A War Imagined

Samuel Hynes in A WAR IMAGINED has written a sweeping history of the impact of World War I on English culture. Ranging from the years immediately preceding the war to the early 1930’s, Hynes examines a wealth of sources, including fiction, poetry, art, films, memoirs, and newspapers to map out the transformation of opinion in England. For Hynes, World War I was not only a massive political and military event but also a mental and moral turning point, during which the cultural attitudes we hold to be distinctively modern first appeared.

For its contemporaries, World War I stood as an abyss separating the nostalgically colored peace of prewar Britain, with its civility, idealism, and artistic romanticism, and the harsher, starker postwar world, marred by social conflict and characterized by artistic modernism. The British people entered the war full of enthusiasm for what they believed was a just cause, confident of the moral rewards of self-sacrifice. By 1916, halfway through the war, military ineptitude and appalling casualties had begun to change attitudes. The war came to seem a colossal disaster, beyond the capacities of ordinary men and women to describe. The idealistic rhetoric justifying the war appeared increasingly hollow, and was eschewed in favor of unadorned descriptions of the simple facts of the conflict. In the arts, only striking new techniques seemed adequate to represent what was seen as a new reality created by the war. Before the war was over, says Hynes, a myth of the war had emerged, only loosely related to the military outcome of the conflict. The war was viewed as the betrayal of innocence and youth by the old and powerful. As such, the experience of war sanctioned rebellion against authority, both political and cultural. And thus, with loss and sadness, our age was born.