Book Review: The Great War: Myth and Memory


by Dan Todman

London / New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Pp. xvi, 300. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 1852855126

The Great War, Myth and Memory is not a history of the First World War.  Rather, as the subtitle indicates, it looks at how that war survives in myth and memory. 

Dr. Todman (Queen Mary, London) groups the received “truths” about the war into seven chapters, each dealing with a particular aspect of the myth and the memory of the war: Mud, Death, Donkeys, Futility, Poets, Veterans, and Modern Memory.  In each chapter Todman tries to separate reality from the received imagery. 

In “Mud” Todman observes that while the forlorn character of the Front particularly struck men from agricultural or rural backgrounds, those who were miners or factory workers were less likely to have noticed the desolation, given their normal environment.  “Death” is a grim analysis of casualties, but concludes that despite the image of everyone dying (cf., O What a Lovely War, Blackadder, etc.), while there was death on a horrendous scale, even among British combat troops the death rate was at most 13 percent, because armies were so enormous, and large numbers of troops were not even at risk. 

Several chapters stand out.  In “Donkeys,” Todman explores the question of just how incompetent the generals were, a subject treated by several  recent historians, and in “Poets” he discusses the amazing amount of verse about the war, and then explores how that of Wilfred Owen came to be the iconic verse.  And then there’s “Veterans,” in which he discusses how later memories do not always reflect wartime reality, as age and more commonly held images and impressions (including motion pictures), altered recollections; in one impressive vignette, he notes a Gallipoli veteran recalling men sitting around campfires singing “Waltzing Matilda,” though the song would not be set to music for a decade or so. 

This is a book about perceptions of the war and their influence on the politics and culture of the twentieth century, and how they continue to influence our image of the war.  Although this book is limited to just British and Commonwealth perceptions of the war – other nations, other myths, as it were – given a choice between reading this or another of the many recent new histories of the war, The Great War, Myth and Memory would be more profitable.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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