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  • How They Thought of World War I
  • Stephen E. Tabachnick
Claire Buck. Conceiving Strangeness in British First World War Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 249pp. $90.00

IN CONCEIVING STRANGENESS in British First World War Writing, Claire Buck finds that how wartime and postwar writers saw Britain as an imperial nation determined in large part how they thought of World War I. To support her argument, she analyzes the work of many writers about the war, including among others John Masefield, Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Enid Bagnold, E. M. Forster, and T. E. Lawrence, as well as several less-known writers, such as Capt. Roly Grimshaw and Rose Allatini. She specifies the ways in [End Page 127] which these British writers’ view of the war was conditioned by their attitudes toward the introduction of Indian and other colonial soldiers in the European theater, their perception of cultural changes in Europe itself caused by the war, and the conduct of the war in places outside of Europe, such as the Middle East.

For some writers, the use of colonial, multi-cultural soldiers as well as the savagery of the war itself created a feeling that Europe was a different place than well-travelled British citizens had known it to be in the past and also made other theaters of the war, such as the Middle East, appear exotic because of the presence of fighters from non-British cultures, as well as familiar because of, among other factors, the use of modern technology in fighting the war. In other words, she shows the various effects of conceiving of the war itself as involving the British Empire and not just Britain, and she also shows how sometimes both the exotic and the familiar blended in the writers’ and readers’ minds alike. The author therefore offers us a valuable and often neglected perspective, which is worthy of consideration in a class about World War I or when writing about that massive conflict.

One of her many interesting findings is that the British writers she analyzes often used the conventions of the travel narrative to consider aspects of colonial participation in the war and the places in which it was fought. Imperial Britain is perhaps the best source of great travel writing, including for example works about the Middle East such as Sir Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, Charles M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, and Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown. According to Buck, the war writers’ frequent use of travel narrative conventions allowed the writer as well as the reader to deal with what was the once-familiar world of Europe now made strange, or with a civilization from the Middle East, which appeared both familiar because of Christian associations and unfamiliar in terms of its culture. She analyzes the different ways in which many of the writers she considers, much like travelers, present the effects of this “world” war to their readers according to each writer’s perspective on other civilizations and their inhabitants who participated in the war.

Indeed, how these writers viewed the new world created by the war and the cross-cultural contacts created by the war in all of its venues differed considerably. According to Buck, Bagnold’s heroine Fanny in The Happy Foreigner does not identify with Europe at all and feels like an outsider herself, and from that vantage point Fanny semi-benevolently [End Page 128] views the treatment of the non-European participants in the war as a result of indifference and ignorance rather than hostility. But Blunden displays a feeling that the European culture that he knew has been destroyed, at least partially because of non-European participation in the war. Sassoon, on the other hand, welcomes George Sherston’s movement from English provincialism to European cosmopolitanism because, given the camaraderie of the troops, homosexual alliances seem to become more acceptable in this changed reality of wartime Europe. The same goes for Forster, whose wartime work in Alexandria enabled him to have a homosexual relationship with an Egyptian man. This relationship brought him into close contact with the mistreatment of the colonial...


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pp. 127-131
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