American climbdown possible.
At various points during the war the British government considered intervention, either by mediation or by recognising the South. But each time it pulled back from the brink because, as Foreman explains, Britain had more to lose than to gain:
Economically, it did not make sense to interfere; militarily, it would have meant committing Britain to war with the North and once again risking Canada and possibly the Caribbean for uncertain gains; politically, there was no support from either party or sufficient encouragement from the other Great Powers apart from France; and practically the decision to intervene would have required a majority consensus from the Cabinet which had never agreed on the meaning or significance of the war. Foreman also gives credit to Seward: ‘His bluster and posturing had driven away a potential ally but the message was heard.’ While the focus of the book is the diplomacy, Foreman does not neglect the many Britons who either witnessed or took part in the actual fighting. They included the celebrated war correspondent W H Russell, who was warned by Seward that a war between Britain and the US would
‘wrap the world in fire’ and that it would not be America which ‘would have to lament the results’; LieutenantColonel Garnet Wolseley, a future commander-in-chief of the British Army, who was unimpressed by the amateurism of the Confederate Army but regarded its commander, Lee, as a military genius; and George Herbert, a 25-year-old immigrant who enlisted in the Federal army to stave off destitution.
At 800 pages this is not a short book, yet the pace never flags as Foreman moves the narrative effortlessly from the killing fields of Antietam to the drawing rooms of London. The narrative is at its most gripping, however, when her four main players are on the stage. ‘No battle,’ observed the author of an eight-volume history of the Civil War, ‘not Gettysburg, not the Wilderness, was more important than the contest waged in the diplomatic arena and the forum of public opinion.’ And no area of diplomacy, he might have added, was more crucial than Anglo-American relations. By looking at this aspect of the war, and of British involvement in general, Foreman has made a significant contribution to the histor iography of one of the most written about wars. To order this book at £24, see LR Bookshop on page 22
As the Somme offensive opened, 23-year-old Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson whiled away the nerve-wracking wait by penning his poem ‘Before Action’. It ends:
IN HIS CLASSIC The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell titled a chapter ‘Oh What a Literary War’, remarking that the generation of 1914 not only packed up their troubles when preparing their old kitbags, but stashed away Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English verse, too. As John Lewis-Stempel repeatedly underlines in his superb study, Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 358pp £20), the vast majority of the subalterns – the junior officers who bore the brunt of the fighting – on the Western Front were steeped in literary antecedents, from the classics to contemporary writings such as John Masefield’s Everlasting Mercy, Thomas Hardy’s poems and, above all, A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Aptly, Lewis-Stempel dubs his subjects the ‘golden generation of belle lettrists’ – but they were also a golden generation in many other ways. When future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was wounded on the Somme and fell into a shellhole, he did what any other self-respecting Old Etonian would have done: he opened Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, which he happened to be carrying in the breast pocket of his tunic, and, in between bouts of unconsciousness, spent the rest of the day reading it. When Edmund Blunden was first introduced to the trenches, he could think of no better gift to the officer who showed him round than his latest slim volume of verse, The Harbingers.
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword Must say goodbye to all of this; By all delights that I shall miss, Help me to die, O Lord. Hodgson’s poetic premonition came sadly true. On 1 July 1916, along with nearly 20,000 other British soldiers, he died – shot with his faithful batman dead at his side. (Among other fascinating facts, Six Weeks tells us that most VCs won by ‘other ranks’ in the war were awarded to soldiers who crawled out to save wounded popular officers, often dying in the process.) Hodgson l ies today with his comrades of the Devonshire Regiment in a remote cemetery on the Somme. The cemetery inscription proudly reads: ‘The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still.’ LewisStempel’s marvellously evocative book is full of throatcatching moments like that.
The idea behind the book is deceptively simple. Noting that almost all the best memoirs of the trenches were written not by generals (they weren’t there) or (with one or two noted exceptions such as Frank Richards and Isaac Rosenberg) by private soldiers, but by the junior officers, and noting further that those same subalterns suffered much higher casualty rates than the
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010