Culture Shock: Please, no more heroes. Let’s not turn the obscenities of Gallipoli and the Great War into glory
What’s heroic about being mown down as you wade towards a beach before you’ve even had the chance to fire a shot? What could ever be heroic about the racist folly of that Dardanelles campaign anyway?
Slaughter: a British heavy field gun on a cliff top at Helles Bay, Gallipoli, in 1915, laid over a new photograph of the location, on the Aegean Sea. Photographs: Ernest Brooks/Getty and Sean Gallup/Getty
Could we perhaps declare a cultural moratorium for the rest of the decade of centenaries? A moratorium, that is, on the use of a word and its variations: hero, heroes, heroic.
There it was this week again, disfiguring David Davin-Power’s otherwise fine RTÉ documentary on the slaughter at Gallipoli: Ireland’s Forgotten Heroes. It is a word with no real place in the novels, memoirs and plays through which Irish artists remembered or engaged with the Great War. That is an absence we should insist on maintaining.
Much of the discussion of Irish participation in the war in recent years has assumed that the worst response to a historical trauma is amnesia. The word “forgotten” is almost as loaded as the word “heroes”. Amnesia is indeed a bad thing, but there is something far worse: the distortion of obscenity into glory. There can be an honour in moving on and letting the dead bury their dead. There is no honour in shaping those deaths into a big lie. Irish artists have a noble tradition of resistance to that lie.
The momentous changes in Ireland after 1916 may have made it all too convenient for the Irish nationalist mainstream to forget those who suffered and died in the far greater global conflict. But at least they spared us the rhetoric of glory. The myth of blood sacrifice was transferred to Easter 1916 from the Somme and Gallipoli; in the words of The Foggy Dew, “ ’Twas better to die ’neath an Irish sky / Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar.” The notion that the first World War was heroic gained little purchase.
But this was not just a political convenience: it was how most Irish artists responded to the war. It’s hard to find much in the way of heroic rhetoric from those writers who fought in the war. How could there be? Gallipoli itself is a stark case in point: what’s heroic about being mown down as you wade towards a beach before you’ve even had the chance to fire a shot? What could ever be heroic about the racist folly of that Dardanelles campaign anyway, based as it was on the belief that “Johnny Turk”, being a lesser breed, would never stand up to real Europeans?
What so often strikes Irish writers at the front is precisely the mocking absence of military glory. Liam O’Flaherty, in his 1929 novel Return of the Brute, is typical: “There was no excitement, no haste, no grandeur, no drums, no banners, no gleaming weapons, no plumes, no terrifying devices, no shouting of war-maddened warriors; just little crowds of dirty, stooping men, with ugly steel hats, gas masks, bags of bombs.” Even the most romantically inclined of Irish writers, CS Lewis, who would return to chivalric warfare in Narnia, was struck, when he was on the Western Front, by the absence of all the mythological paraphernalia he had in his head: “Where are the magic swords / That elves of long ago / Smithied beneath the snow / For heroes’ rich rewards?” (Exercise, 1917).
To be properly called heroic, deaths and injuries in the Great War would have to fulfil two criteria. One is that the soldier joined up for an altruistic purpose, to protect little Belgium, say, or to win Home Rule. But there is very little of this in Irish literature about the war. First-hand writing very seldom talks about joining up for patriotic or ideological reasons. Later versions tend to show the motivations as economic need (Strumpet City) or male pride: Harry Heegan, in Seán O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, “has gone to the trenches as unthinkingly as he would go to the polling booth”. Even in Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, where the soldiers do have a sense of collective political purpose (to keep Ulster out of Home Rule), Piper, the central character, has much more personal motivations. “Patriotism, in the trenches,” writes Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That, “was too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners.”
The other criterion for the heroic is that death or injury is personal and meaningful. But this is exactly what is not available in the industrial slaughter of the war. The typical experience of the major Irish writers who died or were injured is not heroic hand-to-hand combat. It is being hit by a shell fired from miles away. That’s what killed the poet Francis Ledwidge. It’s what wounded and shocked Lewis, Graves and O’Flaherty. Friends standing next to them were killed by the same shells. O’Flaherty wrote that “You have to go through life with that shell bursting in your head”, and what kept bursting was not just the physical damage but also the psychological trauma inflicted by the sheer randomness of death or survival.
These insights are hard won. Paul Fussell writes in his classic The Great War and Modern Memory that July 1st, 1916, the catastrophic first day of the Battle of the Somme, is “one of the most interesting in the whole history of human disillusion”. O’Flaherty wrote that the horror of the war was for him and his generation a “wonderful lesson in the defects of the European system of civilisation”. In the proper desire to remember the dead we must not return to the language of heroism that millions died to destroy.