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Young Men’s Encounters with the Great War in Interwar Britain

Being limited to 3300 characters in the New Voices in the History of War Twitter conference meant being selective so I tweeted about representations of the Great War in interwar literature. My research has a wider scope: I’m currently writing my first monograph, provisionally titled Joining up in the Second World War: Enlistment, Masculinity and Memory of the Great War in Britain. In the meantime, readers might be interested in my article about the impressions young men gained from Great War veterans in interwar Britain.

Scholars of the memory of the Great War have increasingly looked beyond the canonical high-literature that was the initial focus and have instead highlighted that representations of the Great War were ubiquitous in popular culture between 1918 and 1939. Moreover, ‘disillusioned’ literary responses weren’t necessarily intended as such. Yet we know little about how Britons received representations of the Great War; their reception and their influence tends to have been assumed on the basis of sales figures and critical reviews rather than the subjective experiences and attitudes of those who consumed them.

I’ve used oral history and Mass Observation material to examine how young men – who subsequently served in the Second World War – encountered representations of the Great War in interwar Britain. Doing so reveals that the Great War was found in even more diverse sources than previously assumed. Which representations resonated with young men, and what they took from those that did, was even more varied. For instance, All Quiet on the Western Front was read by young men (and more widely watched as a film adaptation) but how much of its intended message they understood varied significantly. So too did their feelings about how they should react, which depended on whether they considered themselves to be watching something that was more fact than fiction, or vice versa.

Moreover, although the Great War was represented as a cause for disillusionment as the interwar years went on, this narrative was always in competition with more traditional understandings: redemptive sacrifice, heroic soldiering, and war as masculine adventure. It was these representations that young men most commonly engaged with. Even well-read Mass Observation respondents rarely referenced ‘disillusioned’ representations. I argue that examining which representations young men encountered, and which informed and shaped their subjective understandings of the Great War, can enrich our understanding of their importance. The limited presence of canonical representations of the Great War in young men’s experiences should inform our assessments of their relative impact on the attitudes and mentalities of those growing up in interwar Britain.

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