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Lost Generation



Dying in action
The glory of dying in action...

And death itself was rarely a moment of supreme glory. This is well summed up in a passage from Frederic Manning's novel The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929): it is the roll call after a battle, and details are being sought about missing platoon members. The question is asked about Private Redmain:

" 'I saw 'im, sir; 'e were just blown to buggery,' said Pike, with a feeling that was almost brutal in its directness. ' 'e were a chum o' mine, sir, an' I seen 'im blown into fuckin' bits. 'e got it just before we got to their first line, sir.'"

Garden Party for VC holders

Not every hero died, of course.This picture of Private Samuel Harvey VC "sharing a joke" with King George V, Queen Mary and other dignitaries was taken at a Buckingham Palace garden party in 1919 held for 300 soldiers who had won the Victoria Cross.

But in the air of 1914 there had been (for those with money, at least) a feverish romanticism , fuelled by many elements of Victorian life and culture. Overall it carried an invincible belief in the superiority of all things British; and an innocently misguided vision of war as a great and gallant knightly adventure.

Even by the end of the Great War, magazines and books still carried ludicrous pictures of cavalry charging into the enemy guns. And if war was a noble adventure, then those who died in its cause must be their very nature be noble.

In 1922 in England Today George A.Greenwood wrote: "About 11 per cent of the privates who were mobilised never returned; among the officers the proportion was about 22 per cent; and among the young subalterns the harvest of death was even greater still ... They were of the stock of men with high desires that come from fresh brains and who have the energy to apply them, the elements that count for most in the world's affairs. It is no mere coincidence that our almost intolerable weight of social, industrial and economic problems follows upon the sudden abstraction from and the very partial restoration to the life of its nation of its noblest, bravest and most unselfish youth."

1926 General Strike
Troops guarding food
supplies in 1926 General Strike

There was a burning need to find someone to blame, or at least find a reason for the mess the world was still in after the Great War. The post-war years were very difficult, rising prices and unemployment, the 1926 General Strike, all leading towards long-term recession.

One view was that such problems had been worsened by the slaughter of so many brilliant young men had died. Perhaps, it was said, those golden lads who had perished would have made sure that Britain became great again. Young men like Julian Grenfell, with his shimmering brilliance: "one of the most complete Englishmen ever to come from Oxford" someone called him.

Julian Grenfell
Julian Grenfell

Grenfell died in 1915 of wounds received at Ypres. He was noted for his wit and brilliance, and his poem Into Battle, published the week he died, shows some skill in composition, but his letters home in 1914 can't be said to show a great deal of intellectual depth:

"I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy. Nobody grumbles at me for being dirty. I have only had my boots off once in the last ten days and only washed twice."

They undoubtedly had courage, men like Grenfell (known by some as "the happy warrior"), although there's a very fine line between being brave and being foolhardy.

Dole Queue Walworth Road 1929
Dole Queue, London 1929

But it is very hard to believe that this so-called Lost Generation could have saved Britain from its post-war decline, as symbolised in the ever growing dole-queues (with more than their fair share of ex-soldiers).

These "missing" political leaders came from the same background, had been educated at the same schools as the men who had presided over a pre-war society in which real talent went to waste, and where complacency about the country's economic strength in the world had allowed other nations to overtake Britain in trade, and in manufacturing.

A different lost generation
Members of the real 'lost' generation

In truth, the real "Lost Generation" was to be found in that army of young men, old before their time, who came back from the war broken in body and spirit.

Ten years after the armistice, almost two and a half million men were in receipt of a pension for war disabilities of some sort (approximately 40 per cent of the soldiers who served in the war) and forty-eight special mental hospitals still tended 65,000 shell-shock victims.

The problem got worse for many ex-soldiers, as the results of their terrible wounds continued to make themselves felt. In 1928, there were over 6,000 new issues of artificial limbs as a result of war wounds.

There were worse tragedies of the Great War than those marked by the endless rows of white stones in France and Belgium.

I've only skimmed the surface of all the arguments and theories about the Lost Generation. It is a complex subject. As well as those books mentioned in the article, the following books will be of interest if you want to read more about it.

Reginald Pound: The Lost Generation (1964)
Robert Wohl: The Generation of 1914 (1979)
Angela Lambert: Unquiet Souls (1984)
W.J.Reader: At Duty's Call (1988)
Denis Winter: Death's Men (1978)
C.F.G.Masterman: England After War (1922)

Julian Grenfell's poem Into Battle can be found here.

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Tuesday 14 February 2006