The First World War: Myth And Memory, by Dan Todman

A timely look at public's changing perceptions of the Great War
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The Independent Culture

As Dan Todman documents in this fine book, the 1914-18 war was not always seen in this way. Through a discussion of sources, including literature, films, war comics and television, he creates a compelling picture of how public perceptions have changed. The dominant vision in 2005 is very different from that in the immediate aftermath. Then, generals were respected and public taste ran to the patriotic verse of Rupert Brooke rather than Wilfred Owen's "pity" of war. Even in the early 1930s, the heyday of the literature of disillusionment, there was no shortage of books that portrayed the war in a positive fashion.

The wearing of paper poppies in November is now a habit as ingrained as decorating trees at Christmas. Until quite recently, the flower carried the words "Haig Fund". On his death in 1928, the man now widely derided as a butcher was mourned as a champion of veterans' rights. Todman provocatively argues that, if one judges the extent of mourning by the size of the crowds, "the British felt worse about losing Sir Douglas Haig than they did about losing Princess Diana".

Todman is a leading figure in an impressive cohort of younger historians of the Great War. It is clear he is influenced by a number of writers, but he does not hesitate to take issue with them. On the one hand, he accepts the academic consensus that the war was not futile, and that the British army underwent a steep learning curve to emerge as an effective fighting machine. But he rejects received wisdom that the 1960s, the era of Oh! What a Lovely War, was the turning point in British views.

His book is no dry academic text: full of good sense and reasoned arguments, it crackles with striking phrases, controversial judgements and some good jokes. Todman's assessment of the way memories of conflict have been reshaped to suit the evolving needs of society is timely indeed.

Gary Sheffield co-edited 'Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters' (Weidenfeld)