A longer version of a talk I did for the Bangor Literary Festival this week:
What I’d like to talk about briefly is how historiography, or the study of how history is written, is crucially important in any understanding of the role of discourse and power in narrating—and making sense of—things like memory and commemoration.
Because I don’t have a lot of time here I’d just like to talk about one example from a diverse literature in Ireland which challenges the propaganda of war from a ‘bottom-up’ perspective. Patrick MacGill, a Donegal native most famous for his 1914 novel Children of the Dead End, but less known for his war novel The Great Push (1916), emerged from humble origins, as a navvy, a labouring emigrant. He then became a writer—a very successful one—and soon after enlisted in the London Irish Rifles at the outbreak of war. MacGill’s talent meant that he actually ended up getting spotted by and working for British military intelligence, as a propagandist, writing on their behalf during the war, though The Great Push very much challenges official histories of the war, or as he put it, aimed to expose the ‘guilty secrecy of war’. So here is a tension in MacGill’s work, between his inclinations to oppose the barbarity he saw in war, and his own role within it. And as the title of David Taylor’s recent book on MacGill, Memory, Narrative and the Great War, would suggest, this Ulster soldier’s writing is all about issues of memory and narrative.
It’s fascinating to look at the kind of efforts that went into the propaganda that the British military was producing during this period, and I have with me a copy, for example, of The War Illustrated, a volume produced in 1915, which included – impressively – 1130 illustrations, and many stories of the war. A great deal of effort is of course here exerted in sanitising the war in certain ways, emphasising courage and heroism, and tapping into widespread constructions of masculinity. A lot of the stories and images additionally promote the idea that ‘we’re all in it together’ (an idea interestingly resurrected by David Cameron in his commentary on the 100th anniversary of the war). Here Irish nationalist leader John Redmond and ‘the hero King of Belgium’ are depicted as being fully behind the troops (in Captain Blackadder’s words from the eponymous British cult comedy, we might quip, ‘about thirty-five miles behind you’):
A lot of the time, war looks like fun, even a game. On one page, for example, we even learn that ‘football enthusiasts who enlist may still have opportunities to play their favourite game’.
MacGill’s 1916 novel references this propaganda, and in particular the famed ‘Footballer of Loos’, London Irish Rifleman Frank Edwards. Like the more well-known army captain Billy Nevill on the Somme a year later, Edwards flamboyantly dribbled a ball during a charge on enemy lines in November 1915. Such a story of maverick courage, of a youth carelessly (one might say with insouciance) risking his life for a cause, tapped into an androcentric, imperialist ideology of cavalier bravado typified by the popular Boy’s Own Paper, which was published from 1879 till 1967.
Shrouded, as these tales of soldier footballing would later be, in a myth-making nostalgia of war-time heroics (as represented, for instance, by the well-known 1916 painting by Lady Butler below) — such depictions were likely to rankle with men like MacGill, for whom they would seem senseless—calculated to animate the war, like a comic-strip, for naïve and adventurist young men.
- Picture courtesy of BNPS Press Agency
At any rate, these antics were needlessly hazardous: some of those who dribbled Edwards’ ball died; Edwards himself was wounded before reaching enemy lines. It is therefore significant that, in the year when another Irish writer, Seán O’Casey, commenced work on his powerful anti-war play The Silver Tassie (1926), Edwards, who survived the conflict, was himself busily engaged in reproducing such nostalgia in more pleasant environs.
On 24 September 1926, he and comrades from the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association (the picture, in which the ball in question takes pride of place, is from their Old Comrades’ dinner of 1923) marked the tenth anniversary of Loos and its 59,247 casualties with a Chelsea re-enactment of the famed footballing dash.
- Picture courtesy of BNPS Press Agency
In The Great Push, the Edwards who would later become the subject of great lore is nothing but ‘a boy’, his objective being ‘a game’ in which the football is kicked towards the German trenches as the London Irish charge. MacGill exploits the figurative potential of the escapade to full effect: after these ‘boys’ are seen ‘dribbling the elusive football towards the German trench’, they soon encounter shocking casualties—the man who crawls across the battlefield ‘like a gigantic lobster’, with his lower lip ‘cut clean to the chin and hanging apart’, the ‘men and pieces of men’ that are ‘lying all over the place’, ‘a leg, an arm, then again a leg, cut off at the hip’. These images of ‘lives maimed and finished, and all the romance and roving that makes up the life of a soldier gone for ever’, tellingly precede a glimpse of the ‘bullet-riddled’ football, now ‘a limp lump of pliable leather’.
For MacGill, the restoration of the football in 2011, as the object of ‘a unique display of British bravado and courage’, would surely present a depressing befogging of a grim battle. And MacGill’s choice in his novel to develop a series of surreal, expressionist scenes, as O’Casey would do in his later play, is telling. Here, in literature, disaffected working-class writers experiment in the unreal, when the ‘real’ — as depicted in books like The War Illustrated — proffers discourses of masculinity and militarism that would send tens of millions to their deaths.
MacGill’s sense of popular culture’s hegemonic role recalls ubiquitous Victorian characterisations of war as a game. As Robert H. MacDonald observes,
the metaphor of war as sport – and its corollary, sport as war – was a commonplace […] But the warfare of the playing field is not just a metaphor for moral or spiritual conflict: the game itself is a training in the military spirit […] The most important encoding of the trope of war-as-sport was in the later Victorian slogan from the cricket or rugby field to “play the game”.
MacGill’s novel refuses to play the game.
In modern commemoration, of course one of the issues we encounter is the continuance of this relationship, in the reproduction of Victorian ideologies of masculinity through marches and pageantry and indeed the link between war and sport (think, for example, of the use of poppies on footballers’ jerseys). This continuity is problematic. As John Nagle and Mary-Alice C. Clancy have recently noted of the north of Ireland and divided societies more generally, ‘social memory is constructed so as to maintain ethno-national boundaries by providing a static view of historical relations between groups founded on extreme acrimony.’
History must be grasped in all its dialectical complexity. But much commemorative activity surrounding WWI reinforces a static model of historical relations, reproduces myths of masculine gallantry, refuses to engage with the complicated, messy, granular texture of our knowledge of the past, and ultimately buttresses barriers between communities here. And commemoration, of course, is too-often harnessed to present-centred constructions of history that, once again—in a period of great uncertainty and inequality—tend to tell us that ‘we’re all in it together’.
What MacGill would make of this we can only guess at (and he did after all have his own ambiguous relationship with the propaganda of war), but it is certain that his sense of how young men had been conditioned to think of war as a noble, even adventurous calling heavily influenced this novel of the war. It also influenced MacGill’s experimental departure from the strict realism of his most well-known works, as he grasped at a more critical and defamiliarising aesthetic—one more fully realised in later writing, and particularly in dramatists like O’Casey and Brecht. In many ways then, MacGill’s novel remains a means of engaging with the complex difficulties of commemoration, asking questions about reflexive historiographical practice in relation to memory and commemoration. In The Great Push we get a glimpse of one disenchanted soldier’s perspective on the distortions and silences that bedevil the history of this enormous human catastrophe.
 David Taylor, Memory, Narrative and the Great War: Rifleman Patrick MacGill and the Construction of Wartime Experience (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2013). Taylor’s book provides an excellent overview and analysis of not just MacGill’s work but the theorisation of memory and narrative too.
 J. A. Hammerton (ed.), The War Illustrated Album de Luxe, Vol 1 (London: The Amalgamated Press, 1915).
 Robert H. MacDonald, The Language of Empire (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1994), p. 20.
 John Nagle and Mary-Alice C. Clancy, Shared Society or Benign Apartheid? Understanding Peace-Building in Divided Societies (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), p. 182.