Somme culture

Patriotism, poppies and free love. Mark Bostridge on Great War fiction; The Flower of Battle: British Fiction Writers of the First World War by Hugh Cecil Secker, pounds 25

At the funeral, in 1974, of the First World War poet and memoirist Edmund Blunden, a wreath of Flanders poppies was scattered on his coffin in symbolic recognition of the way in which the war had moulded his writing and scarred his life. The image of those fluttering poppies kept coming to my mind as I read Hugh Cecil's new book. Selecting a dozen writers, Cecil has attempted to show the very different ways in which they made use of their war experiences in their fiction.

Over the past few years, we have ourselves been witnessing a minor resurgence of interest in novels about the First World War, with the success of Sebastian Faulks's bestselling Birdsong and Pat Barker's acclaimed trilogy, and so it is both timely and useful to be reminded of the original, much larger market for war books which opened in 1928, 10 years after the Armistice, and which finally petered out in the early Thirties, when the diminishing hopes of lasting peace replaced it with a new, more urgent phase of war literature.

It is also a welcome corrective to the traditional picture to learn that the war books of the Twenties and Thirties did not represent a one-note literature of disillusionment. Novels which celebrated patriotism and pre-war values of idealism and hope continued to be published and, moreover, to reach a wide and receptive readership.

With the exception of Richard Aldington, and possibly of Herbert Read, none of Cecil's chosen novelists will be familiar to modern readers, though many of them were bestselling authors in their day. Cecil has unearthed some fascinating personal stories. There is a pattern of tragic inevitability in the chapter on A.D. Gristwood, author of The Somme, who never emerged from the shadow of the war and who finally took his own life. There is also the delightfully unpredictable tale of Robert Keable, a chaplain on the Western Front who abandoned Christianity after the war for a life of free love on a Tahitian island.

And yet one's overriding feeling is that most of the novels discussed in this book are second- or even third-rate, mere historical curiosities, and that Cecil's determination to revive them for posterity is almost like an act of piety. It's also difficult not to conclude that the best of British writing arising from the war lies in poetry and autobiography (while recognising the strong fictional element in the memoirs of Sassoon and Graves). Britain didn't produce a war novelist of the stature of Remarque, and it is perhaps regrettable that what is without doubt the greatest British novel of the war, Frederic Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune, receives only a passing mention.

Furthermore, Cecil's biographical approach seems a misguided one. Collective biography is notoriously difficult, and whatever singularity these novels possess seems to go missing in a great swamp of biographical information. The relationship between the authors' experience and their writing also gets lost. The case of R.H. Mottram is particularly telling in this respect. In spite of being filmed in 1930, and televised in the Sixties, Mottram's Spanish Farm Trilogy has never won the popularity it deserves. Cecil's chapter on Mottram is scrupulously researched but fails to explain why Mottram avoided using his direct experience of the fighting in his work, nor why it is love and not war that is such a strong component of his novels.

There is something genuinely heroic about the way in which Cecil has tried to establish a link with the Great War generation before their stories become irretrievable. But what we need now is a more thematic, less idiosyncratic, study of the influence of the war on the literary imagination.

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