Wednesday, January 23, 2019
On Monday, January 21, I went to see the movie “They Shall Not Grow Old” for the second time. This is Peter Jackson’s 90-minute film comprising restored footage from the Imperial War Museum (much of it colorized as well as restored) of British doughboys in World War I. The sound track is all veterans reminiscing in their old age (recorded in the 1960s and ’70s). It is not a political film, but a sort of montage, a recreation from original sources, of a time and a way of living and thinking that is very different from anything we would recognize. After the movie, I told my friend Dave Fortna, who had gone with me, of my experience in London with David Poynter.
[Can’t remember just what year it was – 2001 or 2002, probably. I was in London, walking in the area around Trafalgar Square, consciously trying to give David Poynter a sense of modern London, knowing that he would recognize the buildings, which are essentially unchanged since his time. (I got the sense that he could “see” the buildings very well, but experienced the cars and other modern things as more or less a blur, an impression.) I walked down to the Embankment, the north shore of the Thames, which is lined with monuments, and went from one to another, interested but only that. Not particularly moved, but interested. Then came to one that said only “July 1, 1916,” and although I had no idea what it referred to (other than knowing it referred to something in World War I, of course), I was instantly filled with the most violent rush of emotion I have ever experienced: rage, grief, indignation, despair. I realized, this was David’s reaction I was experiencing, though I was pretty sure he himself had not been in the war.]
So on the day after I saw the movie, I asked, and he suggested that I look it up, so I searched both “the Battle of the Somme” and “July 1, 1916.” I made a couple notes Tuesday night but left conversation till later.
4:35 a.m. So, David, let’s talk about July 1, 1916. What was the nature and source of that upwelling of anguish that I experienced second-hand, so to speak? I have been wary of adding story to the experience, so I have left it as it was felt, rather than trying to feel what caused it. But, if we can bring it across, I would like to know.
You felt correctly that I was not in the war. I was past the age of enlistment, and perhaps could not have stood the physical toll. But neither was I caught up in war fever. My sympathies were with the poor, not the powerful, and the warfare that interested me was an uprising against the forces that were grinding the faces of the people. I don’t mean insurrection – that couldn’t happen – but organized resistance to the overwhelming combinations of force and law and opinion and judiciary that held society in an unfailing grip.
You were a socialist, I remember thinking.
I was. But my socialism did not have its roots in a belief in materialism, so I was somewhat out of the socialist mainstream in the same way you have always found yourself out of the mainstream of political opinion – and for the same reasons. Any social movement necessarily presumes certain commonly accepted beliefs, and to the extent that you cannot share them, you find yourself having to go along unwillingly, or with mental reservations. This does not tend to make you an effective partisan.
When war broke out in August, 1914, there was a unanimity of emotion that you have experienced only once in your life, the grief over the murder of President Kennedy. But the emotion of August, 1914, was one of enthusiastic springing to arms, a lust to destroy.
Yes, I have the sense of that pretty much in mind.
People didn’t realize it, but they were desperate to destroy the lives they were leading. They wanted to tear down the structure, but they thought they were tearing at something that threatened them from outside. A socialist could see that, if he could keep his head against the group-think.
Was I keen to fight for the King-Emperor and the social system I despised? Only of course it was not so simple. Is it ever? German autocracy as personified – almost as caricatured – by the Kaiser was clearly worse.
Churchill said, in another context, that he did not undertake to be neutral between the fire department and the fire.
And yet that was exactly my own private dilemma. Privately I deplored the war and did not believe in it – and yet, at the same time, I deplored Prussian autocracy even more, and certainly could not have rooted for a victory of Germany.
So what did you do?
I sat on the sideline, you might say. I observed, I remained conscious. But this only got more agonizing as time went on.
I got that you were an editor at the London Illustrated News.
We would call it a sub-editor. I was a selector of photographs and illustrations, a glorified caption-writer. It was not a glamorous nor an influential position, but it did keep me somewhat better informed than the average man in the street. I had been there for some three years, maybe four, by the time the war began, and I was there for a decade or so after the war concluded.
Surely you had to do some official drum-banging for the war.
Less than you might think. If I kept to describing specifics, there was no need to hint at the self-destructive futility of it, not that any such hints would have had any result beyond getting me fired. But the anguish cumulated as the months dragged on. You cannot envision the change from 1914, when the war would surely be over by Christmas, to 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, when it clearly was going to go on forever.
I think I can see the equivalent in America’s experience of World War II, that led us to massive bombings of cities – the exact thing that had horrified us when the German aircraft bombed Guernica during the Spanish Civil War – and then to the A-Bomb. Over those four years after 1941, moral standards deteriorated, and we found ourselves doing things that would have been unthinkable.
That is true too, but in this case I refer to the changes in expectation. In 1914, even in 1915, it was possible to imagine that the end of the war would find us unchanged. By 1916, certainly by 1917, it was clear to those with eyes to see that nobody was going to win this war, and it was about who would lose it more thoroughly.
The one date that marked that change more than any other was July 1, 1916.
Per your suggestion, I looked it up yesterday: 57,000 casualties – 19,000 of them killed – in one day, the worst day for casualties in British history. The beginning of a 141-day battle that cost more than 400,000 British casualties and resulted in a six-mile advance over a 16-mile front. To my surprise, I saw that it was no longer considered to be useless butchery that accomplished nothing. Some think it led to the beginning of the end for the Germans, for reasons I won’t go into.
But you asked for the source of my reaction, which you felt that day, and my reactions had nothing to do with questions of strategy, nor even with the question of was it worthwhile even in its own military terms. Mine were rooted in something deeper.
I can feel a certain complication here, a reluctance to dip into it.
Yes, it is powerful, isn’t it, still?
What you are calling first-tier and second-tier effects. And the third-tier effect went into the making of you, you understand.
In that you are a dominant strand comprising me.
Yes. You might be fascinated reading about military history – that was another strand’s influence, of course – but you could not enter whole-heartedly into such a career even if your health had allowed. I knew better.
“Knew better.” Say some more about that.
How do you think I felt, watching without being able to do anything, as a generation of young men was ground into the mud in France, and Gallipoli? Futility, official stupidity, dirty motives of politicians, economics behind it all, deliberate whipping-up of public hatred. It stank, and there was no way out except through it, by way of killing, killing, killing.
I suppose it’s one thing if you can believe the official lies, but it is something entirely different if you can’t, but have to live among those who do.
After the war was over, there came reevaluation, and by the time I was killed, it seemed clear that the Battle of the Somme was pointless and stupidly conceived and directed. The sacrifice of so many men was for nothing at all – so it seemed. I gather that the reevaluation has itself been reevaluated, but that’s the firm conviction I lived under.
Just as for many people Sept. 11, 2001, marks the end of one era and the beginning of another, so for me July 1, 1916, marks the end of a relatively innocent age. Now, you might say, how could I regard the preceding time as both innocent and deplorable. The answer to that is quite simple. No matter how bad a situation, it can always be made worse. Or rather, let’s say, moving from one thing to another may involved a steep descent before the subsequent climb is possible. World War I destroyed Edwardian society and ultimately allowed for the liberation of the common man from the worse excesses of industrialism, but it took decades of depression and another war to do so. not a trivial effect – and I was dead a decade and more before 1945.
So to focus in specifically on what I felt that day in London –
Imagine concentrating your emotional reaction to all the wrong-turnings you have witnessed in your life, and spraying them out in one burst, like a capacitor discharging. That’s what you were on the receiving end of.
I see. Did that discharge affect you somehow? Vent the extra pressure, so to speak?
That requires more explanation than we can go into at the end of a session. Perhaps another time, if you are interested.
Okay, thank you for all this.