Lost in history

Introduction: being lost

The idea that the Great War produced a ‘lost generation’ of disillusioned and deeply traumatised men, probably represents the cornerstone of the Myth of the War.[1] According to the Myth, this was the generation, born mainly at the end of the Victorian era, who marched naively off to war with its public school fantasises of honour, duty and Empire embedded firmly in its psyche, only to be shattered on the Somme and numerous other bloodbaths and quagmires on the Western Front.

The result was an outpouring of art, literature and poetry (and, a bit later, film) which purported to tell the true story of the War and how a whole generation was betrayed by its elders. And although writers such as Samuel Hynes, who coined the term ‘The Myth of the War’,[2] have pointed out the inconsistencies and contradictions in this narrative, it has proved to be remarkedly resilient.

But perhaps in order to understand both the term itself, and its enduring appeal, we need to start by asking what exactly was ‘lost’ by the ‘lost generation’, and how did it go about (re)finding itself.

The loss of life

Firstly, there is the loss of life itself, which was perhaps not as high, in percentage terms, as the Myth might suggest. In his study of the Great War and the British people, Winter points out that of the six million British citizens who served in the military in the War, some twelve percent were killed or listed as missing.[3] However, this overall figure conceals a number of discrepancies, especially when it comes to the question of rank. For example, and citing Winter’s research again, the death rate for army officers in the first year of the War was over 14% whilst for other ranks it was just under 6%. And even on the eve of the Armistice in 1918, the officer death rate was almost 7% compared with 4% for other ranks.

But digging even deeper into the statistics reveals not only a rank bias but a class one as well. In other words, and perhaps not surprising given the relationship between rank and social class, the casualty rate amongst the upper and upper-middle classes was much higher than amongst those of other classes. For example, nearly a fifth of Eton graduates were killed during the period of the War, and a simple explanation for this lies in the fact, in the early days of the War at least, officers were selected on the basis of their school background, which in reality meant that only those who had attended recognised public schools (Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, etc) were accepted.[4]

And the figures for the ‘ancient universities’ tell an equally grim story. For example, of the 13,000 or so Cambridge graduates and under-graduates who served in the War, some 2365 were killed, which represents a death rate of 18%. In the case of Oxford the figure is even higher (19.2%), although interestingly the highest rate is to be found at the London City and Guilds College (almost 21%).[5]

Of course, even these higher figures for the ‘social elites’ do not constitute the wiping out of an entire generation. To put it somewhat simplistically, around 80% survived. However, the idea of a ‘whole generation’ being destroyed runs deep in the Myth of the War. For example, Winter quotes the Bishop of Malvern who, during his dedication of the war memorial at Malvern College, described the loss of (public) schoolboys in the War as “…the wiping out of a generation”.[6] Perhaps in the circumstances that the Bishop made these remarks he can be forgiven for resorting to hyperbole. However, his remarks still resonate today, even if the class dimension tends to be either forgotten or read in the inverse, that is, that it was the working classes who suffered most in terms of causality figures.

Therefore, this raises the question as to what extent does such hyperbole serve a deeper purpose? In other words, although from a purely statistical point of view the idea of a ‘lost (that is, wiped out, slaughtered) generation’ fails to stand up to scrutiny, perhaps in a more metaphorical, or even allegorical sense, it does.

It is not so much the casualty figures themselves, dreadful as they are, but rather what they signify in terms of historical direction of travel of British society and culture. Although the idea of the (‘lost’) Edwardian Summer and the inevitable march of progress prior to 1914 is in many way part of the Myth of the War itself, and although most people in Europe during that period were expecting a major war to break out any time soon, there seems to be little evidence that anyone, apart from a few prescient individual such as Lord Kitchener, foresaw such a war dragging on for so long or with such ferocity. In this sense it is probably fair to say that the Great War shattered another myth; that of the triumph of Peace and Progress through the application of Science and Reason. As Samuel Hynes notes in his study of Edwardian England, this was certainly the view held by many intellectuals and leaders during the lead up to Armageddon.[7]

The loss of direction

In hindsight, looking back across the ravaged and war-torn twentieth century, it is perhaps all too easy to think of Edwardian England as basking in the sunset of its own demise, whilst all the time believing that the future was one of progress and enlightenment, onwards and upwards. According to the Myth of the War, this belief was shattered during the four years of conflict, and what emerged was a generation of disillusioned but wiser young men and women, who, of course, went on to write the Myth of the War itself.

However, from a historical perspective, the ‘Edwardian Summer’ (or ‘Edwardian Afternoon’ as it is sometimes described) was full of contradictions. As Hynes in his study, along with many other writers, have pointed out, not only was that period characterised by growing labour unrest, an ever more militant suffragette movement, and increasing political tensions in Ireland, but it also witnessed the beginning of the end of the old political order, and the emergence of the Labour party. Furthermore, there was an ever-increasing paranoia regarding German invasion, coupled with scathing inditements of Britain’s military and political readiness to defend itself.

Hynes points out that the national humiliation of Britain almost losing the Boer War at the turn of the century had led many intellectuals and politicians to begin some serious soul searching regarding ‘the condition of England’, with the increasingly popular view that the Empire was heading in the same direction as its Roman predecessor. He cites the example of Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, who in his book Scouting for Boys makes it very clear what his underlying motivations were for setting up the scouting movement:

…the book is …a crude and insistent expression of the Tory imperialism that provided the motivation for the movement. Baden-Powell saw his movement as a preparation for war and the defense of the Empire. He also saw it as a campaign against radicalism and socialism.[8]

Another example cited by Hynes is that of Rudyard Kipling, who was unashamedly imperialist:

As G. K. Chesterton observed, Kipling loved England not because she was English but because she was great, and when that greatness seemed to falter his love turned rancorous. His topical writings became increasingly uncontrolled and crude and touched with a kind of Tory paranoia…[9]

Hynes notes the contrast between two of Kipling’s poems, Recessional, published in 1897, and The Islanders, published in 1902. Although only five years separates these two poems, according to Hynes they reflect perfectly the change in mood, at least amongst champions of the Empire such as Kipling, regarding the status of Britain, and the British people. At the same time the difference between the two poems also marks the decline of such champions of Empire themselves:

No more vivid and regrettable example of Edwardian change exists than this history of a potentially great artist’s disintegration. But the point is that Kipling’s decline was parallel to the decline of the cause and the values that he believed in: class and conquest, self-abnegation and stoicism, practical science, the values that would lead to a Kipling world, a world governed by white men with machines. No doubt in 1900 Kipling’s faith still served to govern the colonies, for obsolete values die slowest at the edge of empire; but it was Kipling’s unfortunate destiny to live at the center of the empire with the values of the perimeter.[10]

So it seems hard to sustain the idea that the Great War itself represented a great schism, a rupture in the fabric of history. Rather, things were already starting to fall apart years earlier. But again, the question has to be asked: what is it about the Myth that resonates so much with those who subscribe to it?

The loss of identity

There is nothing in the literature to suggest that many of the writers of the Myth of the War had a clearer sense of who they were, or where they were going, prior to 1914 than they did post-1918. In fact, one of the great ironies of the Great War is that is seems to have given such individuals precisely what they were lacking previously. In other words, whereas pre-1914 many of the ‘myth makers to be’ were filled with trepidation and angst about the impending war, once it was over (at least in terms of the actual fighting) they had a much clearer sense of who they were and what had happened to them. In many cases, and to put it somewhat simplistically, they had become traumatised victims.

Of course, the actual myth writers (the intellectuals, artists, poets, etc) were in a privileged minority. Most victims of the War had no such voice, both metaphorically and, in many cases, literally, in the sense that many Great War veterans would never speak about their experiences, even to those closest to them. However, they had the Myth to speak for them, and here lies another irony: many veterans were deeply upset at the way they had been portrayed as innocent, duped victims who marched unknowingly into the slaughterhouse of the trenches. This is not how they saw themselves, and, more specifically, they did not see themselves as victims of incompetent and callous generals, which is a key narrative of the Myth. As Stephen points out, in his discussion of the ‘myth of the generals’, and which focuses particularly on the supposed incompetency of Field Marshall Haig, most ‘ordinary soldiers’ were well aware of the challenges that the War posed to the strategists, and most were intensely loyal to their officers in the field.[11] They in fact had little contact with, and little interest in, the senior staff officers. Stephen concludes his discussion by noting:

…a war is paid for in blood as well as money, and the First World War was no different from any other war in that respect. The post-war generation could not come to terms with this and blamed Haig and others for loss of life that was the fault of war, not the generals. They were a convenient scapegoat, though there is no evidence that they were any more or less bloody than their ancestors in warfare…his (Haig’s) real crime was to be seen not to care about these losses, and to be the agent whereby British society was brought to terms with the reality of modern warfare.[12]

And Hynes notes that even some of the myth writers themselves denied they were writing specifically ‘anti-war’ material. For example, he quotes Charles Carrington’s 1929 epilogue to his Subaltern’s War:

…a legend has grown up, propagated not by soldiers but by journalists, that these men who went gaily to fight in the mood of Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, lost their faith amid the horrors of the trenches and returned in a mood of anger and despair. To calculate the effect of mental and bodily suffering, not on a man but on a whole generation of men, may seem an impossible task, but it can at least be affirmed that the legend of disenchantment is false.[13]

Perhaps more significantly, however, a significant proportion of the British population at large did not share the overall sentiment of the Myth, that is, of disillusionment and despair. And as Hynes, in his commentary on the ‘War Books Controversy’, goes on to argue, there was a very good reason for this:

One can see easily enough why military historians and generals deplored the version of war that the war books told. It was not simply that in that version the war was bloody and cruel; it was that it was meaningless. If the myth-making authors of those books were right, then the war had no history, in the sense of a story expressing the meaning of events, but was anti-historical, apocalyptic, an incoherence, a gap in time.[14]

The emergence of the Witness to the Event

In many ways this gets to the core of the matter: what was (and still is in many ways) at stake here in the various competing narratives of the War is the question of meaning. In other words, was it all worth it? Was all the blood and sacrifice in vain? The Myth of the War would argue that it was not worth it, and that the fallen died for nothing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the generals and the politicians who directed the War thought otherwise. At this point it is worth quoting Hynes again:

The Myth accomplished this demolition of meaning, as (Douglas) Jerrold acutely observed, by telling the story of the war not in the traditional way — that is, in terms of the big battalions — but through the stories of individuals, and obscure ones at that: junior officers and men in the ranks. But to the individual personally, Jerrold wrote, ‘all operations of war are meaningless and futile’. The story that he wanted told instead was the other story, of ‘the conflict of armies’, where the meaning was clear, and the values unambiguous.[15]

Putting aside the question of whether the War was meaningful and unambiguous from a strategic perspective, Jerrold’s quote by Hynes emphasises a critical point: that the Myth was written, or at least originated, largely by those who were there, in the trenches. And this raises another potentially contentious issue, that of witness testimonies and how much credence should be given to them. Perhaps one of the reasons that the Myth of the War is so enduring is that it resonates with a particular concept of authenticity and truth that is still very much prevalent in the early twenty first century: the idea that the testimonies of witnesses, and specifically those witnesses designated as ‘survivors’, have a privileged status in historical narrative, be it the testimonies of Holocaust survivors or those who have experienced sexual abuse. In more extreme case such testimonies seem to have the status of sacred scripture and are not to be challenged.

As Jay Winter points out:

This notion that survivors’ memories matter more than historians’ judgments is deeply problematic. It reflects the proprietary nature of the past, the sense that some people “own” it. Forty years ago, I appeared at a conference at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst to open part of a library in honor of Harold Macmillan, who attended. Another First World War soldier (and novelist), Charles Carrington, took me aside and suggested I choose another subject. Better not write about the First World War, he said, because only we know. Those who had been there were history; their memories were oracular; and we historians dealt with them critically at our peril. Holocaust survivors have said the same thing. Here configuring history as touching on the sacred destroys the enterprise altogether. It is evident why some historians prefer to stay inside the academy. If the mission of turning myths about the past into documented narrative is limited in this way, then history vanishes entirely.[16]

Perhaps we could even argue that the Myth of the War is the Myth of the Survivor or the Survivor’s Story. Not only does such a myth, such a story, give its writers an identity that they were previously lacking, as I noted above, but it also elevates such writers, along with their narratives, to a special, and even sacred, position. As Winter comments in the quote above, such individuals were history, and by extension, were the Truth of the Event. And if anyone should dare to challenge such testimonies, and those who gave them, then they do so at their peril.


  1. What is perhaps less well known, and not part of the ‘official Myth’ is that there was also a ‘lost generation of women, namely spinsters and widows. Their plight is well documented in Katherine Holden’s paper Imaginary Widows: Holden, Katherine, ‘Imaginary Widows: Spinsters, Marriage, and the “Lost Generation” in Britain after the Great War’, Journal of Family History, 30.4 (2005), 388–4
  2. Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1990).
  3. J. M. Winter, ‘Britain’s `Lost Generation’ of the First World War’, Population Studies, 31.3 (1977), 449–66 <https://doi.org/10.2307/2173368>., p.458. This paper also constitutes a section in his 1986 book The Great War and the British People (2nd ed, Palgrave, 2003).
  4. See for example, Martin Stephen, The Price of Pity: Poetry, History and Myth in the Great War (London: Leo Cooper, 1996).
  5. Winter, ‘Britain’s `Lost Generation’ of the First World War’, p.462.
  6. Winter, ‘Britain’s `Lost Generation’ of the First World War’, p.464.
  7. Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (Princeton (N.J.) : London: Princeton N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1968).
  8. Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, pp.27-8.
  9. Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, p.18.
  10. Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, p.19
  11. Stephen, The Price of Pity
  12. Stephen, The Price of Pity, p.74.
  13. Hynes, A War Imagined, p.450.
  14. Hynes, A War Imagined, p.455.
  15. Hynes, A War Imagined, p.455, italics in original.
  16. Jay Winter, ‘Historical Remembrance in the Twenty-First Century’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617.1 (2008), 6–13, p.10, italics in original.