Extraordinary how potent cheap drama is. The latest season of Downton Abbey, which ended on Sunday, pulled off a rare double in its interpretation of the first world war — making you laugh one second at the wooden acting and the clunky script; the next second, making you cry at the suffering and tragedy. But Downton tears are comforting, almost pleasurable: the tears you cry for Brief Encounter or Love Story. They’re not the agonising tears cried by mourners in Royal Wootton Bassett, their bodies contorted with acute physical grief.
There are different degrees of sadness over death in battle. The grief we feel on this Remembrance Sunday for the first world war dead may not be Downton Abbey sadness-lite; but it is still remote, secondary mourning, far removed from raw, Royal Wootton Bassett grief. The 65 million people who fought in the Great War are all dead. The last surviving combat veteran, Claude ‘Chuckles’ Choules, of the Royal Navy, died in May, at 110; although the last non-combat veteran, Florence Green, from King’s Lynn, also 110, an officers’ mess steward in the Women’s Royal Air Force, is still alive. And the last people directly affected by the first world war — even if they never served in the forces — are disappearing too. You’d now have to be at least 92 to have had a parent killed in the War, even if you were in utero on Armistice Day.
Of course the rest of us can still be sad for those who died, and pay respect to them; as we will this Remembrance Sunday, given an extra charge by the unprecedented striking of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of the century. I will remember my great-grandfather, killed at Gallipoli in August 1915. I might even shed a tear during the ‘Last Post’, but I couldn’t claim to be suffering from genuine heartrending grief. The last person who could have made that claim, his last surviving daughter, died in 2010, at 102.
As early as 1930, when 1066 and All That was published, W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman consigned the first world war to history, declaring that, in 1918, ‘America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a .’ But millions of veterans were still alive and well then, with the first world war stitched into their young life stories. Now, for the first time in almost a century, that war isn’t living history any more. Of course it’s still close enough in time to remain compelling, its story given regular transfusions of fresh blood by a steady flow of new books, films and TV programmes.
But the Great War is now passing into the agony-free pages of history, alongside the Boer war, Agincourt and Hastings. There’s a danger that, as the aspic seals off the first world war for good, the surviving picture of the conflict will be our sentimental, 21st-century vision: a mixture of white feathers, Flanders mud and lions led by donkeys, glued together with cherry-picked lines from Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Downton Abbey embraced every grim war cliché in the book. Julian Fellowes understood that, to get big audience figures, he shouldn’t tell the viewing public anything they don’t already know. And what the viewing public are always told is that the first world war was unremitting doom, gloom and senseless slaughter. And there’ll be plenty more gloom and doom over the next three years, as we build up to the centenary of the beginning of the war.
David Cameron has already appointed a Special Representative for the Great War for the centenary, an MP called Andrew Murrison. Steven Spielberg’s version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse comes out this Christmas. The trouble is that we seem to be moving from living history into deadened sentimentality. We forget that, for all its clear horrors, the war wasn’t all misery. Ian Hay, the writer and soldier, wrote in The First Hundred Thousand (1915), his book about the first British troops to fight, ‘War is hell, and all that, but it has a good deal to recommend it. It wipes out all the small nuisances of peace-time.’
Ian Hay accompanied my great-aunt and great-grandmother on a mourners’ battlefield cruise to Gallipoli, eight years after the war ended. My great-aunt remembered the trip being tremendously enjoyable — hardly what our melancholy-drenched historians and telly writers would have us think. Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain’s biographer who is writing a study of England in 1914, recalls meeting Geoffrey Dearmer, the last surviving first world war poet, in 1993, when Dearmer was 99. ‘He retained no trace of bitterness about the war, not about his own experience of the Dardanelles, nor about his personal losses of the war,’ says Bostridge, ‘There was not the least hint of any disillusionment about him.’
The first world war remains recent history. And of course it produces more genuine, heartfelt emotion than, say, the Battle of Hastings. Any tears I cry over my great-grandfather may be a little self-indulgent; tears for the dead of the Battle of Bosworth would be delusional. But however recent the war is, we must beware of fitting our own time-warped morals onto the truth, and obscuring it with the sentimental narrative arcs of Sunday night telly — particularly now, when there’s no one around to say, ‘No, it wasn’t like that.’