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Book Review: The Great War and Modern Memory Review Essay


Paul Fussell book “the Great War and Modern Memory” is about the British people and their experience during World War I and World War II. The book literally examines the effects of world wars on the British culture. The author, an infantry platoon leader during the World War II, excellently analyzes the changes the war has on the soldiers way of thinking in the battle fields and the people left at home.

Using lots of literally material from different sources including poetry, memoirs, newspapers, letters, and magazines Fussell manages to recreate the events that led to the change in ideals and beliefs of war when the British engaged the massed armies of the western front.

The book re-examines and restates the striking and typical expressions of the English literally consciousness arising from the war and after the war. The British men loved war when they believed it was worthy and with every opportunity, they had expressed the desire to fight. War gave their lives a special kind of meaning.

Ironically, the seriousness of war was lost on them as many lost their lives fighting in a war they did not fully understand. Paul Fussell documents the huge loss of British soldiers during the war with 20000 men killed during the first day of the Somme offensive.

Over 60000 British men were killed during the war and the author depicts vividly in a grotesque picture the emotional and physical effects of the war on the soldiers leading to disillusionment in the war. The unimaginable life in the trenches, blood, death and the painful reality that death was just around the corner undid the soldiers long held beliefs and ideals. The author superbly uses literally imagery of the trenches, enemy, and symbolism to bring out the changes in the book.

Despite the bloodshed, suffering, and agony experienced during the war, the major objective was to defeat the enemy and stop it. If this was done then all the suffering was justified. Fussell uses Sassoon memoirs. Sassoon who was an infantry officer writes ‘George learns the truth about the war that is ruining England and has no good reason for continuing it’.

It had to continue if the Germans who fought again in 1935-1945 had to be stopped and defeated. Sassoon who had been out with injuries went back to the war front courageously to fight, in reality ‘to stop the Germans’

The courage and valor of the soldiers is admirably but the book evokes pain in absence of a sense of purpose of the war in the men. The British were not prepared for war, and they had the notion that the world was getting better socially and in other aspects and hence the war psychologically took a heavy toll on them. Hitler on the other hand had made sure that Germans were psychologically and materially ready for war and hence Germans had no psychological issues to deal with.

Fussell drives this point home when says, “The British were amateur, ad hoc and temporally. The Germans were efficient, clean, pedantic, and permanent. Their occupants proposed to stay where they were”. This is very true considering that the Germans had deep bunkers furnished with tapped water, beds and other accessories compared to the British trenches that made them live in squalid conditions.

The naivety of the British mind which world war one had not changed was starting to crumble and the British could not be able to figure out Germany and how to deal with her during the post war period.

The historical cultural change in Britain according to Fussell leans towards the warfare and the very traumatic experience in the squalid trenches within a very short period of time. This loss of the 19th century social and cultural ideals had already begun much earlier than the world wars.

This change could have been due to social reorganization and advanced civilization of the society and other factors and the war simply hastened the process. In the Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell fails to give credit to this and thus gives a skewed picture of the changes in ideals of the generations in the war and after the war.

The book is written in a British literature background and there is no mention of the other European countries effects of the war. Fussell does not tackle the shaping of cultural ideals and history of the European countries by the war, a major omission by his book. He answers this indirectly by indicating he was dealing uniquely with the British cultural mindset.

In a liberal perspective, however, there was a big difference in the national’s cultural response and reaction to the war and the author should have read other literally work from authors in the other European Nations.

This can show the similarities and differences in the responses and can help us understand the reasons behind the varied reactions of different people faced with the same situation. The war culture that began with the war in 1918 was captured by the literally writer Gabrielle d Annunzio who was never disenchanted by the war. He simply approached the wars as a period in human history and development.

The war had a major effect on the elite literally mindset of the British people probably due to the high level of civilization and orderliness of the country at that time. Militarism was not institutionalized in Britain as it was in other Nations especially Germany.

The second world war spurred the biggest literally change in Britain a phenomenon the world war one failed to produce. Fussell expertly brings out the major symbols and themes in British War literature arising from the world war one.

The expertise of Paul Fussell in literally writing is illustrated on the way he draws his story from many sources while at the same time masterfully developing his book from chapter to chapter. His chapters have a story to tell and he does this superbly with his sources.

In the chapter, ‘adversary proceedings’ he writes Siegfried Sassoon autobiography while at the same time bringing out the ‘enemy’ and the mindsets of the British men fighting in the war. In the chapter on ‘myth, ritual, and romance’, he uses David Jones and uses other writers expertly. They continue to influence the present cultures perception of war to date.

The book does not justify the Great War and finally one wonders if the war was necessary, this is brought about by the disillusionment and lack of purpose in the soldiers. The book illustrates the cultural change war brings and the way war can change a nations beliefs and ideals. Ideally, it warns against rushing to war without really having a worthy cause.

Works Cited

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. Print

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1. IvyPanda. "Book Review: The Great War and Modern Memory Review." March 28, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/book-review-the-great-war-and-modern-memory-review/.


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IvyPanda. 2019. "Book Review: The Great War and Modern Memory Review." March 28, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/book-review-the-great-war-and-modern-memory-review/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Book Review: The Great War and Modern Memory Review'. 28 March.

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