When we started up a Facebook group for the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, I knew that sooner or later a vicious argument would break out about some aspect or other of Sassoon’s life and work. It’s happened on pretty much every other Facebook group I know of, from “I Love Strictly Come Dancing” to “Port Talbot Old and New”, subjects one might have thought it was impossible to argue about. So it was almost bound to happen on a page relating to a soldier-poet of the First World War, and the only surprising thing is that it took so long.
This week’s heated discussion, however, was not really about Sassoon at all. It stemmed from my assumption that others in the group would share my indignation about the way the war poets – specifically Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – were singled out for criticism by Professor David Reynolds, one of eleven historians who contributed to an article in August’s BBC History magazine on the subject “Great Misconceptions of the First World War”. It is a badly misconceived article in general, since many of the “misconceptions” used to give the contributors the opportunity to be controversial are not actually believed by most people.
How many, for example, actually think that “Machine guns were the deadliest weapons on the western front”? Surely the leading contenders for the title would be the tank, the flame-thrower, aerial bombardment and artillery? The machine gun is touted only because it gives David Olusoga an opportunity to talk for a few paragraphs about developments in firearms technology. And how many people believe that “German defeat in the war was always an inevitability”? Everyone I know is fully aware that Germany came very close to winning the war – both world wars, in fact. Once again, it is an excuse for a historian, this time David Stevenson, to give a brief summary of the economic and political situation in western Europe. Look more closely at the content of the contributions and you see that several of them admit that the "great misconceptions" about which they are writing are actually minority views put forward, relatively recently, by other historians.
I don’t know if the historians who contributed to the article were paid for doing so. If they were, it was money for old rope, since all they had to do was trot out enough well-worn “facts” to fill a column or two, while being as controversial as they could manage. Even Max Hastings manages to make his little piece on whether "the First World War was the most unpleasant war to fight" more interesting by throwing in a snide little mention of the war poets, whom he blames for peddling a misconception that isn’t really a misconception at all – or even a conception. I simply don't believe that they were the first soldiers ever to be brought unawares to a battlefield and be shocked at what they saw; the difference between them and the volunteers and conscripts of earlier wars is that the general level of literacy had increased to the extent that a majority were capable of expressing themselves in writing.
Worst of all, however, and by quite a long way, is Professor Reynolds’ contribution. How someone who has obviously read very little war poetry can be deemed qualified to dispel the “misconception” that “The 'soldier-poets' are the supreme interpreters of the First World War” is beyond me, and it is not surprising that he does the job so badly. It’s not easy, I know, in 300 words, to summarise the significance of the war poets, but he would have done much better to concentrate on saying why he thinks their interpretation of the war is not supreme, rather than throwing in red herrings like the fact that there were lots of other writers around at the time (yes, we know that) and the suggestion that Owen and Sassoon were not representative because they were "young, unmarried officers... with complexes about their sexuality and courage" [my italics]. Apparently this last statement alone is enough to disqualify them from being taken seriously as interpreters of the war. Far better to allow someone like Professor Reynolds himself, a middle-aged academic (presumably with no doubts about his own masculinity), who wasn’t born for another thirty-odd years after the war finished, to interpret it for us.
His views are, however, supported by several members of the SSF Facebook group. (I should add that around 50% of the group are not actually members of the Fellowship, but we have never been elitist and we actively encourage friendly debate.) Whether the “misconception” is actually widely believed I am not sure. Whether it is, in fact, a misconception or the truth is another question, one that Professor Reynolds fails to address. The words of the heading are so obscure that it is difficult to come to a decision on that one - what does "supreme interpreters" mean? Does it mean the group of writers who explain the war most clearly and most accurately? Or could it mean the writers who are the most successful in bringing the realities of war to the attention of today's reader?
Speaking for myself, I see no reason why the fact that poets write in verse should mean that their interpretation of events is less “true” than anyone else’s, particularly when you bear in mind the enormous range of topics and viewpoints covered in Sassoon’s war poetry alone, not to mention the varied output of the rest of the soldier-poets, people as diverse as Julian Grenfell and Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Richard Aldington. The problem with giving a historian the job of making a qualitative assessment of their work is that he is not impartial, any more than a poetry-lover would be. Naturally a historian thinks that he is better equipped to interpret a war that happened a century ago than the effeminate upper-class wimps who actually participated in it. What the historian cannot change is the fact that it is the work of these poets that has captured the public imagination and explained the First World War more effectively to the general public than any 500-page history book could ever do.