In the WW1 centenary edition of Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ novel of the First World War, the introduction talks about the absence of literary and cinematic references to the plight of the rank-and-file WW1 soldier. The author’s argument is that, with some notable exceptions such as R. C. Sheriff’s Journeys End, the Second World War came too soon to allow novelists, playwrights and cinematographers enough time and distance to consider the conflict fully. The cultural memory of the First World War was overwritten by the plethora of material that dramatised the 1939-1945 war. To gain a sense of what the war was like for the men on the front line, Faulkes turned his attention to the few surviving veterans and to first-hand accounts and records. This research formed the background to his novel. “In the gloomy reading room of the Imperial War Museum,” writes Faulkes, “you could order collections from a card index; and the diaries, letters, tickets, postcards, telegrams and so forth that tumbled onto the desk gave an instant connection to the past. This was the raw material, authentic, mud stained and unshaped by any extraneous demand. It was intensely thrilling to handle.”
Documenting the past
This year’s centenary commemorations are now underway and we have already witnessed moving events to mark the outbreak of the war, with more to come (please see http://www.greatwar.co.uk/events/2014-2018-ww1-centenary-events.htm for more detail). The time is ripe to reconsider the period: archivists have worked hard to make material available to honour the memory of those who served their countries, historians have poured over the evidence to give us their interpretation and insight, many excellent documentaries have enriched our knowledge of the causes and context of the conflict. The media have enhanced our understanding of the terrible conditions that combatants and ancillary personnel had to face on the Western Front and have helped us to “hear” the voices of the fallen and experience the anguish of separation and bereavement felt by their loved ones.
The poignancy of the last good bye is expressed heartbreakingly by Helen Thomas, the wife of Anglo-Welsh poet and essayist Edward Thomas in “World Without End” (first published by William Heinemann Ltd, 1931). She watches Edward disappear in the mist as he climbs the hill outside their house to begin his journey to the front. She knew that this would likely be their final farewell. Husband and wife call to one another until Helen strains to hear Edward’s last signature call “Coo-ee!”:
“So faint now it might only be my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death. Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.”
Edward was killed at the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday, 1917. A longer extract of World Without End is printed here in the Independent as part of its series A History of First World War in 100 Moments.
The record of a literate army
The written record of the war was created by men and women from all walks of life. The voices of the First World War do not just belong to the officer class. This was a conflict in which the majority of those heading for the front had received an education that equipped them to read and write. This literate army created the rich written record of life at the front, including those documents that Faulks could draw upon to prepare his novel. I fully understand his thrill at the contact with the Imperial War Museum’s archive. We help Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) to preserve its valuable archive of World War One war wills and worked closely with them to bring the wills online ahead of the centenary. It has been a moving and humbling privilege to read the last words of some of our WW1 fallen.
Historical resources brought to light
In the 11 years since Birdsong was first published, technology has enabled individuals as well as organisations to bring much of the written and photographic record of the First World War online. Not only does this facilitate the work of historians and genealogists it also provides people with the opportunity to undertake research into the First World War from the comfort of their own homes. I would recommend the following as good places to start your research:
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service’s collection of WW1 war wills
A wonderful online resource from the UK’s National Archives: archive
Read this moving story of a fallen soldier told by his great-grandson
Please post a comment below if you know a link that should be added here.