February 2007

Arts & Letters

The war not thought

By Gideon Haigh

Les Carlyon’s ‘The Great War’

It was said of World War I that it was two wars in one: the war fought, and the war spoken. To this has since been added the war written. "There are, of course, far too many books about the First World War," wrote Niall Ferguson, at the beginning of his own, The Pity of War (1998) - a book actually rather more necessary than most. But the impulse is understandable: as a subject, World War I can dismay and inspire, horrify and excite.  Such waste; such valour.  Such dumb obedience; such nobility and sacrifice.

It is, in Australia, also History with a capital H: the good stuff, uplifting, nutritious.  And history is, hereabouts, an increasingly politicised domain, so many of our great national debates being appeals to the past, both real and imagined. One suspects that Les Carlyon, arguably the outstanding Australian journalist of his generation, is a slightly uneasy conscript in these latter-day History Wars. His magisterial Gallipoli (2001), perhaps the best and probably the most successful work of Australian history since Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore (1987), has been seized upon by conservatives as an antidote to all that po-mo persiflage corrupting impressionable minds in our excuse for a university system. His new book, The Great War (Macmillan, 863pp; $55), was launched by the prime minister, who called it an "epic work of Australian history", and hymned its "beautiful style".

That it certainly has, with hardly a page passing that is not distinguished by Carlyon's flair for either keen observation or the pungent putdown, whether he is seeing Field-Marshal Haig "laced up so tightly that in all his photographs he seems to be holding his breath" or damning Kitchener as having "failed to live up to the promise he had never shown". It is characterised not only by immense, almost religious fidelity to its primary sources of letters, diaries and eyewitness accounts of devastation and courage, but also by temperate, fair-minded judgements.  And yet.  And yet.  The sum of such parts should be a far greater whole.

The problems of The Great War begin there: with the title. For this is not the story of the Great War at all; it is the story of Australian involvement in the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. And this story does not shape itself: unlike Gallipoli, where the action was naturally condensed by time and geography, the Western Front was huge, sprawling; unstable one minute, uneventful the next; manned by the armies of many nations, answering to a host of faraway commanders, beholden themselves to crowned heads and cabinets.  Any chronicler must define and contain their sphere of operations, and this Carlyon seems loath to do. If anything, the opposite is true: he regularly widens the focus to include glimpses of distant diplomatic salons and political putsches, from Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson and Hughes through Foch, Petain, Ludendorff and Hindenburg to the likes of Lenin, Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, Goering, Macarthur, Patton and Truman, who bear hardly at all on the core narrative. These digressions are neither vivid nor weighty enough to justify their distorting effect: like Haig himself, Carlyon struggles to sustain activity across too long a front, bending his narrative out of shape so as to include observations that Truman cursed like a mule trader and that Lenin had a "vaulting forehead and withering glare".

This is anomalous, because Carlyon at other times makes the opposite case, and convincingly: that lines of communication were so articulated and prone to rupture in battle that men were often on their own, lost in the proverbial ‘fog of war'. "Misinformation flowed up this line and back down it," he notes. "Everyone in the chain of command wanted to give the impression that they actually knew what was happening behind the smoke some of them couldn't even see. None wanted to be thought timid." To the quotidian life of the digger, then, what Haig thought, or what time he had breakfast, is of distinctly secondary importance, while the shape of Lenin's forehead is of no moment whatsoever. The logical corollary of this would be to ignore or circumscribe reference to as much of the macro history as possible. Instead, by telescoping back and forth so freely, from the fate of the liberal democracy to an Australian blowing up a pillbox, Carlyon fosters the illusion of direct connection, from which a false totality emerges.

The most stirring writing in The Great War is the work of the soldiers themselves, still stunning in its immediacy, and far more varied in content than might be imagined. It is breathtaking, for instance, to be able to read the scribbled thoughts of Corporal Arthur Thomas under bombardment at Pozières:

For Christ's sake write a book on the life of an infantryman & by doing so you will quietly prevent these shocking tragedies ... I have seen things here that will make the bloody Military aristocrats' name stink forever.

[11am] ... hundreds of shells from big 12-inch howitzers are being fired at us. God! It is cruel. What humans will stand is astonishing.

[1.30pm] ... I turned my head sharply right & saw a decapitated man - one of ours. It is bloody gruesome - ah well, it will soon end - this awful game. Plenty of lives - just gun fodder. Our casualties are very heavy ... This is truly the Valley of the Shadows - God help us.

Likewise, it is bracing to encounter Private Jimmy Downing, blood and dander up, after Villers-Brettoneux:

We were Beserk, every one of us ... There was no quarter. I remember bayoneting one Hun, a square fair solid fellow, and one old score was paid off. The bayonet passed right through his heart with surprising ease ... One came to a machine-gun post which kept firing at us till we were on it & then surrendered. It was no use, this man said: "How many of you are there? Oh six. Then share that among you" and he dropped a bomb among them ... "Now you've got your issue" ... I saw Hun running away. I shot one Dead. The rest disappeared in the gloom. The killing went on. I was mad. There was blood all over my rifle & bayonet & hands and all ... I wouldn't have missed it for anything. We settled many an old score.

To my mind, however, The Great War does not interrogate its primary material nearly enough. Since Bill Gammage used letters and journals to such impressive analytical effect in The Broken Years (1974), they have been the staff of life to scholars. Carlyon tends to let them speak for themselves: a laudable notion, but also reducing them to postcards in a travelogue, vivid but superficial.

Consider the questions that might arise from the foregoing. In Arthur Thomas's diary, bitter fury is mingled with religious resignation. Yet nowhere in The Great War is it acknowledged that Australia in 1916 was a religiously observant country, and fought on explicitly Christian principles backed by militarist churchmen. "A good chaplain," philosophised Haig, "is as valuable as a good general." Nor, of course, were the Australians on their own. Wittgenstein famously enlisted in the Austrian Army on the war's first day, believing it would make him a better man: "Now I have a chance to be a decent human being, for I'm standing eye to eye with death ... Perhaps the nearness to death will bring light into life. God enlighten me."

What humans will stand, as Thomas observed, is astonishing. The Great War doesn't really postulate how the diggers did so, beyond that Australians were a hardy race, brought up with good, old-fashioned Victorian values: "Stoicism was a virtue, so one pretended to enthusiasm even if trembling inside." Jimmy Downing, among others, hints at a dimension of war that Carlyon leaves unacknowledged: the exhilarations of martial life, its opportunities for masculine validation and for individual freedom. He approvingly, if awkwardly, invokes Freud in the context of shellshock: "The Victorian mind was suspicious of this condition. Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams had only appeared sixteen years earlier." But what of Freud's contention, in ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death' (1915), that war reasserted "the primal man", sweeping away the "conventional treatment of death", revealing that "our unconscious is just as ... murderously minded towards the stranger, as divided or ambivalent towards the loved, as was man in earliest antiquity"?  A similar argument has been made more recently by the Dutch-Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld; as he puts it in Transformations of War (1991): "However unpalatable the fact, the real reason we have wars is that men like fighting."  After all, the canonical works of World War I include Rupert Brooke as well as Wilfred Owen, Ernest Junger as well as Erich Maria Remarque.

The canon also contains, especially for Australians, Frederic Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929): Carlyon cites it appreciatively as "one of the most stylish pieces of writing to come out of the war".  Carlyon's book, however, lacks the insight in Manning's title, a citation from Hamlet conveying how most soldiers felt most of the time: not great, not bad, not shooting or being shot at, but not completely safe either.  In The Great War, battle follows battle, commanders bungle, soldiers die and valour is measured out in thickness of Victoria Crosses, which Carlyon acknowledges are inequitably distributed, but to which he remains in thrall, rather as movie buffs scoff at the Oscars but can't help cheering. It's magnificent - to borrow from Marshal Bosquet in another context - but it's not war, for the Australian soldier revealed as much about himself in repose as in conflict.

At the end, too, Carlyon rather squibs the verdict, even where Haig is concerned: having been depicted mostly as a blimp and a dunce, he is finally credited with a "profound sense of duty". Arguments about the point of the war are then dismissed rather airily: "It is fashionable to argue that the Allies, particularly Britain and her dominions, fought the Great War for nothing of value. If they had not fought ... human progress would have been turned back to the absolutism of pre-Enlightenment times." These arguments - made, incidentally, by Niall Ferguson - that war was avoidable, futile and "the great error of modern history", deserve better than the blithe and rather prime ministerial backhander "fashionable". It smacks uncomfortably of intellectual timidity, incongruous in a writer of Carlyon's generally unflagging humanity. Perhaps, in Australia, we now need a fourth war: in addition to the wars fought, spoken and written, a war thoroughly thought.

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