Interpreting The Great War

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

In the course of telling “Private Peaceful” I ran question and answer sessions in order to contextualise the story, the presentation and The Great War.  Questions ranged from “How do you remember all the words?” to “Why do the innocent always have to die?”.  In Lambeth a teacher asked a very interesting and current question which went along these lines: many modern authors take the standpoint that The Great War is wrong and therefore is it appropriate to approach the conflict with this literature?  The session was some weeks ago but I have been pondering my answer ever since.

As Britain prepares to commemorate the beginning of The Great War, how it is interpreted has become a controversial subject.  Historians and politicians have attacked books, film, television and stage productions for painting The Great War as simply a tragic waste of life and reinforcing the idea of lions (the regular soldier) lead by donkeys (the officer classes).  My favourite subject at school was History and this year, as well as Private Peaceful, I am currently working with Hackney Museum to present a series of workshops considering Hackney’s part in The Great War, so I thought I might use my blog to reflect upon the debate.

In 1914 Britain goes to war and thousands of men volunteer to join the fight.  These men volunteer because they believe they are doing their patriotic duty by defending William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” (Jerusalem) from a very real threat of invasion.  Men from across the country rally “For God, Harry, England and St George!” (Shakespeare, Henry V) convinced it will all be over by Christmas.  Of the six million who go to fight 700,000 will be killed.

Of the men who went to fight the likes of Wilfred Owen reflect more bleakly on this patriotic fervour:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.” (Wilfred Owen)

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

Compare this stark description with the poetry of Rupert Brooke concerning the duty and sacrifice of the English and you quickly see why the Government of the time preferred his take on events:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.” (Rupert Brooke)

In the years after the war, many soldiers offered up their artistic thoughts on the conflict(notably, Journey’s End and All Quiet on the Western Front).  Whilst these are artistic interpretations of events this generation wrote from personal experience.

The recent controversies seem to surround works like Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder.  Those involved in their production had little or nothing to do with The Great War and yet offer their audience an opinion on the worth of the conflict.  Michael Morpurgo writes about The Great War, describing the conditions in the trenches with a palatable harshness which draws in a younger audience and yet he and others are attacked by politicians and historians for insome way, distorting the events.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

Surely though, this is the role of art.  Surely, art should challenge our ideas and make us re evaluate our world.  Oh!  What a Lovely War juxtaposes songs from the period with striking statistics about The Great War to stunning effect whilst the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth is in my opinion some of the most poignant television I have ever watched.

As a nation we don’t know that much about The Great War.  By this I mean that many of us went through our whole school careers without learning about it at all.  I only began to study it when I took History as a GCSE subject when I was in Year Ten.  You might perhaps argue that for many, it has been left to artists to fill in the gaps.

There are some excellent public chronicles of The Great War but very few people have ever made a mainstream (book, television, stage, film), artistic defence of First World War leaders and their actions besides pointing out their errors and lampooning them.  Perhaps I’m wrong but it would seem that the leaders themselves remained almost silent on the matter (or perhaps their point of view has been drowned out).

It is right that we address how much is known about The Great War and there are risks of confusing art with fact.  I believe that modern interpretations of how The Great War was fought and its consequences do have a place within the classroom if only to demonstrate how our thinking has changed over the last century.  Rather than criticising their use maybe the debate now needs to be shifted to how these interpretations are counter balanced so that the alternate view, that war in 1914 was just and right, registers with modern students and the wider public.