The Great War in Books: The View from England

The impact of the First World War on British culture is as extensive as the list of books that deal with the conflict—a list you’d do well to go through in a lifetime. I have chosen two celebrated authors to shine a light on the vicissitudes of war from the British, and more specifically the English, perspective. They are Ford Maddox Ford, whose series of Great War novels Parade’s End is often cited as the best example of fiction about the period in English literature, and Siegfried Sassoon, one of the most prominent English war poets.

Ford Madox Ford is more famous, these days, for his literary associations than for his work. A large man with a rather grand manner and relatively ample means, he was at the heart of the transitional generation that modernized English literature, in part thanks to his small literary magazine The English Review, founded in 1908, when he was 35 years old. He collaborated with Joseph Conrad in several novels, championed the work of Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence, published the likes of H. G. Wells and Thomas Hardy and launched the literary career of Jean Rhys, with whom he had a tempestuous affair, notoriously chronicled in her novel Quartet and in his When the Wicked Men—neither of which is particularly recommendable. Madox Ford’s literary reputation stands on the back of The Good Soldier (1915) and the tetralogy Parade’s End, published between 1924 and 1928, which revolves around the extravagant figure of Christopher Tietjens of Groby, a public official born into a formidably rich family whose outdated code of conduct, styled upon an eighteenth century mystic, lands him in the most extraordinary moral, social and indeed physical difficulties.

51e9vutpz8l-_sx319_bo1204203200_In Some Do Not…, the opening book of the series, Madox Ford manages to describe with impressive detail the political landscape facing the United Kingdom in the years immediately before the war. The first half of the novel, set in 1912, grants much room to the conflicts that marked the period and in some sense even polarized society. For instance, Sylvia, Tietjens’ unfaithful wife, is both a pacifist and a strong supporter of Irish nationalism, largely due to her admiration for a Catholic priest later killed by the royalist forces; General Campion, on the other hand, who is later rumored to be (or want to be) Sylvia’s lover, makes it plain that if he were ordered to suppress the Ulster Volunteers—the Protestant group from the three northern counties who absolutely refused to be separated from the United Kingdom—he would rather cut his throat than do it. Similarly, the Labour Finance Act, “which was shaking the country to its political foundations,” is discussed in passionate fashion by Tietjens and his fellow public officials who ultimately agree on “two fundamental ideals: every working man to have a minimum of 400 a year and every beastly manufacturer who wanted to pay less to be hung.”

However, it is the issue of the Suffragettes, with their reactionary, provocative, and often violent initiatives that most concerns Madox Ford in Some Do Not… for Tietjens falls in love with the young activist Valentine Wannop, after she sabotages a round of golf he is playing with General Campion. Tiejtiens, a Tory or political conservative with a strong sense of moral duty, is antagonistic to the Suffragette cause on the grounds that the vote is not a particularly desirable goal. This, though, is just the most eccentric of a series of arguments raised against the movement by various characters, some of them women such as Mrs. Wannop, Valentine’s mother, who will stand up for her daughter unconditionally, to the point of giving shelter to a fellow Suffragette who’s on the run from the police for planting explosives in letter boxes, but who still disapproves of the movement.


Ford Madox Ford in uniform. Source:

In this context of social and political unrest, the diplomatic crisis of July 1914 provided the British government with a common cause that would, at least for a while, galvanize society in a unifying cause. As patriotic fervor swept through the country the modest British Expeditionary Force, marginally over 100,000 men strong, was sent to the continent “to fight the Hun.” Ironically, a war that lasted more than four years and cost the lives of somewhere in the region of 15 to 20 million people, should in fact have been over in six weeks, for the combined French, Belgian and British forces succeeded in stopping the German army’s march to Paris in the bloodbath that was the Battle of the Marne, approximately 70 miles east of the French capital. After several days of carnage the opposing armies entrenched themselves and ensured that a long deadlock would follow: Germany, the only nation at the start of the conflict which could reasonably expect to come out on top through decisive military action, had been thwarted in its efforts; the Allies were in no position to push the Germans back but could not be forced to retreat further. In other words, the prospects of a swift war were dashed on both sides, and the alternative was always going to be a protracted, futile exercise in murder. Alas, hindsight is a treacherous thing.

In A Man Could Stand Up, the third book of Parade’s End, Madox Ford beautifully portrays the futility of the war in Flanders as Tietjens, through circumstance at the helm of a battalion on the trench line in the spring of 1918, anxiously awaits the arrival of the German offensive that never does come. Instead, there’s the “imbecile ‘Pampamperipam Pam Pamperi Pam Pam’ of the German guns that all the while continued’ a game of constant warning, a demonstration that the attack could come, which would of course be countered by a response of similar magnitude from the Allied forces. “You would probably be just as well off if you refrained from either demonstration or counter-demonstration. But Great General Staff liked to exchange these witticisms in iron. And a little blood!”

Those “witticisms” comprised the majority of the action on the Western front between the autumn of 1914 and the summer of 1918: suddenly the big face-off to test whose guns made the nastiest pop turned into a long-term trial of character and resilience. In England the morale-boosting patriotic response to the break of war extended into 1915, when a whole new army was assembled with volunteers. That’s when Siegfried Sassoon, a 28-year-old writer from Sussex, was deployed to the French border. Sassoon’s diaries, digitized and made available to the public by the Cambridge University Digital Library on the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, offer an insightful and deeply striking account of his emotional response to the demands of battle. Initially full of excitement and expectation, Sassoon sees a beauty in the fulfillment of his duty that places him above any danger, for even in death he would remain immortal. In fact, faced with the extreme conditions of trench warfare he turns to his Catholic faith as a source of fortitude, as evidenced in early poems such as “The Redeemer”.

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A page from Sassoon’s war diary

Though a junior officer, Sassoon is able to partake in the sort of camaraderie that has become almost a clichéd symbol of life in the trenches. In his entries in the final months of 1915 he shares an intense feeling of relief at having shaken out of the slumber of his previous life, contrasted with the reality of warfare which makes everything he left behind seem like a distant dream. Somehow Sassoon—like Tietjens—manages to find satisfaction in the trenches, a form of inner peace that surprises both him and the reader. Yet, with this discovery of peace amidst the bloodiest of wars also comes a sense of material renunciation to everything he had enjoyed until now, followed by a sense of guilt. Sassoon comes to believe that fate exacts from him the ultimate price for all those years of inane splendor he lived in England before the war, and eventually his great determination to die begins to morph into some sort of guilt for not having died already. This circumstance is no doubt influenced by the amount of loss which surrounds him, from the news that his brother Hamo had been killed in Gallipoli, on the Mediterranean front, just a week after Siegfried had himself been deployed in France, to the death of friends and comrades that plague his diary.

Indeed, if you compare the tone of Sassoon’s diary with that of Ford Madox Ford’s novel the extent to which Christopher Tietjens is a literary creation becomes patently, almost damnably, evident. While a number of elements are mirrored in the experiences of Tietjens and Sassoon—they both despise the behavior of high-ranking officers behind the trench line, both find redemption in daredevil behavior in action, both grow so close to their comrades they slip into erotic associations when they speak about them—they are ultimately two very different creatures.


Siegfried Sassoon. Source:

This is probably the reason why the two react so in opposite ways to being wounded and sent home for recovery, before being sent out to the front again. For Sassoon returning to England to see how life away from the battlefield has gone on more or less as usual is a major disappointment. He grows increasingly angry at the realization that the war is good business for some, and frustration takes over as he associates this situation with the government’s unwillingness to end the conflict. Tietjens, on the other hand, does everything within his power to avoid being spared a trip to the trenches, and once there, convinced that he will die, does exactly what he thought he never wanted to do: he takes command of a battalion.

By spring 1918, the time in which Madox Ford sets Tietjen’s return to the front, the attitude towards the war had changed drastically in the United Kingdom. Dissenting voices, kept quiet through 1914 and much of 1915, had been fuelled by the likes of Sassoon, who became a vocal campaigner until he was locked in a psychiatric institution. The compulsory draft had been introduced in 1916, and the Easter Rising in Ireland had signaled the beginning of domestic war that would result in the secession of the Republic of Ireland. But at least the end of the international conflict was within sight—one way or another: “either the Germans will immediately drive us onto the North Sea or we shall drive them back,” says Tietjens towards the end of A Man Could Stand Up. And while morale wasn’t soaring on the Allied camp rumor had it that “the Huns were fed up with the war”; discipline had become a major issue and the troops were desperately ill fed.

That, in the end, is what the greatest blaze in the history of mankind was reduced to: a waiting game in which the bulldog spirit outlived German obstinacy. But if exhaustion, both emotional and physical, brought the fighting to an end, the aftermath of the conflict would bring consequences no one could even fathom yet. The task of reconstruction that lay ahead was both urgent and monumental in equal measure, even if today that is often overlooked in favor of the catastrophic macroeconomic destabilization endured by Germany in the years leading up to the rise of fascism in the country, in part due to the scandalous terms of the peace treaty of Versailles. But Ford Madox Ford wrote Parade’s End long before the prospect of a new war threatened Europe and it therefore provides us with a genuine and contemporary perspective of the most pressing social issue of the day: “The Department will not take me back. Every man who has served on this war will be a marked man for a long time after it is over” says Tietjens at some point, while at an earlier juncture Sylvia explains to her husband that “all men who aren’t [in the army] hate all the men that are.” Sassoon, locked up for his critical stance, could be taken as living proof of Madox Ford’s fictional hypothesis.

More than the infrastructure or the economy, it was the social fabric which most urgently needed mending in the years immediately after the Great War—not just in England and Germany, but in every country in Europe. That, however, is a topic to be addressed with a different set of works in a future installment of “The Great War in Books.”



Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday March 31, 2018.


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