is quite another. For a start it is usually impossible to find consensus among contemporaries.  If the consensus view among British Tommies about Germans had been what the authorities wanted it to be, how do we explain the 1914 Christmas Truce and the need to ban repetitions of it?

Besides, apparent consensus may be the product of propaganda or misinformation.  One of the tragedies of World War One is that probably the majority of soldiers from all participating nations believed their cause to be just.  Indeed in the next war it is likely that many of the Nazi soldiers who marched into the Soviet Union believed that their cause was just, that they were the master race entitled to Lebensraum.  Should German schoolchildren now be taught that it is patronising to challenge those assumptions?  If challenging the assumptions held by the people of the past is now to be labelled as patronising, how are we to teach about early twentieth century attitudes to science, race, mental health or gender?

Owen’s poetry graphically conveys the horror and pity of war.  No wonder he is the bugbear of those offering an analysis of World War One which takes the focus off the horror and tragedy.  Now that the Department for Education officially encourages a military ethos in schools we can expect nothing less from the Education Secretary.  Yet even for John Blake, a much more nuanced voice, to emphasise the horror of World War One is not to teach it ‘as it was, but as we presume it to have been’.  Certainly it would be a poor history teacher who would regard the sole purpose of teaching World War One to be to impress upon young people the horrors of war. But equally it would be a poor history teacher who failed to engage pupils with the reality of the living conditions in the trenches of the Western Front; with the injuries caused by mechanised warfare and with the psychological and physical effects on soldiers.  If the word ‘horror’ has any meaning, it is not a word to shrink from in relating this.  I would certainly defy anyone to watch the film clips of ‘shell shocked’ soldiers and deny that horror.

The sanitising of war is not confined to the debate on teaching World War One. A point very powerfully made by Giles Duley on Radio 4’s Today concerned treatment of current war veterans in the media.  While much focus is placed on the remarkable feats of injured war veterans, the struggles of those finding it harder to cope with their injuries, both physical and psychological, or with the memories of what they have seen and done are largely hidden.  The Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal is now making a direct attempt to link Remembrance with recruitment: producing T Shirts for teenagers with the slogan ‘future soldier’. A young person who, perhaps through reading the war poets, has confronted the notion that there may be a gulf between realities of war and the spin is likely to come to a more informed decision about whether to vote for, whether to support or whether to fight in a war.

There has been much call for a genuine debate on World War One. Yet the real threat to such a debate is not from great poets or from comedy shows.  It is from a government, backed by large sections of the media, who failed to transform the history curriculum into a vehicle for inculcating national pride, but is now, for political reasons and from a position of ignorance both of war and of history, attempting to use the centenary of World War One for this purpose instead.   When the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge is challenged on Channel 4 News to defend himself against charges of being unpatriotic made by the Education Secretary we have to worry about the parameters for this debate and indeed for intellectual freedom in this country generally.  Wilfred Owen should certainly not be presented as the spokesman for every British Tommy, but his protest against the sanitisation of war is as relevant and urgent as ever.

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