When I was growing up, I didn’t think much about the First World War. It seemed so remote from the 1960s. The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape, shown remorselessly, belonged to a more recent conflict. Now, a century seems shorter than it did. Having lived through more than half of one provides a different perspective. Three generations, so much change. Then, Britain had Empire, coal and corncrakes; now, we have warm houses, healthcare and the internet. Unfortunately, we haven’t become much more prescient about making wars.
These reflections struck me at Brasenose College, Oxford, last week, where I was on a panel to discuss how the First World War should be remembered. Brasenose’s own sacrifice can be seen from the war memorial. As Sir Hew Strachan reminded us, losses among university and public-school men-lieutenants and captains leading from the front-were disproportionately great.
We were asked whether modern fiction enriches or poisons understanding. Having written a novel about the Salonika front (The Birdcage, out shortly), I declare an interest. Good history tells us what happened. Novels, if thoroughly researched and written with imaginative sympathy, evoke what it might have been like-for us.
* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter