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Film moments #26: Silk Stockings (1957)

4 November 2017

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Silk Stockings comes almost at the end of the cycle of musicals from MGM’s Freed Unit. It stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. He is an American film producer who has persuaded a Soviet composer (Boroff, played by Wim Sonnefeld) to stay in Paris to write him a score. She is the Soviet agent sent to retrieve both the composer and the Soviet commissars sent previously, now living it up in a Paris hotel.

It is a remake of the 1939 Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka, which had been adapted in the mid-50s into a Broadway musical with a fine set of Cole Porter songs (I particularly enjoyed the lyrics). It lost money.

Here’s some quick thoughts.

  1. This is 1950s Paris, and therefore still, in the minds of 1950s Americans it represents the emblem of the exotic, probably still living in the afterglow of Hemingway, Fitzgerald etc. Obviously MGM captured this to excess in An American in Paris, but it’s also the theme of another Astaire musical, Funny Face, released the previous year. Unlike An American in Paris, however, there’s no visual evidence that the film ever escaped from the studio lot.
  2. 1957 is the start of the “Soviet moment“, as I discussed in my Sputnik post. Even though it is the middle of the Cold War, the House Un-American activities Committee is in decline, and although the jokes are at the expense of the Soviet Union, they are mostly affectionate rather than critical.
  3. There’s lots to like about the film: the lyrics are clever, the plot is well-constructed, the script is light and knowing, some of the dancing is fine. It’s a film that puts a smile on your face. But it’s impossible to believe that Charisse would fall for Astaire; she was 36 when it was released, he was 58, and he looks old throughout the picture. Gene Kelly, maybe: but his stock had fallen at MGM by 1957 after a series of flops.
  4. It was Fred Astaire’s last film as a dancer (if you don’t count Finian’s Rainbow). One review takes the moment at the end of the last dance in the film where Astaire crushes his top hat as a symbolic ending. Maybe. Certainly in some of the dancing sequences he’s showing his age. Astonishingly, it was also Charisse’s last film as a dancer, though that may say something about the decline of the musical.
  5. Because Astaire’s character is a film producer, *Silk Stockings* is almost a commentary on the American film musical, written in the medium of film right at the end of the ’40s and ’50s musical cycle. I have borrowed this idea from Jane Feuer’s book The Hollywood Musical. By way of example: the Russians (Charisse and the three commissars) confront Astaire when they realise he has taken the melody of the Russian composer’s piece and turned it into a jazz number. “In America,” Astaire tells them, “we do this sort of thing all the time.”
  6. There’s more than a nod towards Singin’ In The Rain as well. The adaptation of *War and Peace* that Boroff thinks he’s scoring turns into a Napoleon and Josephine musical called “Not Tonight” because Peggy Dayton, the none-too-bright star (played by Janis Paige, with a touch of [Lina Lamont](http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0008638/), doesn’t like the story or the music.

Here’s Jane Feuer:

The entire sub-plot of *Silk Stockings* ridicules elite art through a farcical contrast between modern serious music and modern popular music… Peggy argues that Boroff is “too square” whereas Canfield [Astaire] counters that he will “lend prestige to the picture”, just as presumably the inclusion of concert music lent prestige to the MGM musicals.

But it’s 1957, and the arrival of rock and roll has just rendered the whole discussion obsolete. So this is the moment. Fred Astaire’s last on-screen dance number, in a song specially written for the film version of Silk Stockings, which tries, completely unsuccessfully, to co-opt rock and roll for the film musical.

The whole film seems to be online here. If you want to know more about the film, Alan Vanneman has a sardonic narrative reading at the Bright Lights blog.

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Sputnik at 60

26 October 2017

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It is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik this month, in 1957, the moment when the Soviet Union arrived at the peak of its power and influence. It was 40 years after the Revolution, and only 32 years to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Francis Spufford, who wrote Red Plenty, captured that moment this way:

This was the Soviet moment. It lasted from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961 and dissipated along with the fear in the couple of years following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962… But while it lasted the USSR had a reputation that is now almost impossible to recapture.

John Naughton shared the front page of the New York Times on his blog.

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In the UK, The Engineer devoted more than a page to it, with a refreshing disregard of any concessions to design or layout. (You can read the whole issue here, in pdf).

Screenshot 2017-10-09 09.54.17

NASA added a poem by the then Democrat Governor of Michigan, G. Mennen Williams (I say ‘poem’, but it would hardly have troubled the Pulitzer Prize judges that year), in which he complained that Soviet satellites were beeping away overhead while the President was busy playing golf.

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam’s asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.

10 years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, NPR broadcast a piece on songs that had been influenced by Sputnik. A lot of these are really good fun, but the one I enjoyed most was “Beep Beep!” by Louis Prima.

And finally, a more recent contribution to the genre from the British band Public Service Broadcasting.

As Spufford says in his article on the USSR’s Sputnik moment:

While the Soviet moment lasted, it looked like somewhere which was incubating a rival version of modern life: one which had to be reckoned with, learned from, in case it really did outpace the west, and leave the lands of capitalism stumbling along behind.

Which didn’t happen. Which didn’t happen so thoroughly that the way the Soviet Union seemed to be between 1957 and 1964 or thereabouts has been more or less displaced from our collective memory.

 

 

Film moments #24: The Philadelphia Story

22 September 2017

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The Philadelphia Story is a classic film, a romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, who won an Oscar for it. The romantic comedy bit: Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a member of one of Philadelphia’s swankiest families, is about to remarry, but her first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant, smuggles into the house party a reporter (Stewart) and photographer (played by Ruth Hussey) from the gossip magazine Spy, to get his own back on his ex-wife. It’s a fine film and I’d be completely happy to watch it again tomorrow.

The film is adapted from a play by Philip Barry that Hepburn also starred in, and it relaunched her then becalmed Hollywood career. The reason she’s surrounded by bankable leading actors is that Warners was trying to insure the success of the film, as it were.

Much of the comedy comes from the contrast from Hepburn’s high life (the musical remake is called High Society) and the more mundane worlds of Stewart and Hussey, where people actually have to worry about details like money. This is New Deal humour, with Stewart a year on from his breakthrough movie, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and arguably some of the earlier character washes through into Philadelphia Story. Either way, he and Hussey stand in for the audience in the face of the lavish wealth that’s on display in the story.

The script by Donald Ogden Stewart purrs along; the plot is tightly constructed; and the story is about climbing down off the pedestal and learning to live with human frailty.

A couple of moments. The first is in the office of Spy magazine, as reporter Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Hussey) are summoned to the publisher’s office to be given the assignment and to meet Dexter Haven. Just because it says a lot about both character and the relationship of the two characters. Here’s the script; it doesn’t seem to be online as a clip.

Around The Edges-film moments-Philadelphia Story-James Stewart

The second, as Hepburn unfurls the wedding present that Cary Grant has left for her, a scale model of the boat he’s built that they’d sailed together when newly married. The scene tells you everything you need to know about the triangle between Hepburn and her past and future husbands.

The sequence that plays out between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn just before the wedding ceremony at the end of the film (spoiler, but the link is here) was clearly filed away by the screenwriter Richard Curtis at some point, since a version pops up in Four Weddings and a Funeral. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

The poster at the top of the post is via Wikimedia. 

Film moment #15: Show Boat (1951)

15 July 2017


Race washes lightly through the 1951 second remake of the musical Show Boat without ever touching the sides. At the start happy black people leave their cotton bolls to run down to the jetty to greet the boat. The mixed-race Julia (Ava Gardner) is sent packing for her marriage to a white man, illegal in the state, which clears the stage, literally, for the romance of Howard Keel‘s Gaylord and Kathryn Grayson‘s Magnolia, and starts her own spiralling decline. And by way of a shadow from the 1936 version, Stevedore Joe, played here by the black baritone William Warfield, appears briefly to sing Ol’ Man River against the early morning light as the show boat readies to leave without Julia. The song–by some distance the best in the film–is reprised at the end. It’s colour, in effect, for the slightly breathless showbiz story that populates the rest of the film. 

I don’t want to make too much of this: Show Boat was always a light musical. The 1936 film reduced the role of Stevedore Joe from the stage version, and Paul Robeson, who made the song and the role famous both on stage and in the earlier film, was criticised in a review by one militant black magazine for using “his genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonour, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainments of the Black Race.” The publicity material for that version described Stevedore Joe as a “lazy, easy-going husband.” (Robeson’s biographer, Martin Duberman, also notes that the dancer Bill Robinson wrote to Robeson’s wife Essie, “Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice: just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.”)  

By 1951, Paul Robeson was effectively unavailable to sing the part. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood and the State Department had banned him for travel, because of his pro-Communist political activities. The mood in the country on race had changed as well, in ways that were good, bad and just plain ugly, pre-figuring the surge in civil rights activism a decade later. It made sense, in other words, to remove some of the more stereotypical elements from the story. 

What’s left–and this is the moment–is almost a film within a film, with a different mood and a much darker colour palette, as Warfield’s version of Jerome Kern’s fine song gives the film some air, and maybe a little context, as the river just keeps rolling along.

The dangers of snap elections

2 June 2017

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Stewart Wood worked with Gordon Brown in late 2007, when as a new Labour party leaders, and therefore a new but unelected Prime Minister, he dithered about calling a General Election, and then decided against. The financial crisis evaporated his poll lead, and he never recovered politically from that.

Wood posted a series of tweets reflecting on that moment through the lens of the difficulties Theresa May is having with her equivalent election, which are worth sharing so they don’t get lost in the Twitter firehose.

Five years on from Brown’s decision not to call with an election, Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride wrote up the day-by-day inside story (in the Telegraph) of how an apparently inevitable decision to go to the polls became a decision not to.

On the other hand, we all should be grateful that Brown was Prime Minister in 2008; he held his nerve, and used his knowledge of economics and history, to make sure that the British banking system didn’t collapse, and helped stiffen the resolve of the  world’s leaders at the height of the crisis. People forget that we were hours away from a collapse of the banking system.

As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote:

What sticks out about that period is how Brown and Alistair Darling were not only acting without a roadmap, they were driving with Cameron and Osborne right on their bumper telling them to do a U-turn. The diagnosis that British banks were dangerously low on capital was correct – but it was the opposite of what most bankers were saying.

Had Brown called an election, and not won, the thought of Cameron trying to make those decisions is frankly terrifying.

The image at the top of the post shows Brown arriving at No. 10 as new Prime Minister in 2007.

‘Spoken not read’

14 December 2016
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Bob Dylan, by Kyle Legates


There’s no argument here that Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, not least because he changed our expectations of the weight that a song could carry. I admired the way in which, in his acceptance speech (read out in Stockholm by the US Ambassador) he both managed to compare himself to Shakespeare while at the same time using this as a shield to deflect the critics who had suggested that the Literature prize should not go to a songwriter.

Near the beginning of the speech, Dylan writes:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Of course, this is also a reminder that several playwrights have also won the Nobel Prize since it was created in 1901–Pinter, Dario Fo, Beckett, Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Shaw–and that they have also wrestled with the same problems of words-as-performance, without attracting the same opprobrium.

And then, in the speech, he goes off on a little tour, talking about his personal history, the slow way in which confidence and ambition grows with success as a performer, nodding in a clever but flattering way in the direction of the Nobel Committee, before bringing it back to Shakespeare again:

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

I was lucky enough, years ago, to hear Christopher Ricks do one of his lectures where he dissected several songs; the masterly construction of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather‘, with its alternate male and female rhymes (“made of silver or of golden“), and of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll‘ (“now is the time for your tears”), contrasted with the thinner material that makes up ‘One Too Many Mornings‘. Ricks became a bit of lightning rod for other critics, partly because he insisted on saying that Dylan was better than Keats, which was a red rag to sections of the English literati. I don’t think that argument was worth spending time on, even then, but the scholarship in his lecture, and much more, eventually found its way into a long critical appraisal of Dylan’s language and lyrics, a quarter of a century later. As Thomas Jones notes in his review in LRB, Ricks’ says of ‘Hattie Carroll’ that ‘Here is a song that could not be written better.’

Ricks, who was an early champion of Dylan’s literary quality, has been vindicated by the Nobel Commitee’s answer to Dylan’s unasked question, and he was in the pages of the Irish Times (scroll down) after the announcement was made.

Some reminders, since one of Dylan’s powers is that of a great reminder.

First, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the task of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed (Wordsworth’s conviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)

But in some ways Roddy Doyle catches the sentiment and the spirit better in the same Irish Times feature:

-I remember when me brother brought home Highway 61 Revisited, when it came ou’, like. Now, I love me music – always did. But, like, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I mean, there wasn’t much in the lyrics of anny o’ the songs back then. An’ then I heard, ‘They’re paintin’ postcards of the hangin’, they’re paintin’ the passports brown.’ It was amazin’. The start of my life, nearly. Even me da stopped complainin’ about the noise.

The image of Bob Dylan at the top of this post is by Kyle Legates. It is used here, with thanks, under a Creative Commons licence.

 

The Liberation Music Orchestra in London

26 November 2016

Obviously the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra isn’t quite the same without Charlie Haden, who died two years ago. But equally, as Alan Shipton of Radio 3 noted before the start of their concert at Cadogan Hall last weekend, right now we need it more than ever.

The Orchestra was created in 1969, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, as a vehicle for Haden’s politics and music, and has toured and recorded off and on ever since, notably in the 2000s as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. The current band, under the leadership of Haden’s long-term collaborator Carla Bley, has just released a record on ecological themes, Time | Life, which was a work in progress when Haden died. The concert included material from this and from their 2004 recording Not In Our Name.

I love big bands, and the Liberation Music Orchestra is a big band: bass, drums, guitar, tuba, French horn, trombone, two trumpets, alto sax and two tenor saxes. Most of the musicians have been playing with the Orchestra for years. And then there’s the elfin figure of Bley, now 80, perched at the piano, standing from time to time to bring a song to a tidy close, or transition into a new one.

They are Carla Bley’s arrangements—Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, who introduced the band, said that Charlie could never imagine anyone else arranging the Liberation Music Orchestra’s work—and she has an unmatched ear for the timbres and textures of the jazz orchestra, in the same league as Gil Evans.

Some of the material on Time | Life goes back to the ’60s—Haden’s Song for the Whales and the Bley composition, Silent Spring, a response to Rachel Carson’s path-breaking polemic, both of which were part of the set at Cadogan Hall. There’s also a fine version of Miles’ Blue in Green, which the band opened with.

It wasn’t just me who found the material from Not In Our Name the most compelling on the night, with the scars of the recent Presidential election still fresh (Richard Williams’ review is here). The title track shares with Mingus’ Fables of Faubus the notion that protest should have a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Bley’s arrangement of Amazing Grace restores the simple power of the original. And the high point of the evening, without doubt, was the long medley of America The Beautiful/Life Every Heart And Sing/Skies of America, with drummer Matt Wilson shifting into a military mode in a long solo before the band returned to cacophonous discord. If it was designed to convey the idea that America has lost its way, it worked.

The band: Carla Bley, piano, conductor; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, tenor saxophone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Seneca Black, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Earl McIntyre, tuba; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Darek Oles, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

The concert was recorded for transmission on Radio 3 during December. 

Reflecting on Alan Stivell

20 November 2016

 

I stumbled across Alan Stivell’s first record while throwing out a bunch of tape cassettes recently. It was called Reflections in England (Reflets in France) when it was released there in 1970, and I’ve been playing it, along with his other early records a lot in the last few weeks as a reult. It reminds me that in bringing Breton music into the mainstream, or at least to the edge of the mainstream, he was maybe the first “world musician” in the days before the category of “world music” had been created. He broke through into the sensibilities of rock and blues fans like me, at least in the UK, long before the African insurgency in the late-70s, and even before Island records launched Bob Marley into the British market and drove reggae from Jamaica to the mainstream.

When you listen to both Reflets and its successor, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, widely regarded as a masterpiece, you can see why. It has big sweeping melodies and rich arrangements. Perhaps more importantly, it also manages to sound both modern and ancient at the same time, both of the world and of the place, as if the spirit of Marshall McLuhan is running through the standing stones.

In fact, I think Stivell can be placed in a wider context, with those musicians in almost every Western culture who in the ’60s and ’70s honoured their traditional musics while introducing new arrangements and (usually) electric instruments into the mix. I’m thinking, for example, of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in the UK, for example, or The Band in north America, or Planxty, and later Moving Hearts, in Ireland.

Reflets seems to be out of print now, along with his first live recording, Live at l’Olympia. The full recording of l’Olympia is on Youtube at the moment, as are all of the individual tracks of Reflets, which I have reconstructed as a Youtube playlist.

One of the things I liked about Reflets, but which surprised me at the time, was that it included among the Breton folk repertoire an English song, Sally Free and Easy, collected by Cyril Tawney. Liked, because I knew it already in a version by Pentangle; surprised because I expected a man who was immersed in Breton culture not to mix up his performance with English folk songs.

But it seems that Stivell was a fan of English folk; there are more English songs on Live at l’Olympia, including The Foggy Foggy Dew. It’s a reminder that people like Stivell, who were musical pioneers, are always listening.

 

 

Voskhod over Edinburgh

21 August 2016

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When I was seven, my father took my brother and I out onto the street outside our house to see a Soviet spacecraft whose orbit of earth took it directly over Edinburgh. I think I was seven, at least, but I could be wrong about that, and I think it was the autumn, and although I could check the details, that’s not the point, because this is about the memory. It still seems, at this distance, an other-worldly experience, a moment of wonder. It was still the age of Red Plenty, at a time when the Soviet Union was leading in the space race, before American arms expenditure bled the economy dry. But in truth, it wouldn’t have mattered much whose spacecraft it was; the wonder was because it was up there flashing across the sky and we were able to watch it from the street right outside of our house.

This memory is prompted by finding while tidying a poem I photocopied years ago which captures, more eloquently, the same sense of wonder. From memory, although the name is not on the photocopy, it’s by the Scottish poet Alan Bold, who died suddenly in 1998. Bold was interested in both radical politics and technology (and if I have this wrong, please let me know.) Judging from the internet, it also seems to be out of print, so I trust that the publishers will forgive me from reprinting it here.

On Seeing Voskhod Over Edinburgh

On a cold October night

Edinburgh’s sky was punctuated,

Not by a divine presence,

But by the stabbing cigarette-end-like apparition

Of three men in a spaceship.

I looked out from my house

In a hundred-year-old tenement

And felt that Komarov, Yegerov and Feoktistov

Were fellow travellers of mine.

For it’s a long way from Zazakhstan to Scotland

And it’s a long way my house is from Voskhod.

Yet I saw

The stabbing cigarette-end-like shape,

I watched as the red light flashed

Across the sky.

For four minutes we Scots saw

The scientific age in action.

And as we retreated back into our tenements

And thought once more of slums,

We also saw that an alternative existed.

(Alan Bold)

The image at the top of the post is from the website Spacefacts, and is used with thanks.

Bleeding them white

2 August 2016

  

Of course I knew that Verdun was a bloodbath, fought out largely between the French and German armies. But until I heard David Hargreaves talk about the battle at a recent Browser lecture, I hadn’t realised how much of a bloodbath it was, or, by extension, how it shaped the disastrous post-war settlement.

Between February 1916, when the Germans first attacked, and December, when the French regained most of the land lost, 300,000 troops died, split fairly evenly between the two sides. The heavy death toll was the plan when Falkenhayn first formulated the campaign, but he anticipated that the French would suffer casualties in far greater numbers than the Germans. Verdun was chosen because it has a strategically important network of forts, and was also an important transport hub. Falkenhayn believed that the French couldn’t afford to defend it, and also that they couldn’t afford not to defend it. A zugswang, in other words.

As happened elsewhere during World War I, the attacking side made gains before being stalled. As also happened elsewhere, the pre-battle artillery bombardment turned the ground into mud that impeded the infantry attack. 

Fracturing the nerves

The French commander, Joffre, disregarded the initial attack because he thought it was a diversion from another impeding attack (as did Hitler the D-Day landings in Normandy). The constant artillery bombardment fractured the nerves of the defending French troops. The German assault stretched the French forces thin until the British were able to relieve the French 10th Army elsewhere and free them to go to Verdun.

Understanding Verdun also gives a different perspective to the Battle of the Somme, in the summer of 1916. Yes, it was planned before the start of the battle of Verdun, but by the time it came, even despite the terrible level of casualties, it was needed, desperately, to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun and prevent the French army breaking under the strain.

Petain, whose reputation suffered somewhat in the Second World War, comes out of the Verdun story well. Unlike most generals of the time, he would go to visit the troops returning from the front. He realised, looking at them, that even battle hardened troops couldn’t take much of the constant bombardment, and devised the noria system of rapid rotation, so that troops were in the front line for only 8-10 days before being relieved. 

Some of the accounts by soldiers shared by Hargreaves were desperate: a Jesuit hoping that he would die by a bullet rather than a shell, so that his body would not be blown to bits and scattered.  

Shocking the system

Britain’s casualties in World War I were high–The Wasteland, for example, like Elgar’s Cello Concerto, is one long howl of grief– but they were not on the same scale as the French. The French army had indeed been “bled white” at Verdun, but only at the cost of bleeding the Germans white as well. Falkenhayn, the German architect of Verdun, was dismissed sometime before the battle ended.

And although the noria system was effective in maintaining French front-line morale, it also meant that far greater numbers of troops experienced the shock of the battle. David Hargreaves suggested to me afterwards that it transmitted the shock right through French society, which in turn helps to understand France’s intransigent position at the peace talks in 1919.

History’s fingers reach down the years. You can see the shadow of Verdun cast long across the 1930s and the 1940s, and even to the creation of the post-war Common Market.

David Hargreaves’ Century project, following the progress of World War I in weekly instalments, can be found here. The Browser is here.