Mourning’s Narrative of Creativity

As well as architecture, similar mourning processes were being exercised in other creative fields.

Among the earliest was Edward Elgar’s setting of three Laurence Binyon’s poems The Spirit of England derived from lines such as “they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”. The third movement, ‘Thanksgiving’, is set to For The Fallen: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”. He was persuaded to write it in 1915 but was slow to compose before being persuaded by Binyon, who said: “Think of the awful casualty lists that are coming, and the losses in more and more homes; think of the thousands who will be craving to have their grief glorified…”. It was first played in full in Birmingham on 4 October 1917, as the battle of Passchendaele was coming to a particularly bloody, and pointless, end. A requiem in the form of a cantata, it was dedicated to “the memory of our glorious men”. The programme notes in the Decca recording of Britten’s War Requiem (1963) describe The Spirit of England as being to Elgar’s period what the War Requiem was to its own.

The seven-minute choral work ‘With Proud Thanksgiving’ is Elgar’s reworked third movement of The Spirit of England. He was commissioned to write it for the opening of the Cenotaph in 1920. The piece, however, was not used as Elgar wouldn’t score it for a military band, feeling that, if he did, it would not be played anywhere else. When it was played on 6 September 2004, for the first time since 1922, by the London Sinfonia, the conductor Martyn Brabbins said it was played so rarely because it needed a special occasion and it was “so intimately connected with the soldiers who died in the First World War.”

In the Psychological Considerations section, I suggest an analogy between the four founding fathers of the Modern Movement and the four evangelists, and between the unknown soldier and the figure of Christ. In the early 1920s this was not so far-fetched. In 1921, as the melancholy tourist trade to the Western Front was gathering pace, bringing grieving friends and relatives of lost sons by the carload to the battlefields of Flanders and Somme, Rudolph Valentino, a dashing Italian immigrant to New York, established his film-star reputation with the silent epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In most cinema histories today this successful film is noted for Valentino’s sultry tango, but its central theme, of how two branches of a South American family – descended from both French and German migrants – ended up on the killing fields of the First World War, is largely forgotten.

The film ends with Julio, played by Valentino, crawling on his belly in the mud of no-man’s-land. He reaches out to shoot an enemy soldier. A flare bursts over the storm-drenched, cratered wasteland. About to pull the trigger, he realises he is looking into the eyes of his beloved first cousin. A bomb explodes and both are killed.

In the final scene, his lover is at home with her husband who has been blinded by shrapnel in another battle. She is visited by the apparition of Julio. Like Christ on the road to Emmaus, the sacrificial hero has come back. He is not gone.

Rudolph Valentino

Still taken from video of ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse’

With astonishing irony, Valentino himself died, from a gastric infection, aged 31, five years later in 1926. His funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of people in a show of grieving which, at the time and since, has defied rational analysis.

Around the same time, a fashion for spiritualism emerged, in which many mediums were reputed to have been visited by the ghosts of dead soldiers.

1921: Gut-wrenching memoirs came to be written, although not necessarily published. EPF Lynch, an Australian, wrote a vivid memoir in 1921, in pencil across 20 exercise books, which went unpublished as self-justifications from generals and politicians came into print. Such memories were still too raw for the general public. It was only finally published more than 20 years after his death, in 2008, after his grandson had shown it to a military historian (Somme Mud, EPF Lynch, Doubleday, 2008).

1922: Ralph Vaughan Williams completes his third, Pastoral’ symphony. Although not programmatic it is assumed to be a subtle and beautiful elegy for the dead of the war, a requiem in all but name. VW had served with the Ambulance Field Service and had been at the front in Flanders. He is known to have been horrified by the carnage. The inspiration of the fighting is direct: a trumpet cadenza in the 2th movement is derived from a bugler playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave.

22 October 1930: Arthur Bliss prefigures Benjamin Britten by being the first composer to set the words of Wilfred Owen to music. His oratorio Morning Heroes, first played in Norwich in late 1930, according to the Decca notes to Britten’s War Requiem (1963), was written in an attempt to exorcise a recurrent nightmare of the trenches. Such nightmares are standard symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A summing up of the decade can be seen in the publication of Liddell Hart’s The Real War in 1930. It adds more accurate accounts of what happened to the official history in the bleakest account so far. However, it was flaccid compared to the accounts that were finally to emerge thirty years later, and it takes the easy way out in terms of apportioning blame, laying most of it at the feet of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. The book set up the wartime prime Minister, David Lloyd George, for his own vitriolic attack on Haig in his War Memoirs a few years later, but it avoided the greater issue: not the blame, but the loss itself. Liddell and Lloyd George were not enough to lay ghosts to rest.

The creative moment which seems to end the decade of conscious mourning that had opened with Valentino returning as a ghost came with Journey’s End. Robert Cedric Sherriff based the play on his own experience. With the 9th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, he fought in the battles of St Quentin, the actions of the Somme crossings, the battle of Rosieres and the battle of Avre in March-April 1918. The play, and the subsequent film directed by James Whale (whose sceenwriter, V. Gareth Gundrey, had survived Passchendaele only to have a leg blown off – amputated at a field hospital – three days before the armistice), is set entirely inside a trench. The setting is the three days leading up to Operation Michael (Der Kaiserschlacht) which began on 21 March 1918 and was the most intensive German offensive of the Great War. The first performance, on Sunday 9 December 1928, featured an unknown Lawrence Olivier as Captain Stanhope. Due to a lack of funds, the actor was wearing the playwright’s own uniform. Funding had been provided through the American Maurice Browne who had begun his London career in a play called The Unknown Warrior. After transferring to a larger theatre, it was described in 1929 as the “play that swept the world”. By year’s end, after Black Tuesday on Wall St on October 29th had heralded the Great Depression, it was being performed by 14 different companies in English, and by 17 companies in other languages. In effect, the work forces audiences to look into the trenches and vicariously endure the rising tension and fear of the soldiers. This meant that, more than a decade after the war, a trench was put in full view of millions of eyes that responded to, and could bear, gazing into one.

It was revived in early 21st Century London to much acclaim and its run was extended beyond a year. The contemporary actor Richard Griffiths alludes to the mood of repression still prevalent when he said in 2004 that “in the Thirties it was banned because it was so scandalous to suggest that our boys weren’t heroes.” I have not been able to corroborate this reference to the 30s, but, if true, it shows how much of the reality of the war was still far from accepted.

Journey's End

Programme cover of 2004 production at the Comedy Theatre, London
Image by Geraint Lewis

The title is almost a plea, to say this is the end of memory. But this was a vain hope, the gazing was not enough. The irony is painfully clear, it was not Journey’s End. In terms of subconscious mourning, of melancholia, it wasn’t even the beginning.