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Tribune review - The Last Great War - Adrian Gregory

This review is featured in the current issue of Tribune Magazine.

The Last Great War by Adrian Gregory by Belinda Webb

Gregory’s is a combative voice and many would say that was rather apt for a revisionist account of any war, never mind the particularly futile First World War. However, in the rather dense introduction, Gregory claims that his book is intended as an argument and an interpretive synthesis, and not as a textbook. Yet, argument aside, for the most part, a textbook is what this book felt like. A combative voice also ties in with the author’s intention, in what is still a timely book in the wake of the not so distant death of Harry Patch, ‘the last Tommy’, to provide an ‘interpretation of the course of the First World War for the civilian population of Britain.

Gregory begins with an attempt to understand why the population consented to war in the first place, which only led to my wondering since when does any population consent to war, save for those in politics? Accordingly, it proceeds to attempt to get away from the generalisations of war enthusiasm, an idea, Gregory claims, that has clouded our understanding since the inter-war period, whilst not denying that in a broader sense the majority reaction to war was patriotic and in some respects even idealistic. This leads on to a consideration of the role that propaganda played, that essential ingredient in wide-scale volunteerism. Gregory then moves on to consider what he calls the guiding idea of volunteerism, moving to consider the broader dimensions of the ‘voluntary phenomenon’, and from there to an analysis of the importance of the idea of sacrifice and its role in balancing the demands made on social groups, to the role religion played in providing the foundation of a popular understanding of war.

Gregory moves on to the ‘growing sense of crisis on the home front’ as the idealistic concepts of sacrifice soon give way to increased resentment and then to the aftermath of victory, in which the argument is that the narrative of sacrifice is remade in order to stress universal grief as the common experience of war, which is, to a significant extent, ‘a mythology designed to cover up the social tensions that the war had created, and how the future understanding of the war would be shaped by this idea of universal bereavement.’

More interestingly for me was Gregory’s assertion that ‘central to this work is an argument that the mass experience of Army life and of combat, and the human consequences of military operations were the main pillars of civilian existence during the First World War.... in opposition to modern historical writing focused on the ‘escape from the idea of the utter isolation of civilian life from ‘the trenches’’.

There is much to be commended in this account, the thorough collation of a wide variety of sources. Yet Gregory, a Lecturer in Modern History at Oxford, should be quite worried if he has to spell out a given, and give his undergraduates the first lesson that could come under History: Obvious Points no.1: Hindsight, error of: ‘We must remember that hindsight is unavailable to those who are living through the experience, and it cannot inform their decisions’. Does any undergraduate really need to be told this, let alone the ‘general’ reader? Yet although Gregory has brought together so much information and attempts to cover so much I feel that his purpose was too ambitious, for instead we are left with a book that simply tries to overextend itself. For instance, exploring the propaganda alone of the First World War is a book in its own right, surely? The same could be said of the role religion played in providing the foundation of a popular understanding of war. However, there is much presented that does explode the myths surrounding the First World War, through the extensive collection of personal documents, giving a much more ‘from the shop floor’ view. Timely and argumentative? Most definitely. A textbook? Unfortunately.

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