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Observation post

09 November 2018

THE perspective of time is useful when assessing historical events, but its benefits can be overstated. Sometimes chronological distance produces the same effect as geographical distance, simply making things harder to see. In addition, it is now acknowledged that there is no such thing as a neutral perspective: the eyes that see objects distant in time look through the spectacles of the present age.

These reflections are prompted by our collection this week of the near-contemporaneous assessments of the Great War which appeared in the Church Times at the end of each year during the conflict. It is instructive to read the defence — published four days after the Armistice — of the “stiff” terms imposed upon Germany: “An army which pollutes or poisons wells must, when beaten, be rendered impotent to repeat such deeds of foulness.” This sense of justice carried out and peace secured understandably evaporated over the years, and vanished completely on the outbreak of the Second World War. “Twenty years,” Vera Brittain wrote after listening to Neville Chamberlain on the wireless on 3 September 1939, “for twenty years my friends and I, who learned from the suffering and disillusion of those four lifelong years that only the Kingdom of Heaven within us has the power to overcome the brute forces of evil, have . . . worked for peace and the triumph of human sanity. . . How was it we achieved so little?” (England’s Hour, 1941). As the horrors of war were repeated, this time on British soil, the earlier sacrifice continued to be honoured but was thought to have been betrayed by the statesmen who had failed to secure a lasting peace.

Twenty years further on, in 1959, Charles Chilton was writing A Long, Long Trail, broadcast in 1960. Its sardonic combination of reportage and First World War songs was to be adapted by Joan Littlewood in 1963 as Oh What a Lovely War. Under its influence, attitudes shifted yet again. Blame for the casualties was laid, by and large, on the British generals; the casualties themselves were presented as victims of a class war. The Vietnam War reinforced the impression that war was futile, the outworking of flawed policies upheld by egotistical politicians. Remembrance services began to attract smaller numbers.

Almost 60 years later, a succession of fictionalised accounts — together with the renewed popularity of contemporary works, such as the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Wilfred Owen, or Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth — have personalised the Great War. Cinema has made the conflict more vivid than ever before. Modern eyes are as susceptible to conceptual astigmatisms as in the past, however. Spectacles can be 3D these days, but they are used to view entertainment. As long as the images present trench warfare as it really was, there is little danger that warfare will be glamorised. The sacrifices of First World War combatants can be seen as noble once again without encouraging emulation. The problem is that peace-making and peace-keeping are hard to depict. How, then, does one portray the value of international co-operation and the eschewing of violence to the Instagram and Call of Duty generation?

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