The Long Shadow

You spotted the book on my table at Diggers?


I have been reading it slowly for a few weeks now. That day I read David Reynolds’s account of the war poets, and it is just brilliant. See also The Guardian.

Here at last among the plethora of predictable books on the anniversary of the great war is an intelligent and critical assessment of what the war has come to mean for Britain over the century that separates us from its outbreak. David Reynolds invites us to consider how and why interpretations of the war have changed through time, and to take stock of the current version of the great war that will sweep across the country in the anniversary year.

The book has two main propositions. First, that the impact of the great war in the 20 years that separated it from what became the second world war was much less in Britain than in other parts of Europe; the shadow of the war was kept at bay by the many positive aspects of Britain’s post-1918 history. Second, that the image of the great war was altered by what he calls the “refractions” created by the fact of a second global conflict, the cold war and the later post-communist Europe. During this second phase, he argues, the great war assumed its iconic status as a world of gloomy trenches, antiwar poets and wasted lives, and has, on the whole, stayed that way up to the present. He fears that the commemorations next year will be filled with more Sassoon and Owen, and melancholy evocations of life on the western front.

This is a challenging thesis, presented with a masterly array of sources across a busy century, at once thought-provoking and thoroughly informed; the prose is fluent and zestful, and the arguments are constructed with a fine level of critical observation. Reynolds’s object is to highlight the British engagement with the war, while at the same time exploring what was different in the reception in Europe and the US. At times this approach makes the arguments less focused than they might be, and it forces him to put in a good deal of less relevant historical narrative simply to keep his readers abreast of what is happening in the wider world. The purpose is to highlight what he sees as unique or particular about the changing relationship with the great war in British public history.

Of the two propositions, the first is less convincing than the second…

And Professor Jay Winter, review of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, (review no. 1628) DOI: 10.14296/RiH/2014/1628 Date accessed: 10 April, 2015.

This book achieves two aims: to locate the Great War in the history of the 20th century, and to show how, as the 20th century unfolded, our understanding of the meaning and significance of the Great War changed as well. In effect, Reynolds argues that it was the contrast with the Second World War which made the First World War appear to be a futile bloodbath, which is not as it appeared to millions of men and women in Britain and France who believed the war had to be fought and that it had to be fought to the bitter end, which indeed they did. This is what Reynolds means when he says that, as moving as Wilfred Owen’s poetry is, we cannot distill history into poetry. I will have more to say about this below, but it is undoubtedly true that we cannot take the war poets as representative of the attitudes of contemporaries about whether the war had to be fought. The intriguing question is why over the course of the 20th century the war poets’ view, if there was one, has come to dominate later understandings of the 1914–18 conflict in Britain, and to a certain degree in France?…

The Long Shadow is a must read. There is a television series also.

Speaking of television, SBS1 these days offers some excellent fare at 7.30 pm. Last night concluded Royal Cousins at War.


Which one is the Tsar? Which one King of England?

As The Oz says:

First, there’s the final episode of Royal Cousins at War, a terrific two-part documentary series that looks at the descent into World War I via Europe’s inter-related royal families. Last week’s episode told the story of Danish princesses Alexandra and Dagmar, who married the heirs to the British and Russian thrones and were the mothers to King George V and Tsar Nicholas II respectively. The invasion of Denmark by Prussia in 1864 turned the sisters fiercely anti-Prussian, which is said to have influenced the anti-German alliance that formed before World War I.

Much of the evidence presented is from letters between the monarchs, film and audio from the era, and photography including the copious Romanov family albums.

Most of the commentary comes from English scholars, or Russian and German ones working at British universities, so the accounts seem a bit one-sided. This needs to be considered in light of the frequent presentation of kaiser and tsar as clowns. (Kaiser Wilhelm is described as “like an adolescent, whirling around, and having trouble seeing potential consequences of his actions”.)

But the greatest offering is Tony Robinson’s World War 1 tonight.


Both documentaries show by contrast what a dog of a series the deservedly unwatched The Story of Us on Channel 7 has been!


2 thoughts on “The Long Shadow

  1. Neil, I was going to comment the other day on your ‘plate photo’ but contented myself with a little private research instead.

    It seems to me from that picture that your knife is in grave (gravey?) danger of becoming coated with the sauce – handlewise – and this would mean you would have to lick it off before attempting a solid grip? And the fork, too, appears well placed to gather condensation from those vegetables?

    Anyways, that lead me to wonder about just why and when it became fashion for the knife to be on the right, and the fork on the left, and if there were any political implications, connotations attaching thereto. I have not resolved these issues to date, but have stumbled upon many interesting and quite detailed authorities as to the wheres, whys, and hows of present good cutlery practices. I think a good summary can be found (except for one unresolved issue) in this: which even allows for regional variation, and food variety.

    But above all else, I am still unfortunately searching for the correct positioning of the ashtray. Any thoughts?

    ps: Tsar is on the left.

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