A Mystery of World War I

Number 5 in Timms Times — a blogger’s view from 2014

Working in a team to devise a play about World War I, I’m fascinated by the way men of Britain, and the Empire that existed then, were so keen to join up and fight at the start of the war. They had many reasons for doing so — naive enthusiasm, lust for adventure, peer pressure, proving their manhood, patriotism, or a sense of duty. Few of those would appeal nowadays, when a cult of celebrity and fame seems to push men into adventure. Celebrity attracts through the immediacy of television, radio, and Internet, none of which were available at the time of World War I. At that time, celebrity leadership in the call to arms came from preachers, teachers, politicians, scout leaders or parents.

The fervour for war among the public in 1914 contrasted starkly with the divided opinions and tear-soaked faces of Herbert Asquith and his ministers, as they struggled in private to decide what to do in response to Germany’s invasion of Belgium.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon, after several acts of bravery in the Western Front, became a leading anti-war poet from 1917. But he had been sucked in by patriotism to enlist in 1914, when he wrote:

‘War has made us wise, and, fighting for our freedom, we are free.’

Sassoon’s, and many other human-interest stories of the war, are in Great Britain’s Great War, a book by Jeremy Paxman published by Penguin last year. A good read, and a wonderfully clear window on the war.

Footnote: A poem of mine, sparked by reading about white feathers presented to non-enlisters in World War I, is White Magic.

February 6, 2014

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