'Ghosts of War, A History of World War 1 in Poetry and Prose', by Andrew Ferguson (The History Press)
This year marked the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in which the level of casualties was unbelievably high even by the standards of what used to be called the Great War. As a result, the degree of attention paid to remembering the first world war has been unusually intense. ‘Ghosts of War’ is further evidence of this truth. Andrew Ferguson dedicates his book to his father, James Duncan Ferguson who fought in the war. So his position is identical to mine. We are survivors of the generation for whom this war remains a family reality not just an historical one.
My father, Wilfred Thomas Hook, was born in Gloucestershire in 1898, so was 16 when the war broke out. Like so many others he rushed to join the army, claiming to be 17. Ferguson writes that 'the chance to enlist was seen as an opportunity for excitement and adventure for many young men, who otherwise faced the prospect of a life of hard work and low pay.’ Whether dad’s motivation for joining up was anything of the kind I have no way of knowing. But somehow I doubt it. Keeping up with his older brother Steve who also enlisted – or merely doing what seemed to be the right thing – strikes me as more plausible.
Dad joined the Royal Artillery and was soon sent to France. Like so many other veterans of the war, he never chose to speak at length of his experience. Only from time to time I remember him mentioning – almost jokingly – the names of places in France he’d been in: 'Wipers’ which was the British soldiers’ way of referring to Ypres, or Vimy Ridge (the site of a major battle in 1915), or of being sent back to ‘Blighty’. That was because at some point he was gassed, presumably in a German attack. Having recovered after treatment in an English hospital, he returned to France, but soon left the Royal Artillery and trained instead as a wireless operator in the Royal Flying Corps. So unlike brother Steve, who lost a leg in the Battle of the Somme, dad survived the war unscathed to pursue a career in GPO radio. However he died of emphysema at the early age of 66, and there is every chance that the gassing he’d undergone had damaged his lungs.
Meantime my mother’s family in Wick in the distant north of Scotland had also been touched by the war. The youngest of three daughters, my mother had no direct involvement, but her cousin, James Cook, enlisted in the 5th battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders – very much the local regimental choice for Caithnessians. However, James was destined to become one of the many thousands of Scots who fought and died on the Western Front in the Seaforths alongside the other Highland regiments of the army’s 51st (Highland) Division.
That 2016 was the hundredth anniversary of the Somme may well have played a part in persuading Andrew Ferguson and the History Press in Stroud (strangely Stroud is the nearest town to the Gloucestershire village in which my father grew up in the years before the war) that there was room for yet another history of the first world war. But in his introduction Ferguson insists there’s something else that sets his book apart from previous histories. 'This book’, he tells us, 'aims to highlight the works of the war poets and, in particular, the contribution both to the war and to its poetry made by the Scots.’
So how well does this combination of poetry and history work? In my view the answer is only to a limited degree. Firstly the poetry and prose turns out to be largely familiar stuff. Ferguson points out that of the 16 war poets celebrated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, only one (Charles Hamilton Sorley) is a Scot. He on the other hand includes work by 29 poets, several of them Scots, but it turns out that the great majority of the poems printed are by such well-known figures as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
The work of only one less celebrated poet is well represented: Ewart Alan Mackintosh. Born in Brighton to middle-class Scottish parents, Mackintosh is a quite typical war poet: well educated – he studied classics at Christ Church Oxford – in December 1914 he became a second lieutenant in the 5th Seaforths in the 51st (Highland) Division. He was killed in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Ferguson sees a touch of 'trench humour’ in a few of his poems, but the majority share the anger, sadness and despair characteristic of almost all the war poets represented here.
The prose content of the book is also narrow in range. No fiction is included. (It would have been good to have a reference to 'Her Privates We’ – published in 1930 by 'Private 19022’ – the great but still neglected novel by Frederic Manning who had served as a private in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.) What we do have is frequent extracts from such familiar sources as Graves' 'Goodbye to All That’, and Sassoon’s 'Memoirs', alongside examples of moving letters home from soldiers in the front line. The mood of the prose extracts, that is, matches that of the poetry.
What then of the book’s straight history? It is remarkably wide-ranging. In nine chapters it provides a comprehensive, chronological account of the movement of the war from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 up to the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. Every theatre of the war is described – from the Western Front to the Eastern Front, from Gallipoli to Salonika, from the Austro-Hungarian empire to the Ottoman empire, from Mesopotamia to Africa. The wars at sea and in the air are also covered. There are brief biographies of the military leaders in both camps, and descriptions of the weaponry deployed by both sides. But inevitably – given the inclusion of the poetry and prose – the most detailed focus falls on the series of battles fought on the Western Front: Ypres, Loos, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai and the rest.
Ferguson does not have much to say that is new in this historical account. He draws upon the work of a range of established historians, and offers little in the way of new interpretations of a familiar story. What then is the consequence of interweaving the movement of history with the experience and reactions of individuals caught up in the war? I think it is a rather depressing one. The voices represented here – angry, sad, despairing – seem to come to stand for the countless thousands on both sides who must have felt the same. The history that is provided here turns out to offer nothing to justify the scale of their pain and suffering. Rather it becomes a history of bungling, failure, stupidity and callousness on a monumental level. The figures speak for themselves: 743,000 British servicemen killed, including 147,000 Scots. 1.6 million wounded. And a mere 20 years later, it will all begin again.
As I noted above, Andrew Ferguson suggests his book highlights the Scottish contribution to the first world war. In truth this turns out to be no more than a very minor dimension of his work. But the idea of its presence presumably explains why Scotland’s first minister agreed to provide a foreword to the book. At first glance I was inclined to praise Nicola Sturgeon for allowing her lofty office to be used to promote and endorse a serious historical study. However I have to say that I do find the second paragraph of her brief foreword striking a rather unfortunate note: 'Most British accounts of the First World War are written from an English perspective. This book restores the balance, recognising and remembering the Scottish contribution to both the fighting and the poetry.’ Is it really true that previous British war historians have been guilty of any such lack of balance over Scotland’s involvement in the war? I think not.
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