The Great War is explored in an anthology of fiction from the time - a selection that often goes off the beaten track.
Anthology presents new voices from the First World War
The Great War has so often been framed by the Western Front and the usual collection of war poets that Pete Ayrton’s truly international anthology of writing from the First World War is refreshing. It brings together writers from 20 countries, representing the main participants from 1914 to 1918.
No Man’s Land: Writings From a World at War is located not just in France and Belgium, but also on the Italian Front, the Balkan Front, the Eastern Front and the war at sea. We hear new voices from Armenia, India, Africa and New Zealand and Ayrton paints a global mosaic of destruction, suffering and lost innocence.
An account of Indian soldiers arriving at Marseilles is fascinating. In Across the Black Waters, Mulk Raj Anand captures the tense arrival of these nervous troops in an alien place: “Lalu stamped his feet to see if the impact of the earth of France was any different from the feel of Hindustan. Curiously enough, the paved hard surface … seemed different somehow, new, unlike the crumbling dust of India.”
Then we travel to the south Caucasus to watch boys and girls play war games – Armenians against Turks. The piece, Infidels and Curs, is deeply unsettling. In every sentence by Vahan Totovents is a feeling of foreboding and dread at the approach of an even more bloody future between the two countries.
The participation of African soldiers, the subject of Sheep by Raymond Escholier, is also not forgotten and shows how colonial abuses and the dark side of empire brought thousands of Africans to their death for a conflict that did not have much to do with them.
Some of the most interesting and perceptive writing, however, comes from women. The war broke down barriers between the sexes. Women took jobs previously done by men, liked the responsibility and pushed for more freedom.
In The Beauty of Men Who are Whole, Evadne Price writes on how the war has changed her life and why there would be no going back. “What is to happen to women like me when the killing is done? We, who once blushed at the public mention of childbirth, now discuss such things as once we discussed the latest play … Will these elders try to return us to our conventional pre-war habits? What will they say if we laugh at them, as we are bound?”
Price also wrote under the pseudonym of Helen Zenna Smith and also touched on feelings of alienation and dislocation from life in England while the carnage continued: “Home, home and I do not care. The war has drained me of feeling. Something has gone from me that will never return. I do not want to go home. I am suddenly aware that I cannot bear mother’s prattle-prattle of committees and recruiting meetings.”
Similar criticism of Middle England – comfortable, safe and indifferent to the suffering – was made by Rose Macaulay in Evening at Violette. A young solicitor and his even younger brother arrive at a social gathering: “In case some should blame the Vinney brothers for not taking an active part of the war … they both belonged to the Clerks’ Drill Corps and wore several flags on their bicycles.”
The book, then, is diverse in terms of voices and places. But the extracts are exclusively critical of the war and are pacifist. On every page we hear of the pity of war, the cruel fate of the common man and the incompetence and cold indifference of those in authority.
The battle against conscription is examined by Rose Allatini, writing under the pseudonym A T Fitzroy in Beethoven and Bach. The war was a capitalist folly, claims one man who is trying to evade compulsory service: “I’ll tell em a few home truths before I’m locked up. Beefy, sanctimonious old men, sitting there to tell me it’s my duty to go out and take my share in murdering peasant boys and students and labourers … And the capitalists of all countries, coining money out of the bloodshed.”
This belief that the war would usher in a new world order for the working man is held by French soldier Henri Barbusse in The Vision. Barbusse initially supported the war but turned against it and moved to Soviet Russia where he died in 1935. “But the 30 million slaves who have been thrown on top of one another by crime and error into this war of mud raise human faces in which the glimmer of an idea is forming. The future is in the hands of these slaves and one can see that the old world will be changed by the alliance that will one day be formed between those whose number and whose suffering is without end.”
Despite the book featuring 47 writers, we do not find any voices here arguing that the war had a point, was fought for any reason or achieved anything constructive. Neither are there arguments against German actions in 1914 nor any meditations on what a Wilhelmine victory would have meant for Europe. This is the major weakness of the book. But it should not take away from what is a fresh, accessible and searing look at literary responses to the convulsions that shook the world beyond the Western Front.
John Dennehy is the author of In a Time of War: Tipperary 1914-1918.