“All the great armies of modern history have passed this way and through this mud.”

poppylogoIn the Wall Street Journal article I mentioned Monday (found!), “Publishing’s Battle to Win the Great War” even a Real Historian laments. “‘The American public has very little understanding or knowledge of WWI,’ says historian David McCullough, the author of ‘John Adams’ and ‘1776.’ ‘When I talk at colleges and universities, many of them have no idea when it happened, and know nothing about it, and seem to have very little interest in it.'”

Findley Timothy WarsAnd who am I to argue? I’m sure he is right. I’m 30 now, so get off my lawn, you kids, and listen: “David Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge University, says World War I lays the groundwork for America’s later role as a superpower. …Mr. Reynolds calls WWI ‘the forgotten conflict of America’s war-torn 20th century. Forgotten yet also essential.'” The war “‘helped “define the country’s self-image across the whole twentieth century.'”

But wait, who cares about all that anyway? Sure, the article may be about the US publishing industry, but this blog isn’t. Complaints about how difficult it is to slap an evocative cover on a book about a war that killed millions of people and basically created modernity slash set the stage for the other war, the one you are somehow able to evoke with magical effectiveness, do not impress me all that much.

And why do I care about a centenary anyway? Well, because it led to that daft article (and a whole raft of others I’ve read since then), and I like reading books about the Great War, and I think it’s a shame—just a sad state of affairs—that a woman who wrote a book about the war could say, “‘Quite often it is simplified to the horror of the trenches and going over the top and being blown to bits. …And really, who wants to talk about that?'”

Now I am enough of an appreciationist not just to care about trenches, but even about mud—what could be more boring?—a central feature of much Great War writing. I’m hoping to cover it as a whole topic in itself, but look at this wonderful passage from Timothy Findley’s The Wars (speaking of crying shames, this book’s being out of print in the US is certainly one):

The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. The ground is the colour of steele. Over most of the plain there isn’t a trace of topsoil: only sand and clay. The Belgians call them ‘clyttes,’ these fields, and the further you go towards the sea, the worse the clyttes become. In them, the water is reached by the plough at an average depth of eighteen inches. When it rains (which is almost constantly from early September through to March, except when it snows) the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you ‘waded to the front.’ Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.

Houses, trees and fields of flax once flourished here. Summers had been blue with flowers. Now it was a shallow sea of stinking clay from end to end. And this is where you fought the war.

It just depresses me, the lack of—what, creativity, imagination?—that finds this boring, that finds no evil here. It makes me wonder whether the real lesson of the centenary isn’t just the one that Lady Juliet D’Orsey deplores later in The Wars:

And what I hate these days is the people who weren’t there and they look back and say we became inured. Your heart froze over—yes. But to say we got used to it! God—that makes me so angry! No.

But I don’t think Lady Juliet has the problem of some contemporary authors. “These were not accidents,” she tells her interviewer. “These were murders. By the thousands. All your friends were…murdered.”

3 comments to “All the great armies of modern history have passed this way and through this mud.”

  • I had never heard of Findley, or his novel, which sounds great. It sure has a detailed Wiki page.

    The current cohort of college students is notorious for having no knowledge of history at all, or the slightest interest in it, so that is my one little argument against McCullough, that ignorance is not unique to WWI. Maybe this is not true, although I have heard some stories that curled my toes. (E.g., “I asked ’em what they knew about the U.S. Civil War, and after a pause one student said ‘Harriet Truman’ and another said ‘Betsy Ross'”).

  • Rohan

    I’m not really a very loyal Canadian, in literary terms, but there are a few Canadian novels I really cherish, and The Wars is one of them. I’ve assigned it a few times in my first-year classes. I worry sometimes that it “teaches” so well because it’s a bit too pat, but it still never fails to traumatize and move me – Robert’s struggle to hold on to just a bit of humanity among the mud and the insanity — and I do think it is also quite an artful novel. Though we “do” WWI here perhaps more than other places (poppies and so forth) I do always feel the need to give quite a detailed historical introduction — but I do the same for most books that depend on some awareness of history (meaning, most books I teach!).

  • AR—I am the last person to be able to say how much or little history any “normal” person knows, but I think there are legitimate reasons USians don’t have the same feeling for the first war that’s more prevalent in the Commonwealth—I think most would be surprised to find more Britons died in WWI than WWII, as it’s certainly not the case for “us.” And “we” just weren’t involved all that long.

    But! The important thing here is that now you’ve heard of The Wars! And now I’ve actually written a bit more about it too.

    Rohan—Aww, you are a faithful Canadian, then! I’d been meaning to read The Wars for years, on the recommendation of my boyfriend, who read it the year he attended a Canadian boarding school. It’s somehow like the ultimate CanLit. Anyway, you’re right that it’s a bit pat, something that semi-surprised me, but I did approach it all along knowing it was popularly taught in secondary schools, so yeah. And I too was impressed that it still traumatized and moved—definitely, definitely!—even in spite of certain things being rather explicit.