Canadian Memories of the First World War

Book Review: Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War

Published in War in History, 6 (April 1999), 237-9.

Jonathan F. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press. 1997)


This is a study of Canadian cultural memory of the First World War. Jonathan Vance argues that a mythic version of Canada’s experience of the conflict of 1914-18 was constructed out of ‘a complex mixture of fact, wishful thinking, half-truth, and outright invention’. His book analyses the ways in which this myth was expressed, in art, literature, sculpture, song, and even in advertisements. Vance is interested in the ways in which the war was imagined (to borrow Samuel Hynes’s suggestive term), both at the time and in the following decades. His focus is on the emergence of new ideas about redemption and sacrifice immediately after the war. Vance argues that such notions provided a ‘simple way’ to comprehend the war which might have given solace to severely disabled veterans, war widows and the relatives of war neurotics (p.36). Perhaps so, but we might want to be cautious about assuming that people are necessarily satisfied by the simplest explanation, and that solace was always to be preferred to the political rage which is found, for example, in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire or even Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

In another chapter, Vance suggests that those who were not persuaded by religious interpretations of the war made its memory bearable through humour, melodrama and caricature; others remembered the war through its comradeship and good times. Here Vance analyses some bizarre material, and while his discussion is always careful and intelligent, there is perhaps scope to ask whether the humour contains elements of aggression which are worthy of analysis. Some of the material seems too uncomfortable to be explained simply in terms of reassurance. There is a profound ambivalence at work in the writings, plays, advertisements, songs and other humorous works Vance analyses, and we might want to read these works alongside ideas from psychoanalysis which emerged during the same period. As a literary historian, I found Vance’s lack of interest in psychoanalysis rather refreshing. But psychoanalysis can suggest ways of reading the contradictions and nuances in the material which the utilitarian framework proposed in the introduction is perhaps unable to address.

Some of Vance’s examples seem specific to Canada, while others enrich our understanding of the international effects of the war. In chapter 5, Vance examines the ways in which Canadian soldiers were represented as the nation itself, ‘steaming across the ocean’, as one commentator remarked (p. 136). Some people hoped the war would cleanse the nation of decadent materialism; others represented Canada as an innocent wilderness peopled by honest farmers who became ‘citizen-soldiers’ (p. 141). This rugged myth intersects in interesting ways with representations of the war as a modern machine which Daniel Pick has found in the writings of other combatant nations.

Jonathan Vance writes with elegance and clarity, assembling complex and wide-ranging material into a fascinating narrative. The quality of production from UBC Press is excellent; the book is well designed and includes around 80 illustrations which enrich the discussion. Death So Noble is a valuable contribution to current thinking about the cultural effects of the First World War and should be of interest to social and cultural historians and literary critics, as well as military historians.


Dangerous intimacy


Review of Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Quadrant (Australia), 46 (October 2002).

In his later years, Henry James liked to dictate his books to an amanuensis rather than writing them himself. His last secretary was Theodora Bosanquet. They worked well together and Bosanquet remained in James’s employment until his death in 1916. She went on to have her own literary career, wrote a memoir of Henry James, books on Harriet Martineau and Paul Valéry, and was literary editor of the journal Time and Tide. But in 1933 she found herself taking dictation again, somewhat against her will. James, Meredith, Hardy, and Galsworthy, all deceased, appeared at a séance to announce that they needed a secretary. Bosanquet would have to cut back on her own writing to concentrate on theirs.

Bosanquet was less surprised by this commission than we might expect. As a regular participant in séances and an active member of the Society for Psychical Research, she was used to communications from the dead. She spent much of the 1930s trying to balance her own writing with the demands of late authors who clamoured for her services from the other side. Bosanquet took ghostly dictation several times a day, and left an enormous archive of her automatic writing.

Bosanquet’s archive is one of several fascinating sources explored by Pamela Thurschwell in Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). The book is a literary and cultural history which reads the ways in which three different forces – three diverse strands of thought and activity – intersected and shaped one another at the turn of the twentieth century. One topic is the pervasion of new communications technologies such as the telephone and telegraph into everyday life; the second is the deep interest in telepathy and other occult phenomena and the activities of the Society for Psychical Research; and the third is the emergence of psychoanalysis and other new psychologies.

These separate but related subjects are traced through an impressive range of writings: literary works such as Stoker, Dracula (1897), Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Du Maurier, Trilby (1894), J. MacLaren Cobban’s forgotten Master of his Fate (1890), Rudyard Kipling, “Wireless” (1902), James, “In the Cage” (1898) and his First World War propaganda, along with Bosanquet’s diary and automatic writings, and the psychoanalytic writings of Freud and Ferenczi. Thurschwell traces the ways in which these works talk to one another, colour one another, and affect each other’s view of the world. It is the history of an intimate relationship among writings. And it is a history of a specific phase in the changing story of intimacy. For Thurschwell, intimacy becomes several conflicting things during this period: a commodity costed by the word in the telegraphy office; an object of scientific study for sexologists, psychical researchers and psychologists; a means for healing in the psychoanalyst’s consulting room. These conflicts are played out in much literature of the period, and Thurschwell helps us to recover a sense of the sheer strangeness of these works.

Many recent critics have traced the shifts in the understanding of sexuality in the late nineteenth century. Literature and other writings of the time show for example the ways in which male homosexuality – a practice as old as humankind – became defined in new ways during this period, not least as a result of the trial of Oscar Wilde. Perhaps for the first time in human history, homosexuality became not simply a practice or a pleasure, but an identity. The consequences of this shift continue to be played out today in debates over gay rights, needs, and identities. All this has been explored by historians such as Jeffery Weeks (Sex, Politics and Society, 1981) and various literary critics over the past two decades.

Thurschwell offers new ways of thinking about these historical questions, and shifts the focus from sexuality to intimacy, an altogether more mysterious phenomenon. What is intimacy? The OED tells us that the word refers to the deepest, most inward, essential aspects of human relationships or human feelings. It is also used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The adjective intimate refers to something “proceeding from or concerning or affecting one’s inmost self”. In the early twentieth century, the word was taken up by commerce to refer to women’s underclothing – intimate apparel – the metaphor shifting from the inside to the surfaces of the body, whilst remaining tantalisingly secretive and hidden.

For Thurschwell, the relationship between the lesbian Bosanquet and the gay man Henry James involved a particularly interesting kind of intimacy. While there was perhaps a sexual element in this friendship, the real closeness took place in two minds. Mental or psychic closeness, James suggests, can sometimes be more intimate, more exhilarating, more satisfying – and more disturbing – than physical or sexual contact. In this case, intimacy was enacted through the transmission of words. The secretary is like the medium at a séance. Words pass through her mind and out via her fingertips on to the page.

Assuming that James did not really speak to Theodora Bosanquet from beyond the grave, his posthumous dictation presumably came from within her own mind. Bosanquet writes some plausibly long-winded Jamesian sentences. But are the words and the syntax his, or hers; who is the source of an utterance? This in turn raises questions about the extent to which we are affected by the consciousness of other people. How do we dwell within one another; where are the borders of one’s identity; how does one know one’s own mind?

And how is it that other people’s words can invade and destroy us? Freud notes in his study of Daniel Paul Schreber (author of Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, 1903) that one of Schreber’s most frightening delusions was the sense that he was being entered by rays of language, forces which threatened to annihilate his personality completely. Later in the century, the young Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is so pervaded by his mother’s overpowering character that when he goes to school, he is convinced that all his teachers are his mother in disguise. When he gets home, she is always there before him, solicitous with snacks and questions about his day. Portnoy answers very carefully for, after all, she already knows. Her words and her personality penetrate his consciousness, like an occupying army.


Thurschwell traces the ways in which new technologies of communication entered into our ideas about intimacy in the late nineteenth century and continue to shape them up to the present day. Fantasies of ever-closer communication across time and space have developed alongside increasing isolation and estrangement in our daily lives. But a fantasy is not merely a delusion; it has a real if complex relationship to external things. Our interior, psychic world is the place of fantasy, and it has its own reality which in turn affects the ways in which we live and interact with the outside world.

Thurschwell is a marvellous guide through the labyrinths of psychoanalytic thinking of the early twentieth century; she has also written a wonderful introductory book on Freud (Routledge, 2000). She explains difficult concepts with admirable clarity and good humour, reading through and across diverse writings and showing how they shed light upon one another. One of the most fascinating chapters examines the relationship between Freud and Sandor Ferenczi (1873–1933). Ferenczi’s late work, Thurschwell notes, explores the ways in which people who are abused as children sometimes take in the experience so deeply that they identify with, introject, and even speak in the voice of the attacking adult. Whose desires, then, are they speaking? These are extreme cases, and real ones, but they also suggest how the common childhood experiences of being undermined, criticised too harshly, verbally demolished, and so forth, take up residence in the internal world. Adults then re-enact their own childhood pain and humiliation with the next generation, unwittingly passing on their worst hurts to their children, as Alice Miller points out in The Drama of Being a Child (1979).

Ferenczi has an uneasy place in the history of the psychoanalytic movement. He was too eccentric, too radical – some would say almost deranged, and inclined to get sexually involved with some patients. But this is precisely why he is interesting, argues Thurschwell; his “most innovative technical and theoretical speculations are inseparable from the fact that he was ‘deranged’ and seduced his patients.” To put it more temperately, she says, Ferenczi used an “active technique,” taking on the roles the patient suggested in an attempt to reach the unconscious forces at work. Sometimes this included providing physical contact if a patient desired it. Most psychoanalysts would regard this as unethical, crossing borders which should remain inviolable. This risky strategy is not good or even acceptable clinical practice, but for Thurschwell it none the less makes an important conceptual point. Ferenczi pushed at the boundaries of psychoanalysis, trying to find new and deeper ways for people to communicate. The illnesses which take people to an analyst are profoundly isolating, and Ferenczi’s unconventional methods were an attempt to reach his patients across the immense distance of their psychic distress. Alongside this, Ferenczi was fascinated by contemporary experiments in thought transference and other occult activities, hoping that they might provide useful tools for psychoanalysis. We dismiss such ideas now, but they were a genuine attempt to find ways of making contact with deeply disturbed patients, to be with them in their terrible loneliness.

Freud, by contrast, wanted to make a clear distinction between psychoanalysis and psychical research, and he was opposed to Ferenczi’s interest in the occult. Psychoanalysis was a science of sexuality; it wanted no truck with spooks. Yet there are uneasy parallels both in patients’ symptoms and in psychoanalytic treatment which refuse to go away. Even in ordinary life, a person in love is like a person possessed; emotional and sexual desires are, in their effects, uncannily similar to the demonic, remarks Thurschwell. As Adam Phillips argues, “sexuality and the unconscious were the new, scientifically prestigious words for the occult, of that which is beyond our capacity for knowledge, for the weird, unaccountable effects people have on each other.” The sheer peculiarity of human relationships might seem to call for supernatural knowledge; science will never be enough.

As Thurschwell concludes, “what the supernatural and the erotic have in common is the ways in which fears, anxieties, desires – the meat and potatoes of psychoanalysis – emerge from questions of proximity and distance.” What is our relation to other minds and other bodies; what kinds of closeness are pleasurable, what disturbing? If a person’s mind or body is invaded in childhood, what happens to the boundaries of their identity; how do they later experience sexual pleasure and sexual anxiety? What if the invasion is fantasised as well as real? To put it another way; “How close is too close?”

This discussion is a tour de force, as are many other sections of the book. Thurschwell writes with an academic audience in mind, but this book can be enjoyed by any serious reader interested the cultural history of the late nineteenth century. It provides new readings of fin de siecle literature, and gives us greater understanding of the ideas which were to shape our knowledge of the human psyche throughout the twentieth century.

Review of Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Quadrant (Australia), 46 (October 2002). Copyright (c) Trudi Tate 2002.

‘King Baby’ featured on University of Cambridge Research page

Too Big to Cry

Article by Alex Buxton, Communications Office, University of Cambridge, about Trudi Tate’s article on infant care at the time of the 1918 Armistice. Published on the university’s Research Features website, November 2015.

When we think of the First World War, we remember the many millions of men who died. But, as dangerous it was to be a soldier in the horror of the trenches, it was more dangerous to be a baby back at home. This parlous state of affairs was described by the Bishop of London at the launch of an initiative called Baby Week designed to improve infant survival rates: “100,000 babies died during the first twelve months from their birth… While nine soldiers died every hour in 1915 twelve babies died each hour.”

This bleak picture, and the urgent efforts made to redress it, is one backdrop toThe Silent Morning: Culture and Memory after the Armistice a collection of essays edited by Cambridge academics Drs Trudi Tate and Kate Kennedy. The book, which comes out in paperback on Armistice Day (11 November 2015) looks at the cultural and societal narrative of a Britain struggling to find itself in the wake of conflict. Part of this struggle was a national drive to increase the health of the nation and produce a generation raised on safe milk, housed in sanitary conditions and provided with a secure framework.

The chapter in Silent Morning contributed by Tate is titled ‘King Baby’. It covers new ground in its analysis of underlying attitudes to child development and how these were shaped by the not-quite peace that unfolded when an Armistice was declared in November 1918. In her exploration of the literature of the period, Tate focuses first and foremost on babies. Her journey into the unconscious of the domestic sphere embraces the work of writers such as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield as well as the manuals that exerted strong influences on childcare practice.

Tate argues that, while many soldiers and civilians felt infantilised by war, babies were, in a sense, militarised. She reminds us that war traumatises – but also that peace, and the absence of the sound of guns, can be traumatic too. The uncertain and sullied cease of conflict that followed was described by the poet Eleanor Farjeon in chilling terms:

I am awful as my brother War,
I am the sudden silence after clamour.
I am the face that shows the seamy scar
When blood has lost its frenzy and its glamour.

When Woolf too describes the disappointment of peace, she turns to childhood as her point of reference. The build-up to Armistice is like the excitement of a birthday. Inevitably, the day itself disappoints yet the charade that everything’s lovely has to be maintained. “So on a birthday,” she writes, “when for some reason things have gone wrong, it was a point of honour in the nursery to pretend. Years later one could confess what a horrid fraud it seemed.”

Rather than returning as heroes, many men who came back from the First World War were broken and stripped of individual agency. Some were empty and angry; some could be violent. Many of those who went to war never came back. Bowen’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ describes a young widow, Mrs Dickinson, containing her grief for her dead husband Toppy beneath a mask of elegance and poise. The Dickinsons’ seven-year-old son, Frederick, who had been just a baby when his father died, cries and cries. His mother is embarrassed by this “great blubbering boy” who is “too big to cry”.

Perhaps poor Frederick had been raised according to the method set out by Truby King, a pioneer in modern parenting. Enthusiastically embraced in the wake of the First World War, King’s views made a perfect partner for the nationwide programmes (such as Baby Week) aimed at raising standards of hygiene and nutrition.

King recommended a strict, and largely loveless, schedule. An extraordinary man, whose career took in dairy farming and the cultivation of roses, King was also superintendent of a lunatic asylum. He observed that calves thrived when they were fed regularly. Babies, believed King, should be fed every four hours (not at night) with sleep in between. Even their bowel movements should be regulated. Over-stimulation (too much play and excitement) was to be avoided; physical contact was spoiling.

When the guns went silent, and a semblance of normality crept into the lives of those who had survived the war, a gaping absence asserted itself. “Babies born after the Armistice come into what seems like a formless, unpredictable world,” writes Tate. “In the many families which take up the Truby King method, babies’ tiny lives are vigorously regulated, thus providing a comforting structure – a ‘container’ which at least makes the adults feel more secure.”

A caption below a photo of two bonny girls in King’s book The Expectant Mother and Baby’s First Month reads: “A doctor’s children. Healthy, hardy, happy little girls, aged two and nearly four years. Good jaws and sound teeth. Nursed four-hourly from birth – never more than five times in twenty-four hours; plenty of fresh air and exercise – never any coddling.”

By mechanising babies, and raising them in a sterile environment, parents perhaps tried to make the world secure for themselves. King’s literature on the best way to bring up baby was devoured by many of the professionals seeking to improve the nation’s health. His methods were ‘scientific’. A new generation of maternity nurses was trained in the ‘Truby King method’. The Plunket nurses (named after King’s patrons Lord and Lady Plunket) helped mothers to breastfeed and guided them through their babies’ early development. Plunket nurses adhered to routine; they wouldn’t ‘give in’ to a crying child.

Tate shows how Mansfield captures the cruel effects of this detached style of parenting in her short story ‘Bliss’.  Bertha is a middle class mother who employs a full-time nanny. Her husband boasts of his lack of interest in his child. “Don’t ask me about my baby. I never see her.” When Bertha visits her daughter one evening, the child is delighted while nanny experiences the unscheduled visit as a disruption to a regime that must be maintained at all costs. Bertha suddenly realises that the situation is tragic for both for herself and her child.

The focus of Mansfield’s story is not Bertha’s marriage but her relationship with her daughter. “Many of her [Mansfield’s] stories of modern life are miniature tragedies, rooted, in many cases, in the unwitting neglect of children,” Tate writes. For Truby King, children had no point of view: a regulated regime was best for them, regardless of how much they screamed with hunger. King’s inflexible routine for baby-rearing imposed military discipline on the messy chaos that is small babies.

King did face criticism from contemporaries – among those who argued against him was Dr GD Laing who experienced the pitiful cries of little ones being ignored until the allotted hour for feeding. Research by psychoanalysts John Bowlby, Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion later showed that King’s system, though it succeeded with some babies, was disastrous for many. The infants who, desperately hungry or hurting, screamed themselves into silence may well have been traumatised – and early trauma has been linked to depression.

Those who suffer terribly in war seldom speak of their experiences as there are no words to describe it. They pass on their distress in other ways. In her memoir Alfred and Emily (2008), the novelist Doris Lessing (born in 1919) revisited her childhood. Her father lost a leg fighting in the First World War; her mother was a nurse looking after the war-wounded. “Do children feel their parents’ emotions,” Lessing wonders. “Yes, they do… The Great War… squatted over my childhood. And here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.”

Pram ad

The book explores how selected writers, artists and composers sought to bear witness to the war and the disappointment of peace. It’s one of the few volumes to look comparatively at British, German and Austrian sources, reading Virginia Woolf alongside Arthur Schnitzler and Alfred Döblin, Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Krenek alongside Arthur Bliss, Elizabeth Bowen and Ford Madox Ford, and unpublished letters by both German and British soldiers. Contributors include Andrew Frayn, Alison Hennegan, Klaus Hofmann, Jane Potter, George Simmers, and Alexander Watson. Adrian Barlow discusses British and German war memorials.

Both Tate and Kennedy study the First World War but neither is a historian in the conventional sense. Tate is a specialist in the literature of conflict and Kennedy is a biographer with an interest in the relationship between words and music. The essays they bring together in Silent Morning look behind the practical measures taken to improve hygiene and housing to reveal the deeper cultural forces at work. Evident in art, literature and music, these ways of seeing the world shaped much more than government policies: they had a profound and enduring impact on people’s lives on both sides of the conflict.

The Silent Morning

The Silent Morning: Culture and Memory After the Armistice, ed. Trudi Tate and Kate Kennedy. Manchester University Press, 2013; paperback 2015.

Hardback 978 0719090028

Paperback 978 0784991166


Käthe Kollwitz, Die trauernden Eltern
Käthe Kollwitz, Die trauernden Eltern

On 11 November 1918, at precisely 11 a.m. British time – 12 noon German time – the infernal noise of the First World War came to an abrupt end. Almost everywhere in the war zones, the machinery of warfare stopped at the agreed moment. Those present found the experience eerie. The greatest war in history ended not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with the most profound sound of all: silence. And after that silence – what?

The essays in this book revisit the end of the First World War to ask how that moment of silence was to echo into the following decades. The Armistice of 1918 brought hopes for a better future, as well as sadness, disappointment, and rage. Many people in all the combatant nations asked hard questions about the purpose of the war. Many wondered whether the effort and the suffering had been worth it. These questions are explored in complex and nuanced ways in the literature and art of the period.

This book builds upon the pioneering research of military and social historians such as Hugh Cecil, Peter Liddle, Adrian Gregory, and Jason Crouthamel. We look at the history from a different angle, asking how British and German creative artists addressed, questioned, and remembered the Armistice and its silence. Though there are many fine works of cultural history of the First World War, no other book takes quite this kind of comparative look at the cultural effects of the war. This volume offers a genuinely inter-disciplinary study, bringing together contributions from scholars in art history, music, literature, and military history. It is unique in its comparison of the creative arts of both sides; assessing responses to the war in Britain, Germany, and Vienna.


Trudi Tate and Kate Kennedy, Introduction: ‘This Grave Day’

1 John Pegum, The parting of the ways: The Armistice, the Silence and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End

2 Klaus Hofmann, Alfred Döblin’s November 1918: The Alsatian prelude

3 George Simmers, ‘A strange mood’: British popular fiction and post-war uncertainties

4 Alison Hennegan, Fighting the peace: Two women’s accounts of the post-war years

5 Trudi Tate, King Baby: Infant care into the peace

6 Andrew Frayn, ‘What a victory it might have been’: C.E. Montague and the First World War

7 Jane Potter, The Bookman, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Armistice

8 Max Haberich, ‘Misunderstood … mainly because of my Jewishness’: Arthur Schnitzler after the First World War

9 Peter Tregear, Leaping over shadows: Ernst Krenek and post-war Vienna

10 Kate Kennedy, Silence recalled in sound: British classical music and the Armistice

11 Claudia Siebrecht, Sacrifice defeated: The Armistice and depictions of victimhood in German women’s art 1918-1924

12 Michael Walsh, ‘Remembering, we forget’: British art at the Armistice

13 Alexander Watson, Indecisive victory? : German and British soldiers at the Armistice

14 Adrian Barlow, Mixing memory and desire: British and German war memorials after 1918



On a co-authored chapter on D. H. Lawrence


In 2001, I co-authored a chapter on the short fiction of D.H. Lawrence for The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence. I did most of the research, and my co-author, Dr Con Coroneos, did most of the writing, then we collaborated on the editing.

In the course of the writing, my co-author made a few notes, including some plot summaries from Graham Hough’s classic study, The Dark Sun. Unfortunately, he didn’t annotate his notes fully, and when he was writing up the chapter from our joint notes, he took Hough’s words to be his own, and included them in the argument. The chapter was then published with a few sentences of plot summaries my co-author had inadvertently copied from Hough.

Several years later, a reader noticed the error and contacted the Times Higher Education Supplement, who published allegations of plagiarism. CUP looked into the matter, and we were all embarrassed to realise the blunder. My co-author acknowledged the mistake and it was clear he had no intention to copy from Hough. There was no intentional plagiarism. CUP issued an apology, and we have corrected the error for future editions of the book. This was noted in the Times Higher on 3 July 2007.

Afterlives of Virginia Woolf


Clare Hall, West Court


Virginia Woolf died in March 1941. She was 59, an unusual age for a suicide. She felt she was going mad again, and could not bear the pain of mental breakdown. Nor did she want to burden her husband and sister with the strain of another period of mental illness. She put heavy stones in her pockets, and drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex. It took three weeks before her body was washed up and found. Leonard Woolf had the sad task of identifying her remains. Friends remarked on the incredible strain etched upon his face, his eyes red from constant weeping.

Continue reading “Afterlives of Virginia Woolf”

A century of dud patriots



During the Gulf War of 1991, American commander General Norman Schwarzkopf claimed, with characteristic brio, that the Patriot missile attacks on Iraq’s Scud missiles had achieved the astonishing success rate of one hundred percent. Two years later, in 1993, the US Armed Services Committee found that this was something of an overestimate. Not every Patriot missile had found its target. Very few, in fact. Well, to be scrupulously accurate, none at all. No evidence could be found to show that a single Patriot missile had managed to bring down a Scud. Continue reading “A century of dud patriots”