If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Messages of War

The more I have been networking my posts with various other sources, the more I come to the realisation of the timely nature of this and other projects setting the First World War as their focus.  We are at a very crucial point in a race against the passage of time to preserve this aspect of our past in order that the lessons which might be taken from it don't suffer a permanent loss.  The idea, one which I hold very close, is to achieve as clear and objective viewpoint as possible.  Only in this way can the cause and effect of events in history be completely understood.  This past week was one of great success in brining awareness to my project, and hopefully this will act as a bridge between this work and others of its kind.  My Twitter feed, Facebook page and this blog itself have picked up in growth just in the past seven days that overshadows that of the past two months combined.  This serves a dual purpose of both getting my message across to a wider audience while at the same time providing proof to the marketability of the published work I hope to soon receive approval for.  I took some time to sketch out a few discussion topics to keep this space fresh with new ideas, but would still like to hear from my audience on what they feel to be relevant subjects I've yet to bring forward.  As always, feedback, suggestions and questions can be forwarded here.

It is difficult to imagine, in this day and age, how information about the war was imparted.  Case in point, once I hit the "Publish Post" button, my message becomes immediately available to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world, even though I can't flatter myself that I have such a wide audience (yet).  Ninety-five years ago, the quickest way news could travel was by telegraph and then only through official and highly censored news agencies.  It was a lot easier back then to control public consumption of media and thereby influence opinion on the war.  Modern sentiments call out for truth in representation of world affairs, of some right to full disclosure.  No such thing was available contemporary to the Great War, and keeping the public at a lack of full understanding was crucial in the maintenance of positivity towards the war aims.

As I mentioned briefly in my post on The Home Front propaganda posters were a highly visible means to evoke emotive responses, to extol the benefits of civil sacrifice towards military efforts or to either inspire or shame men into enlisting.  The public was very keen on war news and any such that would be available would be consumed ravenously whether it was a news article, a letter from a relative at the front (which were also heavily edited) or works of art. Many of these, like the paintings of Richard Jack, a Briton commissioned as an official Canadian War Artist, were more evocative than representational considering they were produced after the events depicted and without the artist having seen the battle area.  In all media, the one thing that could not be kept secret were the casualty lists which were published as they became available.  This, tempered against incomplete and rhetorically positive print led to a great confusion and the beginning of doubt of public opinion.

The advent of motion picture film gave a completely new dimension  to the way in which civilians would witness war.  Films like "The Battle of the Somme" allowed those at home to visit cinemas and see for themselves what those on the Western Front were experiencing.  Some front line footage was shot and remained part of the final edit, but the majority of the movie was compiled through shooting staged scenes  well behind the line.  Regardless, it was a propaganda success:

In 1916 the film was a media phenomenon, featuring the first documentary war footage....it remains the most viewed feature in British cinema history....It was the War Minister's (Lloyd George) belief that viewing the film would develop civilians' sympathy with the cause...would encourage men to enlist; and would engage women's support for the war.

Philpott, Bloody Victory pp 301-02

After the war, however, there was a dichotic switch as privately published novels, memoirs, histories and anthologies made their way into the mainstream.  From the same hunger to want to know what war is like to those not experienced of it, these publications became incredibly popular.  In the same way that propaganda during the war swayed opinion in favour of the war the prevailing anti-war sentiment of the post-war media has done a great deal to public conciousness in regards to World War One that remains with us to a large extent today.  It is important to acknowledge the source and influence of these opinions, however.  Many were written by those who had no professional attachment to the armed forces beyond their war experience, and were being related to a civil population that had no understanding of military affairs.  Graves, Owen and Sassoon, three of the most influential British writers in the post war era and as such responsible for the detractive sentiments that became widely believed all had incredibly negative war experiences to the extent that each one had received treatment at one point or another for neurological ailments, then known as "shell shock" and little understood, but their bias speaks from very dark places.  Even official histories, such as those written by Sir Basil Liddell Hart contain harsh opinions on the conduct of the war that were personally held and now have become inseparable from the ideology of the conflict.

Two of the most revered fictional accounts of the war "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Remarque, and "Generals Die in Bed" by Harrison tow the populist line of the futility of war.  Both are often cited as being thinly disguised works of autobiography, when in actual fact the authors were late entries into the war and each had no more than six weeks' experience at the front line before being evacuated due to wounds.  This belies the authenticity of their storytelling despite the praise they have received in years beyond the war as being an accurate depiction of the conflict.  It should be noted that this praise has mostly been given by those who did not have first hand experience of the war either.

It was of crucial importance during the war to keep control of the media and public opinion, otherwise the notion of "total war" may have collapsed.  Afterword, the public shift in anti-war thinking, propagated by persuasive writers and personalities so adjusted the view of armed conflicts as to lead many nations to an unpreparedness  for the next world war to follow.

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