Art tells us more about the First World War than any politician’s speech

Published by ConservativeHome

s end 3I had the fortune and great privilege when I was at school of appearing in productions of both R.C Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War!. Both, in very different ways, had a profound effect on my understanding and appreciation of the First World War, not least because my maternal grandfather (Gramps) – a veteran of both world wars – was conscripted to see me do battle in both productions. I can still remember meeting him in the school hall afterwards: I was eager for a pat on the back and words of praise, but all I got was watery eyes behind a damp hanky. There was I, the schoolboy, frolicking in the trenches of Flanders and waltzing to ‘Après la Guerre’ with Lady Haig. And there was Gramps, the veteran, for whom this was very real biography, and whose friends and colleagues were machine-gunned, gassed and buried on the Somme.

Journey’s End and Oh, What a Lovely War! are poles apart in their apprehension of the First World War. Sherriff’s 1928 play is an intimate, respectful tragedy about heroes, virtues, leadership and sacrifice. It speaks profoundly to pacifists and Just War advocates alike. Littlewood’s 1963 musical is an epic, irreverent romp through fluffy parodies and black-humoured allegory. It speaks volumes to cynics and sceptics without demeaning the memory of doomed youth. Sherriff wept with his fallen comrades, knee-deep in the muddy trenches of Passchendaele; Littlewood skipped with her pierrots, to an imagined dance of slaughter, bravura and vulgarity.

Both productions were controversial when they opened, and their critics (artistic, political, military and academic) were legion. Listening now to the views of Michael Gove, Tristram Hunt, Baldrick and Boris (inter alia), it is clear that the disputes and contentions about the war’s causes and consequences rumble on. On the right flank, Gove inclines toward Sherriff; on the left, Baldrick toward Littlewood. Hunt delivers a pious sermon, and Boris grabs a soapbox. A whole platoon of academics has waded in with fashionable donnish moralising. In the hostilities, Maria Miller is entangled on the barbed wire somewhere in No Man’s Land.

There was a beautiful, heartbreaking revival of Journey’s End at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End a few years ago, and Oh, What a Lovely War! is currently in rehearsal at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where it was originally conceived 50 years ago. Its opening is timed to coincide with this year’s centennial commemorations, and it promises to be one of the theatrical highlights of the year.

But actors can do what politicians ought not, and the wisest never do. In the words of Hamlet, the purpose of theatre is to hold the mirror up to nature, “to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. Of course, plays can be used to peddle myths and propaganda. But acting is concerned with truth and sensibility in ways that politics cannot be. Both may deal with perceptions and realities, and both may seek to win hearts and nudge minds. But Journey’s End will always impress and inspire in ways that a Daily Mail article by a politician never will; and you can give me Oh, What a Lovely War! over PMQs any day.

We prefer our cheerless reality to be a little rose-tinted, and we like our rough and general history to be honourable and heroic. Academics can argue over the specifics of Sir John French’s strategic failings or General Haig’s inflated reputation, as though they know something about them. French may have been “petulant when thwarted” (The Times, 3rd August, 1914); Haig may have been “intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task” (War Memoirs, Lloyd George, 1936). But most of us just want to commemorate the Great War by pausing to reflect on the brave band of brothers – of all ranks – who fought that we might be free.

Politicians, like brigadiers and generals, tend to think in terms of objectives, strategies, battalions and brigades. Their diaries tell us who, what, why and how many. Actors think about individuals and experiences; they confront us with our hypocrisies, inconsistencies and fears. The war had its poets – Brooke, Graves, Owen and Sassoon – to tell us about the rising suns, singing larks, sniping and shrapnel. Their stanzas waded through heaps of stinking humanity awaiting identification and burial. They give us bitterness, misery and squalor, and that is one version of reality. But truth is many-sided.

Actors choke on smoke and dust; they scream and die in agony eight shows a week. They can make you feel the point of a bayonet, hear the echoes of bombardment, and sing for huddled comfort: “Take me over the sea, where the alleyman can’t get at me..” Without them, we could scarcely imagine the bewildering exhaustion of the trenches: minds shattered by attack and deafened by constant din; uniforms sodden and boots squelching in the mud. Our boys stumbled over mounds of rotting flesh and shivered through agonising nights with lice, pneumonia and blood poisoning. If they were really unlucky, a green bank of poisoned fog would suffocate them, very slowly. Every offensive to neutralise the Boche seemed like a dazed push to certain suicide. But they did their duty.

R.C Sherriff was a soldier: he fought on the front line and was awarded the Military Cross. His play is a tender recollection about trench camaraderie and heroism. The nervy alcoholic Captain Stanhope is a sympathetic commander; Lieutenant Osborne is the company uncle; and 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh – just 18 years old – the fragile, bewildered lamb to the slaughter. Joan Littlewood reputedly loathed the play: her view was that the Great War – “The War to end all Wars” – had been a futile effort constructed on lies, and a tragic sacrifice of the nation’s youth. Her theatrical mission was moral and didactic – to interrogate the causes, analyse objectives and expose the deceit.

But the belief that the First World War was a futile struggle in which brave and patriotic lions were led by privileged donkeys is not the sole preserve of left, as Michael Gove appears to think. It must be observed that one of Joan Littlewood’s principal sources for Oh, What a Lovely War! was Alan Clark’s 1961 book “The Donkeys”, which was deeply critical of those who sat in the comfort of Allied HQ casually dispatching entire battalions to their deaths. “All this confusion and loss of life is directly attributable to French’s insistence on ‘vigorously checking’, i.e. maintaining close and aggressive contact with, the enemy,” he wrote. And you can’t really get much more right-wing and nationalist than Alan Clark.

Interestingly, Littlewood didn’t originally acknowledge her debt to Clark’s scholarship: he had to battle through the courts for due recognition (and royalties). One wonders if her left-pacifist worldview was somehow offended by the possibility that she might have anything in common with a right-wing military historian. I might also mention that Winston Churchill himself was highly critical of Haig’s arrogance and inflexibility: history can’t be reduced to a convenient left-right spat.

And nor should we forget that many of those so-called donkeys themselves made the ultimate sacrifice for King, country and continent. Clark tells us that they were “convinced, naturally, of their own indispensability”, but he also reminds us that some talked “hard-headed sense” over the scale of losses, and that many exposed themselves to front-line dangers: “Brigadier-General Lowry-Cole was himself killed while standing on the parapet and attempting to rally the men.” Littlewood preferred to edit out these inconveniences, but that’s what we all do with the bits we don’t like.

And I note the vocal objections to Lord Kitchener’s appearance on the commemorative £2 coins as “shameful” and “jingoistic”. It is easy to forget that he was killed in action in 1916, along with 77 of his fellow generals and a colossal 41,000 of lower-ranking officers between 4th August 1914 and 11th November 1918. You may think Tommy was a hero and the Brass Hats were all imbeciles, but such historic distortion and military caricature would hardly explain our victory over the Kaiser.

Both politicians and actors like applause and approbation, but only actors are really liked. They strut and fret to recreate reality while the scurvy politicians seem to see the things they do not. When either attempts to appropriate a past apocalypse for present political purposes, I find myself back at school, reverting to boyhood, and asking Gramps why his eyes are all red and his lavender-scented hanky a little moist. And then I understand.

Gramps did his duty. He believed in right and wrong. His silent, suffering face is embedded in my memory – an imprint etched without words. His experience was one of unimaginable horror. Some think he fought in vain. But I’ve still got his medals.


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