The enormous condescension of posterity (2): historians and poets

An odd discussion this week on Channel 4 News between Gordon Corrigan and Christina Patterson, formerly of the Poetry Society, about the significance of the death of Harry Patch.

Corrigan is a retired major in the Gurkhas turned military historian, the author of Blood, mud and poppycock: this is just one of the many millions of books I’ve yet to read,  so I’ll refrain from comment on it – the central thrust, however seems to be a defence of the British generals in Word War 1, and a general debunking of what he sees as the mythology surrounding that war.  I seem to remember, when I was studing A Level history over twenty years ago, writing interminable essays aruing that the cause of WW1 was German paranoia and aggression, and that, if the War was to be won, there was little alternative to Haig’s policy of attrition – so that part (if that’s what he’s saying)doesn’t seem particularly controversial. 

No doubt he has valid points to make, but his performance on the TV (and it was hard not to reminded of the Major in Fawlty Towers) managed to convey the impression that fighting on the Western Front had actually been rather fun.  He produced various statistics about the amount of time that men spent on the front line as opposed to behind the lines: apparently they spent more time playing football than actually fighting.  This does suggest an appalling failure of the imagination.

He also said something to the effect (I wasn’t making notes and can’t find a transcript) that he hoped the war would soon cease to be a national scar and become a part of history.  I think what he means by this is that it ceases to be something in which we participate imaginatively and becomes a set of facts and figures which historians can rearrange and interpret in new and surprising ways,  for political or careerist reasons,  or simply for the fun of it.

I’m reminded of Geoffrey Hill’s essay on his own sequence of poems Funeral Music –

“Without attempting factual detail, I had in mind the Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday, 1461.  It is now customary to play down the violence of the Wars of the Roses and to present them as dynastic skirmishes fatal, perhaps, to the old aristocracy but generally of small concern to the common people and without much effect on the economic routines of the kingdom.  Statistically, this may be arguable; imaginatively, the Battle of Towton itself commands one’s belated witness.  In the accounts of the contemporary chroniclers it was a holocaust.  Some scholars have suggested that the claims were exaggerated, although the military historian, Colonel A.H. Burne … reckons that over twenty-six thousand men died at Towton and remarks that ‘the scene must have beggared description and its very horror probably deterred the survivors from passing on stories of the fight’.  Even so, one finds the chronicler of Croyland Abbey writing that the blood of the slain lay caked with the snow which covered the ground and that, when the snow melted, the blood flowed along the furrows and ditches for a distance of two or three miles.”  

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