It was a superb, eloquent achievement: prompted by Wilfred Josephs's sombre music, a suppressed national memory took shape and rose weeping from the mud.
Are there no limits to the man's expertise? All the usual suspects are here. Edward Grey thinks we won't see the lamps of Europe lit again in our lifetime. A truce breaks out at Christmas. Admiral Beatty says there's something wrong with our bloody ships at Jutland.
Lytton Strachey tells a conscientious objectors tribunal that he would "interpose my own body" if a German soldier tried to rape his sister.
Sassoon meets Owen at Craiglockhart. This is the kind of history that Alan Bennett skewered long ago in Forty Years On "Then in it begins to rain and all through the war and after it never stops" , but that doesn't matter. A few are contestable: can as many as 1, troop trains really have reached Southampton over five days in August ? Perhaps not — that figure representing a train every four minutes day and night — but then so many aspects of the first world war now look impossible.
In the early days, the army had been ordered not to make trenches too comfortable "to prevent soldiers thinking of anything other than attack". Later, garden-minded troops grew flowers on support trenches and tended allotments that freshened up their diet of biscuits and bully beef with the occasional cabbage and potato. And all around the excreta piles up to defeat the "shit-wallahs" who have been deputed to carry it away in old biscuit tins, while the corpses of former comrades rot within spitting distance and rats crawl over the living who are sheltering from machine-gun fire and high explosives.
What made them carry on is just as hard to imagine. As Paxman says, the discipline — or biddability — of the British soldier was remarkable.
But this kind of hatred was easier to keep alive among the civilian population, ready to be outraged by the Daily Mail's continuing revelations the "Hun body-boilers" was an especially good one , than in trenches where the enemy's only moral defect was his mission to kill you. As late as officers of the Household Cavalry advanced on Arras singing the "Eton Boating Song" — behaviour "so far beyond the compass of the 21st-century mind that it is much easier to snigger than to wonder".
When the supply of public school boys began to run out and lieutenants had to be promoted from the ranks, they were known as "temporary gentlemen". Still, through some alchemical compound of fear, stoicism, deference and paternalism the British Expeditionary Force held together until November , though during the German advance earlier that year it had come close to breaking point. Already a member?
World War I: Britain's Great War - Mayflower Primary School
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