Thanks to film (and Commando magazine for boys), our artistic view of the Second World War is likely to be action-focused and rather heroic – black and white in more senses than one. The First World War is different: perhaps it’s something to do with the sheer enormity of the madness, but the attempts to capture it on page or screen tend to come at the war askance. Here are some options for the thoughtful gentleman.
When the British gentleman considers the context for the First World War, this isn’t the Europe he thinks of. But this is the Europe where the war was born, and these were its values. Roth grew up through it, served with the Austro-Hungarian army during the war, and mourned the passing of the Empire. The Radetzky March is his lament, charting the dwindling glory through one family. Soon after the book’s 1932 publication, the Jewish Roth fled Hitler’s Germany; he died an alcoholic in Paris in 1939.
Gentleman’s history: great men and great moments. Barbara Tuchmann’s definitive account of the opening of the war begins with ten Kings gathering for the funeral of Edward VII, and follows the events and strategies, the calculations and miscalculations, through the Sarajevo assassination, the July diplomacy, and the outbreak of war until the French and British at last stopped the first sweeping German advance. Published in 1962 (though a very young Tuchmann herself features as a spectator of naval movements in 1914), the Pulitzer Prize-winner was hugely popular: Kennedy was said to have ordered his senior advisors to read it, and to have drawn on its lessons during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
…of course. Read Edward Thomas, elegist of a passing Britain, whose pre-deployment poems are heavy with melancholy; 36 in 1914, he was too old to be conscripted but joined up anyway, and was killed on Easter Monday 1917. Read Edmund Blunden’s bleak brutal ‘Escape’. Re-read the ones you think you know and remember how young these men were, to be so bitter, so transformed.
It took TV to remind a wider audience of this quietly brilliant writer who, like the Edwardian era indeed, lurks in the shadows between the great Victorians and full-on modernism, and the shadow of his collaborator Conrad. In his study of Tietjens (a Tory back when that meant something, and a character who despite his relentless obnoxiousness we come, miraculously, to respect deeply), Ford takes on nothing less than the impact of war on the whole of British society. During the war, Ford worked in propaganda with other writers including Chesterton, Belloc and Bennett.
Paths of Glory (film)
Kubrick saved the anarchic satire for Dr Strangelove and the Cold War (the Great War got that treatment in Oh, What a Lovely War!). Paths of Glory is a straighter drama, and just as dark. Kirk Douglas is the French infantry officer who must defend three of his men from execution, for cowardice during a ludicrous assault on an impregnable German position, ‘the anthill’. The monstrosity of the Generals – vain, cynical and brittle – is stark, and so is the predicament of all those trapped by them and their war.
‘This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession,’ Remarque wrote in the book’s introduction, ‘and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped… were destroyed by the war.’ The book provoked fierce positive and negative reactions in its native Germany, among those who had lived through the same experiences; it was one of the first books publicly burned by the Nazis. The American film version won the Best Picture Oscar, inspired Spielberg’s approach to Saving Private Ryan, and was also banned by the Nazis.
La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir (film)
Director Jean Renoir was the painter’s son, a cavalry officer and briefly a pilot himself at the end of war, and an early figurehead of left-wing film-making. All three elements came together in one of the great films, in which class and humanity are the unifying forces, not nation. It’s also a rattling escape yarn, before the Second World War had even happened, with a wonderful singing-the-Marseillaise-to-annoy-the-hun scene years before Casablanca. The French are diversely heroic, the Germans are rather decent and honourable, and the British alas are reduced to one chortling old buffoon who misses out on a perfectly good escape tunnel because he doesn’t speak French. Goebbels hated this one, too.
Sagittarius Risingm, Cecil Lewis (book)
Cecil (Arthur) Lewis lived for nearly a century, served with the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force in both World Wars, helped to found the BBC, and in passing won an Oscar. Sagittarius Rising is his heroic and moving account of his First World War experiences: having lied about his age he became a pilot, fought the Red Baron and won the Military Cross.
A Pastoral Symphony, Ralph Vaughan Williams (music)
It’s not only ‘Long Way to Tipperary’ (though that’s powerful enough, not least in O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, another very different perspective on the war). After working as a stretcher-bearer, Vaughan Williams served with (and was deafened by) the artillery during the First World War. He claimed that the inspiration for A Pastoral Symphony came from a mistake made by a practising bugler during the conflict. It’s a slow, moody symphony, and a haunting and deeply powerful invocation of the waste of the war.
To end with, something reflecting what came out of the war. John Reed was an American journalist and socialist, who covered the Mexican revolution as well as domestic labour unrest, and referred to the First World War as ‘a falling out among commercial rivals’. (Warren Beatty’s film Reds is his story.) His first-hand account of the Russian Revolution (he participated as well as watched, and when he died in Moscow in 1920 he got a state funeral) is electric: you’re right on the spot, watching the faces and hearing the decisions, as history teeters. Before anyone knew what it would turn into, Reed captured the earnest intensity and excitement of those who thought they were changing their world for the better.
Robert Wilton is a novelist, diplomat, and co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity. He also writes about the history of south-eastern Europe and international intervention, translates a little Albanian poetry and occasionally rows a gig. The third in his prize-winning series of historical novels, The Spider of Sarajevo (The Times’s ‘beautifully written elegant spy thriller’) was published in the city on the centenary of the assassination. Follow @ComptrollerGen.