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The Great War and Modern Memory

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The year 2000 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most original and gripping volumes ever written about the First World War. Fussell illuminates a war that changed a generation and revolutionised the way we see the world. He explores the British experience on the western Front from 1914 to 1918, focusing on the various literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized and mythologized. It is also about the literary dimensions of the experience itself. Fussell supplies contexts, both actual and literary, for writers who have most effectively memorialized the Great War as an historical experience with conspicuous imaginative and artistic meaning. These writers include the classic memoirists Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden, and poets David Jones, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen. In his new introduction Fussell discusses the critical responses to his work, the authors and works that inspired his own writing, and the elements which influence our understanding and memory of war. Fussell also shares the stirring experience of his research at the Imperial War Museum's Department of Documents. Fussell includes a new Suggested Further Reading List.

Fussell's landmark study of World War I remains as original and gripping today as ever before: a literate, literary, and illuminating account of the Great War, the one that changed a generation, ushered in the modern era, and revolutionized how we see the world. 14 halftones.

368 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1975

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About the author

Paul Fussell

46 books115 followers
Paul Fussell was an American cultural and literary historian, author and university professor. His writings covered a variety of topics, from scholarly works on eighteenth-century English literature to commentary on America’s class system. He was an U.S. Army Infantry officer in the European theater during World War II (103rd U.S. Infantry Division) and was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He is best known for his writings about World War I and II.

He began his teaching career at Connecticut College (1951–55) before moving to Rutgers University in 1955 and finally the University of Pennsylvania in 1983. He also taught at the University of Heidelberg (1957–58) and King’s College London (1990–92). As a teacher, he traveled widely with his family throughout Europe during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, taking Fulbright and sabbatical years in Germany, England and France.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 282 reviews
Profile Image for Warwick.
844 reviews14.6k followers
August 23, 2014
Very enjoyable, very thought-provoking, but not necessarily very convincing, Fussell's sui-generis book is an extended literary criticism masquerading as social history – or perhaps the other way round. There are various arguments going on in here, but the main thrust is that much of how we think about the modern world – indeed our whole contemporary mindset – has its origin in ideas that came about as an attempt to respond to the unprecedented scale and irony of the 1914-18 conflict.

‘Irony’ is the crucial term. And a famously vague one; let me first, like a teenager giving a graduation speech, turn to the OED's third sense of the word:

A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.

For Fussell, ‘Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends’; and ‘the Great War was more ironic than any before or since’. Highlighting the insanity of trench warfare, and the ‘ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home’, Fussell first traces the various ways people responded to this grotesque irony, and then considers how it has affected language, culture and thought processes since.

Though he does look at some contemporary letters and diaries, his main sources of evidence are the great literary responses to the war, especially Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Owen, and David Jones, and he locates the source of all their techniques in ‘irony-assisted recall’.

I love this attention to irony as the defining quality of the war; but it also epitomises a sense I had that Fussell was claiming a special status for the First World War that it didn't really possess. After all, irony is hardly new. To me, it seems to be a central part of war literature almost as far back as you can go: Homeric irony is almost proverbial.

Similarly it seems quite a claim to say that 1914-18 was unusually marked by a ‘sense of adversary proceedings’, an ‘us against them’ mentality, since this is surely characteristic of the whole notion of what war is. If anything, the WWI literature I've read has been notable for its awareness that the other side was exactly the same as them; I think of the German and French soldiers trapped all night together in the shell-hole in All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance.

Just one more example to make my point. Fussell believes there is something unusually theatrical in the English conception of this war:

During the war, it was the British, rather than the French, the Americans, the Italians, the Portuguese, the Russians, or the Germans, who referred to trench raids as ‘shows’ or ‘stunts’ […] And it is English playwrights – or at least Anglo-Irish ones – like Wilde and Shaw who compose plays proclaiming at every point that they are plays.

But this is weird, not just because of the qualification he needed in that last sentence, but because when I think of deliberately artificial stagecraft I think of Brecht – a German – and the term used for this in modern theatre studies is a German one, Verfremdungseffekt. In general his idea of specifically national characteristics seems a bit strained (he uses Manning's Her Privates We as an example of how English writers were saturated with Shakespeare; but Frederic Manning was an Australian).

There are several more such quibbles I could adduce, but none of them stopped me enjoying Fussell's arguments, most of which are brilliantly constructed. He is especially convincing on the pervasive influence of the Oxford Book of Verse on contemporary patterns of speech and thought, and he has a fantastic ability to spot poetic echoes buried in the most unlikely places. When CE Montague writes of one destroyed battalion, ‘Seasons returned, but not to that battalion returned the spirit of delight in which it had first learnt to soldier together…’, perhaps it is not too difficult to discern the presence of Milton's ‘Thus with the year / Seasons return, but not to me returns / Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn…’. But Fussell also finds parallels to both Sassoon's ‘The Kiss’ and Owen's ‘Arms and the Boy’ in Bret Harte's ‘What the Bullet Sang’ – and there are other, even more obscure examples.

An American, he seems fascinated by the extent to which the idea of ‘English Literature’ was a part of daily life for so many British soldiers, and he gathers a great deal of evidence from letters and diaries showing how common this was among all ranks.

Carrington once felt ‘a studious fit’ and sent home for some Browning. ‘At first,’ he says, ‘I was mocked in the dugout as a highbrow for reading “The Ring and the Book”, but saying nothing I waited until one of the scoffers idly picked it up. In ten minutes he was absorbed, and in three days we were fighting for turns to read it, and talking of nothing else at meals.’

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me was the one about the homoeroticism of war writing, which examines certain tropes in First World War literature and traces them back to the influence of Housman, the Aesthetes and the Uranians, with their veneration of wounded or dying soldier ‘lads’, forever stripping off and bathing in handy streams. Here and elsewhere, Fussell follows the variations forward in time as well, to modern war literature, where he sees Heller's Catch 22 and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as especially representative. For him, this style of heavily ironised, conspiratorial writing has its roots in the Western Front: ‘Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama, which I take to be a primary mode in modern writing.’

Well, maybe. I enjoyed seeing the argument made even if I'm not sure I believe it.

Fussell himself fought in Europe the Second World War and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart; in a certain sense this book is personal, and it has to do with exploring the gap between ideas of war and the reality. The way he reacted to the fighting in Alsace was in some sense (so at least he seems to be arguing) pre-moulded by society's experience of the Somme and Paschendaele. And indeed, like many other writers I've encountered recently, Fussell notes that one can easily ‘conceive of the events running from 1914 to 1945 as another Thirty Years' War and the two world wars as virtually a single historical episode.’
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,302 reviews22.1k followers
December 4, 2019
When Bill (aka Quo) recommended this to me a couple of weeks ago I really didn’t think I would get to it anytime soon. I also decided that it would be a military book or sorts, dealing, perhaps, with how what is remembered of a war isn’t necessarily what actually happened. If that had been what it was about, it would have been an interesting enough book, but this proved much better than I could have anticipated.

This book looks at how various (mostly British) writers wrote about the Great War and what their writing about the war meant for modern literature, and therefore how we then came to understand that war (and all wars subsequent to it). It also provides insight into what people 'wrote home' - so, normal writers too, not just poets and writers.

This is a glorious book. I have learnt so much from it, and as a piece of literary criticism I was thinking that it is perhaps as good an introduction to that subject as you can find. There are lovely bits to this. His discussion of the power of the number three throughout much of the English literary canon was masterful. He links this back to Christian imagery: innocence, the fall, redemption – and so you can see how this might be used when people were struggling to work out how they might represent this most horrible of wars.

The Great War was a mess of contradictions. Britain was even more divided by social class than it is now. As he says at one point, one’s social location was immediately apparent by the clothes one wore and the accent one spoke. But a large part of social distinction depends on a kind of social distance – and social distance was obliterated in the endlessly turning human meat mincing machine that trench warfare proved to be. And given 'one's betters' where the people responsible for the endless waste of life all around you, that hardly helped.

The horrors needed somehow to be comprehended – but many of the usual ways of doing this – writing down what you were experiencing and trying to make it understandable – were barred due to censorship of mail from the front. The government even issued printed form postcards that soldiers could essentially tick a box and then send home, something later mocked by writers such as Waugh.

I think the last couple of chapters here that discuss homosexuality are among the most interesting in the entire book. Throwing so many young men together is going to be a problem at the best of times, but having them constantly believe (and with total justification) that they were moments away from death, that was hardly likely to make things better. The death/sex unity idea is very strong here. But as the author says, homosexual acts were barred, but mass slaughter was encouraged.

One of the ‘threes’ that I mentioned before turns up when he talks of a soldier in the trenches whose commanding officer got everyone in his unit to count off in threes – so soldier after soldier called out one, two or three until the whole unit had a number dividing them into thirds. Then everyone who was numbered three had to ‘go over the top’ – something that would prove an immediate death sentence, and something everyone already knew. The soldier tries not to smile at his luck at not being numbered three, but, of course, the person beside him is. So, he fixed his eyes on the trench wall in front of him. Can you imagine? Dear God, what a complete nightmare. ‘I’m so glad it is you, rather than me…’

I didn’t know that poppies had been a symbol of homosexuality prior to the war. And the dedications to fellow soldiers that I would have just taken as being the sorts of things soldiers say to each other – that we will always be closer than brothers and so on – clearly often had much deeper meanings than I'd suspected.

At one point in this he says that Churchill believed that the First World War never really ended, or rather that it only ended at the end of the Second World War. Its impact on literature is probably continuing in many ways up to today. My own generation may be the last generation to have met and who remember people who fought in that war. As is made clear in this book, for many of those who fought it was a constant presence throughout the rest of their lives.

I really liked this book – it is anything but your standard book on military history.
Profile Image for Eric.
570 reviews1,014 followers
July 30, 2010
When war broke out, the undergraduate Robert Graves pictured what service he might render as garrison duty—literally holding down the fort while the professional Regular Army charged to glory on the continent. The 100,000-strong force of British Regulars ferried across the channel in August 1914 to protect Belgium and assist the French was all used up by early November. It is said, “the high command and the staff officers survived: the old army was beyond recall.” “This isn’t war!” cried an appalled Lord Kitchener when he learned of the casualties consumed in the first collisions of those ignorant and hopeful armies, coming on with storybook airs and futuristic firepower.

To me the early clashes of autumn 1914 make one of the fascinating episodes of the Great War. A voice from within the whirlwind:

This is a terrible war and I don’t suspect there is an idle British soldier in France. I wonder where it will end; one hears so much. There has been more fighting and loss of life crowded into seven weeks than there was in the whole of South Africa. It is awful what the Brigade of Guards have lost and being like one big regiment one knows everyone and feels it all the more

The last two days have been ghastly. The Germans broke through the line. We have lost ten officers in the last two days and yesterday the battalion was less than 200 men, though I expect some stragglers will turn up. All the officers in my company were lost except myself. We have had no rest at all. Everyone is very shaken.

The soldier writing his mother thus in September, 1914, was twenty-one year-old 2nd Lt. Neville Leslie Woodroffe, 1st Battalion Irish Guards (the regiment in which Rudyard Kipling lost two sons, and whose official history he wrote). At First Ypres on 6 November, Woodroffe and the remnants of his company were all shot down counterattacking a trench from which they’d been ousted. I think he’s a more beautiful Georgian war martyr than the Bloomsbury Apollo Rupert Brooke.


(That eye! Haunting! And it’s hard to imagine this ephebic studio apotheosis bearded and begrimed and blasting at Germans with a rifle.)

England at war! Fussell’s pictures are fascinating. “Life seemed to stand uneasily still, and in no direction was there any prospect” (Churchill)—the Regular Army obliterated—Deadlock—the government silent, but there are rumors in the pubs and families in mourning everywhere you look—“But of course they don’t—and can’t know” (Lloyd George)—a draft of millions for 1916’s war-ending Big Push—the slaughter of infantry changes nothing, decides nothing—60,000 men down on the first day—and Haig buts away at the German lines for another five months, until 400,000 are gone—the Front so near—the guns audible to Kent and Sussex—an officer granted leave breakfasts in the trenches and dines at his club in London—“Both Fortnum & Mason and Harrod’s specialized in gift assortments for the front, Fortnum’s fruit cake being especially popular for lasting well”—a society’s powers of euphemism and denial strained to the limit—Keep Calm & Carry On—“Don’t think you know better than Haig”—scapegoat the Pacifist for saying what we all fear—Open Secrets: so many have died and nothing is working: a generation of Britons flounders in slime and shit, drowns in a vast excremental slough—scattered in the millions of muddy men are the poets—Sassoon, Owen, Blunden enter the “Armageddonite” landscape, plowed by infernal engines, carrying with them three hundred years of “sophisticated literary pastoralism,” England’s inheritance of dulcet rural airs and homoerotic elegy.

The stylistic traditionalism of most of England’s Great War writing, Fussell writes, has prevented us from seeing its connections to modernism. Fussell made me feel bad for having uncritically accepted the Stein-Lawrence view, at least as summarized by Ann Douglas, that American writers were best suited to writing the Great War—because of America’s relative detachment from English literary convention (specious flummery, anyway), because of its recent experience of mechanized attrition (the Civil War), because of the nervous tension and demonic primitivism of classic American literature (Moby Dick, Poe's nightmares), and because of the precedents of spare and unsentimental war writing in American prose (Ambrose Bierce, Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs). That’s all well and good, Fussell says, if you don’t care about irony. Fussell is interested in English war writing because Sassoon, Owen and Blunden modify ironically the pre-modern tropes and imagery with which they must describe a modern experience. Sardonic but deeply conscious engagement with tradition—the oneness of innovation and remembering, new meanings from old meanings—is what interests Fussell. Literature is writing that remembers and refers; and Fussell doesn’t buy the argument—rather, the attitude, the pose—that Literature is made mute by horrors. I dunno. I find Wilfred Owen too richly Keatsian, and Hemingway spare to the point of half-wittedness.

Fussell ranges beyond WWI memoirs and poems to show how the Great War produced a “mythic narrative” of twentieth century technological conflict that later writers absorbed and augmented—none more brilliantly than Pynchon. Fussell refers to Gravity’s Rainbow throughout, and in his conclusion says it represents “almost the first time the ritual of military remembering is freed from all puritan lexical constraint and allowed to take place with a full appropriate obscenity.” I’ve heard Gravity’s Rainbow invoked as a digest of wildly different insights, so it must be one of those mega-anatomies touching Everything. I’ll add it to the list of “to-reads” spawned by this, by every book.

Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,542 followers
December 3, 2018
This masterful book, published in 1975, provides a rewarding set of explorations in the way our experience of the war has been captured by literature and thereby filtered into our collective memory and understanding of it. Fussell focuses almost exclusively on the British experience at the Western Front, which includes, out of the 500 miles of the continuous line from the Belgian coast to Switzerland, the trenches of the Somme region of Picardy and of the Yrpes salient in Flanders. His thesis is that the unique qualities of the war in its senseless slaughter severely challenged the ability of any narrative to capture its horrors, but that the work of fiction, memoir, and poetry by certain notable participants forged some lasting truths that conform to an ironic turn in the literary enterprise. This in turn paved the way for the reactions after the war in the Modernist masterpieces of irony by non-participants with better writing talent (e.g. Joyce, Woolf, Pound, Eliot) and later for a more unfettered vision of its absurdity and obscenity in postmodernist works like Heller’s “Catch-22” and Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, despite their ostensible settings of World War 2.

The long stalemate in trench warfare and its unprecedented levels of casualties due to automatic weapons and intensive artillery barrages contribute to the unusual qualities of this war so difficult to convey in its reality. There was such a yawning gap between what was expected of the ill-prepared men and what they could achieve, between the platitudes and euphemisms of the officers and the press and the reality in the field. So many deaths with no territory gained did not jive with any propaganda gloss of honorable sacrifice. Life in the trenches with its mud, lice, rats, and stench of excrement and decaying bodies, long periods of bombardment, and hopeless raids against machine guns and gas attacks, was a hell beyond reach of metaphors one might use to boost objective description.

All but the most peasant level of soldiers were surprisingly steeped in classical literature and Victorian romantic and pastoral traditions. Most tropes for expressing meaning in existence worked only by way of contrast with life before the war or even the relatively short distances from the front. As in all wars, your “mate” was your one core pathway to expressing a capacity to be human, and such bonds acquired an spiritual quality in the collective records and writings of this time, with the homoerotic elements submerged or sublimated. As for God, either he was on a strike or out to lunch. Many in letters home reach for references to Bunyan’s passage through a dangerous wasteland in “Pilgrim’s Progress” or the biblical “Valley of the Shadow of Death”. The troglodyte life below ground and constant watch on the blasted landscape of no-man’s-land before them engendered a special relationship with the sky above as about their only connection to the natural world. The daily cycles of work between daytime post in the forward “firing” trenches, sleep and feeding time in “support” and “reserve” trenches a couple hundred yards behind, and intense work on refortification and body removals under cover of darkness rendered a ritual purpose to a Sisyphean existence. The “stand-to” group sessions at dawn and dusk was an especially significant turning point for anointing the isolated individuals with a sense of shared fate and enlightenment over calls for active attacks or defense. For many, the unreality of their role in the war felt just like the pretense behind acting in a play, the three acts naturally fell to training in the first act, time at the front for the second, and return home the hoped for third act.

The geography of the situation forever changed English language usage. Almost daily one can feels echoes of the war in the common usage of “no man’s land”, “over the top”, and “entrenched.” When T.S. Eliot in the 20s used “The Waste Land” in his poem, you can presume the connection despite no explicit reference to the war beyond bodies fertilizing fields. Because of constraints on the press, the true status of the war was obscured from the public behind euphemisms. If a journalist described fighting as “sharp” or “brisk”, that kind of adjective tended to refer to an outcome of casualties around 50%. Everyone reached to make some kind of story out of a life so obviously just a cog in a nihilistic universe. Inevitably, irony and dark humor was the only mode of expression that could come close to capturing the reality and render a means to put it into place. Here a common soldier fights back with such a pose:
One’s revulsion to the ghastly horrors of war was submerged in the belief that this war was to end all wars and Utopia would arise. What an illusion!”

In the hands of serious writers after the reality of this war, those who attempted to apply a romantic or pastoral cast to life at the front are trumped by the ones that succeeded with modes of irony and farce. Fussell details how it is that David Jones’ epic poem about his war experience, “In Parenthesis,” applied allusions to Arthurian myths and other old narratives but failed to elevate this conflict to the standard heroic scenarios for plucky but reserved Brits at war. With Kipling’s history of the Irish brigade his son fought and died with, Fussell makes us see how inappropriate his crafted rhetoric is, with its prose rhythms, alliteration, and imposed causalities, which leaves us to wonder:

Is there any way of compromising with the reader’s expectations that written history ought to be interesting, meaningful and the cruel fact that much of what happens—all of what happens?—is inherently without “meaning”?

By contrast, he finds Sassoon’s poetry and autobiographical trilogy, “Sherston’s Progress,” makes a better frame to capture the paradoxical truths of human experience of the war, consistent with him being both an heroic combat leader and, eventually, a conscientious war objector. In setting down so well his transitions from self-centered fox-hunter to a band of brother warriors and, as a consequence of visits or medical recovery to England, to a voice of resistance to the waste and advocate of a negotiated peace. Big ironies for him was how his lucid sanity about the war got him treated at a psychiatric hospital and how the old nobility of loyalty to your men was what led him to choose to return to the front. Despite the appearance of a memoir with names changed, the work leaves out that Sassoon was gay and that he was intensely active in writing and publishing poetry in this period and neglects the personal impact of his friendship with and mentorshiop of fellow poet Willfred Owen at the hospital.

Sassoon’s friend, Robert Graves, also wins high marks from Fussell for successfully capturing the miserable state of the British soldier and military society in his “Good-bye to All That”. Though called a memoir, he later admitted that many elements were fictional additions to give the general reader what they wanted and to boost sales, including assurance that the most painful chapters were “the most jokiest.” Despite all the fictional elements, Fussell finds it a great record of truth and noble in its application of farce as an antidote to war:

Its brilliance and compelling energy reside in its structural invention and in its perpetual resourcefulness in imposing the patterns of farce and comedy onto the blank horrors or meaningless vacancies of experience. If it really were a documentary transcription of the actual, it would be worth very little, and would surely not be, as it is, infinitely re-readable. It is valuable just because it is not true in that way.

A poet, we remember Aristotle saying, is one who mastered the art of telling lies successfully, that is, dramatically, interestingly. And what is a Graves? A Graves is a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is “fact.”
…Graves is a joker, a manic illusionist … …Being a “Graves” is a way of being scandalously “Celtish”… . It is a way—perhaps the only way left—of rebelling against the positivistic pretensions of non-Celts and satirizing the preposterous scientism of the twentieth century. His enemies are always the same: solemnity, certainty, complacency, pomposity, cruelty. And it was the Great War that brought them to his attention.

The third “memoir” that Fussell delves deeply into is Edmund Blunden’s “Undertones of War”. My past readings have made me very aware of Sassoon and Graves, but I had not heard of this well revered British poet and essayist. He was a shepherd’s son who advanced the pastoral traditions of literature so prominent in the 19th century; he later wrote the monumental “Nature in English Literature”. What we get in his writing on his battalion at the front are innumerable perversions of the pastoral and a vision of an overall travesty of nature. Bullets whiz like insects, and skulls underfoot seem like mushrooms. But overall, the effect is to pit spoiled nature and lost innocence as a counter to war and to hold the unnecessary suffering and cruelty up to shame us all. He finds his approach one of admirable literary bravery:

In a world where literary quality of Blunden’s sort is conspicuously an antique, every word of Undertones of War, every rhythm, allusion, and droll personification, can be recognized as an assault on the war and on the world which chose to conduct and continue it. It suggests what the modern world would look like to a sensibility that was genuinely civilized.

Isaac Rosenberg is another author of focus here that I was unfamiliar with. Fussell greatly admires how he walks the line between valuing the honor and bravery of the men with classical illusions while keeping their humbling misery constantly in view by means of subtle ironies. For example, in “Break of Day in the Trenches” a soldier touches rat while reaching to pluck a poppy and put it behind his ear. The sense of identity with this fellow denizen of the earth morphs into a form of envy as he imagines the freedom of the rat to visit the German lines, there where he might read comparable expressions of horror in their faces. He recognizes the poppy as both a symbol of death and taking it as a temporary hold on life:
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

The most popular poem from the war, and read at many a memorial to this day, is McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” Its dose of artful sentimentality always puts a lump in my throat similar to hearing the songs “Waltzing Mathilde” or “No Man’s Land.” Fussell finds it a bit funny for a flower associated with forgetfulness due to its opium to become one of remembrance. Yet he admires the power of the poem’s use of ghostly speech from the grave, despite its being a hackneyed device:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

But for him it is forever ruined by ending with a propaganda argument against a negotiated peace:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

A surprise in Fussell’s account is how often he reaches for writings from or about other wars to fulfill the completeness of the message of what we inherit from the human experience of the Western Front. Time and again he pulls quotes from “Gravity’s Rainbow” for that purpose. For example, here is a mocking of the honor of the commanders of the war:

The presence of Brigadier Pudding in the novel proposes the Great War as the ultimate origin of the insane contemporary scene. Pudding’s “greatest triumph on the battlefield”, we are told, “came in 1917, in the gassy, Armageddonite filth of the Ypres salient, where he conquered a bight of no man’s land some 40 yards at its deepest, with a wastage of only 70% of his unit.”

On the special kind of man-love that grew in the trenches, the men themselves had Housman’s “Shropshire Lad” in their minds for epitomizing the nobility of such bonds, the very word “lad” so potent “for a beautiful brave doomed boy”:

If truth in hearts that perish
Could move the powers on high,
I think the love I bear you
Should make you not to die.

But Fussell hands it to Pynchon provide the last word, as an aside directly to the reader about the historical loss of this type of love:
It wasn’t always so. In the trenches of the First World War, English men came to love one another decently, without shame or make-believe, under the easy likelihood of their sudden deaths, and to find in the faces of other young men evidence of otherworldly visits, some poor hope that may have helped redeem even mud, shit, the decaying pieces of human meat … While Europe died meanly in its own wastes, men loved.

The British lost about a million people in the war. The pointlessness of such loss is so hard to digest and take in stride, even to this time 100 years later. Literature does its best in an ongoing process. Fussell does a great job tying up his themes at the end, making frequent reference to Frye’s theories of cycles in literary form. The past is always present in his way of thinking:
The culture of the past … is not only the memory of mankind, but our own buried life.
Profile Image for Numidica.
386 reviews8 followers
December 12, 2021
This is a wonderful, deep book which looks at the literature of the Great War, and the cultural imprint of that war which still echoes today in so many ways. I have known of this book for years, and finally picked it up after my reading of Into the Silence reacquainted me with the WW1 experiences of young British men. Fussell has given me a detailed introduction to new authors whom I knew of, but had not read, like Edmund Blunden. Fussell of course also deals with the War Poets like Sassoon and Owen, who burn with rage at the waste and injustice and hypocrisy of the war, as in Sassoon's Suicide in the Trenches:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Blunden, on the other hand, is a gentle soul, who, by his own account, was "not eager to go to France", but went from a sense of obligation as did so many of that trusting, well-meaning generation. Blunden ends his Undertones of War with a reference which clearly applies to himself, about a "gentle shepherd in a soldier's coat". Blunden was as loving of the land, and of its birds and plants as he was of people, and his horror at what he saw he saw extended to the wanton destruction of the French countryside by artillery. He taught English literature in Japan after the war, and once said his favorite Japanese poem was about a farmer who goes to fetch water at a well, and finding that a morning glory vine had twined around the handle of the bucket there, chose to seek his water elsewhere. Blunden was deeply affected by the war of course, and he never really shook off the closeness of death, its hunger to eat the living, and it seeped into all his poetry thereafter, as in The Skaters.

Fussell reflects on the remarkable literariness of the officers and soldiers of that war, and suggests with good reason that no war before or since has had such well-read combatants. This was especially true of the British; officers make allusions to literature in every letter and in many official documents, and even Privates compare events they've witnessed to scenes in this or that Shakespeare episode.

The obliviousness of the generals, particularly Haig, to the abominable conditions at the front is not passed over, but neither does the author dwell on it at length - it is a given. Haig's Somme offensive, which cost the British 420,000 men and achieved nothing, is the archetype of the pointless slaughter of the war. Haig's complete ignorance of the real conditions at the front lines, which he never once visited in four years, led to tactics so stupid as to be criminal, but that is not news. What Fussell looks into is the literature this hopeless situation produced and it's lasting effect on how we think about war, about the press, and about political and military leaders. "Never such innocence again" as 1914.

Fussell gives an interesting analysis of Graves' Goodbye to All That, which is a wonderful book, but as I came to learn, is not entirely factual. He also deals with Sassoon's semi-autobiographical Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, which are not nearly as good as his poetry, nor as readable as Graves. Fussell dips into many other authors, British and American, who were either Great War veterans or were deeply influenced by the war, like Mailer, and his last chapter is chock full of possible future reading, but the most attractive (and unread by me thus far) is Blunden; his kindness and gentle nature perhaps made him a more even-handed judge of the horrors he experienced. And Fussell is a WW2 combat veteran who is well prepared by his wartime experience and academic career to be the interpreter of such men as Graves, Sassoon, Owen, and Blunden.

There is much more to be found in The Great War and Modern Memory than I have expounded upon above, and if you have even a passing interest in the Great War era or its literature, this book will richly reward you.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,980 reviews1,989 followers
June 24, 2019
Read for a history course at Southwest Texas State in the 1980s. It was a before-and-after book: Before the Great War was retronymed "World War One" in my database, after it was not. That by itself was a huge reorientation of my thinking.

A friend called this read to mind today, and I got to thinking about historiography and its pleasures, the mental laziness of accepting the nonce-words bandied about instead of seeking out the contemporaneous views and language..."Armistice Day" instead of "Veterans' Day," for example.

Paul Fussell's work was always linguistically exact and intellectually exacting. It was all the more formative for me because of that. I don't guess too many people will thunder out to grab copies of this sizable and dense tome. I call it a pity. The exercise for the brain would make it well worth the spondulix.
2 reviews6 followers
July 11, 2013
[Note: I've read this book twice, the first time years ago -- I set the read date as today so it updates on the Facebook wall properly.]

In this landmark text from 1975, Fussell (an American scholar and veteran) looks at a selection of writings from certain soldier-authors on the Western Front and examines the implications of same when it comes to how the war should best be understood. It's difficult to express how influential this book has been, or how widely it has been hailed since its publication; it won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, and is on the list of the Modern Library's one hundred best important non-fiction books of the twentieth century. It has never been out of print, and comes in three distinct editions: the original 1975 volume from the Oxford University Press, the 2000 follow-up to same (a 25th Anniversary edition that boasted a new afterword from the author), and the most recent: a lavish new illustrated edition from Sterling released in 2012 on the occasion of the author's death. It is greatly expanded with full-colour plates throughout, and the layout (though not the content) has been substantially revised.

I repeat that it's an extraordinarily influential work, and has had a citation history since its publication that could almost be described as Total -- that is, it was very hard for a very long time to find a book on the war that did not include some nod to Fussell and his ideas. It also led to a trend in naming books about the war with a similar convention (see Stefan Goebel's The Great War and Medieval Memory (2007) or Jason Crouthamel's The Great War and German Memory (2009), for but two examples -- there are many more), but I guess I can't really complain about that.

In any event, it's a big deal -- so why am I upset?

Fussell has faced a steady stream of criticism from historians of the war (he is primarily a literary scholar, as am I, but even more than that has characterized himself first as a "pissed-off infantryman") for his over-reliance on an archly editorial tone and a tendency to indulge in errors of fact when it makes for a good narrative. There's a now-famous critique of the book by the military historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson that first appeared in War in History 1.1 (1994), in which the two compare it to his later, similar work on WWII (Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, 1989). The second book is another story, but when it comes to the first they are critical of what they see as Fussell's hostility to anything resembling "official history" and of his reliance upon utterly subjective literary engagements to tell the real truth. This, anyway, is one of the more famous critiques; there are certainly others.

For his own part, Fussell has "responded" to his critics in the Afterwood to the 2000 edition of his work, after a fashion. His errors of fact and grossly polemic tone remain in that edition (and in the new illustrated edition, too), and all he offers in response is the suggestion that his critics are heartless apathetes who don't understand suffering, and that, as he was only writing in the elegaic mood to begin with, demanding historical accuracy of him was a foolish move on their part. Yeah, how dare they. He has elsewhere made it clear (in an essay included in his Thank God for the Atom Bomb collection, though I can't remember its name) that he thinks authors who respond to their critics in depth are idiots, so I guess it was never meant to be, but an ounce of humility might have been nice.

Anyway, with due admission of the importance it holds to many people, and the reputation that it has won, there is much about that makes it a very poor book.

Fussell makes a very big deal about how he wants to get back to what the real, regular men doing the real fighting had to say and think about the war experience, and to wrest command of this idea away from the intellectuals, the generals, the politicians -- the "official" narrative. To do this, he has written a book that offers as "real, regular men" such luminaries as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Wilfred Owen -- men, that is, who were all recipients of expansive educations, enjoyed a great deal of leisure in their civilian lives (Sassoon was as notorious for his fox-hunting as he was for his literary salons, for example), and had such exquisitely artistic, intellectual sensibilities that their first response to combat was to write sonnets about it. As fantastic as these writers were, and as impressive specimens of men, "regular" they are not.

Fussell indulges in gross sensationalism as a matter of course in a bid to support his book's overarching thesis, which is that war generally -- and the Great War even more so -- is a fundamentally ironic enterprise. He conveys "facts" about the war in a manner calculated to bring out their apparent irony and stupidity, but it is very easy to go too far with this -- as he does when he blandly asserts in the book's early pages that the war saw "eight million men killed because an archduke and his wife had been shot" (paraphrased, but not by much; I can get the actual citation, if you like). This is the kind of thing -- as are various claims about Sir Douglas Haig -- that's of a nature so trivializing, reductive and vicious that it would likely see a student who attempted it drummed out of his program. The uneloquent Sir Douglas' attempt to offer some words of inspiration to the BEF during the German Spring Offensive of 1918 (which resulted in the catastrophic rout of the British army along a considerable front) earns him a comparison to Hitler, for example.

There's also a certain strange ignorance on display in what he chooses to address: someone so fixated on the war's irony and the literary dimensions of it can not easily be forgiven for having nothing whatever to say about the death of H.H. "Saki" Munro in 1916. Saki was one of the most famous English literary ironists of his time, and the supremely ironic manner of his death -- cut down by a sniper in the act of scolding an enlisted man for lighting a too-noticeable cigarette at night -- would seem to make him an ideal inclusion in a book of this sort. But no... not even mentioned once. At another point, Fussell says something factually incorrect about Kipling's The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923) and then uses this error as a platform from which to breezily attack Kipling's character. This was actually the first deficiency I noticed in the work when I read it for the first time, and it put me on my guard at once.

There are other things he fails to mention, and with considerably more important consequences. He views the war as always an ironic and chaotic enterprise, and so studiously neglects to include anything about those elements of the war that were neither ironic nor especially chaotic. You will look in vain for anything useful in this book about the war in the air, or at sea, or on the many non-Western fronts that saw real gains being made in measurable and consequential ways. The war's purposelessness and futility are again and again hammered home, but without giving any recognition to the experience of the many countries and peoples (such as those within the former Austro-Hungarian Empire) for whom the war was the complete opposite of those things.

If you want a book that confirms practically every bias exhibited by what "everyone knows" about the First World War, The Great War and Modern Memory is the way to go -- in part, in fact, it is responsible for crafting what "everyone knows," so thoroughly influential has it been. I would rather a newcomer read practically anything else, though, at least at first.

In addition to all the above, there have been further (and quite merited) criticisms from feminist scholars who have noted that Fussell's characterization of "modern memory" is often exclusively masculine. Even his gestures towards sexuality and romantic love are primarily homosexual and homosocial. Claire Tylee's The Great War and Women's Consciousness (1990) is probably the best book-length engagement with Fussell's ideas in this regard, if you can find a copy. If you don't feel like reading an entire book on this, the same author's "'The Great War and Modern Memory': What is Being Repressed?" in Women's Studies Quarterly 23.3-4 (1995) offers an article-lengthed precis.

It remains an essential work, though one with a reputation that is slowly (and, I may say, thankfully) eroding. There are several that could be said to have supplanted it, or at least supplemented it.

Samuel Hynes' A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (1990) has become a standard text on this subject, though also a controversial one from an historical point of view; Hynes characterizes the war as "a gap in history," and more to the point insists that those who experienced it viewed it in the same way. While Hynes is far more comprehensive in the types and amount of literature he surveys than Fussell was, he still tends to highlight only those works that confirm what he proposes about the war's historical impact. Plenty is excluded. More to the point, Hynes writes of what he calls "The Myth" of the war:

…a generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them. They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.

While Hynes acknowledges (as he should) that this is an absurd oversimplification of everything involved in it, it is nevertheless the mythic lens through which many modern people observe the war. The myth, he says, has value even though it is historically suspect. I don't entirely agree, myself; Hynes cites the myth "to mean," in his words, "not a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it". The historian would say that it is indeed a falsification of reality to claim the things in the quoted paragraph above, or at least an overt rhetoricization of reality.

Anyway, Hynes is not the only one worth considering, though the text remains a big one. Janet Watson's Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory and the First World War in Britain (2004) is a fantastic volume that attempts to offer a more rigorously historicized corrective to the work produced by the likes of Fussell or Hynes. She is particularly interested in the period's book culture, but also in how those who experienced the war -- men, women, children, everyone -- conceived of that experience alternately as work or service. The two conceptions produce very different reactions and inform very different types of cultural memory, and Watson does a marvelous job unpacking the implications. Well worth checking out, if you can get it.

I should close by admitting that, even in spite of all the above, the book does have merits. Fussell is nothing if not an engaging writer, and the analyses he provides of Graves, Blunden et al. is quite good indeed. The book was also very important in opening up new lines of inquiry into the war and its culture that have since borne much more promising fruit. For the book itself, though, the day has rather passed. For the student already well-versed in the backdrop of the war itself, there's much here to be enjoyed. I just wouldn't put it into the hands of a neophyte.
Profile Image for Rob.
144 reviews37 followers
March 5, 2023
A great book. Using the tools of literary criticism to reflect on WW1, Fussell digs into how the war changed consciousness. It was the war Fussell argues, that makes the modern age an age of irony. Traditional notions of the war virtues like honour, valour and bravery disappeared into the shit and mud of the Western Front. The cynicism towards authority and the official view portrayed in newspapers etc. started in the war. The troops could read The Times or The Daily Mail in the trenches two days after it was published. They would read nothing of the great disasters of British arms such as The Battle of the Somme.

There is so much to this book. Page after page there are fascinating observations about how the imagination of this generation of Englishmen (possibly THE most literate, i.e. imbued with literary tastes) shaped their reactions to the war. A small point but one of many is that while the red poppy was indeed all over the battlefields so too was the blue cornflower. But it was a peculiar English literary convention that settled upon the poppy as the symbolic flower of the war. This flower of spring while it symbolised life was also short-lived. The red suggested the blood of life and the blood of violent young death. There are other overtones to the poppy that perhaps the official remembrance committees would like to overlook.

Fussell analysis goes to places that are no doubt uncomfortable for the Colonel Blimp's of this world such as a certain homo-eroticism evident in much of the poetry and prose that came out of the war.

Words, and the shape they give to our memories and imaginations individually and collectively affect even the most visceral of experiences like modern warfare. I did not understand this so fully until I read this book.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 2 books1,358 followers
April 27, 2017
I rarely read non-fiction, but this just took my breath away. It's both a wonderful (and achingly sad) introduction to the poets and writers who emerged (or didn't) from World War I, as well as an eye-opening description of how that conflict shaped modern life.
Profile Image for Erin Deathstar.
2 reviews2 followers
September 10, 2011
Extraordinary. One of the best books I've read on WWI. By employing literary critique, Fussell manages to capture virtually every aspect of the war from its mammoth obscenity to its myriad tiny obscenities, to the beauties of light and birdsong as experienced in the trenches, to the social fabric of the poor doomed trench-bound souls, to the wit and wonder of The Wipers Times.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for conveying the vast and complex reality of WWI . Perhaps Fussell's idiosyncratic approach was one of the only ways to really convey the true nature of this monumental cesspit of humanity's failure.

Of dozens of books I've read on WWI, both memoirs and first-generation and second-generation histories, I consider "The Great War and Modern Memory" absolutely one of the essential works on the topic. My short list also includes Tardi's "C'etait la Guerre de Trancheés," Graves' "Goodbye to All That," Sassoon's "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer", Blunden's "Undertones of War", Penguin's compilation of First War verse, Modris Eksteins' "Rites of Spring" and Keegan's traditional history, "The First World War".

I consider WWI the birthplace of our current global condition: the point at which European hegemony began to crumble via its own immolation and the beginnings of the global movement towards liberation, self-determination and universal human rights.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
495 reviews79 followers
February 8, 2020
Every war should have a guide like this, something to help later generations understand how the people who experienced the conflict interpreted their experiences. It makes me wonder how much of other wars we gloss over without grasping the context of things that mattered a great deal to the participants and shaped their actions and memories. The only other book I can think of that is as effective as The Great War and Modern Memory at interpreting soldiers and a society at war is Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington 1860-1865.

The poetry of the Great War had its roots in the pastoralism of English literature from the previous centuries, but, confronting the madness of the battlefields, the filth of the trenches, and the ever-present prospect of death and dismemberment, the poets realized that the old forms of literary language were not just inappropriate, but obscene as vehicles to describe the war, and their poems howled in outrage and despair. From this came some of the greatest poetry in the English language, but at such a cost….

Fussell is an excellent guide to the Great War, both from literary and military history perspectives. Having himself served in combat as an infantry officer in World War II, he has no illusions about the suffering, terror, and insanity that soldiers experience, and describes the battlefields in all their nightmarishness.

World War I has produced its share of great histories, memoirs, and poetry, but if any book should be considered an indispensable introduction to the conflict, this is it.
Profile Image for Carol Storm.
Author 28 books194 followers
February 12, 2017
THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY is the kind of war book that is especially cherished by people who feel morally obligated to "hate" war, or perhaps more accurately to hate the soldiers (mostly, but not always men) who fight it. Back in the days of Operation Desert Storm, when Barnard educated NY Times columnist Anna Quindlen was sneering at American combat troops as blue-collar rabble "not smart, not rich, not directed enough for college" she also found time to make a ritualistic little salute to "that graceful writer, Paul Fussell."

But you can't always judge a man by the friends he chooses -- or who choose him.

On one level, this certainly is an anti-war classic. Paul Fussell effectively dramatizes the horror, ugliness and futility of life in the trenches, using eyewitness accounts, historical records, and the best literature and poetry written after the war by the survivors. But the irony that may not be apparent to privileged noncombatants like Anna Quindlen is that the war (and its legacy) had a brutalizing effect on everyone, soldier and civilian alike.

Perhaps the most brilliant passage in the book describes how the war in the trenches, by its very nature, forced the combatants to see the men on the other side not as men at all but as a sub-human menace, as "the Other." Fussell describes how this way of thinking continued well after the war, and how it infected men from all walks of life. The faceless enemy of the trenches soon became "Tolkien's Orcs, Hitler's Jews, William Faulkner's Snopes Clan, Anthony Burgess' Alex and Droogs."

This is revelatory writing, full of fresh insight, and Fussell deserves full credit for the brilliance of his intellect and the scope of his vision. The irony, however, (and Paul Fussell appreciated irony far more than some of his later followers) is that the privileged elite who comprise today's anti-war left are themselves a product of the trenches. When she dismissed over one million men and women as "not smart, not rich, not directed enough for college," Anna Quindlen was herself upholding a long and dishonorable tradition. None of us were human to her then, or now. To her, and to the privileged who share her prejudices to this day in America, the men and women of the Armed Forces are themselves "the Huns," "the Pigs," "The Babykillers" "the Famine Irish," or simply "The Other."

Paul Fussell understood his followers a lot better than his followers understood him.
Profile Image for Julie.
555 reviews275 followers
November 28, 2015
An exceptional book, especially for those of us who appreciate the interconnections Fussell makes between literature and war. With a deft hand, he pulls together literary tradition right into the middle of the fray and opens the very heart of the wound. This is the first time I've truly understood war, and I see how it had to be done through literature. This will be a very personal book -- there will be lovers and haters. I can't imagine sitting on the fence on this one.

Profile Image for Judith Johnson.
Author 1 book87 followers
February 10, 2022
I’ve read a lot of First World War material - first-hand accounts, historical records, poetry etc, and visited many war graves, as well as compiling a record of those mentioned on Southborough War Memorial, and have to say this book is really outstanding. Highly recommended.

Fascinating, as mentioned here, how much WW1 terminology is still evoked by the British - particularly the ghastly old Imperialist guard, currently led by the execrable Boris Johnson and his motley crew! The media too. You often hear talk of ‘raising one’s head over the parapet ‘, ‘going over the top ‘ and such like.

Time we moved on? Let’s hope so! I’m sure all those men who suffered, on every side of the conflict, would be horrified, over 100 years on from ‘the war to end all wars’, that we’re still hard at it, if not on our own soil, then in proxy wars...

144 reviews5 followers
January 19, 2015
This is a difficult book to read. I first began reading The Great War and Modern Memory in 1979 and quit. Then eighteen months ago I tried again, got half way through and stopped. This time before starting, I committed finishing it within a two-eek period and was successful.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012) was a refreshing anomaly. Well educated (Pomona College and Harvard), erudite, and a true scholar (British literature), he was also a U.S. Army rifle platoon leader in World War II where he earned the Bronze Star for valor and was seriously wounded. He was a successful academic, but received wider exposure and fame as a popular historian with such books as The Boy’s Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-45 and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. Fussell was also a pacifist—an articulate critic of the wastage of war. His own combat experiences were a constant life companion. While on a countryside drive with a friend later in life, Fussell admitted he could not travel over such ground without exercising a trained infantryman’s eye—here was the high ground, there were the ravines and possible flanking attack approaches, and just to the right were trees possibly with enemy observers or a sniper. He was also realistic. In war lives must sometimes be spent to save other lives. He thus remained a staunch advocate of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, remarking, “…the degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with the lack of information about the war.” Knowing about him was extraordinarily helpful in understanding The Great War and Modern Memory. Although Fussell’s war came two decades after the Great War (World War I) this book is autobiographical—Fussell’s tool for giving meaning and understanding to his and his generation’s own war, World War II.

The Great War and Modern Memory is organized topically. It focuses on the 1914-1918 experience of the British Army on the Western Front. These were four years of static, costly trench warfare conducted under the most horrible conditions. Human life was less than cheap as millions died in meaningless offensives with 18th Century tactics pitted against 20th Century industrial killing technologies. Readers expecting a chronological narrative of the Great War will be disappointed. Fussell’s goal is to give meaning and understanding to the slaughter through the exploration of pre-, contemporary, and post-war literature, primarily British. This is a tall order. This body of literature lacked, for most of this time period, the mental models, socially acceptable language, and hardened, realistic voices to describe the inconceivable horror the front lines represented. Fussell slights the routine motif for describing death on a mass scale—the listing of the large numbers of personnel engaged in the fighting, noting of the percentage of killed and wounded divided by the time engaged, and the meters of ground exchanged at exorbitant cost in human suffering and death. Instead, he endeavors to personalize this horror through the understanding of literature. In doing so, he reveals the deep sorrow and regret felt by many who fought and gives permission for those who felt this way to be venerated above those celebrating the crass militarism and disguised glory of ‘victory’. This is pacifism at its best, pacifism as strength and sanity, not unpatriotic weakness.

Fussell sees the Great War as a historical fault line. It begins the mass understanding of war as irony. The means for waging it, for example, were far worse than the ends it was to achieve. The initial adjectives describing the fighting (glorious sacrifice, righteousness cause et al.) failed in every way, ironically, to describe the reality of the fighting. Even the outbreak of the war in 1914 was ironic. Europe, now in the latter portion of the modern age of imperialism, was prospering economically, socially, culturally, and politically. Ethnic and nationalistic strife was acute, but had been managed through a series of recent conflicts in the Balkans. The weather in the summer of 1914 had been particularly pleasant. The likely location for an outbreak of conflict in the minds of the British would be occurring in Ulster, not Serbia. Rationally speaking, a European-wide war made no sense. How ironic that the Great War would rapidly unfold and ultimately engulf and destroy the old European dictated world order in such an unexpected fashion.

Ways of conceptualizing war receded and died and new ways emerged as a consequence of the Great War. Fussell notes, “The drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable. And the catastrophe that begins it is the Great War”. Much of the book addresses how descriptive literature challenged this ‘normalization’ and evolved to cope with the physical and psychological devastation wrought by the war. Several war poets’ journeys (including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brook) from patriotic innocence to intense criticism of the war are chronicled. It is clear, however, that the literature did not change quickly enough to become an accurate descriptive tool for what occurred on the Western Front while the war was being waged. Rather, it evolved over time, a long time. According to Fussell, it is the World War II generation and beyond that accurately describes in grotesque and pornographic ways, modern warfare—especially its psychological consequences on those caught up in the fighting. Norman Mailer, James Jones, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon leverage the changes in social mores, following the Great War and especially World War II, to graphically explore modern war’s impact on the human psyche first experienced in the Great War. As Fussell notes, “Ex post facto, literary narrative has supplied it (the Great War) with coherence and irony, educing the pattern: innocence savaged and destroyed. Or, if not destroyed, transformed into utterly what Frye calls ‘the total cultural form, of our present life’”.

Why should this book be read? It is in many ways obscure and remote. It is certainly not an ‘everyman’s’ guide to understanding the death, destruction, and desolation of modern warfare. More than anything it is a log of Fussell’s own journey from childhood innocence to the reality of his own war experiences. Thankfully most of us will never embark on a similar journey. World wars for the moment seem remote possibilities and conscripted legions of citizens are not needed for national defense. Yet, we remain surrounded by war. Those engaged in the fighting remain small in number. We are permanent strangers to their war lives. We fete them, thank them for their service, and know nothing of what we speak. Yet, we do not hesitate to support sending them in harms way on our behalf. Rare among us are those that question the sending or the repetitive platitudes used as justification.

Fussell in the Great War and Modern Memory challenges us to make our own imperfect journey into the jaws of modern war and seek understanding in our own dark mind spaces. To do this we must read further—All is Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque), The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (Siegfried Sassoon), Undertones of War (Edmund Blunden Good-bye to All That (Robert Graves), The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer), The Thin Red Line (James Jones), and Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon). What is likely to emerge is war’s ugly realities and reason for each of us to question every rationale that sends soldiers, sailors, airmen coastguardsmen, and marines to kill others in the name of the United States.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
669 reviews3,399 followers
January 19, 2018
In many ways the First World War dealt Europe ("Western civilization") a blow from which it has never truly recovered. This book is an examination of the cultural and psychological impact of the war which uses literary criticism as a tool of mapping the changes that it wrought in people's thinking and emotions. Fussell makes draws some very broad conclusions that aren't necessarily convincing given the evidence that he cites. But the arguments he makes are fascinating and enjoyable to contemplate, with a bonus being that he ends up giving a tour of the incredible poetry and literature during that era.

Fussell reviews the work of a couple of WWI veteran writers that most people will be familiar with, including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and, briefly, Erich Maria Remarque. From these reviews he suggests that certain key aspects of our modern mindset arose from the war. Among these, the most interesting to me was the suggestion that our contemporary obsession with irony was a product of the WWI battlefields. "Never such innocence again," was a famous refrain born from the horrors of the war. As many writers have reflected, prior to the conflict Europe had a completely different and much more confident view of itself. Most importantly, its highest ideals were genuinely believed and not considered to be naked hypocrisies. Concepts such as beauty, love, honor and courage were sincerely held in popular esteem, without a sense that any of them were somehow ridiculous or even nonexistent.

In accordance with their self-image, when the war broke out people were expecting it to be something honorable, adventurous and ennobling. They expected something that comported with the self-image of their societies, which, after over a century of what seemed to have been genuine moral advance, had left barbarism behind forever.

The pointless bloodbath that actually ensued was so different from the glorious image hoped for, and so horrifying, that it led to the widespread emergence of "irony" among those who were forced to confront the grim reality. The huge gap between the aimlessly bestial nature of the war and the patriotic, encouraging news reports fed to civilians only exacerbated this ironic sense. It gave rise to the phenomena of black humor among the troops, young men who could never again take seriously the noble ideals professed by their societies.

Fussell's argument is impossible to verify here, but it is a fascinating idea. I would also argue that it bears continued reflection today, given the almost invincibly ironic cast of our contemporary popular culture and humor. Irony seems to provide something of a mental and emotional armor against the reality of the world, which is often difficult to deal with on its own terms. But it may also contribute to an inability to engage with the higher values that are perhaps necessary for individuals and society as a whole to flourish. In many ways the victory of irony has meant the death of genuine moral reflection, because it makes it seem as though nothing high-minded in the world can actually exist or be aspired to. As Hemmingway wrote, “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” It might be that the death of those concepts and the birth of ironic thinking has its origins in the terrible realities of the war.

Beyond the meditations on irony, there are some darkly amusing segments showing how great the desire of the soldiers was to kill the civilians of their own societies for sending them into "The War," a beastly presence that for many participants had become an independent metaphysical actor. It was also sobering to realize how close the war fronts were to people's homes, so much so that people going about their daily business in much of England could clearly hear the shelling and explosions taking place in France. For soldiers, their physical proximity to the safety, enjoyment and hypocrisy of home made the inhuman experience of the frontlines even more jarring.

World War I also gave birth to the idea that endless war may be a feature of the suddenly terrifying technological modernity that people had found themselves plunged into. There had never been an industrialized war like this before in Europe, or anywhere in the world. After the horrifying reality of what a modern war was like began to dawn on people, many quite reasonably began to feel that endless war actually might be an inherent feature of modernity, just like the radio, refrigerator and air travel, also new phenomena. As such many began to fear that the incredibly bloody stalemate on the frontlines was perhaps not an aberration. It was going to continue on forever, as long as the modern world continued to exist, because it was simply a part of its nature.

While this fear wasn't exactly true, to this day new technologies - unmoored from a strong moral framework - keep opening up unexpected new ways for cruelty and inhumanity to express themselves. "The drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable," Fussell writes. Looking at drone warfare, cluster bombs, white phosphorus attacks and other horrifying phenomena that have now become "normal," it is hard to conclude that he was wrong about this. Another quote cited by Fussell reminding readers of this grim reality was from Liddell Hart. Describing the new technology of poison gas, Liddell wrote that it was in reality “the least inhumane of modern weapons," claiming that in fact its bad press was purely the result of its novelty, compared with ordinary bombs and bullets. “It was novel and therefore labelled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovation," Hart wrote.

Among Fuessell's other arguments, I wasn't particularly convinced that the Us. vs. Them mentality of the modern world came out of World War I specifically, nor some of the other claims less interesting claims that he made based on his literary citations. In my opinion, the book started off on its strongest arguments and then tapered off a bit into a more basic retinue of literary criticism.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it. And perhaps the biggest reason was become of the extended tour Fussell gives of poetry from the war. A particularly moving one, that I'll conclude with, was Laurence Binyon's reflection on the loss of a generation of young men in the trenches, entitled, "For the Fallen:"

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
563 reviews82 followers
November 11, 2021
The Great War of 1914-18 was called “The War to End All Wars” – though it wasn’t, and it didn’t. What it did do, as we all know, is kill 17 million people. It also wounded 20 million more, turned large parts of Europe into a wasteland, and destabilized the continent’s governments in a manner that would facilitate the rise of totalitarian regimes and the outbreak of an even bloodier Second World War. And according to Paul Fussell, the Great War did one other thing: it exerted virtually a controlling influence on how the people of the 20th century would look at war, society, and life in general.

The Great War and Modern Memory won a National Book Award for the seamless manner in which Fussell, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, combined historical analysis of the Great War with literary analysis of the manner in which literature of the time, and specifically 20th-century British poetry of the post-war years, reflected the influence of that war. And in a way, Fussell was uniquely well-qualified to write this book: he was himself a combat-wounded military officer, who suffered serious wounds as a rifle platoon leader in the U.S. Army’s 103rd Infantry Division during the Second World War. The dedication page by itself speaks to the importance of Fussell’s war experience in leading him to the writing of this book: “To the memory of Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, ASN 36548772, Co. F, 410th Infantry, killed beside me in France, March 15, 1945.”

A Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, Fussell looks to the experience of the young British officers whose literary testimonials he drew upon as his prime source materials for this book, and reflects that “As a wounded ex-infantry officer fascinated and sometimes obsessed with my experience in Europe in the Second World War, I instinctively related my experience to theirs” (p. 421). Perhaps it is for this reason that when Fussell offers general observations regarding army life – for example, that “No soldier who has fought ever entirely overcomes his disrespect for the Staff” (p. 101) – the reader gets a sense that these observations are based on lived experience.

Successive chapters of The Great War and Modern Memory focus on the ironic dimensions of the war; the grotesque tableau of Western Front trench life; the psychology of establishing an “other” as “The Enemy”; the manner in which myth, romanticism, pastoralism, and other British literary and theatrical traditions influenced British soldiers’ responses to, and writings about, the war; the sexual lives of World War I soldiers, most of them young men far from home; and the way in which images of World War I influenced the way later 20th-century authors wrote about World War II and later conflicts.

For many readers, particularly here in the U.S.A., many of the British writers Fussell focuses upon may be somewhat unfamiliar. For example, I knew Robert Graves as the author of historical novels like I, Claudius, and of a controversial retelling of the Greek myths. But I did not know how vital the Great War was in fostering Graves’s literary imagination; and Fussell takes some pains to show how Graves’s memoir Good-bye to All That (1929) reflects that reality.

Quite a few readers, confronted with the phrase “World War I poetry,” might find themselves thinking first of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915). McCrae’s poem, so influential that it inspired the name of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, shows how the poppy came to symbolize the vast human cost of the war: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row,/That mark our place”. Or they might think of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (1917), with its unforgettable evocation of the toil and suffering of the World War I infantryman in the trenches – exhausted, filthy, vulnerable to war weapons like the German army’s 5.9-inch artillery shells: “Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots/But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;/Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots/Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.”

Fussell appreciates Owen’s willingness to make his imagery of war harsher as he revised his war poems, “to replace the pretty of 1913 with the nasty of 1917” (369). But Fussell is much harsher on McCrae. For Fussell, McCrae’s poem goes from the “So far, so pretty good” of the first two stanzas to, in the final stanza, “a propaganda argument – words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far – against a negotiated peace” (315). Small wonder, perhaps, as he proceeds with his harsh critique of this beloved poem, that Fussell writes, somewhat defensively, that “I have not broken this butterfly upon the wheel for no reason” (315).

The Great War and Modern Memory has me looking back into the past with sadness, and anticipating the future with some trepidation. Around the world today – just as it was a century ago, before the guns of August 1914 roared to life – citizens of various countries are rejecting the globalist, keep-the-peace consensus that emerged among the major nations of the Earth with the end of the Second World War. From Brexit in Great Britain, to Duterte in the Philippines, to Donald Trump here in the United States of America, voters in democracies around the world are embracing a nationalistic, “us-first,” go-it-alone ethic -- an ideology that is championed by populist politicians who promise easy-fix answers for complex economic and social questions.

In studying the First World War, we see what can happen when major nations led by jingoistic politicians find themselves quarrelling over which nation is Number One. Par exemple: Over one hundred years ago this month, in November of 1916, the Battle of the Somme ended. A characteristically inconclusive and tragic World War I engagement, the Battle of the Somme lasted five months, killed one million soldiers, and resulted in nothing more than a slight shift in the Western Front trench lines. Today, in this much later November, I look to the future and find myself wondering, as William Butler Yeats once did: what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews121 followers
August 27, 2018
THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY is not a military history, it's a cultural history of World War One from the British soldier's point of view. Fascinating, and nabbed author Fussell the National Book Award back in 1975. Still very much "recommended reading" today. With chapters like "Oh, What a Literary War" and "Soldier Boys," Fussell, an American WWII combat veteran, showed the world that there was more to the Great War than the suffering it entailed -- he maintained that the war ushered in the Twentieth Century, and proved his point brilliantly. By the author of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.
Profile Image for Checkman.
517 reviews75 followers
January 12, 2016
Paul Fussell's now classic examination at how World War I is remembered by looking at British literature - both fiction and non-fiction. This is not a military history of World War I though Fussell does provide some background in order to put things into context. It's a literary criticism. If you're interested in how a historical event comes to be percieved by later generations then you'll find this an interesting read.

It has been pointed out by some that this book is now out of date and Fussell's research and conclusions are obsolete (as if they were last year's model). Well perhaps, but I believe it's up to the individual reader to reach his or her's own conclusion and the only way to do that is to read this book. Very much an academic effort. The book isn't a rapid fire page turner (very chewy in my opinion). Nevertheless I found it interesting for the perspective that it provides. This is a book that makes the reader think. Nobody can accuse Paul Fussell of being a low-brow junk peddler.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 14 books102 followers
May 30, 2017
Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) is a tour de force and more than a tour de force. It could easily be the single book assigned for a semester-long graduate seminar focusing on how Great Britain’s literary culture helped shape contemporary understanding of World War I–casting it in romantic, pastoral, theatrical and homoerotic terms–and how World War I returned the favor by shaping the western world’s literature thereafter.

The unspeakable folly and stupidity of WWI and how it was fought, trench warfare with assaults at times killing fifty thousand soldiers in a single day, beggared the imagination, driving the likes of Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden to scour their lifelong reading from past centuries to find, here and there, hints as to how such darkness could be made visible.

Fussell demonstrates a mastery not only of professional memoirists’ and poets’ attempts to come to terms with the carnage but also deep knowledge of how Everyman the Letter-Writer portrayed his ghastly experience through the cultural filters of stiff upper lips, the nobility of service, and the tropes of putting on a good show.

At one and the same time this is a study that rests on the shoulders of Fussell’s exceptional erudition and his apparently indefatigable efforts to mine the Imperial War Museum’s archives for epistolary realia that demonstrates, year by year, how the molds of culture were filled to overfilling and then broke.

No one knew the meaning of trenches or machine-guns until WWI brought them together in a stalemate of slaughter, 1914-1918. Fussell illustrates this better than almost anyone. He is at ease with the English writers of the times, with their American counterparts–Hemingway, Dos Passos–and with their successors– a Norman Mailer, a Ted Hughes, a Thomas Pynchon.

Because there are so many aptly chosen quotes, embedded within extremely acute commentary, this is not light reading. Fussell’s expositions of individual poems are masterful, his judgment is excellent. And he does the same with essays and novels, demonstrating repeatedly how WWI never really ended, always thereafter framed human experience as Winston Churchill saw it–war and then more war. When a Norman Mailer inserts parapets into his WWII novel, The Naked and the Dead, he writes with larcenous irony. There were no parapets from which you might be shot in WWII, but the feeling of WWI parapets, where what you were looking out for ended up being your onrushing death, lingered as a useful symbol of what war, any war, is all about: exposing yourself to dying and then doing it, getting yourself killed, having done with it so the next man might have his chance.

Fussell’s own story is fascinating. He saw heavy fighting in WWII, returned to the US to get a PhD in English, and then dutifully wrote the books he knew a rising academic was supposed to write, purely literary studies. Once tenured, he told himself the time had come to write a book he wanted to write, and so he produced this unique study of literature not as Rapunzel in her tower but as Penthesilea in battle. The actual uses of literature, and culture in general, have seldom been so well presented, playing a prominent role in the affairs of nations and mankind, teaching the dumbfounded what and how to think about the dumb things they are doing. This social dimension of literature increasingly has become familiar in academe since Fussell’s time, but it was fairly controversial back in 1975. What makes it convincing, in this case, is Fussell’s astonishing command of his subject, both the war and the not so belles-lettres that crawled into and it through it and live to this day. Here we have verse, lice, rats, religion, mustard gas, Arcadian imagery, Milton, and Pynchon’s shit-eating Brigadier Pudding.

Ultimately, what we see is the transformation of passing horror into a foundational myth–an origin myth–of the modern world. WWI let us see who we are.
68 reviews3 followers
June 11, 2015
Paul Fussell raises a provocative question in his most acclaimed nonfiction work The Great War and Modern Memory: What happened to the world between 1914 and 1918? His shocking but illuminating conclusion is that the mindset of an entire generation completely changed. How we write poetry, how we talk about war, how we see reality. His study delves into the poetry and prose of the First World War, focusing primarily on the British experience whose countrymen endured the horrors of the war at least twice as long as their American counterparts. Fussell leads us on a kind of historical and literary guided tour over the cratered battlefields and down into the miry trenches, while opening up the tattered poetry books and diaries of writers who struggled to find the words to describe some of the most ghastly visions humans had yet encountered. He reveals how poetic language itself changed from the adventurous optimism of the early days of the war to a deep disillusioned skeptism after such devastating debacles as the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Famous writers of the war, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves are highlighted, as each in turn contributed to our understanding of the Great War. But Fussell's study is also a grim portrait of the burgeoning modern world, how bureaucratic institutions got their foothold, how form letters found their origins, and how the 20th century's eyes glazed over with bitter irony after The War to End All Wars merely lead to yet more horrifying conflicts. After reading this work, I found myself going back to it again and again, as I've been spellbound by his microscopic probing of language and history. Fussell shows his mastery of the literary arts and how it ties to history in his compelling and colorful style. I highly recommend this work to anyone fascinated by history, war, and literature --they are all here in remarkable if sometimes tragic details in The Great War and Modern Memory.
Profile Image for Caroline.
718 reviews124 followers
August 27, 2013
It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of this book. It's definitely one of the landmark publications on Great War literature, and Fussell's arguments and conclusions are so lucid and compelling that you almost find it strange that no-one else thought of it before him.

Each chapter draws on a central theme found throughout the war poetry; the binary oppositions of 'us' and 'them', the troglodyte horrors of the trenches, the comparison of the war to theatre, the homoeroticism of soldiers as comrades and brothers, the pastoral imagery used as a contrast to the industrial machinery of war, the prevalence of myth and romance - and he uses an enormous swathe of literature to illustrate his points. I found upon finishing this book that I had a shopping list as long as my arm of books mentioned in these pages that I want to go on to read.

Fussell's central argument seems to be that WW1, more than any other war, was a literary war, both in the way that those who fought in it used literature as a tool to help them understand what was happening, but also in the way that we ourselves have to come to remember it. Most people's impressions of the Great War have not come from the history books; they've come from the literature that came out of the war - from Graves and Sassoon and Owen. Our very memories of that war have been shaped by literature: think of the very words we use on Remembrance Day from the poem by Laurence Binyon - 'at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them'.
Profile Image for Michael.
93 reviews
August 9, 2011
This is a most remarkable book. Over the years I have read quite a bit of history, but never a book quite like this one - it is thoroughly unique. It brings together poetry, literature, language, and all sorts of events that changed our way of speaking and thinking of war forever. All this was done in one fairly small book. Some might find it a little scholarly, but never, in my opinion, was it petulant. This book brings with it a deeply, touching human side to those who suffered though the '14-18' war. Take a little time to read about Mr Paul Fussell and you will understand how he was able to accomplish what I have described. Through some stroke of good fortune, I read his work first before beginning my other readings on WWI. It proved a solid foundation to pursue the poetry and fiction that came from those horrible years, and also a foundation for works that dealt with geopolitical and military events. I recommended it to a hard core history/literature buff (a Professor nonetheless) who was equally taken with this little book's scope and depth. After a few pages, he purchased a copy for himself. I value the limited time I have to read. This book proved a gem and my time was well spent.
Profile Image for Phrodrick.
903 reviews39 followers
June 11, 2017
The Great War, and Modern Memory is not a military history or a literary history. It draws from history and from literature mostly to help the author comprehend the experience of war. In the afterward he will describe this book as elegiac, meaning it is similar to an elegy. Elegy, meaning writing mourning the dead. It is very respectful of these many millions of dead, but this is incomplete. What Fussell does is to lead us into the special horrors that was trench warfare in WWI and try to explain to us , and himself how humans cope , internalize and respond.

The reader should know that Paul Fussell was a junior Army officer in WWII. He was in action, including "going over the bags: and defending from night attacks. He survived the loss of people he acknowledges were better soldiers than he. . That this book is focused almost exclusively on the British soldier's enrollment in close modern combat and he main reference will be the mostly young officer class who survived, or at least survived long enough to publish books and poems about their experience.

In nine chapters he will explain how combat divides people between those who have been there, and the rest of us. He will force readers to contemplate the degrading, horrible place that was a WWI trench and the special demands this life makes on retaining your humanity.

For me, the image that I had to carry was of a soldier crouched behind a parapet that was made , in part from the rotting corpse of a shot up horse and identifiable parts of fellow soldiers. Such a baracade has to stink, but so does much of the rest of this "battle space" it has to be soul destroying to have so manifestly present , `In your face". And ultimately, it stops the bullets or shrapnel that would otherwise kill you so that soldier will simply put the these facts out of mind. Just as ultimately these facts have to become part of what the survivors will have to become. Stark as this image is. What is the psychic weight of an attack by a battalion of almost 900 men that ends with 80 men alive?

As a reader you will have to take in these images, the hammer blows of the static nature of trench warfare. Participants could be taken away injured, returned to England for long recoveries only to return to the same line. Whatever the hopes of high command that the next attack would break through and turn the war into a mobile effort with cavalry in the lead, this would not happen for years. Meantime friends beyond count would be reduced to blood and memories. All of this with no one who can understand except those who had been there.

In brief:
Words alone cannot explain the arbitrary and messy facts of wartime death.
Military censorship prohibits too much truth from spilling out
Polite conversation precludes these kinds of topics and especially the brutal words that best describe brutal events
There is little reason to want to talk about these things in the time you get to be away from them

And so the soldier's own limits conspire with the military need for and the civilian's dependence on the soldier's own preference for discretion. He does not want to talk, and we do not want to hear about it. How then does the human who has been there put an end to all that?

Fussell is not sure he has any answer. Having oriented the reader towards the reality of trench warfare, he then turns to the literature of this time and these people. The British Army was remarkably well read and its officer corps included a number of writers, poets and novelists. It will be through selected members of this group that we will find some of the common themes and literary conventions that will attempt to answer this question.

Among the most lingering and least remembered cultural effects of WWI was the replacement of a mostly optimistic and trusting population with one more leery and disbelieving. Numerous specific new cultural expressions would inhabit our language, from "over the top" to the ubiquitous form called by the soldiers the "Quick Fixer". In the latter case, one of the first universal experiences of filling in a form would be The Field Service Post Card, Form A 2042 which allowed the soldier sender to check one of a few blocks to complete one of a few sentences to at least tell his family he was still alive. A soldier could report that he was in hospital, but only to say he was recovering, not that he was recovering from a lost limb.

Moving from the more general experience to the specific, Fucell gives us short reviews of several writers. The first two, Sasson and Graves are given in unexpected contrast with themselves. Sasson will write a fictional trilogy of the war. Fussell, will make it clear that nearly every person and fact has a biographic true counterpart. Graves will write a memoir, and Fussell will insure that we understand that it is not to be taken as literal truth and infact is too pat, too perfect and is otherwise to be treated as fiction.

Much of this book is devoted to poets. Indeed both Graves and Sasson were poets more than novelists. He will link the battlefield to the older British themes of gardening and to the common birs and flowers of home and the battle field. (Larks, and Nightingales, Roses and Poppies.)

Perhaps because so many of the writers and poets of this period were homosexual; or that so many had their sexual awakening in all boys British schools, or because the forced all male existence of trench warfare, Fussell devotes a chapter to the homosexuals and homoerotic. He make a distinction between homosexual practices, and the emotional love ties between soldier, the more popular officers and the especially between people who depend on each other for elemental survival. This is his weakest chapter. Much of it is devoted to a pre-war, Victorian movement to promote public expression by homosexuals. The latter experience he can only call homoerotic. The word choice places too much emphasis on the possibility of physical sex and seems dismissive of what is for many in uniform intense brotherly love. Again too much of this chapter is about the nearly universal WWI literary device of soldiers bathing naked and being admired and wondered at by their officers.

Fussell's conclusions tend to the sweeping and seem strained. There are many who would agree thst WWI was, as is quoted form historian John Keegan, Mysterious and pointless. Many agree that WWII is something of a continuation of WWI. But an assertion that all post war literature is war novels takes more explanation. Stating that war, because of WWI has become the natural state of the modern world is a bit too literary and not sufficiently justified. If we accept that the last 50 years have been virtually constant war, that does not make WWI the cause. It also tends to forget the many wars of the Victorian era and so on back into the pre WWI era.

There is a case that everyone should read The Great War. It is not overly academic in style. Much here can promote both war veteran self-understudying and appreciation by those who have not"been there". I can wish that all might read this book, but this is not a book for everyone. Not everyone will want to envision rotting flesh as a part of a day's work. War poetry is not a subject many can appreciate. I am not sure I did so, fully. There is more here attempted than achieved. This is not a criticism as he is attempting something great and almost unique. What has been achieved is worth serious attention.

Full disclosure:
This book was a gift, I think bought from Amazon.
Given by a friend specifically not the writer, publisher, book seller etc, with no expectation of any review
Profile Image for Al.
271 reviews
August 28, 2016
Before tackling Paul Fussell's book, it's useful to understand that this is in no way a conventional history of World War I. While the events of the war are covered insightfully, the war serves as the source of Fussel's analysis of how those who wrote about the war reflected the influence of the literature of the times as well as how the Great War writers would influence those who later wrote about war such as Norman Mailer or Joseph Heller. At times it reads like someone's brilliant dissertation, cogently uncovering literary connections that no one else has; at other times it reads like someone's boring dissertation, piling on detail after detail once a point has long been since proven. Despite the accolades, this fine work is for specialized tastes. Readers who are already well read on WWI history and WWI era authors will gain the most from "The Great War and Modern Memory;" those looking for an introduction to both WWI and the war's literature may first want to look elsewhere. For newcomers the best benefit of Fussell's book is that it will find them searching for the original works he analyzes; since many are in the public domain, there is a real treasure trove readily available online. Recommended with the mentioned reservations.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
2,044 reviews166 followers
October 2, 2009
Paul Fussell's landmark study of WWI remains in my mind as fresh and gripping today as when I read it many years ago. It is a literate, literary, and illuminating account of the Great War, the one that changed a generation, ushered in the modern era, and revolutionized how we see the world. Exploring the work of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, David Jones, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen, Fussell supplies contexts, both actual and literary, for those writers who most effectively memorialized WWI as an historical experience with conspicuous imaginative and artistic meaning. He writes about WWI with the wisdom of a soldier, the caution of an historian,and the exhilarating recklessness of a literary man who finds in the machinery of war the softer stuff of humanity. Fussell is one of the finest writers I have encountered in my years of reading, a pantheon that includes Orwell, Didion, Manchester and others.
Profile Image for Suzie Wilde.
Author 4 books17 followers
July 24, 2009
I learnt more about WW1 from this book than almost any other. Fussell charts the war's progress via language use. There was a huge shift away from the heroic, used as a tool to lure thousands to their death. For example, 'the fallen' quickly became 'the dead', 'chargers' became 'horses', clearly showing the men's utter disillusionment and contempt for euphemism. Their new way of speaking made it impossible for them to talk candidily when they returned home. It was a literal, as well as ideological, shift.

There's lots more but I must re-read the book to elaborate. I last read it about 1983, so you can see how powerfully it has affected me. The sad thing is, I have noticed that the outpouring of grief on every news bulletin now refers to the dead soldiers as 'the fallen' in Afghanistan. This worries me.
Profile Image for Manray9.
383 reviews102 followers
October 16, 2016
Wade Davis said of Fussell's masterpiece: "Every page is a revelation." He was right on the mark.
Profile Image for Karen Witzler.
482 reviews164 followers
March 12, 2014
The Great War as the genesis for all modern artistic/critical sensibilities. Loved the beautiful web of history, reporting, literature,and influence.
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