Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century
by David Reynolds
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

The Long Shadow challenges two accepted views of the Great War and its aftermath, namely that most of postwar Europe was frozen in perpetual mourning and the 1920s and 1930s were predominantly morbid. Indeed, argues Reynolds, some of the changes brought about by the Great War were positive in a transformative sense, especially for Britain.

One of the aims of The Long Shadow is to demonstrate why and in what ways Britain's experience of the conflict was unique. She was not, for example, bombed seriously; neither was she engulfed in revolution or wracked by civil war or paramilitary violence as in so many other European countries. And both politically and economically, Britain was more stable than her Continental neighbors.

While the focus of The Long Shadow is primarily on Britain, Reynolds also contrasts Britain's role in the war with that of the United States, which was both geographically and emotionally more distant; the Great War in America was something that happened "over there," 3000 miles from home. Nonetheless, as Reynolds demonstrates, both Britain and America shared a growing disillusion with what the conflict achieved.

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For two decades, the Great War in Britain was overshadowed by the Second World War but was to be rediscovered in the 1960s, around the time of the 50th anniversary. At this point, it became the war of trenches and poets. Reynolds asks why the British have such a problem with the war. The answer, he believes, is to be found in the Armistice and the Peace of Versailles and not, as has often been assumed, in the causes of the war. Reynolds argues that the massive losses during the Great War might eventually have been seen as justifiable by the British if the war had, as was promised, proved to be the war to end wars. Ultimately, explains Reynolds, the meaning of the war would depend not on the events themselves but on the persistence of the peace.

British conceptions of the war established after the 50th anniversary have remained largely unchallenged — it is still regarded as a human tragedy, trenches were the symbol of suffering, and literature is the natural form of expression for what the war meant and still means to the British. Through the writing of Paul Fussell, Pat Barker, and Sebastian Faulks, Americans have come to share in this image. It is time, argues Reynolds, to take a wider view that gives greater space, for example, to the first few weeks of the war, or to when the German Army nearly captured Paris, when America entered the war and helped push back the exhausted German Army, to medical advances, and last but certainly not least, the important contributions of the home front in the form of the manufacturing industry, food production, the use of woman power in factories, transport, farming, and clerical work.

It is Reynolds's hope that as we approach the centenary, the British will start to "lift their eyes beyond the Western Front" to encompass the broader story of the Great War. He makes the valid point that the Tommies of 1914–18 are now as far away as Wellington's redcoats of 1815 were from them. Our memorials remain, but what memories will they trigger? How will we read the established stories of the war, and how will we write new ones?

Cenotaph, Whitehall, London
Remembrance Day 2010

The Long Shadow is a scholarly work by one of Britain's foremost experts on the two world wars. It is a thorough and convincing examination of what has formed the British view of the Great War and why this needs to be re-thought. By focusing on such themes as democracy and empire, nationalism and capitalism, art and poetry, and by comparing the differing impacts of the war on Britain, Ireland and America, Britain's perception of the war will change; she can no longer be seen in splendid isolation.

Scholarly and extensive (The Long Shadow is over 500 pages long) but also highly readable, Reynolds's study clarifies why Britain has seen her role in the war as so different from all other nations. Drawing on a wide range of sources — historical, artistic, and literary, copiously annotated, and featuring black and white as well as color illustrations from a variety of countries both during and after the war, The Long Shadow is an important work not only for historians but also for Great War enthusiasts and literary specialists. Surprisingly inexpensive, at $23.35, it is superb value. The final statement in the inside flap is no exaggeration: "stunningly broad in its historical perspective, The Long Shadow is a magisterial reinterpretation of the place of the Great War in modern history."

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. Excellent review, and right in my field of interest. Now I have to read this book!

  2. Isn't the author David Reynolds?

    Donnell is a speciatist in fortifications and wrote a recent book on WWI entitled "Breaking the Fortress Line."

  3. Excellent review of a perspective-altering analysis. My only quibble is the comment that Britain "was not, for example, bombed seriously" - Wikipedia gives the following succinct summary from Raymond Fredette's The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918: "Airships made about 51 bombing raids on England during the war. These killed 557 and injured another 1,358 people. More than 5,000 bombs were dropped on towns across Britain, causing £1.5 million in damage. 84 airships took part, of which 30 were lost, either shot down or lost in accidents. Aeroplanes carried out 27 raids, dropping 246,774 lb (111,935 kg) of bombs for the loss of 62 aircraft, resulting in 835 deaths, 1972 injured and £1,418,272 material damage."