Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Century Ago

I started this back in November just before the Great War's centenary. My usual laziness coupled with my efforts to finish off my Black Gate obligations delayed its completion until now. It's not an especially focused piece of writing, but it does gather together several thoughts I've had on the war.

It's a good thing, however. I didn't expect to actually see Peter Jackson's astounding They Shall Not Grow Old. Fortunately, I did, so I can add some comments about it here.

I'm not exactly sure when I became aware of and fascinated by the terrible nature of WWI. It was probably around third or fourth grade when I found my dad's coffee table-history of the war by S.L.A. Marshall. It was the pictures that seared became seared into my brain, especially the one of a dead soldier in the mud. His head was just a skull and his limbs were bent in a grotesque parody of life. It's his hand, palm upturned, that for some unknown reason disturbed me the most. Skulls I had seen plenty of, from Halloween to movies, but the hand of a corpse, never.

I didn't read the book at first; I was content to stare at the hundreds of pictures. There were photos - some, incredibly, unposed - as well as propaganda and newspaper drawings. There were cartoons by a soldier on the Salonika Front and terrifying paintings by men trapped in the endless hell of the Western Front.

German soldier on the Western Front
When I finally read the book it proved far more horrible than the pictures. For those unfamiliar with the history and nature of the First World War, it's a tale of unremitting horror suffused with stupidity and arrogance. Fundamentally, it's the culmination of Western hubris, that somehow this great war could be fought and won without completely destroying the society that gave rise to it. For nearly fifty years, the time between the Prussian defeat of France in 1870, the Great Powers of Europe had direct avoided war with one another, but they seemed to be always testing each other's mettle. Oh, they backed each other's opponents to varying degrees, but real war with each other was avoided.

Australian watching Greek picking lice near Salonika

1917 - Loyal Russian soldier attempts to drive his comrades back to the front
On the other hand, the Russians and Japanese learned the nature of modern industrial in 1905, where artillery and machine guns slaughtered men by the thousands. These lessons do not seem to have been learned by any of the men who would command the armies on the Western Front only a decade later. Within weeks of the First World War's start in 1914 they were already beginning to feed their men into the bottomless meatgrinder of machine gun-swept battlefields.
British Infantry at the Mons-Conde Canal - 1914
I've recently read that casualty rates for the Great War really weren't higher than those of the Second World War. I'm not sure I believe that (except for maybe on the Russian Front and some of the Pacific island assaults), but the moments of suicidal attack and counterattack that define the 1914-1918 Western Front were much rarer in the later war.

The Western Front seems like war stripped down to an elemental level. There is only mud and ruins, gun and shell fire. The landscape, crisscrossed with trenches and fields of barbed wire, is lifeless and torn up. Soldiers exist in a darkling world lit by tracers and explosions. It is as the real world had been banished and only the muck of No Man's Land, stalked by death remained. As I've learned more, I've become equally interested in other areas of operations during the war (East Africa, the Caucasus, Poland, etc.). It's the West, though, that still remains the predominant image in my mental image of the war.

British infantry and tank at Cambrai - 1917

There are numerous single-volume histories of the First World War and I've read at least three of them. While adequate at providing information, I didn't like Martin Gilbert's The First World War. Liddell Hart's The Real War is concise. It's interesting because it partially serves as a platform for exploring the personal observations he made of static warfare and helped inspire his interwar theories of mobile warfare. Finally, and my favorite, is John Keegan's The First World War. He was a good writer, and he does a good job exploring the war outside of the usual Western Front that tends to dominate public consciousness of the war. You will still need to read campaign-specific works for the Italian or East African fronts, but Keegan is better on them than Liddell Hart. Oh, and SLA Marshall's isn't too bad, but it's really worth having for the pictures and isometric battle maps.

I'm only just starting to get into campaign specifics of the war. The first I remember reading was, that master of all things British army, Byron Farwell's splendid The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918. A short book, it covers all various efforts to conquer the German colonies in Africa - Kamerun, Namibia, and Tanganyika. The first were relatively short (ten months and nineteen months), but that in Tanganyika lasted two weeks longer than the entire First World War. The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, with a force of never more than 14,000 men, tied down hundreds of thousands of Allied troops that could have all been used elsewhere. Farwell, surprisingly, an American, wrote numerous fast paces histories of the Britain's colonial wars, but this is still my favorite of his works.

A few years ago I read and reviewed Alistair Horne's classic study of Verdun from a Francocentric perspective: The Price of Glory. If you haven't read my piece, go HERE. It's a powerful book and I recommend it.

Finally, I'm still working through Holger Herwig's The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. Another good book, it covers a lot of ground, from the German and French preparations for war, to the actual campaign, following those two armies as well as the British and, to a lesser degree, the Belgian. I'm reading it as I'm also reading Geoffrey Wawro's The Franco-Prussian War about the 1870 conquest invasion of France. It's extremely interesting setting the two campaigns side by side, seeing the difference in tactics and strategies, and especially how French experience in 1870 dramatically affected their 1914 plans.

None of the histories I've read compare in ramming home the brute reality of attrition combat on the Western Front as Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel. It's a gut-punch of a read. He was wounded fourteen times, including five times by bullets. He fought in the Somme Campaign, the battles of Arras, Passchendaele, and Cambrai. He led a company in the 1918 Spring Offensive and was shot through the chest. And for all the gore and death surrounding him, he never seemed to fail to find a certain level of deep excitement from combat and surviving one near-death experience after another. 
As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered.
 Ernst Jünger

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is always presented as the great anti-war novel of the Great War. It's been ages since I've read it, by my memories of it are that it is a solid read and a powerful condemnation of war. I always assumed it was semi-autobiographical and based on his wartime experiences. 

When reading about comparisons between the two books, I was surprised to learn Remarque, unlike Jünger, only spent a few weeks in combat. That fact doesn't take away from the strength of AQotWF as a work. The almost completely opposite reaction to the war on the part of someone who lived through far more of it, on the other hand, for me at least, makes Jünger's memoir a far more interesting one. Remarque's novel is the reaction of a civilian to the war, while Jünger's book is a soldier's.

I've also read Manfred von Richtofen's (the Red Baron) heavily censored autobiography, Der rote Kampffleiger (The Red Fighter Pilot). My memory of it reflects the Wikipedia entry:
The 1933 edition of Der Rote Kampfflieger appears to paint a much more accurate portrait of von Richthofen than the 1917 edition. It contains passages most unlikely to have been inserted by an official editor: "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim."
I'm curious what it would be like rereading it today, but I doubt I will. As you'll see below, there's just so much more that I haven't read yet. 

There are several other novels and memoirs of the Great War I want to read. Henri Barbusse, a French novelist, spent a year in combat units before being invalided out to a behind-the-lines clerical post. Praised in its day, later attacked as being filled with inventions, his 1916 novel, Le Feu (Under Fire), looks interesting if only because it provides the often neglected perspective of the French poilius (a slang term for infantrymen that translates to "hairy ones"). Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That and Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer describe the war from a pair of British officer's perspectives. I don't know if there're books by Italian or Russian soldiers, but Jaroslav Hasek's comic novel, The Good Soldier Svejk tells the story of a buffoonish Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. That's a big shelf full of books to read, and maybe I'll get to some of them this year.

Films of the First World War are fairly few, but many of them are really good.  The most notable are among some of the best films ever made. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and La Grande Illusion (1937). The first is a moving adaptation of Remarque's novel. It stars Lew Ayres and is more brutal and honest than a lot of later war films. The second is about a group of French officers taken prisoner by the Germans and their relationship with the German commander. It's been a bit since I've seen either one so I feel a rewatch coming on.

The best WWI film I'm familiar with is Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). While based on Humphrey Cobb's novel, its story of the execution of French soldiers for supposed cowardice ultimately comes from a real incident. I'm generally not a fan of Kubrick, but with Kirk Douglas on hand and a script initially by Jim Thompson, this is a movie that will slam you against a wall, wring you out, and leave you gasping for breath. Less the indictment of war it's usually presented as, it's a damning portrayal of bureaucracy and our lust for prestige and reward.

Finally, as I mentioned at the very beginning, I saw Peter Jackson's film, They Shall Not Grow Old. If you aren't aware, he took century old film from the British Imperial War Museum and made a movie out of it. He slowed it down, cleaned it up, colorized it, added sound and voices to it (the latter with the help of forensic lip readers), and over the top added interviews with British veterans. Footage and stories aren't presented in exact chronological order. Jackson didn't set out to tell a specific story, but instead recreate the general experiences of a British soldier from the declaration of war, through enlistment and training, combat, and the return to the UK.

I cannot urge anyone enough to go see this film. Jackson set out to bring men long dead to life and succeeded far more powerfully than I expected him to be able to. The only thing missing is the stink of death. Restoring voices to these men is one of the greatest gifts that can be given to the dead and I'll be forever grateful to Jackson for doing it in this masterpiece.

Every crime Jackson committed against JRR Tolkien (as well as each he seemed to have committed against Philip Reeve) has been made up for with this movie. If you have the slightest interest, hell, if even if you have none, avail yourself of any chance to see They Shall Not Grow Old. It will move you and leave you exhausted. I'm not sure when it will be available on Blu-ray, but it will be back in the theaters on next week on the 21st.

So, if there's a theme here, it's that there's been a tremendous amount written and filmed about the 1914-1918 war. I've read a lot of it but not nearly enough to satisfy my desire to understand the war as much as one who didn't fight in it and one who is a century removed from it can. In the broken state of Russia, in the ever-present fear of Germany, in the ethnic enmity that lays over most of the Balkans, and in so many other places, the shadow of the First World War remains. It's greatest legacy should be that even when society has reached a supposed apex of culture and civilization that it can all be squandered in a orgy of violence the likes of which had never been seen before.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sweet Danger (1933) by Margery Allingham

I've only read a few Golden Age mysteries - a little Agatha Christie, A.A. Milne's Red House Mystery, and most of Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop. Mostly, my knowledge of the genre comes from the excellent British TV versions of Poirot (starring David Suchet), Miss Marple (Joan Hickson), Lord Peter Wimsey (first with Ian Carmichael and later Edward Petherbridge), and Albert Campion (with that old Timelord himself, Peter Davison). Now that I've untethered myself from heroic fantasy for a piece, it seems a good time to rectify the situation and read more of the actual books.

Lysette Anthony and Peter Davison - 1989
My favorite of the Campion TV episodes is based on Sweet Danger, so, I decided to start with that. When an earthquake suddenly gives a small oil-rich Ruritanian state on the Adriatic called Averna a deep water port, the race is on to discover if there are any heirs to its throne living in England. Albert Campion, upper class twit to strangers, but in reality a solver of mysteries and special agent of the crown, enlists a trio of fellow aristocrats to ensure England's interests regarding Averna. Standing against them are the henchmen of a sinister businessman named Brett Savanake.

Sweet Danger is a great and utterly ephemeral read. While not developed too much beyond surface traits and tics, Allingham's characters still manage to be vivid and leave a memorable impression. The character she seems to have had the most fun with is Campion's butler, the ex-burglar, Magersfontein Lugg. He's big, bald, and prone to fighting. He's a far cry from Lord Peter Wimsey's ex-batman, the much more proper, Bunter. Other characters, particularly the obviously-mad Dr. Galley and the mechanically-inclined Amanda Fitton, are nearly as good fun.

Plenty of Golden Age mysteries are really thrillers and that's definitely what Sweet Danger is. Instead of an absurdly complicated crime, there's a hunt for a lost will, a super villain, and the whiff of black magic in the woods of Suffolk. There's lots of fisticuffs, disguises, and even some secret messages. It's all of absolutely no consequence and utterly great fun.

While I'm planning to read several other Golden Age writers before going back to Allingham, I will definitely be reading more of her. Supposedly, The Tiger in Smoke (1952) is supposed to being an absolutely terrific book, featuring a killer at large in the thick London fog. J.K. Rowling is a big fan of Allingham and called Tiger a "phenomenal novel."

Apparently, while the Campion of the early books is the a bit of a upper-class twit, flitting about from crime to crime, as the series progressed he became more serious as did the books 

PS - Here's a fun and loving write up about Allingham and her fiction by Jane Stevenson in The Guardian I highly recommend.