History from “Below”

A.J.P. Taylor is known both as a great historian and a “populist” one. He is celebrated for challenging Great Man theories of history, and for emphasizing the role of ordinary people in making the times, as against powerful single individuals. He positioned himself explicitly as a “people’s” historian.

Because of that reputation, it’s worth reflecting on a passage in Taylor’s English History 1914-1945 that shows precisely the wrong way to be “populist.” Taylor is discussing the First World War, and the soldiers who fought in it:

After the [Battle of the] Somme came a new school, poets who saw in war only horror and suffering, tempered by the comradeship of the trenches. Edmund Blunden expressed this spirit sensitively, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves more savagely. Most of them remained war poets, not – as later readers inclined to regard them – anti-war poets. Sassoon, indeed, turned against the war altogether, after winning the Military Cross, and claimed to be a conscientious objector… In any case, these poets spoke only for a minority. All except Isaac Rosenberg were officers – and Rosenberg was by no means a representative ‘other rank’. Even Wilfred Owen, incomparably the greatest poet of either war, saw his ‘men’ from outside.

The ‘Tommies’ have left few memorials. One or two, such as Frank Richards and David Jones, became writers and published reminiscences many years later. Otherwise the Tommies speak in the songs which they composed on the march or to beguile the tedium of the trenches – songs which survive mainly in oral tradition. The tunes were usually adapted from contemporary music-hall ‘hits’. The words were self-depreciatory and often obscene. No other army has ever gone to war, proclaiming its own incompetence and reluctance to fight, and no army has fought better. The humble Englishman found his voice, and these songs preserve him for posterity.

In many respects, this passage exemplifies Taylor’s populist approach. It looks beyond the generals and statesmen, to the people who actually fought the war. And in evaluating the literature of the war, it does not just consider the famous war poems of upper-class officers like Sassoon and Graves, but looks at the rank-and-file Tommies themselves. Taylor champions these ordinary men, who were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, as brave and humble. He insists that their legacy should never be forgotten, that their songs should still be sung.

It’s easy to see what kind of historical technique Taylor is opposing here: a history that purely looks at the words of politicians, without considering the important message found even in obscene music hall songs. In this respect, what he’s doing is vital.

But this passage also has a serious flaw, a flaw that is almost certainly completely overlooked because Taylor’s approach stands so far apart from that of the other historians of his day. Consider the sentence “The Tommies have left few memorials.” What does this mean, to have “left” few memorials? Well, we’re in the context of discussing war literature, and Taylor immediately afterward lists two authors as exceptions, so it seems like he means the Tommies produced few written testimonies that we still have. But this is extremely strange; of course it’s true that the poets published books and very few of the front-line infantry veterans did. But that doesn’t mean they just sang songs! In fact, they wrote countless diaries and letters home, which could be mined to find their voices. That’s obviously a far more difficult task, since the small percentage of these that will have survived are often personally kept by descendants. But the historian’s task isn’t supposed to be easy! Also, we do have plenty of these letters home.

It’s also false to suggest that all of these men somehow disappeared. In fact, some of them outlived A.J.P. Taylor, and were living all across the world as he wrote about their lost perspective. The “Last Tommy,” Harry Patch, who died only in 2009, had a very strong voice. In fact, he was stirring in his opposition to war even after reaching the age of 100:

When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?

So what does Taylor mean when he suggests that the voices of the Tommies cannot be heard except through their songs, while the voices of officers come to us through literature? Well, he means that this is how the voices have been passed down so far. The Tommies’ written voices, rough and un-literary and often mundane, have not been lost because they do not exist, but because historians do not emphasize them. Look, here’s a letter from a 17 year old Tommy to his mother:

Dear Mother

Just a line to let you know that I sent you all a photo of myself outside a tent door with two of my mates. Hope you will get them safe. Hoping you are in the best of health as I am myself. Goodbye for the present. I remain yours truly,

Stephen

It’s not exciting, I know. But it’s very human. (It is also the last letter Stephen wrote before being killed in the Battle of Ypres.) So the problem is that Taylor is compounding the very problem he seeks to correct. By saying that the officers’ voices are with us still, but the Tommies exist only in song, he continues to make that true. But it doesn’t have to be.

One of the reasons I don’t like Taylor’s approach is that it seems like the patronizing attempt of an elite historian to elevate the “noble proletariat.” Taylor fawns over the Tommies, those brave and humble souls. But they are still just a nameless blob to him. The people who have names and who speak are still the statesmen and generals.

True history from below is different. It mines these letters to create a picture of the experience of the front-line individual. It gives the names of people who did not sign publishing contracts after the war, instead of those who did. It makes those millions who were fed into the death-machine of World War One human beings with families and aspirations, instead of just a collective entity of British working-class pride. The whole point of “people’s” history is that it’s about the people as people, not the people as their class or rank or as pieces on the chessboard. Taylor says “the Tommies have left few memorials,” but we create our memorials. If he said they had left few mementos, then he would be right that we had to rely on oral history. But memorials are created after the fact, they are the ways in which we honor the dead. And I do not believe a few raunchy songs are an adequate way of memorializing the endless dead infantrymen, who did in fact have actual voices.

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