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.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders