New York Review of Books
May 25, 2017
It comes as a surprise to a British reader to find World War I routinely referred to, by Americans, as America’s “forgotten war.” The British would never use such a term. It is true that certain significant aspects of the war have faded from the collective memory. Every one of us can remember why World War II was fought (“Hitler had to be stopped”), but few can do the same for World War I. Yes, the archduke had been shot in Sarajevo, but who the archduke was, and why his assassination led to general war, and why the war was or wasn’t worth fighting—that takes a rarer expertise to answer.
The war itself, though, is vividly, viscerally remembered through a series of images, stories, and rituals: bugle music—the Last Post and Reveille, framing the Two-Minutes’ Silence; the wearing of poppies on or around Armistice Day; the trenches; gas masks; the Christmas Truce (a famous moment of unauthorized fraternization on the western front in 1914); shell shock; the refusal to distinguish between the shell-shocked and the malingerer; the brutal idiocy of the generals; women handing out white feathers to noncombatant men; songs and parodies of songs; poets at the front line.
The list expands, contracts, expands again. It holds an abiding fascination for us. But that fascination changes with the decades. When I was a child the standard poppy had a black disk in the center, stamped with the name of the Haig Fund, named for Field Marshal Earl Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force. But over the years the reputation of Haig, the “Butcher of the Somme,” went into such a decline that his name was removed from the poppy. Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General,” written in a hospital in April 1917, gives us a generic World War I commander as he will inevitably be remembered—the affable fool with blood on his hands:
“Good morning; good morning!” the General saidMore
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.