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BRITAIN, THE TWO WORLD WARS, AND THE PROBLEM OF NARRATIVE*

  • DAVID REYNOLDS (a1)
Abstract

The concept of coming to terms with the past originated in post-1945 West Germany but such historical therapy is evident in all the belligerent countries. In that process, the two world wars are intricately connected, each seen refractively through the prism of the other. This article focuses on Britain whose national obsession with the two world wars is particularly acute. The first and second sections suggest that British public discourse has been able to construct a satisfying narrative of 1939–45 but not of 1914–18, meaning a narrative that has both a clear beginning, middle, and end and also a stark moral meaning. Viable narratives draw on the events themselves, the words used to conceptualize them, and the interpretations of 'instant' histories and memoirs. The third section argues that the elevation of 1939–45 in national discourse as our ‘finest hour’ (Churchill) has aggravated the problematic nature of 1914–18 for the British. In the wake of Brexit, the last section argues that Britain – unlike France and Germany – has found it difficult to move on from the era of the two world wars by locating these conflicts in a more positive narrative of the twentieth century as the eventual triumph of European integration.

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Corresponding author
Christ's College, Cambridge, cb2 3bu djr17@cam.ac.uk
Footnotes
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*

For helpful comments on earlier versions of these arguments, the author is grateful to Kristina Spohr, Zara Steiner, and John A. Thompson and also to the anonymous referees of the Historical Journal.

Footnotes
References
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1 Winter, Jay, Remembering war: the Great War between memory and history in the twentieth century (New Haven, CT, 2006), esp. pp. 113, 275–89.

2 Gregory, Adrian, The last Great War: British society and the First World War (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 30–3.

3 The despatches are available online at www.1914–1918.net/despatches.htm. Quotation is from French's tenth and last despatch, published belatedly on 21 Aug. 1916. See also Farrar, Martin J., News from the Front: war correspondents on the Western Front, 1914–1918 (Stroud, 1998), esp. pp. 13, 221–2.

4 Kramer, Alan, Dynamic of destruction: culture and mass killing in the First World War (Oxford, 2007), p. 13 ; Gregory, Last Great War, p. 57.

5 For a judicious re-examination, see Horne, John and Kramer, Alan, German atrocities, 1914: a history of denial (New Haven, CT, 2001), p. 419 .

6 ‘Changing warfare’, Times, 24 Nov. 1914, p. 5; cf. Stevenson, David, 1914–1918: the story of the First World War (London, 2004), p. 184 .

7 Johnson, Matthew, ‘The Liberal war committee and liberal advocacy of conscription in Britain, 1914–1916’, Historical Journal, 51 (2008), pp. 399420 .

8 Hibberd, Dominic and Onions, John, eds., The winter of the world: poems of the First World War (London, 2007), pp. xixxx .

9 Stevenson, 1914–1918, p. 170.

10 Reeves, Nicholas, ‘Through the eye of the camera: contemporary audiences and their “experience” of war in the film Battle of the Somme ’, in Cecil, Hugh and Liddle, Peter H., eds., Facing Armageddon: the First World War experience (London, 1996), ch. 55, quoting pp. 782, 786–90; cf. ‘War's realities on the cinema’, Times, 22 Aug. 1916, p. 3.

11 Reeves, ‘Through the eye of the camera’, pp. 785, 791–2; Wells, H. G., The war that will end war (London, 1914), pp. 9, 11.

12 Grigg, John, Lloyd George: from peace to war, 1912–1916 (London, 1997), pp. 423–8, interview of 28 Sept. 1916.

13 Stevenson, David, With our backs to the wall: victory and defeat in 1918 (London, 2011), pp. 526–7, 541–3.

14 Keynes, John Maynard, The economic consequences of the peace (London, 1920), pp. 32, 209; Skidelsky, Robert, John Maynard Keynes (3 vols., London, 1983–2000), i, pp. 393–4.

15 Ferguson, Niall, The pity of war (London, 1998), pp. 412–19.

16 Marks, Sally, ‘Smoke and mirrors: in smoke-filled rooms and the Galérie des Glaces’, in Boemeke, Manfred F., Feldman, Gerald D., and Glaser, Elisabeth, eds., The Treaty of Versailles: a reassessment after 75 years (Cambridge, 1998), p. 338 ; see also Ritschl, Albrecht, ‘The pity of peace: Germany's economy at war, 1914–1918 and beyond’, in Broadberry, Stephen and Harrison, Mark, eds., The economics of World War I (Cambridge, 2005), esp. pp. 66–8.

17 Liddell Hart, B. H., The real war, 1914–1918 (London, 1930), p. 503 . See also Strachan, Hew, ‘“The real war”: Liddell Hart, Cruttwell, and Falls’, in Bond, Brian, ed., The First World War and British military history (Oxford, 1991), pp. 4167 .

18 Haig, ‘Final despatch, part II (features of the war)’, 8 Apr. 1919 – available at www.1914–1918.net/haigs_final_despatch.html. See also Dewar, G. A. B. and Boraston, J. H., Sir Douglas Haig's command, December 19, 1915 – November 11, 1918 (2 vols., London, 1922).

19 Churchill to Edmonds, 29 Aug. 1926 and 18 Sept. 1926 (quotation), Churchill papers, CHAR 8/203, fos. 67 and 81 (Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge); Churchill, Winston S., The world crisis, 1916–1918, part I (London, 1927), ch. 2, quoting pp. 45, 54–5, 57.

20 Prior, Robin, Churchill's ‘world crisis’ as history (London, 1983), pp. 221–30; Philpott, William, Bloody victory: the sacrifice on the Somme (London, 2009), pp. 596603 ; cf. Ferguson, Pity of war, pp. 292–303; Watson, Alexander, Ring of steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at war, 1914–1918 (London, 2015), pp. 514–23.

21 Hankey to Lloyd George, 16 Apr. 1934, with comments on Passchendaele chapter, and Lloyd George to Hankey, 18 Apr. 1934, Lloyd George papers, G/212 (House of Lords Record Office). See generally Egerton, George W., ‘The Lloyd George War memoirs: a study in the politics of memory’, Journal of Modern History, 60 (1988), pp. 5594 .

22 George, David Lloyd, War memoirs (6 vols., London, 1933–6), iv, pp. 2110, 2251; Bond, Brian, The unquiet Western Front: Britain's role in literature and history (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 46–8.

23 Lloyd George, Memoirs, vi, p. xiii, iii p. xi.

24 Egerton, ‘Lloyd George War memoirs’, p. 79; the king's speech of 9 June 1920, quoted in 3rd Annual Report of the Imperial War Museum, 1919–20, p. 4 (IWM Archives, London).

25 Gregory, Adrian, The silence of memory: Armistice Day, 1919–1946 (London, 1994), pp. 123, 126.

26 Reynolds, David, The long shadow: the Great War and the twentieth century (London, 2013), pp. 217–23, 228–9; see also McCarthy, Helen, The British people and the League of Nations: democracy, citizenship and internationalism (Manchester, 2011).

27 Gregory, Last Great War, p. 275.

28 For a pioneering exploration of this theme, see Harris, Jose, ‘War and social history: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War’, Contemporary European History, 1 (1992), pp. 1735 .

29 For studies of these themes, see Calder, Angus, The myth of the Blitz (London, 1991); Smith, Malcolm, Britain and 1940: history, myth and popular memory (London, 2000); Connelly, Mark, We can take it! Britain and the memory of the Second World War (London, 2004); and Rose, Sonya, Which people's war? National identity and citizenship in Britain, 1939–1945 (Oxford, 2003).

30 House of Commons, Debates, 5th ser., 362, cols. 60–1, and 364, cols. 1159–60 and 1167, 18 June and 20 Aug. 1940.

31 Toye, Richard, The roar of the lion: the untold story of Churchill's World War II speeches (Oxford, 2013), pp. 62–3.

32 ‘The Battle of Britain: an Air Ministry account of the great days from 8th August – 31st October 1940’ (London, 1941), pp. 4–5, 35; Peck to Peirse, 6 Apr. 1941, London, The National Archives (TNA), Air Ministry papers, AIR 19/258; Overy, Richard, The battle (London, 2000), pp. 130–1.

33 Times, 25 May 1940, p. 7; Commons, Debates, 361, cols. 792, 795, 4 June 1940; Connelly, We can take it!, p. 66; Calder, Angus, The people's war: Britain, 1939–1945 (2nd edn, London, 1971), p. 130 .

34 ‘Little Gidding’, in The collected poems and plays of T. S. Eliot (London, 1969), p. 197; Ackroyd, Peter, T. S. Eliot (London, 1985), pp. 263–4.

35 Priestley, J. B., Postscripts (London, 1940), p. 4 ; Times, 6 June 1940, p. 7. See also Nicholas, Siân, ‘“Sly demagogues” and wartime radio: J. B. Priestley and the BBC’, Twentieth Century British History, 6 (1995), pp. 247–66.

36 Titmuss, Richard M., Problems of social policy (London, 1950), pp. 335–6; Connelly, We can take it!, p. 142; Noakes, Lucy, War and the British: gender, memory and national identity (London, 1998), pp. 26, 29.

37 Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War (6 vols., London, 1948–54), iv, pp. 343–4, 352, 378; Alanbrooke, Lord, War diaries, 1939–1945, ed. Danchev, Alex and Todman, Daniel (London, 2001), p. 244 .

38 French, David, Raising Churchill's army: the British Army and the war against Germany, 1919–1945 (London, 2000), pp. 242–6, 274–85, quoting Monty on p. 245.

39 Hastings, Max, Finest years: Churchill as warlord, 1940–1945 (London, 2009), p. 302 ; Barr, Niall, Pendulum of war: the three battles of Alamein (London, 2004), pp. xxxvii, 404–7; Philpott, Bloody victory, pp. 600–3.

40 Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre: l'unité (1942–1944), in de Gaulle, Mémoires (complete edn, Paris, 2000), pp. 487–8.

41 Reynolds, Long shadow, pp. 272–3; Sadkovich, James K., ‘Understanding defeat: reappraising Italy's role in the Second World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, 24 (1989), p. 46 .

42 Ellis, John, Cassino: the hollow victory (London, pbk edn, 2003), p. 222 ; Ellis, John, World War II: the sharp end (London, 1980), p. 156 .

43 A point made clear in the cabinet secretary's notes of the meeting on 9 Apr. 1945, TNA, WM 41 (45) 6, CAB 195/3, pp. 85–6.

44 Haggith, Toby, ‘The filming of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and its impact on the understanding of the Holocaust’, in Bardgett, Suzanne and Caesarani, David, eds., Belsen 1945: new historical perspectives (London, 2006), p. 89 .

45 Kushner, Tony, The Holocaust and the liberal imagination (Oxford, 1994), p. 210 ; Haggith, ‘Filming’, p. 110.

46 ‘Cato’, Guilty men, ed. John Stevenson (London, 1998), pp. xv, 14, 17, 45; cf. Julie V. Gottlieb, ‘Guilty women’, foreign policy, and appeasement in inter-war Britain (Houndsmill, 2015).

47 Labour party, Let us face the future (1945) – www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos; Daily Mirror, 5 July 1945, p. 1.

48 Calder, Myth of the Blitz, p. 7; Mowat, Charles Loch, Britain between the wars, 1918–1940 (London, 1955), pp. 656–7; see also Baxendale, John and Pawling, Christopher, Narrating the thirties: a decade in the making, 1930 to the present (London, 1996).

49 TNA, CAB 103/286, quoting Bridges to Martin, 24 June 1944, and TNA, CAB 134/105, meeting of 21 Jan. 1948, minute 7, and Attlee's endorsement, 27 Jan. 1948; see also Reynolds, David, ‘The origins of “the Second World War”: historical discourse and international politics’, Journal of Contemporary History, 38 (2003), pp. 2944 .

50 See Carr, Edward Hallett, The twenty years’ crisis, 1919–1939: an introduction to the study of international relations (2nd edn, London, 1946), p. 224 ; Haslam, Jonathan, The vices of integrity: E. H. Carr, 1892–1982 (London, 1999), pp. 68–9.

51 Churchill, Second World War, i, p. vii. See also Bell, P. M. H., The origins of the Second World War in Europe (London, 1986), chs. 2–4; and Howard, Michael, ‘A Thirty Years War? The two world wars in historical perspective’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 3 (1993), pp. 171–84.

52 Churchill, Second World War, i, p. ix; Plumb, J. H., ‘The historian’, in Taylor, A. J. P. et al. , Churchill: four faces and the man (London, 1969), p. 149 . See also Reynolds, David, In command of history: Churchill fighting and writing the Second World War (London, 2004).

53 Pronay, Nicholas, ‘The British post-bellum cinema: a survey of the films relating to World War II made in Britain between 1945 and 1960’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 8 (1988), esp. pp. 3941 ; Ramsden, John, ‘Refocusing “the people's war’: British war films of the 1950s’, Journal of Contemporary History, 33 (1998), esp. pp. 36–8, 45.

54 Clark, Alan, The donkeys (London, 1961), pp. 6, 186; Trewin, Ion, Alan Clark: the biography (London, 2009), pp. 181–2, 188–9.

55 Theatre Workshop, Oh what a lovely war, rev. edn by Joan Littlewood (London, 2000), p. 87; Bond, Unquiet Western Front, pp. 63–8, quoting review on p. 67.

56 Alex Danchev, ‘“Bunking” and “debunking”: the controversies of the 1960s’, in Bond, ed., The First World War and British military history, p. 263.

57 Taylor, A. J. P., The First World War: an illustrated history (London, 1966 edn), pp. 28, 85; Todman, Dan, The Great War: myth and memory (London, 2005), p. 138 .

58 Taylor, First World War, pp. 16, 20, 255, 287.

59 Ibid., p. 140. Bond, Unquiet Western Front, p. 63, underplays the importance of Taylor in this shift of attention from Passchendaele to the Somme.

60 Hibberd, Dominic, ‘Anthologies of Great War verse: mirrors of change’, in Howard, Michael, ed., A part of history: aspects of the British experience of the First World War (London, 2009), p. 112 .

61 Blunden, Edmund, ‘The soldier poets of 1914–1918’, in Brereton, Frederick, ed., An anthology of war poems (London, 1930), pp. 1324 ; cf. Reilly, Catherine, English poetry of the First World War: a bibliography (London, 1978), p. xix .

62 Gardner, Brian, ed., Up the line to death: the war poets, 1914–1918 (London, 1964), pp. viiviii, xix.

63 Hussey, Maurice, ed., Poetry of the First World War (London, 1967), esp. p. xv; see also http://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/up-the-line-to-death/.

64 Bond, Unquiet Western Front, ch. 4.

65 Sheffield, Gary, Forgotten victory: the First World War: myths and realities (London, 2001), pp. xvii, 48, 169, 253–4, 263.

66 Philpott, Bloody victory, pp. 626–9; Sheffield, Forgotten victory, pp. 92–3, 280.

67 Merridale, Catherine, Night of stone: death and memory in Russia (London, 2000), pp. 122–9, 452; Stockdale, Melissa, ‘United in gratitude: honoring soldiers and defining the nation in Russia's Great War’, Kritika, 7 (2006), pp. 465–8, 482. See more generally Petrone, Karen, The Great War in Russian history (Bloomington, IN, 2011).

68 See Tumarkin, Nina, The living and the dead: the rise and fall of the cult of World War II in Russia (New York, NY, 1994); Lovell, Stephen, The shadow of war: Russia and the USSR, 1941 to the present (Oxford, 2010).

69 See Congressional Research Service, report RL32492, ‘American war and military operations casualties: lists and statistics’, 26 Feb. 2010, p. 2; and Byerly, Carol, ‘The US military and the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919’, Public Health Reports, 125, no. 3 (2010), pp. 8291, esp. figure 3.

70 Strout, Cushing, The American image of the old world (New York, NY, 1963), p. 205 .

71 See generally Bodnar, John, The ‘good war’ in American memory (Baltimore, MD, 2010).

72 Fulbrook, Mary, German national identity after the Holocaust (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 5960, 66; cf. Meinecke, Friedrich, A German catastrophe, trans. Fay, Sidney B. (Boston, MA, 1950), p. 96 .

73 In origin, a mocking caricature by Munich historian Helmut Krausnick – see Eckert, Astrid, ‘The transnational beginnings of West German Zeitgeschichte in the 1950s’, Central European History, 40 (2007), p. 86 .

74 ‘The Fischer controversy 50 years on’ – special issue of the Journal of Contemporary History, 48 (2013), pp. 231–417; cf. Clark, Christopher, The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (London, 2012); McMeekin, Sean, July 1914: countdown to war (London, 2013).

75 Quoted in Rousso, Henry, The Vichy syndrome: history and memory in France since 1944, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge, MA, 1991), p. 90 .

76 Jackson, Julian, France: the dark years, 1940–1944 (Oxford, 2001), p. 613 .

77 Rousso, Vichy syndrome, pp. 110–11.

78 Wieviorka, Olivier, La mémoire désunie: le souvenir politique des années sombres de la libération à nos jours (Paris, 2010), pp. 134–5.

79 Schwarz, Hans-Peter, Adenauer: Der Staatsmann, 1952–1967 (Munich, 1994), p. 297 .

80 Prime minister to foreign secretary, 25 Nov. 1944, TNA, prime minister's files, PREM 4/30/8, fo. 488. Churchill's comment on Belgium is presumably a reference to the country's decision to abrogate its French alliance and opt for neutrality in 1936.

81 Quotations from his speeches at Zurich, 19 Sept. 1946, and Llandudno, 9 Oct. 1948, in James, Robert Rhodes, ed., Winston S. Churchill: his complete speeches, 1874–1963 (8 vols., New York, NY, 1974), vii, pp. 7381 and 7712.

82 ‘Policy towards Europe’, agreed minute of meeting on 5 Jan. 1949, printed in Clarke, Richard, Anglo-American economic collaboration in war and peace, 1942–1949 (Oxford, 1982), pp. 208–9.

83 Memo by Pierson Dixon, 23 Aug. 1950, TNA, Foreign Office papers, FO 800/517, US/50/35.

84 Quoted in Ludlow, N. Piers, Dealing with Britain: the six and the first UK application to the EEC (Cambridge, 1997), p. 32 .

85 Reynolds, David, Britannia overruled: British policy and world power in the twentieth century (2nd edn, London, 2000), pp. 208, 212; Macmillan, Harold, At the end of the day, 1961–1963 (London, 1973), p. 339 .

86 George, Stephen, An awkward partner: Britain in the European community (Oxford 1990); cf. Buller, Jim, ‘Britain as an awkward partner: reassessing Britain's relations with the EU’, Politics, 15 (1995), pp. 3342 ; Gilbert, Mark, ‘Narrating the process: questioning the progressive story of European integration’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 46 (2008), pp. 641–62.

87 Smith, Britain and 1940, p. 148.

* For helpful comments on earlier versions of these arguments, the author is grateful to Kristina Spohr, Zara Steiner, and John A. Thompson and also to the anonymous referees of the Historical Journal.

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