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May 23, 2012, marked the passing of literary scholar and public intellectual Paul Fussell, whose monumental 1975 study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, brought widespread attention to how the experience of trench warfare helped foster a modern, ironic sensibility that still influences art and culture today. Fussell’s book was the first in-depth study of the cultural legacy of the First World War and remains a landmark in the scholarship of early twentieth-century literature. As critic Vincent Sherry has written, the book’s “ambition and popularity move interpretation of the War from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. [Fussell’s] claims for the meaning of the War are profound and far-reaching . . . . [he] has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”
Staff members who are working on the Ransom Center’s 2014 centenary exhibition Looking at the First World War have certainly found Sherry’s claim for the importance of Fussell’s influence to be true. Fussell, a former patron of the Ransom Center, centered his work on many of the British trench poets and writers whose manuscript collections are held at the Center. The Great War and Modern Memory frequently refers to the poem drafts, letters, and diaries of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden. Fussell maintained that these writers—all of whom were young officers in the trenches of the Western Front—developed a new and often satiric poetic language that served to subvert the “official” rhetoric that was used by the British government and army. Combining biting irony with graphic descriptions of newly industrialized warfare—gas attacks and machine guns, for example—the Generation of 1914 sought to tell the public the eyewitness truth about modern combat.
Numerous items that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition highlight Fussell’s observation that the First World War, as a watershed moment of the twentieth century, inspired soldier-poets to produce deeply personal accounts of their combat experience—often in direct response to government and army propaganda. One of The Great War and Modern Memory’s most memorable examples of the division between the “official” language of the War and the literary response to trench life is Fussell’s discussion of the standardized “Field Service Postcard” issued by the British Army in November 1914. Known as “Quick Firers,” these postcards were mass-produced in the millions and issued to infantry servicemen who would send them to family and friends as evidence of being alive and safe.
The Ransom Center’s Wilfred Owen collection houses more than a dozen of the Field Service Postcards that the young poet-officer sent his family while on active duty in France during 1916–18. As you can see from this image of a postcard sent by Owen to his mother in 1917, the card forces the sender to report his well-being by choosing between uniform, pre-printed sentences: “NOTHING” written in the margins of the card is allowed, or else the card will be destroyed instead of sent. Thus, soldiers such as Owen faced what Fussell refers to as the “implicit optimism” of the Field Service Postcard: they were forced to report that they were “quite well, “going on well,” or were to be “discharged soon” and happily sent back home. The standardized sentences of the card did not allow soldiers to report, for example, that they were facing an artillery barrage, had lost limbs, or were wounded beyond hope of recovery. Owen, who detested the army’s censorship, made an agreement with his mother that if he were advancing to the front lines of battle he would send her a Field Service Postcard with the sentence “I am being sent down to base” struck out twice. The double strikeout is apparent in this postcard, sent just days before Owen was transferred to the Somme region of France, where he participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the War.
In the years following the Great War, the Field Service Postcard, which Fussell calls the first widespread “form” letter, would be spoofed by poets and writers wishing to point out the lack of humanity in these standardized communications. As discussed in a blog post by Rich Oram, the Ransom Center’s Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh archives reveal that both men mocked the “form-letter” model when sending or declining social invitations in the postwar period. This 1929 letter from the poet Edmund Blunden to Siegfried Sassoon, housed in the Ransom Center’s Siegfried Sassoon collection, demonstrates that the memory of the standard Field Service Postcard stayed with soldiers long after the Armistice.
Blunden offers only alternative variations of “well” as a means of describing his mental state and mixes contemporary references with allusions to wartime objects or locations. When listing the possible enclosures of the letter, Blunden offers “H. Wolfe’s Poetical Works” or a “Signed Portrait of H. Williamson” (Humbert Wolfe and Henry Williamson were literary rivals of Blunden’s) alongside a “D.C.M. and Bar” (Distinguished Conduct Medal and insignia for a soldier’s uniform) and a “Silk Card” (an embroidered postcard that was often sent as a souvenir by British soldiers in France to their loved ones at home). Likewise Blunden brackets obsolete military destinations—“base hospital,” a “delousing station,” and “Red Dragon Crater” (a section of No Man’s Land where Blunden endured some of his worst combat experience)—with Lord’s, the famous London cricket ground beloved by both Blunden and Sassoon. In personalizing the “form-letter,” Blunden emphasizes the hollow and automated nature of the Field Service Postcard in its original form. As Fussell reminds us, such gestures of individuality were acts of defiance against the industrialization of war, death, and language during the First World War and its aftermath.
Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory discusses several Great War poets and writers whose archives are housed at the Ransom Center, including Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Robert Graves, H. M. Tomlinson, and Isaac Rosenberg.
Last Letters From World War I Literary Heroes
A standard British Army Field Service Postcard sent from Wilfred Owen to his mother, Susan Owen, on April 5, 1917.