‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ Book Review

Mount Readmore Book Review, 2017 35/100

The Great War and Modern Memory By Paul Fussell

Paperback Edition

Finished on 4/5/2017


Genres: World War 1, Literary Critique, History, Memoir Analysis

World War 1 is a subject upon which many books are written. This book is about those books, providing context to various memoirs and comparing them not only to one another but to British society as a whole.

Spoiler-tastic Review

‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ is a meta analysis of numerous memoirs, poems, plays and the like produced by soldiers who survived (and didn’t survive) WW1. This book compares the literary tradition of Britain before and after the war, trying to find just how the war changed the people of Britain.

The author’s main thesis is one of inevitable influence: even today we carry with us relics of the first world war in our very language. When we say ‘let’s go over the top,’ that recalls the trenches of the first world war. When we say ‘that’s lousy,’ we’re recalling the lice-ridden trenches of the first world war. The word ‘keepsake’ was mostly replaced in English by the French word ‘souvenir’ because of the first world war.

The first war’s influence is greater than this, the author posits. Fussell contends that British culture in general (at least when this was originally published in the 1970’s) was irrevocably altered by the war, and not for the better. The traditions of British military honor and glory were wounded by the war, as millions of men were sent out to die for mere miles gained. A vast gulf was formed between the people back at home and the soldiers in the field, for the people at home were generally more pro-war than the soldiers actually forced to bleed and die for the cause.

But most of all, this book’s main theme was irony. Men were forced to die for a cause they didn’t believe in. The absurdity of rats outliving men was commented upon by British poets at the time, as was the metaphor that the trenches were graves filled by dead men. It is no wonder that World War 1 was the parent to JRR Tolkien: after seeing the absolute worst of humanity, Tolkien wrote a world that he could understand.

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