Young, fit and doomed: the lost generation of the first World War

War writing is often jingoistic, featuring our heroes and their villains, but this collection of fiction avoids glorifying war as a noble calling

Lost to war: part of Gassed, painted in 1919 by John Singer Sargent. Photograph: Imperial War Museum via Getty

Lost to war: part of Gassed, painted in 1919 by John Singer Sargent. Photograph: Imperial War Museum via Getty

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
No man’s land. Writings from a world at war


Pete Ayrton

Serpent’s Tail

Guideline Price:

War writing is like no other genre. It is bloodier than adventure literature and noisier than espionage literature. There is no space for the cloud of doubt of the whodunnit or for the calm of the writer who knows the answer but won’t let us in on the secret. War writing has relatively little space for women or children, and it almost always skirts gently around the issue of the nature of the love men in uniform have for each other.

Many others had written about war before 1914, but thereafter a new kind of writing emerged. The Great War turned war literature red; gone were the days of individual heroism and derring-do. Gunga Din dying on the roof of the barracks warning the sahibs that they were about to be attacked became a thing of the past. Instead a river of what Edmund Wilson termed “patriotic gore” burst through the banks of both wartime and peacetime publishing, creating a completely imaginary war suitable for those who wanted the real world to disappear completely.

To tell of the revolution in warfare that took place between 1914 and 1918 required a different kind of prose, remote from both tales of the Raj and the absurd stories cranked out by the propaganda mills of all the combatant countries. To clean language from the stench of the lies and fantasies of the wilfully blind was a difficult task. It took courage and time to break through the shibboleths of the day. But slowly writers emerged in every part of the world to tell a different kind of war story. The best of them are found in this volume.

What do they have in common? Many frame their story as a passage from innocence to experience, from illusion to the sad but wise nodding of the head, accompanying a phrase or a line of verse to the effect that, yes, that is what it was like. These writers told a very personal story, and not surprisingly they were highly proprietary, indicating that most readers were in no position to judge the veracity of the tale, as only soldiers knew what war was “really like”.

Others added that the women who cared for them in casualty clearing stations and hospitals, who tended their mutilated bodies, knew a thing or two about what war was “really like”. These nurses were party to the soldiers’ tale too. But not the rest of us. We were not initiated into their bloody mysteries.

War without glory
These writings were and are that initiation. Here we see everything that made the war unique: the scale of combat that beggared the imagination, the geographical spread of mobilisation that brought the whole world into trenches, or mountains, or ships, or ports or great cities.

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