Review: Twelve Days on the Somme (Rogerson)

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Twelve Days on the Somme: A Memoir of the Trenches, 1916.

A memoir that’s as well written and readable as The Distant Drum, but with a difference: its author had “an agenda.”

Unlike Noakes, who did not write for publication, Rogerson wrote to publicize a protest: he wanted to set his version of the facts against what he perceived to be the glorification of the war’s gruesomeness by the most popular memoirs and fiction; to point out the flaws in the prosecution of the war; and to put himself on the record as a supporter of the war’s fundamental necessity.

Rogerson felt the need to disclaim any “propagandistic urge or intention,” but the above motives were not unworthy: The lingering gloom of writers like Sassoon had penetrated the public psyche, and even memoirs of the erstwhile enemy such as Storm of Steel were wearisome in their unrelenting accounts of graphic gore; the generals needlessly sacrificed far too many lives for far too long; and by the time Rogerson’s memoir was published in the 1930s, there were warning signs of resurgent Teutonic imperial belligerency.

There was reason to warrant an attempt to stiffen political spines against a repeat of the prior debacle. The sympathetic reception given to Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (to the extent of its being promptly translated to the silver screen), represented a democratization of the war experience that made the softening attitude towards enforcement of the Versailles Treaty seem desirable. Moreover, the parents who had sent their sons off to the War to End all Wars, and who, despite the keenness of their losses, presumably would have supported the rightness of that fight, were now dying off, and those who remained who had become grandparents before their bereavement may have felt conflicted about the possibility of committing their grandsons to the same fires of Moloch.

In the event, Rogerson’s stated aim and effort to present a “plain, unvarnished … accurate picture” seems to have backfired. It may well have soothed other “slightly irritated,” “bemused” survivors; bolstered with “humdrum and frequently amusing intervals” the martial mythology of “younger generations” who soon would need to be willing to march off to fight; and perhaps even reassured still-grieving parents that to their long-lost loved ones, “life in the trenches was not all ghastliness,” but although Rogerson’s memoir was quite popular, its readership remained spinning in neutral, and we all know what that led to.

It’s worthwhile to remember that not only historical novelists exercise artistic license: All journalists and historians cherry-pick the facts to fit their agendas. In the case of the memoirist, the effect of bias is just as pronounced: a memoir is a memory, and there is no way that a human brain can recall every detail (this is especially true of conversations, which is one reason why a novel written in the first-person-singular point-of-view requires a special effort on the part of the reader to achieve and maintain suspension of disbelief). Moreover, while many memories can be startlingly vivid, the limitations of language can constrain the communication of those images (which is why “a picture is worth a thousand words”). Even in the midst of his expostulations about the veracity of his limited account of life on the Somme in 1916, Rogerson admits to condensation, omission of the immaterial, and reliance on “context.” To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks.”

This memoir is best read in conjunction with others of the genre.

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