The BBC is releasing a series of interviews conducted in 1963 for the Great War TV series. These contain all sorts of striking, vivid and interesting recollections.
The highlights of some 13 interviews have been cut together into a documentary, ‘I Was There’ (Friday 14 March 2014)
Press reaction so far has generally been extremely positive.
I also found the television programme gripping and moving. Inevitably, for the professional historian it flattens out the very diverse experiences of the war and over-privileges the Western Front; but it is nonetheless an extremely effective bit of TV.
However, it also raises particular issues of interest. The interview with Henry Williamson is a particularly good example:
First, to what extent am I right to feel uncomfortable about Williamson’s testimony given his later membership of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and 1940s? When, especially, he speaks of the (cliché alert!) Christmas truce and his realisation that soldiers on both sides thought they were fighting for freedom and had God on their side: how much of that is his raw 1914 reaction, how much later rationalisation? Does it matter? Further, am I guilty of over-simplifying the meaning of fascism to Williamson, as his daughter-in-law suggests in the Telegraph article? Or can I say ‘well, I’ll never be able to untangle his private thoughts about it, so I’m justified in considering only the available public evidence’?
Secondly, and in a sense more interestingly, his son Richard’s reaction at the preview screening was fascinating. He was evidently deeply moved and spoke with undoubted sincerity about the fact that his father never spoke about the Great War to his children. The filming of the interview, therefore, cleared the logjam denying his father a voice and made it impossible for him at last to speak. I guess there’s also a further Freudian implication that this would at last enable Henry to begin to process the trauma of the war and so to heal. Richard’s view coheres closely with preconceptions of how the war stiffened upper lips all over Britain and created a silent generation who could not describe what they had been through. This is one of the abiding myths of the First World War, with which we are all familiar.
Who knows how far this was true for the average ‘soldier from the wars returning’ (to steal the title of one of the war memoirs of another of the interviewees in this collection)? In Williamson’s case, however, it is demonstrably nonsense. Having become a professional writer in the 1920s, he wrote a book of reminiscences about his war as well as several autobiographical novels in which he repeatedly processed his war experience.
As I said, Richard Williamson evidently believed strongly what he was saying. That Henry’s own son could subscribe so fully to the myth, in the face of hundreds of pages of written evidence, demonstrates its remarkable power.