Field's book is mainly a series of short biographies. The First World War was a crucial event for all of the six French and seven British writers included here, but only two--Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen--wrote about their actual experiences in the trenches. Jean Jaurès, the leader of the French Socialists, was assassinated in a Paris café on 31 July 1914: he might be called the first French casualty of the war. Charles Péguy, Ernest Psichari and Rupert Brooke looked forward to the war as a purge of the vices of peace; but they died in the first weeks or months, before they could testify to its reality. For writers too old to fight, such as Charles Maurras, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and Romain Rolland, the war was an interlude--and scarcely a glorious one--in long careers of punditry before and after 1914-18.
This book is not, therefore, a study of how the war was represented in literature. Rather, it covers three phases of its subjects' lives: what they expected of the war; what they did in the war; and how (for the seven survivors) they experienced the war's after-effects. Having to deal with so many striking personalities, over such a long time-span, Field has difficulty bringing his theme into focus. For too much of the time, the narrative is patched together with summaries, clichés, and rehearsals of matters already familiar to students of the period. It is surprising that a book so largely concerned with France should show no sign of the revolution in French historiography in recent decades. Such interdisciplinary studies as Robert Wohl's The Generation of 1914 (1979) and Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989) are more intellectually ambitious and display more power of synthesis.
What remains useful in Field's study is that he sets the careers of British and French intellectuals in parallel, and makes some broad distinctions between their national cultures. The word 'nationalism' itself seems to have been coined by Barrès in 1892, and national difference--twentieth-century style--was centrally what the war was about. Romain Rolland lamented, in 'Au-dessus de la mêlée,' that the 'two great international movements of Socialism and Christianity had failed to prevent the conflict.' (193) A third great movement, the universalism of the Enlightenment, was equally impotent against the passions unleashed by the guns of August. And nationalism divided the Allied camp against itself, in spite of Wilson's efforts to paper over the cracks at Versailles.
The nation meant, first of all, the particular land for which men fought. The open wound of the Western Front, slicing across France from the Channel to the Rhine, inspired almost all French intellectuals to close ranks in defense of 'La Patrie.' British writers, their island still intact, had a much freer and wider range of response to the war. Moreover, land was differently valued on either side of the Channel. Jaurès, Barrès, Maurras and Péguy had their roots in the provinces, where the peasantry had clung to their bits of soil since time immemorial; Péguy struck that chord in proclaiming "Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour la terre charnelle." (82) None of Field's writers on the English side grew up with dirt on their boots, and England belonged to its aristocracy rather than to twenty million peasants. Pastoral poets like Brooke and Lawrence knew the land as ramblers, and loved it in the mode of nostalgia. When the war came, their pastoralism gave them a spiritual escape from Flanders; whereas the French fought for their attachment to their own soil.
The nativism and obscurantism of writers like Maurras and Péguy suggested that French intellectuals were a more organic part of their society than British ones. The Dreyfus affair polarised the intelligentsia into chauvinists and universalists; the struggle between them raged until at least 1945, and the Great War was only one Act in the larger drama. But the English, Field observes, "do not take literary personalities as seriously as the French." (153) It is a pity that Field's book does so little to account for this relative indifference, and to contrast the political engagements of intellectuals in the two countries. The missing dimension of British and French Writers of the First World War is the dialectic between the individual writer and the popular masses. Field's "intellectual and spiritual history . . . of the war years" (5) needs to be integrated with the social and economic evolution of the two nations, and with the brute reality of the millions of citizens mobilised for the struggle.