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

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Importance of Fictional Works About the War, Part II of III

You can't get at the truth by history; you can only get it through novels.
Gerald Brenan, MC

By Jane Mattison Ekstam

Writers of fiction are not concerned primarily with factual accuracy but with depicting emotional truths. History books often tell the wider, national story, the course and results of major battles, the development of technology, and the state of the nation. Fiction, though, brings the individual to the fore. As Richard Holmes observes, history books "often lose sight of the men who actually fought the war" (Tommy, the British Soldier on the Western Front, pp. xxiii). In the final novel of Anne Perry's popular World War One quintet, for example, her character Schenckendorff observes, "Individuals matter . . . [their] moments of joy, a man's victory over the darkness within himself, a perception of beauty, whether it is of the eye or the mind" (We Shall Not Sleep, p. 236). Schenckendorff's observation suggests the major reasons why novels on World War One should be regarded as invaluable complements to documentary accounts of the war.

As Robert L. O'Connell argues, "The shock induced by the Great War was sufficient to cause a radical disjunction between thought and action, a schism of fundamental significance not just for the future of warfare but also in determining the context for the whole complex of economic, technological and political changes that were transforming human existence" (Ride of the Second Horseman. The Birth and Death of War, p. 236). World War One created a crisis of the spirit and called into question the basic direction of Western civilization (Robert L. O'Connell, Of Arms and Men. A History of War, Weapons and Aggression, p. 242). This crisis begs several questions: What defines a civilized society?

How could the qualities of civilization be maintained in time of war? Does war necessarily give rise to a new set of values? What happens to the individual in a crisis of the spirit? War is "the other side" of existence, where there is neither time nor place for all. The first few weeks of World War One saw the death of prewar innocence. Dreams of bravery, patriotism, or pure adventure were replaced by the harsh reality of the battlefield and the casualty station. Few if any were prepared for what they were to see and experience. The narrator of David Malouf's novel Fly Away Peter (1999) describes the situation as follows: "Jim saw that he had been living, till he came here, in a state of dangerous innocence. The world when you looked from both sides was quite other than a placid, slow moving dream, without change of climate or color and with time and place for all. He had been blind" (p. 107). Innocence is dangerous because it leads to false expectations. 

What determines survival is a mixture of luck, skill, strong and reliable comrades, and a trust in something that transcends the present situation; the latter may take the form of a code of values, a philosophy or religious belief. While most veterans in their firsthand accounts of battle have difficulty articulating such systems, the conventions of the novel allow a deeper exploration into essential human matters. The majority of the actors in World War One were pawns in a game whose rules were set and interpreted by others. Apart from a few commanding officers and officials, there were few who had any insight into the causes and course of the war or any influence over their own destiny. The chances of being killed or wounded were extremely high at all levels and in all positions. Survival depended on a degree of luck and on finding a means by which to cope with the chaos, destruction, and futility of the battlefield.

World War One novelists share a fundamental assumption that "art is capable of reproducing a more complex and more deeply felt reality than is possible through a documentary insistence on factuality" (Evelyn Cobley, Representing War. Form and Ideology in First World War Narratives, p. 12). Novelists make no pretence at providing objective, detailed, or coherent descriptions of a particular battle or period of the war; neither do they argue for a specific view or interpretation of the war, as do many of the accounts of survivors. Instead, they provide flashes of reality, intense in their detail and subjective in their insights. They reproduce something of the immediacy of the photograph, where the lens is trained on one or just a few individuals at a specific point in time and in a restricted context.

No representation of the war experience is able to reproduce reality as such. However documentary or autobiographical an account may be, it will only ever be one war story among other war stories, since reality can be inaccessible and even un-nameable. There is often no vocabulary for some of the horrors that took place; these remained locked in the memories of those taking part, and have died with them. Not even the memoirs or autobiographies of participants in World War One can make the complex, multilayered experience of war accessible.

Novels do not offer analyses or explanations, but they do engage the attentive reader in a process of negotiation between reader and text which provides important insights into methods of survival in the face of profound destruction. It is for this reason that Gerald Brenan, MC, author of The Spanish Labyrinth, could tell the historian Sir Raymond Carr: "You can't get at the truth by history; you can only get it through novels" (Facing Armageddon, p. 805).

End of Part II.  Part III will be presented on Roads to the Great War on Tuesday 9 June 2020. Part I was our entry on 2 June 2020.

Source: Originally presented in the Winter 2010 issue of Relevance: Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society


  1. A very good outline of the uses of fiction in representing WWI.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. All writers need encouragement!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you so much. I very much appreciate this.

  3. This is a most thought-provoking article. As a product of the social history movement of the 1970s & 80s, I have to defend those historians who have attempted to convey the motivations and emotions of historical actors. They are restricted by their concept of reality and must work within the limits of reliable source material. To have the freedom of the novelist would lighten the load.

  4. Exactly: the novelist has freedom and also the power to stimulate empathy in the reader. History is a story, a story of people. It can be told in different ways. Right now I'm writing a trilogy with a strong element of history in it but with a climate change theme. When you write the novel yourself, you discover the freedom of the novelist. At the same time, I want to make sure that my facts are correct. Thank you for your kind comment.