Polly Toynbee Guardian/UK 14 February, 2014
History is there to be mined or undermined, renewed or debunked, as each generation ferrets out illumination for their times. The first world war is this year's crucible for re-examining ourselves.
This week's revival of Joan Littlewood's Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, comes 50 years after I saw it at the age of 16, as part of a group from the National Youth Theatre. We were harrowed, bowled over, dazzled and shocked – and this brilliant reprise shows that age does not wither it.
What keeps it electric is those songs from the trenches: tough, wry, pithy, cynical about the top brass, authentic soldiers' voices that are rude, unsentimental and Britishly stoical. Nor are these the same bleak voices of the intellectual war poets, though they tell the same story, as ticker-tape flashes up deaths by the hundreds of thousands and the few yards gained.
Back in 1963 that production opened the box on what seemed to us olden days. We of the post-second world war "baby bulge" heard our parents tell of blitz and rations, but this turned us to look at our grandparents anew. What did they do? Wars sweep up every family, private stories as part of great national events: peacetime offers no such galvanising markers. Every one of us has tales to tell. As the Guardian calls for family memories, these are mine.
One uncle, aged just 14, was turfed out of naval college straight off to Gallipoli, where his older brother died – but he survived. My two grandfathers were both left deeply scarred, in quite different ways. One, George Powell, was a professional soldier, a guards officer shipped out to France from the outset. In one battle he was shelled and buried alive for a day and a night, until dug out by the straggling remains of his unit. His wounds were slight, his shell-shock serious, but he was sent back to the front. In one battle the whistle blew but he failed to lead his men over the top in yet another push towards the barbed wire. Why? Was it revulsion at futile slaughter, was it cowardice – or just paralytic shock? Whichever, it was hushed up and he was honorably demobbed in 1919.
I just remember him, a red-faced blimp, blustering about military or political strategy. Years later my mother told of his secret scars. In the Guards Club he would play cards, but if ever he began to win, others at the table would whisper the name of the battle where he lost his nerve/saved his men, until he put down his cards and slipped away.
My other grandfather, the historian Arnold Toynbee, was deeply scarred too. At 25 he ducked, not a conscientious objector but too afraid of army life to sign up. His biographer exposes the number of times he pretended to volunteer, but turned up with doctors' letters declaring him unfit. Employed in the Foreign Office, he wrote propaganda pamphlets such as The Terrible Tyranny of the Turk (later greatly repented), his job declared essential war work.
But he did show the white feather, seared for ever after by the death of his friends. Others have their family stories of heroism, misery, bravery medals earned – or, as with Siegfried Sassoon, a curious mix of both.
Views of the war shift with the times. Arnold was pro-war, from a liberal perspective: "The only way to convince Germany that war is not in her interest is to beat her badly and then treat her well" – a failed enterprise if ever there was. He was a delegate to the 1919 Versailles conference and advocate of the League of Nations. That was the era when the great war was The War to End Wars, an "end of history" moment when it could seem world-changingly worthwhile. But once it dwindled into a mere "first" of two world wars plus a cold war, causing the rise of Hitler and all that flowed from that, any simple reason why was lost in the mud.
Littlewood caught the mood for many teenagers in 1963. Those of us who marched with CND felt the imminence of a nuclear war to end all life. The Vietnam war had passed the point of no return, with 16,000 US "advisers" already there. Korea, Malaya, colonial repressions, the Falklands … no day since has lacked British troops at war.
In his war of attrition, Field Marshal Haig barked: "There must be no squeamishness over losses" – as every leader always must in any war. But have Afghanistan and Iraq been our wars to end all (British) warring? Unvanquished, unoccupied since 1066, what will our militaristic sabre-rattlers do with perpetual peace? Exaggerate the drama of rainstorms, aggrandise the tragic miners' strike and inflate small riots, as playwrights and novelists secretly yearn for epic generation-defining moments. Absence of war is a fine thing, if only we knew what to do with it. We will need grand unifying endeavours to replace those grand national sacrifices. [Abridged]