Learning Curve, The Great War
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Transcript: Source4
Extract from 'English History 1914-1945' by the historian, AJP Taylor, published in 1965
(Page 61-2, by permission of Oxford University Press)

Source 4a

Kitchener's army found its graveyard on the Somme. Not only men perished. There perished also the zest and idealism with which nearly three million Englishmen had marched forth to war. C.E. Montague, a writer on the Manchester Guardian who dyed his grey hair in order to volunteer, has recorded this process of Disenchantment. The change was shown also in the war poets. The early poets, Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, wrote with a lyrical innocence which they had carried over from peacetime. After the Somme came a new school, poets who saw in war only horror and suffering, tempered by the comradeship of the trenches. Edmund Blunden expressed this spirit sensitively, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves more savagely. Most of them remained war poets, not - as later readers inclined to regard them - anti-war poets. Sassoon, indeed, turned against the war altogether, after winning the Military Cross, and claimed to be a conscientious objector. The others still wanted to destroy 'Prussia', though they saw this 'Prussia' in their own commanders as well as on the other side. In any case, these poets spoke only for a minority. All except Isaac Rosenberg were officers - and Rosenberg was by no means a representative 'other rank'. Even Wilfred Owen, incomparably the greatest poet of either war, saw his 'men' from outside.

Source 4b

With astonishing virtuosity, the British army grew from 200,000 to five million and kept its antiquated class-structure inviolate. The colonels and adjutants, though incompetent for modern war, knew how to preserve social standards and turned the young officers into temporary gentlemen, who wore riding boots and passed the port in mess.

The 'Tommies' have left few memorials. One or two, such as Frank Richards and David Jones, became writers and published reminiscences many years later. Otherwise the Tommies speak in the songs which they composed on the march or to beguile the tedium of the trenches - songs which survive mainly in oral tradition. The tunes were usually adapted from contemporary music-hall 'hits'. The words were self-depreciatory and often obscene. No other army has ever gone to war, proclaiming its own incompetence and reluctance to fight, and no army has fought better. The humble Englishman found his voice, and these songs preserve him for posterity.

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