All you need to know about World War I, by Santiago FarrellMonday, January 13, 2014
100 years since 1914 and books on the war
For the Herald
Argentine author encourages a local and fresh glance at World War I
Santiago Farrell starts his book saying there are an awful lot more about the Great War (1914-1919) and indicates at the end of his Introduction that this is not the case with Argentina. Indeed, there are very few.
All you Need to Know About World War I (Todo lo que necesitás saber sobre la Primera Guerra Mundial) is designed as a kind of “Teach Yourself” volume to help local readers catch up with the centenary this year. His publishers (Paidós) have done him small service with a bland title and not a pleasing cover. But that said the author should be congratulated for producing Argentina’s first contemporary attempt at telling the story of a war that changed history, and about which our citizens know little. As a start-up read, Farrell describes the century’s opening tragedy in 50 telegraphic chapters and a six-page chronology in a total of 230 pages.
The beginnings of war were sparked by a murder, the conflict introduced chemical warfare (the dreaded mustard gas), it closed a century of near-peace in Europe and ended the continent’s self-congratulatory role as a civilizing imperial club. The war also started the US’s career as a world power and changed the maps of Africa, Asia and western Europe. The setting is, of course, imperial Europe where most of the crowned nuts appeared to be cousins.
Why did they go to war? Probably because the worst rows always happen in families. (Winston Churchill would later rail at the related courts for failing to stop the slaughter.) Santiago Farrell, aged 52, says that up to the end of the twentieth century there were approximately 20,000 books, essays, articles on World War I and even with a mind set on specialized reading it would take nigh on a lifetime or more to consume all the literature available. The stock must have been “expanded” when in the 1950s and 1960s memoir writing became popular. There was a public need to read the recollections of a generation that would soon begin to fade out. It is understandable therefore that the lone punter with a personal interest will establish a private reading list.
For now it should be said that the two books being hailed as the best of the centenary’s early crop are Margaret McMillan’s The War that Ended Peace — The road to 1914 (Random House, 2013) and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914, also published last year.
Margaret McMillan previously published Paris 1919, which is about the peace terms that twenty years later helped plunge Europe back into conflict and proved that WWI had not been the “war to end all wars,” even if it did mobilize 65 million soldiers and killed nine million people.
But these books are recommended as the best to start a year that, from now until August, should see more titles added to Farrell’s figures. The immediate good news is that Claudio Meunier, one of the men who compiled the book on the RAF volunteers from Argentina in World War II, is shortly to launch a history of the men and women who went to the First World War from Argentina.
What all those books and countries and continents involved, the many casualties and multiple effects, possibly show is that a large part of society still cannot believe, even a century later, how and why it all happened. However, the political explanation of imperial aspirations are there to be drawn, in each case a matter of expansionism desired by some courts, as in Germany and Italy, and the need to secure boundaries by others, as in France and perhaps Turkey, while Franz Josef desperately tried to avoid war to secure the continuation of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s long and paternalistic rule. But no summary or abridged description is good enough.
Hence the reference to the need for a personal reading stock which probably does not provide an explanation but points to the way in which individuals and social groups functioned and that provided one form of basic reference.
Personally, my most lasting reference is a book titled For the Sake of Example (published in 1983), written by the late Anthony Babington (1920-2004), who was a circuit judge at the Knightsbridge Crown Court, London, in his later years. Babington — a respected friend when we were members of English PEN, the writers’ association — spent years researching the WWI execution of young soldiers, some aged only 17, for what should have been seen as understandable failings (desertion due to shock, etc.), cases that the British defence establishment did not want to see reopened, but finally acknowledged in the late ‘80s.
The added interest in this book is the author, a man of law who as a young soldier in the Second World War was severely wounded: his right side was made useless and he suffered brain injury. Such was his determination to recover from his wounds (he was made mute), that he regained speech and went on to a career in law.
However, it was the war poets who were most able to reveal by feelings and describe with words the sense war. These men changed the nature of English writing in the Twentieth Century. This group was given a special exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, in south London, and the literary product of that event was Anthem for Doomed Youth — Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War, compiled by John Stallworthy (Constable — Imperial War Museum, 2002). It is a collection that includes all the great poets of their time, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), Rupert Brooke (1889-1915), Edmund Blunden (1896-1974), and numerous others, including the best known of them all, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918).
Owen, ignored at one time, is now a national icon in England, a regular in the school curriculum, favoured by general readers and a model of compassion and heroic suffering. Owen believed that “a live poet was worth more than a dead soldier,” so took his time to enlist, but his sense of purpose was set once he was in uniform, with the Artists’ Rifles. His mother would receive the telegram saying her son was dead just as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the Armistice. That very moving life and loss was described in Dominic Hibberd’s biography of Wilfred Owen (published by Weidenfeld in 2002).
In contrast, there is Robert Ferguson’s biography of Thomas Ernest Hulme, blown to bits in September 1917, aged 34 (Penguin 2002). T. S. Elliot it was who wrote that Hulme had, “two or three of the most beautiful short poems in the English language.”
However, Hulme was also considered a “complicated anti-romantic” and his attitude to the war was that of many intellectuals. He said, “From time to time great and useless sacrifices become necessary, merely that whatever precarious ‘good’ the world has achieved may be preserved,” in support of his conviction that war with Germany in 1914 was a necessity, “a stupid necessity, but a necessity nonetheless.”
Finally, and so as to end on the Argentina note where this article began, with the extremely valuable book by Santiago Farrell, now with the promised local addition by Claudio Meunier, two reminders. The Herald printed its own book on the Great War in 1920. It was compiled by one of the editors at the time, Arthur L. Holder: Activities of the British Community in Argentina during the Great War, 1914-1919. It was published by the British Society in the Argentine Republic, and recorded the many volunteers, not a few from the British-owned railways, who left Buenos Aires never to return. This may be hard to find. However, another volume that touches on the Argentine contingent to fight in World War I is rather special. It is Colonel L. James’ The History of King Edward’s Horse, probably printed privately in London in 1921. One part of the horse regiment were expert riders from the British-owned estancias in Argentina.
For now, though, Santiago Farrell has done a great job to awaken much needed interest in that remarkable conflict.