Reading and writing communities in the trenches 1914-1918

Reading Conference

Reading and Writing Communities in the Trenches 1914-1918

38 years ago Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory,
examined the literary dimensions of the First World War for British
combatants. Fussell was primarily concerned with the officer
class, a well-read and articulate elite whose war experience did
not necessarily reflect that of other ranks. Other historians have
sometimes dismissed the literary culture of ordinary soldiers
as offering little interest or originality or as being (allegedly)
inaccessible. Professor Lyons does not forget the officer elite, but
seeks to broaden the focus to include the reading and writing of
ordinary people during the war years. In drawing evidence from
French and Italian soldiers, he also refers to prisoners of war.
Professor Lyons argues that the trenches constituted a reading
community, where soldiers shared similar values, and similar expectations of and appetites for reading. Collective
reading, rare among the officer class, was however common amongst the infantry. They devoured newspapers
while paradoxically maintaining a healthy cynicism towards their exaggerations and falsehoods. They read for
information, for recreation and for clues to understand their own involvement in the war. A few drew on their past
reading for literary models which shaped their experience and influenced their own writing.
At the same time, the trenches were also writing communities in which soldiers plunged into an epistolary frenzy
of bulimic proportions. They wrote for similar purposes, in similarly laconic prose and they sometimes wrote, just
as they read, in common. Reading and writing were closely interconnected and Professor Lyons suggests that
we should not treat them in isolation from each other if we seek a rounded vision of cultural history and of literacy

Professor Martyn Lyons
History and European Studies
School of Humanities and Languages
University of New South Wales

Please register your interest in attending this event here.


Martyn Lyons

Dates & times

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

5.30pm - 7.00pm


China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU

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