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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Literature and the Great War 1914-1918 — Reviewed by David Beer

Literature and the Great War 1914-1918
by Randall Stevenson
Oxford Textual Perspectives, Oxford University Press, 2013

Although this book is primarily for readers interested in the literature of the Great War, it will appeal to anyone who wishes to gain an insight into the effect the war had on language, writers, and readers. In some ways, Stevenson's book is a 21st-century extension of Paul Fussell's landmark The Great War and Modern Memory and also of Samuel Hynes's A War Imagined. However, Literature and the Great War provides us with a quite fresh and original look at how the war was put into words.

Stevenson's central point — as has also been said of the Holocaust —is that the Great War is impossible to portray accurately in language and literature because the war and its bloodletting nightmare are ultimately unspeakable, unimaginable, and unrepresentable. He illustrates his thesis by citing British, American, French, and German authors plus letters, memos, military dispatches, and newspapers that both soldiers and civilians were exposed to at the time and in the decades following the war.

This book isn't an "easy read", but it's well worth the effort it requires. You may not agree with all that Stevenson claims (just as many found fault with Fussell), but his points should be carefully considered. The text includes 12 interesting photographs I hadn't seen before and the bibliography and index are solid. The book's four chapters are entitled "Unspeakable War", "Unaccountable War", "Unfamiliar Lines", and "Unforgettable War". Let me summarize the main ideas you will encounter in each chapter.

Order Now
"Unspeakable War", the first chapter, discusses how the war caused people to lose faith not only in previous assumptions of progress and civilization but also in the capability and reliability of language. As Stevenson points out, "For soldiers on all sides, bombardment, sudden death, mutilation, men blown to pieces…seemed beyond anything that could be represented in conventional language or charted through established narrative form" (p. 11). Not only soldiers found the war indescribable, however. Civilians — authors, journalists, letter-writers, propagandists — all found themselves challenged by the new reality and by the constraints of language that were narrowed even further by censorship, military jargon, and unfettered patriotism. As a result, accurate description and reporting were often replaced by jingoism and a shallow prose that could never fully reflect the true experience of the war.

When writing about the French Army's experience at Verdun, Jules Romains states that "there was no lack of eyewitnesses, but none of them could get far enough away from the drama to see it as a whole" (p. 63). This necessarily limited vision of events throughout the war and of the war itself is the topic of Chapter 2, "Unaccountable War". The scale and complexity of the catastrophe was far beyond the observation of any one individual. Thus, supposedly valid accounts of minor actions, large battles, and campaigns, and the history of the war itself, are pieced together from varying and subjective individual accounts and experiences. These are the building blocks used to construct narratives, memoirs, novels, and even official accounts of the war. The part such limitations play in the work of noted writers and novelists is carefully considered in this chapter.

Up Close at Verdun
German Flamethrower Assault on Mort Homme

In Chapter 3, "Unfamiliar Lines", Stevenson looks at war poetry, particularly at the work of the group who eventually became known as the War Poets. Although the overwhelming nature of the war might well have been considered a subject unfit for poetic expression, especially for a generation raised on the Romantics, poetic production and demand increased with the outbreak of war. Even in August 1914 the Times was being flooded with about a hundred war poems a day, as were other journals and newspapers (at this point mostly written by civilians). Poetry, it seemed, was the best literary genre to deal with the overwhelming nature of the war, at least on the personal level. This turned out to be true for soldier and civilian alike, but for the combatant in particular the poem appealed due to its shortness and lack of bulky manuscript. As Stevenson puts it, "For soldiers necessarily traveling light, and lacking confident expectancy of long life, poetry's brevity offered obvious attractions" (p. 128).

This chapter provides copious quotes from familiar and little-known poets that "demonstrate the effectiveness…of the lyric form — war poets exploiting its capacity to focus intense feelings within split instances, or brief, particular moments of vision" (p. 130). Stevenson also analyses how war poets were adept at incorporating traditional poetic motifs such as pastoralism, sky, stars, the earth, nature, life, and death, into their matter. This poetry was to set itself on a new course from romanticism to a terrible new reality, and thus from idealism to disillusion. In his fourth and final chapter, "Unforgettable War", Stevenson (like Fussell before him) argues that the Great War still exerts considerable influence on our modern world. This is particularly true in acts of remembrance, memorial, and commemoration, but also in literature. Writers from the late 1920s on inevitably saw the conflict through the lens of time, personal experience, and numerous reinterpretations. H.M.Tomlinson claimed in All Our Yesterdays that "the Great War was almost as many different wars as there were men who were in it" (p. 197). The Second World War interestingly reshaped some of the views of the First, not always favorably. One noted historian claimed that "viewed through the lens of the "Good War' of 1939-45 the struggle of 1914-1918 seemed to be a very bad war indeed" (p. 193). And although modernism and other literary schools have moved on to different priorities, they can often be found to have tendrils that reach back to the Great War and its literature.

War Memorial — Croft, County Lancashire
(Note the Casualty Lists WWI vs. WWII; Generally the Same Throughout the UK and France)

Those interested in this literature will find much in Stevenson's book to ponder, digest, agree with, and, perhaps, disagree with. The literature itself will remain. What changes with time are tastes, attitudes, backgrounds, criticism, literary movements, and culture itself, all of which constantly bring about ever-varying appreciation, interpretation, and reinterpretation of the literature of those who knew the Great War.

David Beer


  1. Notice the first names on the War Memorial for 1914-1918 and 10939-1945.
    Same family? Note both were in the artillery.

  2. Quite possibly. There are three Houghtons on the '14-18 memorial - not a common name.

  3. A remember quite some time ago a professor who tried to describe the literary movement after the Napoleonic Wars. Admittedly there were less literate people in the early 1800s but the movement was to a more realistic portrayal of life as opposed to the fancifulness of the prewar years. Those people also found fault in the language. Shall we repeat ourselves after the war on terrorism? Great review. I shall have to buy. Cheers