I asked, a couple of weeks ago, if this was the end of an era? ~ the end of the “liberal era?” That got me to thinking about change and especially the changes that 100 years can make. This is an interesting time to look back to 1916, 1917 and 1918 …
… the great battles of the Somme, in 1916, Arras, including Vimy, in 1917, and the Hundred Days offensive and, finally, the Armistice in 1918 have been and will be celebrated.
Although the Edwardian era ended, officially, in 1910, many people believe that actual end of the era came during the First World War when Britain’s and Canada’s attitudes towards the military and war changed.
I think the late Victorians understood that Britain (and its empire) was in decline … the issues of Irish home rule and American and German expansion caused the British to “take their eye off the ball” and caused what I have described as the greatest foreign policy blunder in 800 years: entering the Entente Cordiale with France which went a long way to precipitating World War I.
Anyway … I was thinking about that “Great War” and how it changed so much and I think we can see the changes in three short poems:
- The Soldier (1914) by Rupert Brooke;
- Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917) by Wilfred Own; and
- Base Details (1918) by Siegfried Sassoon.
“If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England …” Rupert Brooke was almost a caricature of the Edwardian ideal, young, handsome, intelligent but, perhaps, a bit idle, almost to the point of being insouciant, but a good and respected poet. ‘The Soldier,’ it seems to me, was how much of Britain and Canada felt in the late summer of 1914 and even into 1915. One can imagine that mothers and wives and sweethearts almost swooned when they read it. But that was all going to change.
By the end of 1916 it was clear that war was not a grand adventure, and Wilfred Owen, arguably the greatest poet of that war, summed it up in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth:’ “What passing bells” he asked, “for those who die as cattle?” (Passing bells are those rung at funerals.) There was no glory, it wasn’t some sort “boys’ own adventure,” rather it was the endless suffering of the Western Front. Owen put in just a few words what philosophers and poets have tried to say for millennia.
But, by 1918 the poets’ hopeful patriotism, even jingoism and despair at the tragedy of war had turned to anger and even rage and Siegfried Sassoon, a son of a wealthy Anglo-Iraqi-Jewish merchant family, gave vent to it in his 1918 poem, ‘Base Details.’ He, a soldier who had been decorated for his almost reckless bravery in battle, lashed out at all those who still tried to claim that war was “glorious.” It was, in some respects, a dagger plunged into the bleeding heart of Victorian and Edwardian notions of patriotism and it would colour the thinking of his generation and the next and generations after that.
The Edwardian era was, I think, the transition between the old and our, current, modern worlds ~ both ‘worlds’ were liberal in their values but quite different in their attitudes. The old, Edwardian ‘world’ ended with a bang and with a rise in anti-military feeling that was fuelled, in some part, by the British war poets, especially Owen and Sassoon. That anti-military attitude and distrust of the “military mind” persists today and it makes it easier for some politicians, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ~ but he’s not alone in this, to ignore valid military and national security requirements and focus, instead, on sunny ways and making policy based on false hopes. The British, as I said, make bad policy choices and the British and Canadian peoples paid a high price in blood and treasure for them. But our attitudes towards the military and defence policy and grand strategy should not, in 2017, be shaped by events of 100 years ago, no matter how horrid they may have been.