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The Myth of the First World War

The ruins of a church in the mud of No Man's Land.
© IWM (Q 42250)

The Myth of the First World War

Key facts about the myths of the First World War

  • The way we perceive the First World War has changed over time.
  • People tend to think of the war as a futileWithout any useful result, pointless.Without any useful result, pointless.Without any useful result, pointless. waste of lives, and full of mud and blood.
  • Our primary response to the First World War tends to be emotional.
  • We learn a lot about the war through media such as books, film and TV, video games, and friends and family.
  • There are other ways to consider the First World War, including as a victorious war for Britain.

People you need to know

  • Rupert Brooke - war poet known for writing idealistic poetry about the war. He died from an infected mosquito bite on his way to Gallipoli in 1915.
  • Winston Churchill - the future prime minister who oversaw the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
  • Robert Graves - writer who fought in the First World War.
  • David Lloyd George - leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister of the wartime coalition government.
  • Arthur Miller - American playwright who was investigated by the House of Representatives for 'un-American' political activities.
  • Wilfred Owen - famous war poet who died just a week before the end of the war.
  • Siegfried Sassoon - poet, author and decorated veteran, who disapproved of the war but continued to fight in it.
  • W.B. Yeats - Irish poet and pillar of the British literary establishment.

The myths of the ‘Great War’ are the foundation myths of the twentieth century, providing a frame of reference for understanding ourselves and our community. So integrated have they become into our collective consciousness that the war is now an archetypeAn original model or pattern; a typical example of a person or thing. , a symbol so widely understood that it can be referenced without expositionA comprehensive description or explanation of an idea. to prove a point or provide an atmosphere. In Britain, the pervading myth is one of soldiers bravely sacrificing themselves in a futileWithout any useful result, pointless. war. It is the pity and the horror of war, and it is enduring because, emotionally, it is true.

Mud and blood
The typical image of the First World War: Australian soldiers shelter from the rain surrounded by corpses. © IWM (E(AUS) 3864)

The British have a dissociative identity disorder about the war, holding two different truths at the same time. The one truth, logical and objective, is that of revisionist historians such as John Terraine and Gary Sheffield, that despite the bloodshed and the horror, the war was ‘a forgotten victory’.Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War Myths and Realities, (London: Headline, 2001), passim. It is the war of strategy and numbers, battle plans and logistics; it is the war of the generals. The other truth is felt, not known. It comes from personal connection with the war, through direct experience or the experience of loved ones. It comes from a rise in individualism, of the search for familial and community identity, brought about in part by the collapse of notions of progression after the Second World War. And it comes from the vicarious experience of the war in print, audial, and visual media.

A fine mourning

The business of national remembering, of fitting mourning into a framework of expression, began in earnest when the war stopped. In the early 1920s, as memorials sprang up across the country, victory was celebrated and armistice commemorations – where mourning and rejoicing went hand-in-hand – could be raucous. Aside from a small minority – Robert Graves recalled reading ‘some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen … about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud’ at one ceremony – there was no place for futility.Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That, (London: Penguin, 1957), p. 260. Those who had lost loved ones, or who had been physically or mentally maimed, did not want to believe the sacrifice was in vain. As survival guilt increased concern for the bereaved, commemorations lost their sense of celebration. Those who refused to conform did so at their peril. One commentator in The Times wrote, ‘a fancy dress ball … seems to me not so much irreligious as indecent.’Cited in Daniel Todman, The Great War, Myth and Memory (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 50.. And mourning has remained the predominant mode of expression: in 1981 and in 2015, Labour leaders were criticised in the press for not showing enough respect on Armistice Day.Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 364; ‘Jeremy Corbyn criticised for not bowing deeply enough’, 8 November 2015, in the Guardian. Death, rather than victory, has become the narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. .

The unveiling of the Cenotaph and the funeral of the Unknown Soldier
The unveiling of the Cenotaph and the funeral of the Unknown Soldier, London, November 1920. © IWM (Q 14965)

Cynicism about the war increased as the worldwide political situation worsened. In the inter-war years, Britain did not become a nation fit for heroes, extremism and civil war spread across the continent and beyond, and the Wall Street Crash threw the world into financial turmoil. Lloyd George’s struggle to maintain control of the Liberal Party, and Winston Churchill’s need to deflect criticism, increased the sense of futility as blame was shifted to the generals. With this blame came an implicit message: the war needlessly wasted lives. The outbreak of a further war in 1939 ended any notion that the Great War had saved future generations, and provided a benchmark for every other war before or since. In hindsight the Second World War was undeniably ‘a just war’, but one that demanded less sacrifice of British lives. In fighting against a regime universally recognised as ‘evil’, British military deaths amounted to 264,000. In the preceding war, fought for a ‘twenty year truceAn agreement between enemies to stop fighting for a limited time.An agreement between enemies to stop fighting for a limited time.An agreement between enemies to stop fighting for a limited time.An agreement between enemies to stop fighting for a limited time.’, almost three times that number – 744,702 – were killed.

Establishing the narrative

Whether popular culture shaped or echoed the changing attitudes is an ongoing debate. As a medium for communication, it had a role in repeating, and thus strengthening, ideas, choosing which to promote and which to ignore. But it also needed an audience, and therefore had to respond to that audience’s expectations. Graves, in his ‘P.S. to “Goodbye to All That”’ mentioned the need to include such popular anecdotes as meals, murders, and ghosts if he were to fulfil his aim of making ‘a lump of money’.Cited in Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, pp. 221-2. Those that went against the grain – television offerings such as the mutiny episode of The Monocled Mutineer and Haig: The Unknown Soldier for example – were criticised by audiences and reviewers alike. The first volume of Wilfred Owen’s poetry ran to a mere 1,430 impressions, compared with 300,000 sales of Rupert Brooke’s poems, and W.B. Yeats remarked that ‘passive suffering’ was ‘not a theme for poetry’.Todman, The Great War, p. 142. Interest only increased after the narrative had been established.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an InfantrySoldiers who fight on foot.Soldiers who fight on foot.Soldiers who fight on foot.Soldiers who fight on foot. Officer  is perhaps the most responsible for influencing that narrative.Samuel Hynes, ‘Personal narratives and commemoration’, 205-220, in Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan, War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 214. After recounting two instances of the wasted bravery of his semi-autobiographical character George Sherston, the reader follows Sassoon’s disillusionment with the war, which culminates in his open letter of resignation: ‘I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.’Siegfried Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 496. This is not cowardice – Sassoon/Sherston returns to the front – but an appeal against the barbarity and futility of the war. It has come to represent the ‘call from arms’ that has defined our subsequent responses.

Part of the success of Sassoon and others of the 1920s-30s ‘war book boom’, is that, while unrepresentative of the average TommyA British private soldier.A British private soldier. - they were generally well-educated and rich - they have authority as witnesses. Their privileged place as voices for their by-and-large silent generation allowed them to become ‘the truth-teller[s] par excellence’.Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 221. Their memoirs, focusing on dramatic moments that were particularly grotesque – the ‘Battlefield Gothic’ of Samuel Hynes’ phrase – or particularly poignant, produced self-sustaining myths.Cited in Todman, The Great War, pp. 19-20. Cyril Falls, writing in 1930, complained ‘every working party is shot to pieces; if a man is killed or wounded his brains or his entrails always protrude from his body … The soldier is represented as a depressed and mournful spectre’.Cited in ibid., pp. 25-6. Yet these evocative stories personalised the war, allowing the reader to experience the sorrow of a lost life and the adrenaline of battle. Who can help but feel horror at Graves’ description of rotting corpses, whose ‘dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy’?Graves, Goodbye to All That, p. 137. Told from a worm’s eye view, they naturally left aside the little-understood plans of the generals. Any sense of a war with direction thus became lost in the chaos of individual memories.

War as entertainment

Thirty years later, the authority of the witness, and thus the personalisation of the war, had not waned. The BBC’s 1964 The Great War used interviews with veterans alongside (sometimes) original footage to produce a ground-breaking documentary that, 50 years on, is still considered the best on the subject. Its producer, Tony Essex, did not intend the documentary to be anti-war, but his eye for the dramatic coupled with time constraints led to sentimentality and misrepresentation. The ‘not-yet-dead’ soldier surrounded by dead comrades in the opening sequence, for example, had been cut from a more cheerful picture of laughing soldiers who were very much alive. This soldier was quickly claimed by families who had lost relatives in the war. ‘One gentleman wrote that his eldest brother, who was killed in 1918, was “the double of this soldier even to the index finger and thumb held in the left hand”’.Emma Hanna, The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in ContemporarySomeone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time. Britain, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 40. Although written by the revisionist historians John Terraine and Correlli Barnett, the series’ use of music, images, and poetry encouraged a well-programmed response that supported, rather than defied, the myth of the futile war. Viewers noted ‘the horror of trench warfare and the appalling and needless slaughter of young people’, leading Sheffield to complain that ‘programmes do not have to carry an explicitly anti-war message to build up negative images in viewers’ minds: all they need to do is to show scenes of carnage.’Todman, The Great War, p. 33; Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, p. 18. And this is just it: carnage, when the dead are identified as family members, and without the explicitly ‘good’ outcome of liberating the concentration camps, is horrific.

Still from 'The Great War' introduction sequence
The 'copied and pasted' soldier from The Great War (Tony Essex and Gordon Watkins, BBC, 1964. 

The Great War coincided with a resurgence in interest in the First World War around its 50th anniversary. As the generation of bereaved parents died and society changed, new perspectives, particularly on the futility of war, took precedence. The 1963 Brechtian play and subsequent film Oh! What a Lovely War is still described as ‘The most brilliant indictment of the idiocy of war’.Peter_WMC, ‘Best movie ever made’, 18 November 2017, in ‘Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) User Reviews’ on IMDB It makes its point through ‘facts’ spoken by characters such as the British general’s ‘We are sacrificing lives at the rate of five to sometimes fifty thousand a day,’ and via its newsreel: ‘NOVEMBER … SOMME BATTLE ENDS … TOTAL LOSS 1,332,000 MEN … GAIN NIL’.Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton and members of the original cast, Oh! What a Lovely War (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1965), pp. 75, 93. The style of the play, coupled with Theatre Workshop’s established left-wing reputation, prevented suspension of disbelief – the Guardian newspaper, for example, drew parallels between it and a ‘powerful cartoon’ – but this did not affect the play’s popularity.Todman, The Great War, p. 92. The audience was capable of holding at least two truths at the same time. Just as Arthur Miller used the Salem witch trials to comment on McCarthyism, Theatre Workshop intended Oh! What a Lovely War to comment on Vietnam. The myth had become an archetype.

The myth has continued through the 1990s 'memory boom', in the literature of Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker, and in television. Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, and Upstairs, Downstairs, among a host of others, have used it as a backdrop for testing well-known characters in dramatic situations. However, Blackadder Goes Forth eclipses all others for its funny yet sensitive dealing with the war. The writing team behind the programme claimed that ‘of all the periods we covered … it was the most historically accurate. We may have exaggerated the characters … but it is very difficult to exaggerate the absurdity and horror of the First World War.’ Viewers instinctively understood: one critic for the Today programme in 1995 said that the final scene captured ‘The whole terrible horror of war, the waste, the finality, and the absurdity’.Hanna, The Great War on the Small Screen, pp. 132-3. Sheffield has argued that ‘Blackadder simply would not work in the absence of a British national perception of the First World War,’ that it can only exist because it plays to the myths.Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, p. 2. Colonel Bob Stewart, a former British UN commander, disagrees: ‘Blackadder was so funny because it reflected so many aspects of army life.’Cited in Hanna, The Great War on the Small Screen, p. 134. Blackadder works because it sings of the personal and daily hum-drum lives of men caught in extraordinary circumstances. It works because we are invited to share in the joke.

Still from the opening sequence of EA DICE's 'Battlefield 1'.
The stand-off from the opening sequence of EA DICE Battlefield 1

The emotional pull of personal bravery and sacrifice is captured perfectly in the 2016 EA DICE video game Battlefield 1. Its single-player stories ‘convey the desperation, death and destruction of the first world war … in Battlefield 1’s most horrific moments it attains a truly sombre nature that feels respectful.’Sam White, ‘Battlefield 1 review: savage and exciting, a landmark shooter’, 25 October 2016 in the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/25/battlefield-1-review-ea-dice-shooter. There is no sense of gung-ho point and shoot: every character played represents a real person and when they die we are given that person’s name and dates of birth and death. For those who miss the game’s serious intent, its introduction leaves no doubt. Its first words appear on black to the sound of shelling: ‘Over 60 million soldiers fought in “The War to End All Wars”. It ended nothing … What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.’ The voice-over, beginning as two opposing soldiers face each other before dropping their weapons, hammers home the point: ‘behind every gunsight is a human being … We are the jaded and we are the naïve … We are the bound-for-legend and the lost-to-history … These are our stories.’EA DICE, Battlefield 1, (2016) ‘Storm of Steel’. For the introductory sequence, see ‘Battlefield 1: Intro’, on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8d0Bf5JjfQ Gaming is as immersive as popular culture can get. Battlefield 1 doesn’t just introduce the First World War to a new generation; it allows them to feel part of it. The myth of heroic deeds through the mud and blood of a futile war cannot help but be strengthened by it.

The lessons of our ancestors

The impact would be lessened, however, without the cult of the individual. As the British empire fractured and crumbled, the nation state became less ‘Great’ and Britons looked elsewhere for new myths, turning to family and community histories to discover them. The attraction of personal history is exemplified in the interest shown in genealogy. Ancestry has over 2.7 million paying subscribers and reports that 80 per cent of Britons consider family history to be important.Ancestry, https://www.ancestry.com/corporate/about-ancestry/company-facts; https://www.ancestry.co.uk/cs/legal/Overview The First World War provides an easy route for researching family trees, with plentiful information on those sent to fight, and die, for their country. Here it is possible to research the ‘little’ man as well as the great. As a result, the link between family histories and the First World War remains strong. New memorials, such as the replicaan exact copy of something.an exact copy of something.an exact copy of something.an exact copy of something. Mark IV tank, erected by the son and grandson of a fallen soldier, on London’s Western Avenue, are joining their older cousins in warning ‘Lest we forget’. These rediscovered familial connections are driving the tourist trade to the battlegrounds of France and FlandersThe modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low Countries.The modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands..The modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands..The modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands... In 1978, the CommonwealthThe countries once part of the British Empire; the interregnum in Britain; or the welfare of the public. The countries once part of the British Empire; the interregnum in Britain; or the welfare of the public. The countries once part of the British Empire; the interregnum in Britain; or the welfare of the public. The countries once part of the British Empire; the interregnum in Britain; or the welfare of the public. War Graves Commission received around 2,000 enquiries from the public about graves from both world wars. Twenty years later, that figure had increased to 50,000.Todman, The Great War, p. 61. At Tyne Cot, standing amidst the rows of graves, many of which simply state ‘Known unto God’, it is impossible not to make links between the First World War and its futility. Even Sheffield writes that Passchendaele is the ‘place, more than any other on the Western Front, [that] poses the question: was it worth it?’Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, p. 180. The museums at Zonnebeke and the preserved trenchesLong, narrow ditchesLong, narrow ditchesLong, narrow ditchesLong, narrow ditches at Sanctuary Wood, while never solely focusing on horror, still convey the size of the war and its waste of life. The immediacy is breath-taking, and through school trips to such places, the myths of the war are passed on to the next generation.

The rows of graves at Tyne Cot cemetery
The rows of graves at Tyne Cot cemetery

Museums form just one part of a child’s education on the First World War. Although first appearing in history lessons in the 1960s, ‘Anecdotal evidence suggests that most history teachers did not take the opportunity to study such recent events’.Todman, The Great War, p. 147. By the 1990s, however, the war was a compulsory subject for Key Stage 3 students, and some teachers used the opportunity to balance cultural myths. But this approach was by no means certain. Text books used in the 1980s recommended the war poets as a means of communicating ‘the bitterness and disillusionment’, and a 1994 guide to teaching Year 8 pupils suggested they write poetry.Ibid., p. 148. The focus on literature as history feeds into the split understanding of the First World War. One can look objectively at the use of gas in battle, but still be horrified by ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ of Owen’s ‘Dulce et DecorumProper and tasteful behaviourProper and tasteful behaviourProper and tasteful behaviourProper and tasteful behaviour est’. The immediacy of the experience provided by literature will ensure it continues to be used as a method of engagement, and thus the myths it propounds will continue to thrive.

With a focus for younger students on ‘feeling’ history, any objective analysis is limited to Key Stage 4 and above. But while the uptake for history is at roughly 40% of all schoolchildren in Britain for General Certificate in Secondary Education (GCSE) and 18% for Advanced-level, less than half of all teenagers will have the chance to study the First World War at this level.Tim Gill and Joanna Williamson, ‘Uptake of GCSE subjects 2015’, April 2016, at Cambridge Assessmenthttp://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/307016-uptake-of-gcse-subjects-2015.pdf, and ‘Uptake of GCE A level subjects 2015’, June 2016, http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/323211-uptake-of-gce-a-level-subjects-2015.pdf. Instead, children learn about it through English literature, a compulsory subject at GCSE. Sheffield is therefore correct in stating ‘it is teachers of English, not history, who have had the greatest impact on the shaping of views on the First World War’.Sheffield, Forgotten Victory, p. 15.

Yet literature is not the driving force in shaping the narrative of the First World War. We seek out stories because we want to find a sense of personal and familial identity. We choose the books to read, the programmes to watch, the games to play, and the places to visit. What we find is a story of bravery and sacrifice so enormous that we react to it emotionally. This is why it is correct to refer to the British response as a dissociative identity disorder: the national, familial, and personal bereavement has triggered a split understanding. On the one hand, we know that the Allies defeated the Central Powers in the field, that it was therefore not a waste of lives. On the other, it doesn’t matter. All we see is the mud and blood of a futile war.

Things to think about

  • How aware are you of the First World War?
  • How do you view the First World War?
  • What has informed those views?
  • Was the First World War a futile war?
  • Is it possible for the First World War to represent a victory and a defeat at the same time?
  • Has interest in the First World War increased or waned in the last decade, and why?
  • Is the national curriculum correct to emphasise 'feeling' history over understanding it?

Things to do

  • Popular culture is full of references to the First World War. Try dipping into the numerous books, plays, films, games, and TV programmes to see how the war is represented, and how it has changed over time.
  • Every town was in some way affected by the First World War, and many erected memorials in the years following it. Look in your area to find your local memorial, and consider how the war is represented through it.
  • One of the best ways to appreciate the scale of the war is to visit the battlefields along the Western Front. Information about the Somme museum, memorials and graveyards, as well as suggested tours can be found here; and those of Ypres can be found here.
  • The Imperial War Museum has a wealth of information on the First World War. You can visit the museum in London, Manchester or Cambridgeshire, or explore their online collections here.
  • Although the war is no longer in living memory, most families have stories about the First World War. Talk to family members and see if anyone from your family was affected: perhaps they still have letters or other memorabilia. How do their stories match those told in popular culture? You could also try family history sites such as Ancestry for more information.

Further reading

For a general understanding of the First World War, Peter Hart's The Great War: 1914-1918 provides a well-constructed narrative, while Gary Sheffield's Forgotten Victory: The First World War Myths and Realities attacks many of the myths that surround the war.
The best way to learn about how the war is represented in popular culture is to experience it. Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is considered a classic, and Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That is immensely readable. There are hundreds of poetry anthologies to choose from, including those published by Penguin, Oxford, and the Imperial War Museum. Blackadder Goes Forth is still funny and very quotable, and covers many of the myths that surround the war, while the film War Horse and EA DICE's video game Battlefield 1 provide a modern take on the war.