When E. P. Thompson first met the controversial Norwegian poet Nordhal Grieg, he was told of regret that Norway had remained neutral during the Great War. Thompson was also questioned eagerly about three young poets who had died in that struggle: Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley, and Wilfred Owen. Later, Grieg came to Oxford specially to write his study of these three, and of three poets who died young a century earlier: John Keats, Percy Bysshe, and George (later Lord) Byron. Such is the myth-making power of dead poets, and literary reactions more generally.
But there is a second issue at stake here: regret. Regret, not that the war took place, nor that it claimed so many lives, but, rather, regret that it had not been experienced personally. In Time and Chance (1940), Harold Dearden described the war as a ‘fantastic business’ that served him magnificently. He attests to a fellowship and intimacy ‘so rare and so delightful as almost to justify the beastliness that made it possible.’ In 1914-18 you lived, Dearden tells us, in the company of men at their best, spurred to passionate unselfishness by a common purpose which at other times is lacking. This sentiment is echoed elsewhere: witness Herbert Read’s ‘My Company’ (1919).
It is proposed here that, coupled with a notion of the conflict as the most momentous event of the twentieth century, derived from the compelling debate over how the Great War constituted a cultural caesura that determined what could be said and done subsequently, this idea has instilled, in the modern male especially, a lament for the war experience. This is not intended to refute the claim that those who lived and died in the war did so in order that others might not, even if ‘the war to end war’ remains elusive. It is merely suggested that from the perspective of the twenty-first century, with its pervasive cultural conflicts engendering aspirations of increased social solidarity and unity of purpose, along with nostalgia resulting from the dislocations of modernity in general, 1914-18 appears as a golden age of powerful emotions that one might easily regret not having taken part in.
This is a controversial idea, given what we think we know about how terrifying, exhausting and, sometimes, simply horrific the combat experience must have been like. However, these aspects made necessary the far more positive elements that constituted each soldier’s mental strategy for accepting and coming to terms with the war’s realities. Their co-existence is central, in this context, to the fascination of ‘remembered’ war, whether you wish you were there or not.