An Interview with My Father

Anyone who knows me will also know that I inherited my interest in the First World War from my father, Professor Stuart Robson, who spent much of his career focusing on the history of both world wars. From him I learned not only why the Great War matters, but also how I ought to go about trying to understand its history. As I was writing Somewhere in France, he was gracious enough to act as my sounding board as well as a near-encyclopedic source of information on the finer aspects of its history. The following is my attempt to turn the tables and discover what the First World War means to him, and why it continues to fascinate him after so many years.

Why the Great War? What first captured your attention about it?

As an undergraduate I specialized in the history of modern Germany. When I reached Oxford, however, the ubiquity and centrality of the Great War in that city caught my attention. This was in 1962, only forty-four years after the Armistice. Not long after arriving, I found myself in New College. The memorial to the dead of the Great War was in the entrance to the chapel, off to the side. I suddenly realized how huge it was and paced off its width, which was around thirty feet. I didn’t count the names at the time, but I later learned there are 263 in total.

From that point on I realized the tragedy of the Great War, and though I didn’t focus on it in my teaching until fifteen years later, it was always there, “the heartbreak in the heart of things,” to quote Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.

I think it’s hard for us to understand now, nearly a century later, how the war must have affected the people left behind. Thoughts of the war and all those who had died must have been omnipresent in those early years. But was it something that lasted?

In Juliet Nicolson’s The Great Silence, she describes how, during the two minutes of silence that were observed on the first anniversary of the Armistice, the only sound one heard was of women crying. That’s what we would expect from the death of so many sons and lovers. The young are not supposed to go first and when they do, because that is what war is about, even a society comfortable with death is publically unglued. Yet five years later the grieving had been sublimated. If the war really was “the heartbreak in the heart of things,” and I think it was, then the thing to notice is that the heart of things is hidden most of the time, and when it is not, it can surprise everyone.

Your Edward, I think, exemplifies all this. He’s a mixture of pain and sang froid, a man who had a “good war” and who also was smashed to pieces. If he had PTSD, he coped with it as best he could because no one else knew how to help or even knew what PTSD was. The heartbreak would be in his heart, but that is a hiding place.

So much has been written about what happened to men like Edward during the war, but comparatively little about the effect that it had on women, I imagine because relatively few women were part of the armed services. And that’s always disappointed me, mainly because it’s such a fascinating period where women are concerned – this time when they were given a taste of so much freedom and responsibility, only to see it taken away in the post-war period.

It is true that most of the obvious positive changes women experienced during and because of the war were “meantime” changes. One, however, was not, and you capture it well in the figure of Lilly. The change I mean is one of self-consciousness, of how a person saw herself and the world. It’s not like having the vote. It’s hard to measure. But it happened.

To simplify, women were called upon to fulfill novel and challenging roles, and having done so, were dismissed. “Normalcy” returned, or seemed to. In fact, in the minds of women, a huge change had taken place and was remembered, and when the balloon went up again in 1939 and women were again asked to serve, they remembered being fobbed off, they also remembered becoming independent and wonderfully competent, and resolved this time it would be different. Well, it wasn’t so different in the immediate post-war period, but then the combined ratchet effect of the two wars hit like a thunderclap.

Social change that comes quickly is not change; real change goes slow, like the tide, or the hands of a clock. Nevertheless, to borrow from Galileo, it moves. The force moving history for women in the last century was the wars (plus a dose of inflations, to be unromantic). And that is what Somewhere in France captures beautifully.

Earlier you mentioned Edward and the mental agony he endures, and it is true that as I created his character I intended for him to be affected by battle fatigue in addition to other, more perceptible injuries. But I hope I’ve also captured the way that it was possible to suffer terribly, like Edward, but somehow carry on and endure – as he does, at least until he goes missing in no man’s land.

Understanding Edward brings up the problem with labels. In Edward’s case, and the case of millions of people coping with distressing memories, we yearn for clear definitions of conditions that have discrete qualifications and thus allow someone to be admitted to the club of sufferers. “Oh yes, she’s bipolar!” But what happens when the criteria aren’t clear?

All too often, then and now, we label one guy as untroubled because he had a “good war,” while another guy is branded a mess because he broke down. In fact, the “good warrior” could be someone who healed and carried on, or someone too stupid to react, or someone like Edward, who proclaims himself “a shallow bastard.” And the man who becomes a wretched mess could be someone who snapped not because of the war but because of a straw that landed well after the war and broke his back.

The difficulty in understanding the Edwards of this world is that we must put aside our penchant for labeling. That’s where taking one person, Edward in this case, and paying attention to all the vagaries without presupposing that the dots connect in a recognizable pattern is a very useful exercise.

And then there’s a character like Robbie, whose reaction to the horrors around him seems, I think, fairly typical: you did what you had to do, you did it without whining (although grousing about the bad food, bugs, mud and other inconveniences was perfectly acceptable), you looked out for your fellows, and you somehow managed to keep yourself from falling apart. Somehow, despite everything, they endured. They carried burdens we would think of as impossible, yet survived and even thrived in their lives after the war.

Exactly. They knew they had a job to do, however nasty, and did it, period. The reward for doing it well was the chance to go home sooner rather than later, which meant fighting aggressively if one was in the line, and being a good surgeon if one was Robbie. They did their part in an unlovely situation, and if they lived, came home, said as little as possible about it, fought their demons as best they could and carried on.

I just recalled a question that you were famed for having used on the final exam for your course about the First World War: “Was the Great War great and, if so, why?” Care to take a crack at it?

Historical change is often cited as evidence of the “great” impact of war, specifically the world wars. I’m not so sure. One has to mess around in the counter-factual with this: what would have happened had not the wars occurred? I would think most changes were in the works and that war, as Lenin said, served as the midwife of change. The shifting of borders, collapse of dynasties and empires and emergence of new nations are often attributed to the wars but clearly would have happened in any case, if not of course in the same way.

What war left to posterity was the brutalization of life. The great American physicist I. I. Rabi once observed that it was easy to kill people if you set your mind to it. He was thinking about the Manhattan Project, but it applies to the two world wars as well. They provided precedent, excuses for the angry, methods for the psychopathic, and opportunities for the “ordinary men” in, say, the Einsatzgruppen. This is where Wilfred Owen was prophetic:

Now men will grow content with what we spoiled
or, discontent, boil bloody and be spilled
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

My God, but he was right. Recently I’ve been reading some recent histories of the Second World War, and the accounts of the Eastern Front and the Pacific War are horrifying. I know where a lot of that originated: the trenches.

Professor Stuart Robson grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia and graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1962. A Rhodes Scholar, he attended the University of Oxford, where he obtained his doctorate in Modern History. From 1966 to 2001 he taught at Trent University in Ontario; he then taught part-time at the University of Victoria in British Columbia until 2012. Although he specialized in modern German history, his heart was drawn to the cauldron of the two world wars for much of his teaching career. He is the author of the bestselling The First World War (Pearson, 1998 and 2007), now in its second edition.