Book review “The Long Shadow: Legacies of the Great War,” by David Reynolds

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the guns fell silent, and the battle of meaning began. World War I was over. Yet what that war meant — its purpose, significance and legacy — was unclear and has remained so to this day. “Our memories are only hopes that came to nothing,” wrote the poet Margaret Postgate Cole. Every recollection, every attempt to derive meaning, has carried with it a heavy weight of personal tragedy and partisan politics. The landscape of remembrance remains as battered as No Man’s Land.

What is the legacy of this war? It’s perhaps too soon to say. David Reynolds calls his study of the war’s effect “The Long Shadow.” Seldom has a book had a better title. The author’s aim is to take the study of the war “out of the trenches,” where it has been mired for nearly a century. Until recently, historical debate has resembled the battlefields of Passchendaele and the Somme — a place of stalemate where scholarly advance inevitably flounders in mud. Argument has concentrated on one painful question: Were lives squandered on the Western Front? Answers have inevitably reflected political persuasion. Like the war itself, the debate is, frankly, rather boring.

Reynolds avoids that quagmire, concentrating instead on what the war begat. In his first section, he looks at its effect upon nations, democracy, empire, capitalism, civilization and peace. All of these areas have been analyzed before, but never with such depth of perception or range of understanding. Reynolds is able to speak with authority on economics and philosophy; literature and art; politics, diplomacy and memory. He is a historian of immense skill, utterly confident of his wisdom and deservedly so.

‘The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century’ by David Reynolds (W. W. Norton )

The book is packed with irony. Reynolds shows how the British went to war convinced of a mission to save civilization from the assaults of modernist German kultur. “But the reality of that war seemed like the utter negation of civilized values — human beings reduced to the level of animals in the mud or blown to pieces by those miracles of modernity, the machine-gun and heavy artillery.” In order to win, Britain had to become more like Germany. Liberal freedoms were jettisoned, tolerance discarded. The ethos of the factory took hold.

Yet, amid the carnage, civilization survived. The Liberal politician Charles Masterman, who headed the British government’s propaganda arm, recruited artists to record their impressions of war. Masterman did not want paintings that would inspire in the short term but rather works that would educate 100 years hence. “Paint anything you like,” he told his artists. What resulted was the sublime collection of paintings now housed at the Imperial War Museum, an institution dedicated not to the celebration of war but to its comprehension. Reynolds has a lot in common with that museum.

The Masterman episode is emblematic of a consistent theme. This is a very pro-British book. Yet the author’s praise of Britain arises from justified admiration, rather than cynical political intent. That is refreshing given the way the war has been used for political purpose in this first year of its centenary. Recently, the ambitious Education Secretary Michael Gove has accused the BBC, the satirical series “Blackadder,” the Labour Party, left-wing teachers and the war poets of poisoning the patriotism of Britain’s youths. He wants lessons to be recast so as to restore meaning, competence and virtue to the British war effort. Such a reinterpretation would also, of course, benefit the Conservative Party, which is precisely Gove’s intent.

Reynolds, unlike Gove, has no political agenda. He commends the British for their dedication to the war, and their stability after it, simply because the nation seems worthy of praise. That judgment will not sit well with those determined to see the war as a disaster and the government as perfidious. In Britain, remembrance has been turned into a gospel of futility. The war was wrong, its conduct incompetent, its soldiers pawns in a capitalist plot. The poet Siegfried Sassoon once called the Menin Gate, one of the most beautiful war memorials, a “sepulchre of crime.” The war poets — Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden and others — have been enshrined as the spokesmen of their generation because their bitter memories correspond so perfectly to how the British want to remember the war. Yet, as Reynolds points out, the poets were anomalies then and are deceivers now.

“So we had failed,” C.E. Montague wrote after the war. “[We] had won the fight and lost the prize; the garland of war was withered before it was gained.” Since the armistice, tragedy has been accommodated by turning the war into something sordid. “The Long Shadow” is a welcome antidote to the bitter poison of regret that has stunted understanding of the war and its aftermath. With admirable equanimity, Reynolds analyzes what the war created and what it destroyed. In the process, the people of that war emerge as something more than martyred symbols of past folly.

“My subject is War, and the pity of War,” Owen wrote in the preface to his poems. Yet he was a propagandist for futility. The war generation does not need our pity, nor are we enlightened by offering it.

Gerard De Groot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest books is “Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War I.”


The Legacies of the Great War
in the Twentieth Century

By David Reynolds

Norton. 514 pp. $32.50