…I was not completely fooling myself in believing that history has something to teach us all, even though it is impossible to know at the moment of learning just what that something might be. Self-conscious attempts to teach or preach relevance in history are therefore unnecessary, because the connection between then and now is embedded in the enterprise, fated to emerge in the future in unforeseeable ways. In that sense, reading history is like expanding your memory further back in time, and the more history your learn, the larger the memory bank you can draw on when life takes a turn for which you are otherwise unprepared.
All history is the history of longing. The details of policy; the migration of peoples; the abstractions that nations kill and die for, including the abstraction of “the nation” itself—all can be ultimately traced to the viscera of human desire. Human beings have wanted innumerable, often contradictory things—security and dignity, power and domination, sheer excitement and mere survival, unconditional love and eternal salvation—and those desires have animated public life. The political has always been the personal.
Yet circumstances alter cases. At crucial historical moments, personal longings become particularly influential in political life; private emotions and public policy resonate with special force, creating seismic changes. This is what happened in the United States between the Civil War and World War I. During those decades, widespread yearnings for regeneration—for rebirth that was variously spiritual, moral, and physical—penetrated public life, inspiring movements and policies that formed the foundation for American society in the twentieth century.
Today marks 100 years since the end of World War I, so this morning over coffee I reflected on what small connections I personally have to the great war and what books have educated me on it.
My maternal grandfather, Elmer Dalton Warren, was in the Great War. He was 82 years old when he died in 1973 and I was only 7, and so I don’t recall learning anything about his experiences during the war. My dad told me “Poppy” served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, assigned to a “submarine chaser.” My guess is Poppy spent his war years in the Atlantic, hunting German U-boats.
I also knew another gentleman, Sebastian “Jose” Sanchez, who was like an uncle to me growing up, who’d served in WWI. I believe he served in the British Army, though I’m not sure. He died in the mid 1980s when I was around 16 years old. On his death bed he gave me his WWI rifle bayonet, which was really more like a small sword. I can remember asking him if he’d ever used it, though I can’t recall what he said in reply.
My views of WWI are basically summed up in John Keegan’s opening paragraph to his masterful work, The First World War:
The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the cause of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.
And, of course, for me, no reflection on the First World War can leave out my reading of Alex Danchev’s incredibly well done biography of B.H. Lindell Hart. Lindell Hart was a British army infantry officer during the First World War, and learned firsthand the futility of WWI battlefield strategies. It was Lindell Hart’s strategic insights, formulated after WWI, that would, oddly enough, be quickly adopted by the German army and utilized to make quick work of the French and British armies on the battlefields of Europe during WWII.
One of the stories that’s stayed with me from reading Danchev’s biography of Lindall Hart, is the one about the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Lindall Hart was an officer in the Battalion…one of the lucky ones to survive. There is no doubt that by eve of the Battle of the Somme, British officers and soldiers were well aware of the gruesome carnage and death that awaited those going “Over the top.” And yet, the futility and fear would not outweigh the sense of honor and duty in the face of it all by the officers of the 9th.
On the evening before the Battle, the officers of the 9th all met one last time before being deployed to the trenches the next morning. Most of them certainly knew or felt that many of their fellow officers wouldn’t survive the coming battle. The commanding officer of the Battalion, Lt. Colonel Lynch, was not popular with the officers because it was believed he’d shown favoritism with promotions. So there was some bad blood between the officers. And even though they were going into battle and there was a good chance this was the last time some of them would ever see each other again, honor and sincerity would not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Captain Haswell would find a way to preserve his personal integrity while summoning all to reflect on their shared duty—and fate—that lay ahead.
At about 6pm on June 28 all officers received a summons to go to Battalion HQ for a final drink before going into action. We assembled, glasses were put into our hands, drinks were passed round and we drank quietly to one another – everyone was naturally feeling strained. The Adjutant and Second-in-command were away on some course, so the Acting Adjutant, Keay, was in charge. Lynch came into the room and was given a glass. Keay went up to Haswell, the senior Captain, and said quietly to him,
‘I think you should propose the CO’s health!’
‘I’m damned if I will’, said Haswell ‘I don’t wish him good health and am not prepared to be insincere on this occasion.’
‘You must’, said Keay.
‘I won’t.’, said Haswell.
For a few moments they argued, and then Haswell stepped forward and raising his glass said:
‘Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9 Battalion of the Regiment’ – a slight pause – ‘Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.‘
We emptied our glasses and were silent. Dramatically, Haswell had avoided an unpleasant scene, and the toast has never been forgotten.
Of those present, twenty-four went into action the next day in the attack on Fricourt. Six were in reserve [Lindell Hart was one of them]. Of the twenty-four, twelve were killed, including Lynch and Haswell. Three died of wounds afterwards, eight were wounded, one slightly and only one left untouched.*
Of the 800 British soldiers assigned to the 9th Battalion, 720 were either killed or wounded in the July 1, 1916, attack on Fricourt.
So I’ve got my reading list ready for the next month or so…or longer for me probably. It’s a short list, but a good one I think. If you haven’t considered what you’re reading going forward for the next month or so maybe you’ll consider these. Two of the books arrived from Amazon today, and I pulled one from the shelf that’s sat for a long time unread.
First, there’s Ben Sasses’s new book, Them. For the most part I find the Senator from Nebraska a relatively fair-mined man, who means well, and wants to actually solve problems, not just score partisan points. Note that Sasse is a Yale educated (PhD) historian and a former college president, so he brings a lot more than his position as a Senator to the subject matter of his book. Listening to Sasse talk about the book I think it might serve as a useful companion to two other books I’ve read: Coming Apart and Strangers in Their Own Land.
Second there is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. I can’t think of a more appropriate book or subject for those aspiring to lead or for those trying to understand what good leadership might look like during these very turbulent times in America.
And lastly, there is wine. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”Yes, the first two books will create enough concern….and so I need some relief in a book about this most civilized of things, the wine life. Hugh Johnson’s memoir, A Life Uncorked, is about a life of drinking and thinking wine. For this short list, it seems an appropriate finish.
What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.