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Mourning and Memory: Public and Private.


THE WALK FROM Trafalgar Square to the Cenotaph in Whitehall takes only a few minutes — a matter of some hundreds of yards. The historical gap that separates them, however, is not to be measured by units of time and distance. The timeline of the nation may tell us that they are separated by a century, but the true measure of the historical gap is the emotional distance that separates them and binds them together.

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Both are sites of mourning and memory, an expression of the nation’s debt to the fallen. However, there the similarity stops. Trafalgar Square is primarily a celebration of victorious heroism: the vast space, the lions, the massive column – all speak to a confidence in the historical significance of the event and the person. And it is indeed a person, a single individual: the space is designed to make Nelson’s Column the focal point and to associate the victory at Trafalgar with his name. The Cenotaph, to the contrary, is dedicated to no named individual; if there is an individual associated with it, it is the nameless man who lies in Westminster Abbey, the Unknown Warrior. The Cenotaph is primarily a recognition of the debt we collectively owe to the war dead in general. That it is a debt is clear in the ceremony that is performed every 11th of November: the minute’s silence, the wreaths laid by royalty on our behalf, the bow of humility and acknowledgement before the monument. That it is to all the dead is clear by implication: there are no names.

The shift from the celebration of the hero to the commemoration of the common soldier is one of the significant changes brought about by the Great War: this war is to be remembered in a fundamentally different way to previous wars.

France too has an Unknown Soldier. He is buried under the Arc de Triomphe, itself a monument to earlier victories celebrated in the traditional manner. The memorial at Verdun, especially the vast ossuary – which contains the bones of tens of thousands of unnamed French and German soldiers – is dedicated to the memory of the common soldier, the individual names that have been erased from national history, or consigned to its margins.

In 1918, Germany had no national symbol of remembrance. The Unknown Soldier  had already been adopted by the victors.

In the aftermath of 1918, Germany was unable to reach consensus on a national symbol of remembrance. The Unknown Soldier was unacceptable to the nationalist Right, as it had already been adopted by the victors. The first edition of Remarque’s  All Quiet on the Western Front in 1928 carried a dedication from the President of the Poetry Section of the Prussian Academy, saying that the book itself was Germany’s monument to the Unknown Soldier. This raised a storm of disapproval. Agreement was achieved to consecrate an area of woodland as a national monument — but it proved impossible to agree on the details.

The nearest thing to a national monument in Germany to the dead of the Great War was the Tannenberg Memorial, a giant fortress-like structure which both celebrated the victory over the Russians in 1914 and contained Hindenburg’s tomb and the graves of 20 other unnamed German soldiers. It was clearly an attempt to associate the memory of the Great War with the major German victory rather than with the stalemate of the Western Front and the final defeat. Built during the Weimar Republic and finished after the Nazis took power, it was destroyed by the Red Army in 1944, after the Nazis had removed Hindenburg’s coffin to Marburg, to avoid desecration.

These are public memories, the way in which we collectively remember, and it is inevitable that they are inseparable from the roles that the nations played in the events they commemorate. However, memory of the war is also a private matter. Private memories are of course precisely that, and one should not try to speak on others’ behalf. On the other hand, the private and the public element are not ultimately separable. In 1921 the London Mercury, reviewing a group of recently published war books, dryly remarked, “We are assured by those who cater for the public taste that ‘the public is sick of the subject’. A visit to the Cenotaph any day of the week says otherwise”.1

Stepping over the boundary between public and private memory is especially clear in the publication of memoirs: private memories are made public. As these private memories enter the public domain, they become subject to appropriation and judgment by others.

Experience and Strategy.

MILITARY LEADERS COMMONLY published texts that explain and try to justify their actions. The Battle of the Marne in the autumn of 1914 was a major turning point in the war, halting the German invasion and driving them back to positions beyond which they never managed any substantial advance. The memoirs of the commanders on both sides are largely self-justifying: Joffre and Gallieni both try to claim the credit for the strategy that drove the Germans back, von Kluck tried to avert blame for their defeat.

In these memoirs the reader is shown the war as seen by strategists. Sir Douglas Haig reported the progress of the British attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in these words:

…our infantry advanced to the attack with the utmost steadiness, in spite of the very heavy barrage of the enemy’s guns. … Opposite Mametz part of our assembly trenches had been practically levelled by the enemy artillery, making it necessary for our infantry (7th Division) to advance to the attack across 400 yards of open ground.2

The reader’s imagination may have some difficulty here: advance steadily through heavy artillery fire, across 400 yards of open ground? what did this feel like to the men involved? It is close to unthinkable and unrepresentable. It comes as no surprise to find out that on that day the British Army lost 60,000 men, 20,000 of them dead, but the figures – shocking though they are – tell us nothing about the experience. As the saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; but at the very least we should recognize that the perspective of the cook is only one way of looking at the matter.

For the sense of what it felt like, we turn to the memoirs of ordinary soldiers, which gave readers the sense of authenticity found in eyewitness accounts. In a 1929 review of Charles Edmonds’ A Subalterns War, the Saturday Review wrote that what was wanted from war writing was “some conception of what it was really like. … there were as many wars as there were men in the armies. This strikes me as being an entirely convincing war”.3 Henry Williamson wrote that he was left deeply disturbed by a moment in Edmond Blunden’s Undertones of War, because its precision brought things back so vividly – it was just a description of a dugout which included the detail that the walls were lined with sheets of canvas.4 No doubt many other readers of war memoirs found in them first and foremost a source of recollection.

Personal Experience and the Meaning of the War.
[via Washington Post]

THE PREFERENCE FOR authentic detail was also a matter of political choice: nationalists and conservatives insisted that the personal experience of war was less important than the collective meaning of the war. German nationalist writers, who wanted to use war literature to restore the morale of the German people after the defeat, insisted that the authentic detail of experience was unimportant, even obstructive, since the purpose of war literature was reconstruction of the sense of collective will, or national fighting spirit. French nationalists said something similar: in a 1917 attack on writers who refused to prettify the war in the trenches, the Nouvelle Revue Nationale condemned those who “peddled so-called authentic details, which always turn out to be defeatist”.5

Barbusse’s Under Fire was published in 1916 to bring the French people to an understanding of the bitter truth of the war in the trenches and the extent of soldiers’ sacrifices, as did Remarque (for the German people) with All Quiet ten years later. Both were published as novels, but were read by contemporaries as if they were memoirs. These texts are the two best sellers of the period – indeed, Barbusse’s was the fastest-selling book in the history of French literature, a success so spectacular that the sales figures were themselves reported in the major dailies. On the other hand, the ex-infantryman Georges Gaudy, a regular writer in the extreme right Action Française, wrote an attack in 1931 on authors such as Barbusse and Remarque, complaining that they only represented the poor wretches who “shuffle around in the mud when faced by the wall of fire. People forget the acts of the elite troops, they praise the anonymous ‘poilu’ (Tommy) and listen to the depressing moans of ill-equipped writers who have understood nothing of the war they lived through.” In the same vein, Ernst Jünger dedicated his memoir Storm of Steel with these words: “We have lost much, perhaps everything, even honour. Yet there remains for us the honourable memory of you, the finest army that ever bore weapons, and of the most colossal battle ever fought”.

In texts like these we see the extremes: Barbusse’s text is a slow descent into an apocalyptic vision…Jünger, to the contrary, is the archetypal ‘happy warrior’…driven by blood lust.

In texts like these we see the extremes of how ordinary soldiers present the experiences of the frontline. Barbusse’s text is a slow descent into an apocalyptic vision of a world in which the few survivors of his squad struggle through a sea of mud and corpses, the nationality of many of which is indistinguishable. Its central frame of reference is the slogan “Make war on war”, yet it is not strictly speaking a pacifist text, since it is clear that his soldiers think that Germany must be defeated in order to achieve a lasting peace; on the other hand, for them nothing short of lasting peace could justify such a bloodbath. Jünger, to the contrary, is the archetypal ‘happy warrior’, revelling in the thrills of action and – on occasion – driven by blood lust. For him, war has an existence of its own, independent of the men who make it, for it is a necessary and permanent feature of human life. As he wrote in a later text, “War isn’t like a cake that the two sides divide up between them to the last crumb; there is always a piece left. That’s the piece for the gods, and it remains outside the argument, and it elevates the fighting from sheer brutality and demonic violence.” His book certainly gives us his personal experience – and his powers of observation are so precise that it is an experience we can live with him – but it is really the war itself that is his subject, and it is as if the narrative of his experience is just his way of making the war come to life for us.

Most memoirs are neither as positive nor as negative as these. It is probably no accident that the most famous ones are one or the other, but most others are ambivalent. They may rarely revel in war like Jünger, and many of them clearly hate it; yet they do not doubt the moral purpose of their side and they show us the spiritual resilience that allowed men to survive psychologically. Maurice Genevoix’ monumental, five-volume memoir, Ceux de 14 (The Men of 14), is unsparingly graphic in its accounts of battle yet is also an account of happy comradeship and of hardship willingly endured, even if the author became critical of a leadership which squandered lives in ill-conceived attacks. Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War shows very clearly that he was no enthusiast and he was often directly critical of strategy that wasted lives – we “deserved a battle, not a massacre”, 6 he says in his account of the Somme. Yet the contemporary reviews all praise his sense of balance, for he doesn’t portray soldiers as “the shambling woebegone spectres” of negative portrayals of the war, as the military historian Cyril Falls called them, or what German writers commenting on these texts called ‘down-trodden sacrifice soldiers’.

At the limits of such ambivalence we find Ludwig Renn’s War. The book was published under the guise of an autobiographical account of the experiences of an ordinary soldier, a professional who is a lance-corporal in 1914 and a sergeant in 1918. In fact, the name was a pseudonym for a Prussian career officer of aristocratic origins who had become a socialist and later a communist, and who wanted to write an account of the war from the perspective of the ordinary soldier, as he felt no longer able to speak as a member of the Prussian officer caste. The book was an instant best seller in 1928, a few months before Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Unusually for Germany, it was equally well-received by the Left and the Right, as both saw in his account of his experiences what they wanted to see – it became a ‘Rorschach-text’ for a generation. Nationalists saw in it unquestioning dedication to duty, even under the most difficult circumstances; Socialists and Communists saw in it the stoical endurance of the common man in the appalling circumstances inflicted on him. Renn came to regret that his factual, report-like style of writing had allowed such ambiguity.

Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
.A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
..Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
.And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
..In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

What is close to universally absent from memoirs is the surging, patriotic optimism of the first year of the war, still memorably caught by Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”. Among the rare later accounts still glowing with patriotic dedication is Walter Flex’ The Wanderer between the Two Worlds; he died in combat in late 1917, and in one of his last letters said that he was still as enthusiastic as he was in August, 1914, a time when — in his words — Germany reached a “height of spiritual development” previously unknown in history. The book was a massive best seller from 1916 through the Nazi period and Flex became a cult figure in his own right.

The personal experiences that compose these memoirs – as well many novels based on them – entered the public domain to become parts of the collective memory of the war. If few of them survive as literature, the fact that there is a collective memory of the experience of a war that ended a hundred years ago suggests that they had their impact, at least cumulatively. Not because they all said the same thing – far from it, as we have seen – but because they gave an authentic account of lived experience of a cataclysmic event which resonated with their publics, even if they were angrily rejected by some parts of the public. The differences are present in all three nations, albeit that the distribution is different. From 1916 onwards, few French memoirs had anything good to say about the war and relatively few were published after 1918. Many military leaders’ memoirs were posthumous only. Germany was the only country where military leaders’ memoirs were best sellers. German memoirs were dominated by nationalistic accounts that were pro-war celebrations of a military supposedly “undefeated in the field”, as the Right claimed, until the massive success of All Quiet in 1928 shifted the balance: it sold over a million copies in German in the years from 1928 until the Nazis banned it in 1933, a gigantic figure for German publishing. Moreover, its success was international, crowned by a Hollywood film (a clip from which is above). Few British memoirs were overwhelmingly negative, although few attempt to glamorize the war in the way that the early patriotic poetry of Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell do. However, Lawrence’s account of the Arab guerilla is enthusiastic, even if nowadays his negative experiences figure prominently in public memory; at the time it was read as an epic adventure story, largely because the first edition omitted 50% of the full account and was entirely positive – it was the “Boy Scout version”, as Lawrence himself called it.

Today, the collective memory of the Great War is largely synthesized into some brief notions: it wasn’t the “War to end all Wars”, the men were “lions led by donkeys”, it was awful and it should never have happened but there was a football match in No Man’s Land at Christmas. And of course, the Second World War has intervened, to change the meaning of the shadow that war has cast over European history in the twentieth century. Reading the memoirs, of all three of the principal combatant nations on the Western Front, reminds us that these notions are far from an adequate version of the experiences that men had there.

Jerry Palmer is the former Professor of Communications at London Metropolitan University and Visiting Professor of Sociology at City University. He has also held visiting posts at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, and at Copenhagen and Aarhus Universities. Most of his publications are about popular culture and the mass media, ranging from a book about crime fiction and two about humour and comedy, to Spinning into Control, an analysis of source-journalist relations and Media at War, a book about the press coverage of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Recently, he has been researching the memoir literature of the Great War; his new book Memories from the Frontline was published by Palgrave Macmillan in June. The book is primarily concerned with the memoirs of British, French and German soldiers from the European theatres of war; it also covers the memoirs of nurses and analyses the relative absence of memoirs by the vast number of troops from the subject peoples of the colonies.


  1. Vol. III, p. 459)
  2. Haig, Despatches, 1919. p26
  3. 24.8.29
  4. London Mercury XIX : 300)
  5. No. 3: 25.7.17
  6. 1928: 69

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