Archive for the 'First World War' Category

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

On a certain lack of understanding

May 4, 2017

I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed by war, but I do find myself thinking about it a lot, and I suppose given my family’s history, it’s not that surprising: my father was born and spent his early years in a village pretty much on the Eastern front line in the Great War, and ended up in England as a result of the Second World War, during which my mother was a child. I’ve recently been on my annual walking holiday in the Ardennes, and each time I’ve learned a little more about the Battle of the Ardennes in winter 1944-45, the enormous casualties and the horrors civilians endured during this last gasp of the Nazi war machine.

The European project emerged from the ashes. It was idealistic: the twice-repeated horrors of the first half of the twentieth century should never happen again. Initially it was mainly an economic project, binding countries together with links and ties that eventually began to grow into a more political union. Britain was outside for a long time, a nation that had become great, building an empire on conquest and commerce and trade, and gradually losing it again. Britain had stood alone for two years, unconquered; some people felt we had ‘won’ the war. But we wanted the trade advantages of the ‘Common Market’ and strove to gain admittance; we wanted the chance to trade with a huge and growing market and make more money. I don’t think that, as a nation, we ever really understood the real thinking behind the project. We hadn’t been conquered and devastated twice in thirty years.

1973: we joined. The EEC became the European Community and then the European Union. We seem to have done well commercially and financially, but we never really wanted the rest of the project, which we seemed to see as interference in our affairs, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels wasting ‘our’ money; we never really understood what was behind it, and preferred to hang on to the US coat-tails instead. We could have been in there in partnership with the French and the Germans developing and shaping a great project. Who knows, if we had played our part, we might now have a better and more democratic Europe, more to our liking.

2016: we decided to leave. We will leave, and lose many, if not most of those trade advantages that attracted us in the first place. Talk about cutting off the nose to spite the face…

I am deeply saddened by the turn of events, and have come to feel that as a nation we don’t understand Europe, we probably don’t belong in Europe, and that it may well be better for Europe that we are outside again. I don’t believe our politicians have a clue about what they are doing. I wish more of my fellow-citizens did understand, and shared the wish to build something worthwhile. I don’t have any illusions about the EU being perfect – far from it – but that doesn’t make it any less a noble idea.

My travels: B for Bartoszyce

January 9, 2017

Once upon a time there was a region of Germany called East Prussia. What I’ve read about it makes it sound like a rural idyll, small towns, well-organised peasantry, prosperous, with a large city – Koenigsberg – as the provincial capital. One of my very favourite novels, Ernst Weichert’s A Simple Life, is set in rural East Prussia; it’s another of those magical books that capture the vanishing of an era, like Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or Josef Roth’s The Radetzky March. The population was mixed German and Polish, proportions varying according to sub-regions, and various bits were plebiscited post-WW1; most chose Germany. The whole area had been mixed nationalities for several hundred years, at least since the times of the Teutonic knights. And all this was to change, irrevocably, in 1945…

My uncle, and his parents, were taken by the Germans as forced farm labourers to East Prussia during the war. His parents – my grandparents – returned home; my uncle didn’t, and ended up living in what had been East Prussia until it was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, and all the Germans forcibly expelled. After the way the Germans had treated the Poles in the war, this ethnic cleansing was inevitable, understandable, and probably justified. But it changed the area forever, as, indeed, so much of Eastern Europe was irrevocably transformed: the people went, the buildings remained; former East Prussia was now populated by Poles moved out of the territories Poland lost to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania. The town of Bartenstein became Bartoszyce. It’s a medium-sized town now, with a typical gothic town square and brick gothic churches. Almost all trace of Germans has been eradicated. On my first visit there in 1970 I remember being very shocked that the old German area of the town cemetery had been bulldozed; all the broken gravestones were higgledy-piggledy, in vast heaps…

It felt like quite a sleepy little place, partly because the border with the Soviet Union was less than ten miles away. The main railway line that used to link Bartenstein with Koenigsberg had been dynamited; there was a single freight track remaining. So it was the edge of nowhere, really. The roads were appalling. A mound where a castle used to stand, a river, forests, a lake, farmland. And where our family lived. Further east one moves into the beautiful Masurian Lakes region. I’ve been back several times. It’s still a backwater, still right next door to Russia, more prosperous than it was, and visited by hordes of wealthy Russians doing their shopping; unemployment is at least 20%, so it’s not part of the better-off new Poland yet. And for some reason, one of the main streets is still Karl Marx Street, over a quarter of a century after the fall of communism…

Peter Unwin: Baltic Approaches

November 26, 2016

61tgouatogl-_ac_us160_This was an excellent find in a secondhand bookshop. The author was an experienced British diplomat, and this shows through in the care of his writing, which succeeds in portraying the broad sweep of two thousand years of European history from the specifically Baltic perspective. I hadn’t fully comprehended the vastness of the region, which Unwin likens to a northern Mediterranean, a perspective that had never occurred to me, but which makes eminent good sense, particularly when you take a good map and rotate it a little… it will never be the same in my mind and imagination from now on.

The book was written just over twenty years ago, and it’s quit astonishing how much things have changed dramatically in such a short period of time: he’s writing shortly after German reunification, before the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU, and he’s not able to imagine their joining NATO, which of course has happened. He follows the coastline as it limits Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Kaliningrad exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and back to Germany again.

He’s particularly thoughtful and sensitive about East Prussia, analysing its contribution both to Germany and to Europe, and expressing sadness at its disappearance, inevitable and understandable though this was. My one gripe with him would be his attitude to Poland and Lithuania which I felt lacked subtlety, especially in his glossing over the significance to Poland of Wilno, and not just in the inter-war years. Overall it is hard to fault his careful, detailed, balanced and sensitive exploration of the complexities of the ethnic minorities questions which have bedevilled the Eastern Baltic region and to some extent still do today. He’s good on national traits and characteristics, insofar as this is possible when one is inevitably generalising. His prognostications about the future, outlined in his concluding chapter, are, unsurprisingly, overoptimistic, dated, and about as far as it’s possible to be from where we have got to today…

But, a good little book that does the subject justice and which has some nice outline maps which help when you turn to the atlas for more detail.

Joseph Roth: Croquis de Voyage

November 6, 2016

downloadJoseph Roth wrote two of my favourite novels, The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March, to which I shall be returning shortly, prompted by my reading of this collection of travel pieces. I find the nineteen-twenties fascinating, as a world trying to recover from the trauma of the Great War, and unaware of the morass it is slowly sinking into.

As a traveller and journalist – nearly all of the pieces in this collection were written for various German newspapers and magazines – he is very observant, missing nothing, and also unintrusive: I have the feeling of being with a very intelligent observer and recorder who does not seek to over-interpret.

There is a wide range of pieces in the book; perhaps the most powerful for me was his visit to the Somme region in 1926, so only eight years after the end of the war, and his descriptions of how towns are still struggling to recover their previous ‘normality’ are quite shocking, in a low-key way. I also liked his descriptions of Deauville, and Provence, both places I’m familiar with.

There are a good number of pieces from travels around the Soviet Union in the same years, so before Stalin’s purges and terror: these are fascinating because he shows us the hope and optimism of those early years before the aims and direction of the Revolution were permanently perverted. And yet, with hindsight, it’s also evident how much he doesn’t see, or know to look for…

His picture of Poland in the years of the Second Republic, a nation reborn after more than a century of extinction, is also very enlightening: it’s a naive country in which Roth can quite clearly see the problems inherent in a state with so many national minorities, and which Hitler and Stalin would both take advantage of…

Italy is already Mussolini’s fascist state in embryo and quite scary when he visits; there is no hint of the horrors to come in Germany, however.

I’ve written before about how accounts written at a particular time are capable of being illuminating in ways totally different from history books, and this is a very good example; I fear, however, that it’s too much to hope that this collection will appear in an English translation.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Atlas

October 13, 2016

41x19xixdpl-_ac_us160_Some of my readers may have realised I have a long-standing fascination with maps. I remember asking for, and receiving, an atlas for Christmas when I was seven or eight: that’s what comes from hearing about all sorts of faraway and fascinating places from a well-travelled dad (though not all the places were visited freely, thanks to Stalin, but that’s a different story); it was replaced with a larger one a few years later, and then when I was feeling flush, with the full-on, full-size Times Comprehensive Atlas, and I’m now on my second one of those…

So what is it about atlases and maps? Well, there’s a weightiness and therefore a seriousness to a proper atlas, and I find maps a real thing of beauty: the care, neatness and accuracy of the lines, and the different colours for different types of land and depth of sea. And then there is the magic of all those place names, whether it’s the crazy-sounding village names of our our West Country (Queen’s Camel, Mudford Sock, anyone?) or the unpronounceable towns of Eastern Europe (Szekesfehervar? Dniepropetrovsk? Szczecin?)… Milton had a field day in Paradise Lost with faraway placenames: they made wonderful poetry. (And I have a map with them all on!)

There’s a ridiculous amount of information contained in a map, and depending on how well-drawn and coloured it is, you can do a pretty good job of visualising an area, although I will admit that Google Earth does a just as good if not better job pretty instantly. Town, street and metro maps are different, and just as fascinating. And then there are the maps in other languages… early Arabic maps of the world which look wonderfully familiar until you look at the writing. A Polish relative, back in communist times, gave me a road atlas of the Soviet Union, not because it was something that I’d ever use, but because it was something he’d managed to buy, and could offer as a gift, when finding presents for people was really hard. I treasure this volume, on shoddy paper, in Cyrillic script, with vast tracts of the country missing because there are zero roads there (can you imagine that?) and places where you can follow a dirt track for 500+ kilometres until the road just stops, and then have to turn round and head back the way you came.

Atlases have also become excellent at conveying much more than just geographical information, as new generations of cartographers have developed the art: conflicts, migrations, wars and much more can be very clearly represented. I’m thinking of some of the remarkably informative maps published in papers like Le Monde Diplomatique, which occasionally publishes a thematic atlas devoted to a topic like the environment… There’s the astonishing Peters projection atlas, which presents the entire world at exactly the same scale throughout, and manages to equalise the land areas visually too, so that although parts of the world look rather distorted (and we all know that putting a spherical word onto flat paper can’t really be done) the whole world is fairly and equitably represented, with none of the bias to the West, or the US or the developed world that we see in all other atlases.


I love old atlases especially, too, although too expensive for my pocket. I do have a 1919 Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas which is colossal, and built in the old-fashioned manner where every double-page spread is individually pasted and sewn into the binding so there are no minute gaps or discrepancies at the centre where nowadays two pages join… and I think of the incredible labour involved in redrawing so many maps and re-labelling so many towns and cities at the end of the Great War as new nations were born.

My biggest treat is probably Taschen’s marvellous reprint of (selected sections) of Joan Blaeu’s humongous seventeenth century Atlas Maior. It’s a work of incredible colour and beauty, and you get a picture of a half-discovered world, with the lands Europeans knew well delineated in great detail and accuracy, and those half-known, unexplored areas sketched in vaguely, half-accurately – but they are there and you know that there were intrepid explorers hurtling about the globe eager to fill in the gaps.


I’ve never been able – or wanted to – sit and read a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, but I’ll happily spend an entire evening turning the pages and poring over a good atlas.

David Jones: In Parenthesis

September 1, 2016

There was a documentary about Jones and his poem on television a few weeks ago: I was very surprised, as a teacher who’d taught First World War literature for many years, not to have heard of the poet or the work. The programme was fascinating, and now I’ve read the book.

It’s poetry in the way James Joyce’s prose is poetical, lyrical in its use of the language’s sounds and images. More prose than poetry, then, and running to nearly a couple of hundred pages, it’s not as immediately accessible as Owen or Sassoon, perhaps. We follow the speaker – an ordinary soldier – from call-up through basic training, his complicated journey to the Western Front, near Ypres first and then to the Somme, where he sees his mates killed, and he is wounded.

The writing is impressionistic. Often the soldiers are backgrounded an atmosphere takes centre-stage, very effectively. Often his verse reminds me of Whitman, with echoes of those long, gradually developing accretive sentences. Sometimes he reads like Hopkins in his use of adjectives and nonce-words. There is erudition in his epic similes, and his myriad religious references, though the constant recalling of Arthurian and Celtic mythology did pall after a while, as did having to refer to the notes Jones provided to help his readers through his text.

I was impressed by the poem; it moved me greatly, even though it was hard work. An uncanny beauty somehow conceals the horrors of the offensive, and you only gradually realise the carnage taking place around the narrator, and by the time you have realised, you are in the very middle of it, with him, sharing his perspective. I’m still not quite sure how he did it, because there is at the same time a perspective and a curious distancing effect too. I shall have to come back to this soon.

Eheu fugaces

July 13, 2016

Nobody can really prepare you for retirement: the day when, after everyone has said very kind and appreciative things about you, and remembered the high-points and achievements of your career, and wished you well, you put your stuff in the car and set off home for the last time, knowing that you will never make that journey again with the same purpose. All those years are over; your job and classroom now belong to someone else…

Many sighs of relief; the clouds of stress and pressure and expectation lift. You celebrate, relish the air of freedom; September arrives and you can set off on holiday rather than return to the daily grind. But, you now need a new purpose and motivation in your life.

I have slowed down a good deal over the last few years. I’m older, and I don’t need to rush to fit everything in; no-one is breathing down my neck. I have certainly been able to read rather more than I used to, and have very much enjoyed writing this blog, which arose partly from my wish to continue sharing my enjoyment of reading, and partly because I realised that I could be a writer, on a small scale. I have been able to go off and study and watch Shakespeare rather than teach it; I was never able to go on the course before, because it runs the week before Whitsun half-term.

I’ve always enjoyed languages. My first degree was actually joint honours, French and English Literature, and I’ve been keeping up with my French through reading newspapers, and also novels and some history in French. I’ve been able to join a German class and tried to improve my German to a stage where I can now hold a reasonable conversation. In the last three years I have also taken up Spanish, a new challenge which is keeping my brain alive. And I’ve been able to go back to yoga, which I enjoyed very much when a lot younger. It’s different now, being rather more about sustaining flexibility and suppleness of limbs, which needs rather more attention as I’ve grown older.

My main pleasure has been travelling. When a student I travelled a good deal in Europe and a little in North Africa, and I always intended to do more of this when I had the freedom. I go off walking in the Luxembourg Ardennes every spring. I’ve spent several trips walking around and exploring the various battlefields of the Great War, a project that arose from many years of teaching the literature of that period to students. These trips have been very informative and very moving. I’ve achieved a lifetime’s ambition and visited the various places in Germany associated with JS Bach. And I have lots more projects in the pipeline. Then there are the trips and holidays that Cheryl and I take together, to art galleries, museums and especially to the seaside…

I have grown to love gardening, too. I’m not the head gardener: I just do the heavy work, the weeding and the fruit harvesting. It’s incredibly relaxing (well, apart from the digging) and peaceful. It’s something I never understood when I was younger – I always saw it as incredibly boring. And now I love it.

It’s taken quite a few years to realise that I can do what I like when I like, and in some ways this freedom feels like a return to the hippy days of my youth. And yet, there often feels to be something lacking… it’s taken a long time to realise and understand this major change, which is that nothing matters any more. I don’t have a career, and students who depend on my hard work. Our children are grown and have lives of their own. In the end, nobody cares what I do, and whilst that’s clearly liberating in one way, it’s also rather alarming in another: every day I must create and sustain a purpose and meaning to the rest of my existence. This is my task and mine alone, and nobody can really explain this to you, it just happens, and it’s a shock.

Europe, war and the imagination

June 29, 2016

It’s a century since the start of the Battle of the Somme this coming Friday, July 1. Before I start this post, honour to the memory of those who died!

I’ve been reflecting on human imagination, and more specifically mine, in the context of the Great War. Obviously many writers, from those who lived through the events and times and wrote in prose and verse – and who didn’t need to use their imaginations because they were there – to those who have written much more recently, and mainly novels, have been able to put words onto the page, which have shown readers over the years the nature and effect of the war, and the havoc it wreaked.

I have been so fascinated by what they wrote, that I taught First World War literature at school for a good number of years, and always with a focus on messages for us as readers today: what might we learn? how might we behave differently? And this fascination has led me, in recent years, to make a number of visits to various battlefields: relatively brief excursions in Flanders, but two lengthier explorations of the Somme, and visits to the Chemin des Dames and the Verdun battlefield, by way of seeing the war from a French perspective.

So I have walked some of the ground. I have seen some of the places where the carnage took place. I have mementos – some fragments of barbed wire from Mametz Wood and a machine-gun cartridge case from the outskirts of Peronne. I’ve walked French and German and British war cemeteries, seen the French memorial at Douaumont and the British one at Thiepval.

2016-04-19 10.41.03 verdun

And I’m still stunned. My imagination is defeated totally by the scale of it all. I’ve stood at the Lochnagar Crater and thought, God, you could get half my street in that! but can’t begin to conceive what it could have been like for a German in the front line when that mine went off. I’ve stood at Thiepval and oriented myself, and thought, how could anyone possibly survive walking that distance gradually uphill towards machine-gun fire? The scale of it all is just too much. And, although one can read about the number of deaths and casualties, it just isn’t possible fully to conceive or make sense of the enormity of it all.

One thing was brought home to me very clearly, with out the need for my imagination. This photo, from a display in one of the museums at Verdun, shows graphically what an exploding shell does; I am no longer surprised by accounts of men being torn to pieces and bodies being unrecognisable…

I think it’s really important for people to visit these places and to remember the past; I’ve noticed that Germans are now also coming to find the graves of their ancestors, and I’ve been very moved by the tributes GCSE History students on school trips have left in a number of war cemeteries, on the graves of combatants from both sides. It’s really important for people to keep on reading the literature from and about those times. This war – and another, perhaps even more horrific in other ways – happened in our, civilised Europe, and until very recently, in living memory, and deliberate efforts to ensure that such things never happen again germinated the European project that Britain managed to reject a few days ago. We have had more than seventy years of peace in Europe, and that’s far longer than any period of time peace before then. Imagination may defeat us, but memory should sustain us.

Pause for thought Friday 1 July 2016, 7.30am.

Carnets de Verdun

April 20, 2016

51gEh0EU7+L._AC_US160_Some of you may be aware of my long-standing interest in the Great War, from occasional mentions of my visits to battlefields and more frequent reviews of literature connected with it. I’ve read this anthology from accounts by French veterans of the Battle of Verdun during my first visit to the area.

British interest in the Great War tends to focus either on Flanders or the Somme, these being two main areas where our troops were heavily involved. For the French, Verdun is the battle, the symbol.

I’ve been learning a good deal about the difference between France’s and Britain’s experiences. For starters, large parts of northern France were occupied by the Germans, who ruled quite brutally. Families were separated, cut off from each other. France lost a sizeable part of its industry and coal, which made fighting the war harder. But the most important thing was, the Germans were there: this never happened to the British, and so it requires quite a leap of the imagination to comprehend. (It also, of course, explains the French insistence on the ruinous reparations from Germany after the war, which contributed to the rise of Hitler, but that’s another story.)

The soldiers’ accounts paint a horrific picture, of destruction, slaughter and cruelty beside which I have found a lot of what I’ve read about the Somme pales rather. Nine villages so completely erased from the map that they could not be rebuilt after the war and are now merely marked as historical remains – martyr villages – on maps. Men used as cannon-fodder because their commanders hadn’t a clue what to do, and (almost) willingly going to certain death because they were really doing it for their families and their country. Astonishing acts of bravery and endurance by ordinary men.

The more I see, the less I understand. The museums and memorials here are very interesting. I can see how and why both French and Germans have been so committed to real reconciliation and peace-making in Europe, and again, this feels like something hard for us on our island to understand clearly. Forty per cent of the Frenchmen who died in the Great War died in the first three months, because they were so desperate to drive out the invaders. Twenty-seven thousand of those died on one day, which puts some perspective onto the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Two things I’m aware of: books like this remind me of the appalling human cost, and the human tragedy. Museums and exhibitions, with their emphasis on artefacts, remind me of the stupendous destruction and waste of all sorts of materials and resources which might have been put to better use. Are we really an intelligent species?

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