A Petty Case of Right and Wrong?

BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

In light of this morning’s broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it seems necessary to make some comment regarding the way in which the literature of the First World War is deemed by some to overshadow the military significance of the conflict.

The broadcast itself was incredibly brief (perhaps not surprising, given current world events) and featured Professor Gary Sheffield and Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson who could have been given the opportunity to discuss this valid point. However, it was somewhat overshadowed by the revelation of the “discovery” of several unpublished Siegfried Sassoon poems, made by Dr Moorcroft Wilson, which took up most of the time allocated to this interview. According to his Twitter, this morning, Dr Sheffield was unaware of the nature of this discussion and, I must say, was given scant time by the BBC to put his point.

Firstly I would like to deal, briefly, with these “discoveries” of Sassoon’s works. These were found to be in his 1916 trench diaries at Cambridge. These diaries were, presumably, the same ones that were edited by Rupert Hart-Davis in the early 1980s prior to the publication of Siegfried Sassoon’s Diaries (1915-1918). We have to assume, therefore, that the unpublished poems were viewed at the time by Mr Hart-Davis and were, for some unknown reason, edited out of the diaries prior to publication. That the poems, therefore, are unpublished, is true: that they are “discoveries”, is debatable.

Secondly, the purpose of Dr Moorcroft Wilson’s presence seemed to be to promote her lecture at the Imperial War Museum on Saturday 12th November, to the point where she refused to read more than a few lines from one of the poems on the basis that if anyone wished to hear more, they would have to attend her lecture. As a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship I have received information relating to this lecture (although I am unable to attend) and can confirm that while the tickets themselves are relatively inexpensive at £10 per head, once one has taken into consideration travel into London, this could prove a costly expedition for many and a lengthy and impractical one for anyone living beyond a reasonable distance of the capital.

The debate as to the influence of First World War poetry in how we view the Great War today – the “literary” versus “history” argument – was glossed over and, in my opinion, Dr Moorcroft Wilson’s earlier attitude regarding her lecture certainly did the literary argument no favours at all.

It seems a great shame to me that neither side really got the opportunity to discuss the point in hand. Generally speaking, the “literary” argument is that the poetry and literature of the time (and of subsequent decades) demonstrates the futility and horrors of the war as the “reality”, and that the contemporary nature of much of this writing and the experiences of its authors lends it much credence. The historical argument, on the other hand, is that we must acknowledge that the number of men (and women) who wrote about their experiences is minuscule compared to the number of people who actually participated. That does not mean to say that their opinion is not valid: simply that it does not necessarily make it typical, or even accurate. It is, after all, just one person’s opinion, or perspective. I’m making somewhat sweeping, generalised statements here to keep the arguments succinct.

There are rights and wrongs on both sides and, although my viewpoint ought to be clear (the company’s not called Great War Literature for nothing), I firmly believe that the two elements should be studied – and therefore taught – collaboratively. It is not really possible to understand the context of the poetry as a whole (rather than the individual poems), without appreciating the facts of the war itself, whether military, political or social. Unfortunately, most students today come at the First World War through the eyes of its poetry and literature and this tends to be studied (for the best part) in isolation, or with only a rudimentary glance at the historical elements involved. Therefore, a great many people are gaining only one perspective of the conflict, which creates a skewed perspective.

At this time of year especially, we have a tendency to look back to the First World War, to remember the cost to this nation and many others around the world. While the literature of the war is vital in shaping our perspective and understanding of the culture of the time, the feelings of society and some of the participants in the conflict, we must also remember that the military perspective gives a no less important viewpoint of the war, without which none of the rest really makes any sense.