LitHub marked Wednesday as the day when Julian Grenfell, the British poet and soldier in the First World War, was shot. He died 13 days later and the following day, his poem, Into Battle, was published in the London Times. I was startled to see the note about Grenfell, which was accompanied by a picture of him in uniform. I was startled because he’s not someone you hear about often.
Years ago I became interested in the social and literary history of England in the first two decades of the twentieth century. I began by reading The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell, about how the poems, novels, diaries, and letters of that time reflected and encouraged far-reaching societal changes. Fussell’s book is penetrating, insightful, and heartrending all at once. Hooked on the subject, I then moved on to Children of the Sun: A Narrative of “Decadence” in England After 1918, by Martin Green, which is where I encountered Julian Grenfell. Poor Julian Grenfell. He was a victim of English upper-class idealism about the war: the belief that it was glorious to send one’s son off to die for one’s country and that the war would soon be over anyway, so no worries. The truth was quite different. The fascinating Nicholas Mosley biography, Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of His Death, which I read next, tells how his mother and her social set–“The Souls”–encouraged him to go off to glorious battle. Approximately 750,000 British soldiers were killed and over 1.5 million were wounded in World War I. The trench warfare in France, which is where Grenfell fought and died, was horrific, inflicting psychological damage on the soldiers who managed to survive. The idea of dying a glorious death for one’s country met an inglorious death.
Grenfell’s poem was not included in the LitHub note, so I looked it up. You can read it here.
You may have seen the film made from Vera Brittan’s classic memoir Testament of Youth. As haunting as that movie is, the book is even more powerful. Brittain calls her riveting account “the smashing up of my own youth.” In 1914, at the end of her first year at Oxford, she was engaged to a soldier. Desperate to assist the war effort, she volunteered as a nurse and after rigorous and exhausting training, served at hospitals in Malta and France, where she experienced firsthand the devastation of trench warfare on the Western Front. She lost her fiance, her brother, and her innocence as well. I found it completely absorbing and even cathartic when I read it twenty-five years ago.
These are all older titles, some more easily available than others. I will write again soon about this period, with links to newer, more popular fiction and nonfiction.