Thursday, 21 March 2013

Not About Me

In a way, I'm pleased that there weren't any comments on my last post.  At least it means people weren't annoyed, aggravated or outraged by it.  It could alternatively mean that no one read it, but some people told me they did, which was a relief.

So I'll use this post to talk about something that annoyed me instead.  Yesterday's post brought with it my copy of the Spring 2013 edition of The Author, a worthy journal that often contains thought-provoking articles.  My eye was quickly caught by an article entitled "Scribbling Soldiers" by one Andrew Uffindell.  Mr Uffindell is the author of five books about the Napoleonic era, and evidently knows what he's talking about when it comes to discussing military memoirs of the period.  I'm not so sure that his knowledge of First World War literature is equally great.

One of the best eyewitness accounts of the Napoleonic wars, apparently, is Alexander Cavalié Mercer's Journal of the Waterloo Campaign.  Not having read it, I am not entirely sure why this volume is regarded with such admiration, and the article does not really tell me the answer.  It is more interesting, it seems, mainly because it is written by an officer from an unfashionable regiment, the Royal Artillery, and was written for his own amusement rather than with any thought of publication.  First World War writers, on the other hand (according to Mr Uffindell), wrote their memoirs ten or twenty years after the events they describe, and were able to get them published because disillusionment had become flavour of the month as a result of a film being made of All Quiet on the Western Front.  Owen and Sassoon, he suggests, are famous but unrepresentative.  I found this a curious conclusion to draw, and quite unsupported by the few facts he quotes.

Also, according to the article, Charles Carrington, author of A Subaltern's War, failed to make such a great impact simply because his memoirs were not as negative as those of other veterans.  "Most memoirists," we are told, "actually had mixed feelings about the war".  This statement does make one wonder whether the author has ever read Sassoon's memoirs or Owen's letters, the latter written in the thick of events and the former based largely on Sassoon's own trench diaries. 

I don't really have any quarrel with Andrew Uffindell's statement that military memoirs are difficult to evaluate.  Some criteria he suggests include "accuracy" (an elusive quality if ever there was one), "readability", which I tend to think is generally dependent on the level of literacy of the individual doing the reading, and "realism", an even more nebulous characteristic.  He has also done me the great favour of suggesting some further reading on the subject: Témoins ("Witnesses") by Jean Norton Cru, published in 1929, a study of personal reminiscences of the Great War by French soldiers which brings out the enormous variations in the truth as perceived by individuals who saw the same events from different points of view. 

This is hardly likely to shock anyone familiar with war literature.  Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, at one time the best of friends, fell out over the publication of Goodbye to All That, by coincidence also in 1929, which Sassoon felt misrepresented events and people, yet towards the end of his life he was not only ready to forgive Graves but to take back most of his criticisms.  What else  would one expect from soldiers in different regiments, from different backgrounds, fighting in different theatres of war using different weapons?  There will be similarities in opinion, and there will be differences.  Sassoon never talked about lions led by donkeys, but from time to time he expressed his frustration at the frequent mismanagement of resources by those in charge - much as all of us do in our day-to-day existence.  The difference, for a soldier at the Western Front, was that it was a matter of life and death, just as it is for today's military forces in Afghanistan.

I shouldn't go on.  The article presumably was written for a readership that is either relatively unfamiliar with the military memoir as a genre or has not seen below the surface.  Unlike my readers.  It would, however, be nice to know what you think...

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