The Great War and Modern Memory

Night March encaustic on barn board by Nancy Hayden.

Night March Encaustics on barn board by Nancy Hayden.

When I sat down last week to write another post, my intent was to write about one of my favorite WWI books, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (hence, the title of the last entry), but it turned in another direction. Today, I’m going to delve, just a bit, into Fussell’s book, first published in 1975. It won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Modern Library has recently added it to its list of the 100 best nonfiction books. A twenty-fifth anniversary edition came out in 2000.

The book provides a view of the British experience in the trenches of the Western Front through a literary lens primarily focusing on the soldiers who  wrote poetry, memoir, and their own histories of the war experience. The poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg,  Rupert Brooke and many others are presented. Their work is discussed especially as to how it shaped the modern view and interpretation of the Great War. What makes this book particularly interesting is that it combines both history and literature in a way that enhances both.

For example, in the chapter, “Soldier Boys,”  Fussell starts by considering the language of war and militarism and its overlap with “sexual importunity” (i.e., “assault, impact, thrust, penetration”). As a professor of English literature, it makes sense that language is a central part of his analysis. War and sexuality, he notes, have even more literal ties such as the promise of rape, state-sanctioned brothels for soldiers, and the relaxation of sexual inhibition during times of war. Sexual brutality, rape, and misogyny during war are no surprise. What is surprising is that it wasn’t until as recent as 2008, that the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution classifying war rape and other sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity. And not until 2013 did they adopt a resolution demanding an end to sexual violence and more monitoring of sexual violence in conflict.

What I found of particular interest in “Soldier Boys” is Fussell’s discussion of the homoerotic in WWI which he defines as the sublimated or chaste form of temporary homosexuality.  He provides many examples of passionate but nonphysical “crushes” of young officers to their men or young soldiers to their officers inspired by “good looks, innocence, vulnerability and charm.” He relates much of this affection and attraction between men to their boarding school days of the British system,  but it seems likely that in times of physical danger, loneliness, the intimate surroundings of trenches, dugouts, ships and trains, and situations with only men for companions that affection and attraction between soldiers regardless of boarding school history would be quite common. In my great uncle Harry’s letters, he also comments on the good looks of officers including General Pershing and King Albert I of Belgium. Both spoke to his division on separate occasions.

Many of the poets writing about their experiences in the Great War often focused on the sensual and physical beauty of the men. Fussell notes the use of “men bathing naked as a set-piece scene in almost every memory of war.” This emphasis on the sensual promoted an intimate emotional connection between the reader and the soldiers. It also showed the reality of war (especially the Great War with its  technological advances in artillery, toxic gas, and machine guns)  highlighting both the beauty and frailty of humans against the destructive force of metal and machine.