Never Such Innocence Again

Writer and historian Stewart Ross reflects upon our preoccupation with the First World War

Group of soldiers from the First World War silhouetted against the sky

A nation’s obsessions are very revealing. This was vividly brought home to me a few years ago when I taught a course to French maitrise students on English Literature and the First World War. We had not been in class for more than a few minutes before I became aware of the puzzled expressions coming over their faces. Shortly afterwards, a single voice expressed what clearly they were all thinking: why, monsieur, are the British so obsessed with the First World War?

It took me a while to grasp the question’s significance. My initial response – talking of a global conflict, the scale of the losses, the clear link between the First and Second World Wars, and so forth – perhaps helped explain the importance of the war as an international phenomenon but failed to demonstrate its moment specifically for Britain. My revised answer covered the war’s impact on British decline over the course of 20th century and came closer to offering a meaningful response. But there was still something missing.

The true and full answer came to me only after I had chatted with the students about the relative impact of the war on the two nations. During the 1914-18 conflict France was invaded, and its armies lost 400,000 more men than the British and suffered twice as many casualties. And yet it is the British who place the war at the heart of their history syllabuses, who visit the battlefields daily by the charabanc-load and who have a whole genre of literature devoted to it. Why? Surely the Great War was even more devastating for the French than for us?

Gallic colleagues and students agreed that the war had indeed been terrible, worse than anything ever before experienced. But for them it was a difference of scale, not of type. They had been subject to conscription since the time of the Revolution. Victorious foreign armies had paraded through their capital city in 1814 and 1870. Ghastly losses were nothing new either: during the Russian campaign of 1812, Napoleon lost over half his army of 680,000 men. That’s more than a third of a million men.

The British experience could hardly have been more different. 6,500 men were killed in the entire Peninsular War (1808-1814), 3,500 at Waterloo, 6,000 in the Crimean War (1853-1856), and 7,900 in the Boer War (1899-1902). Of course, in all these campaigns many more died of disease. Nevertheless, the statistics bring out the glaring truth: since the seventeenth century, war was, for most British people, something that happened elsewhere and to other people. Jane Austen’s omission of the Napoleonic Wars from her novels may be a bit of an old chestnut, but that does not detract from its pertinence. The British had never been conscripted and most of them had little concept of what horrors and losses a major conflict might involve. What’s more, despite some embarrassing small-scale humiliations along the way, they were accustomed to winning.

Now we come to 1914. With little relevant experience, Britain finds itself fully involved in a modern European war, a mechanised, impersonal and industrial slaughter. The losses are colossal, far exceeding any previous experience. This time no novelist can ignore them. What’s more, the British don’t win, at least not until four-and-a-half-years-later as part of a coalition. To compound the distress, the British are no better at this sort of fighting than the French and the Germans; indeed, on several occasions, especially early on, they are rather worse.

Finally, I felt able to give my French students an answer that made sense to them as well as to myself. Why are the British so obsessed with the First World War? Because, mes chèrs étudiants, it was when we lost our innocence. As Philip Larkin so brilliantly recognised, after an experience of such magnitude, agony and humiliation we were never the same again.

© Stewart Ross 2013
Stewart Ross’ latest book, The Soterion Mission, is published by Curious Fox.

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