- - Thursday, November 6, 2014


By Mike Webb
Bodleian Library/University of Chicago Press,$35, 260 pages, illustrated

With the anniversary of the beginning of World War I this past August, there has understandably been a tidal wave of books about the conflict. Not that there haven’t been dozens each year for who knows how long, since it is irresistible for historians to try and understand a pivotal event that shaped the rest of the 20th century for better or for worse — mostly the latter, unfortunately.

How could statesmen have plunged their people into such a cataclysm, and how could military leaders have sacrificed so many of their men for so little gain? Then of course, there are so many human-interest stories from those four years, the uniquely awful details of life and death in the trenches and an unprecedented number of civilians impacted by modern warfare.

Given such a plethora of books on the subject, those that are a little different stand out and are an antidote to World War I fatigue, which is only likely to grow in the next few years as anniversaries of its battles and other events roll along.

“From Downing Street to the Trenches” is a bit like an “Upstairs Downstairs” view of the world, except that, as befits a collection drawn from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, it’s more as though upstairs is contrasted with the stratosphere rather than with those who served them and under them, who are seen from the perspective of their superiors. In short, this is a world of officers, rather than enlisted men, of statesmen, poets, composers and philosophers.

A considerable portion of the book is devoted to H.H Asquith, British prime minister from 1914 to 1916, and his family. The amazingly frank letters he wrote a young married woman with whom he was passionately but platonically in love are even more remarkable for their candor about the war and politics than the mere fact that one in his position would have had the inclination or the time to conduct such a correspondence.

There’s a lot about political jockeying, but also heartbreaking glimpses of his grief at the death of his eldest and most brilliant son in the Battle of the Somme and his attempts to comfort the stricken widow.

The diaries of his emotional and outspoken wife, Margot, provide a priceless view from the top, including pen portraits of a young Winston Churchill as fully engaged if not quite as powerful as in the next world war and of David Lloyd George, who would supplant her husband as prime minister. You can see the trajectory of her feelings in the contrast between her “I can truthfully say that this has been the greatest moment of my life” on the British declaration of war and “The Ypres Cemetery will haunt me till I die” a mere four months later.

The eponymous Downing Street, where prime ministers reside in London, casts a long shadow over this book, with many revealing entries from letters and diaries of Harold Macmillan, who would live there 40 years later and one from 1940s prime minister Clement Attlee, Oxford men both, as were Asquith and his son. The newly discovered diaries of government minister Lewis Harcourt, including accounts of Cabinet meetings written in defiance of all the prevailing government rules and etiquette, provide an up-close and personal glimpse of policymaking and machinations.

We also hear about composer George Butterworth enduring the hardships of war as a private and poet W.B. Yeats’ characteristically subtle views on the struggle and the proper role for writers in it. T.E. Lawrence, not yet of Arabia, provides an acerbic rundown of his fellow intelligence officers in 1915 Cairo. This collection being Oxford-oriented, we even hear from Ernst Stadler, a German poet who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and was, in one of this war’s many ironies, killed by a British shell in October 1914.

However, it is Macmillan, barely into his 20s, who is the heart and soul of this book. The letters he wrote to his parents manage to combine realism, sensitivity, patriotism and even touches of humor. His accounts of being wounded are memorable for their honesty and bravery even as he tries to assuage their worrying. Whether he is describing a Lucullan feast during a lull or the size and ferocity of the odious rats in the trenches, he is vivid and expressive. There is no doubting his sang-froid and bravery or his staunchness, as when he writes in May 1916:

“If anyone at home thinks or talks of peace, you can truthfully say that the Army is weary enough of war but prepared to fight for another 50 years if necessary, until the final object is attained.”

These firsthand accounts make us feel the cost borne by those who fought and by the bereft and agonized at home, and also of the sense of purpose and belief in what they were doing, made all the more poignant by hindsight of World War I’s ongoing troubled legacy.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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