'Not concerned with Poetry': World War I
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In his poem 'MCMXIV', Philip Larkin suggests that the outbreak of war in 1914 heralded an unprecedented loss of innocence. In this Larkin subscribes to a prelapsarian view which understands British society in 1914 not in terms of its own historical events but in terms of the cataclysm awaiting it. It is a perspective that emphasises the unexpected horror of the war. In 1914, there had been no war involving all the European powers for a hundred years. It had been almost fifty years since any major European power had attacked any similar country. At the tum of the century, when about 1,400 men died each year in British mines, Bernard Shaw had been able to assert in a letter in 1902 that 'There is no certainty that a woman will lose her son if he goes to the front; in fact, the coal-mine and the shunting-yard are more dangerous places than the camp.' By contrast, at some points in the war the average life-expectancy of a new infantry subaltern on the Western Front was three months. In the Edwardian period, war was planned for as a contingency, but was not expected. Armed strength primarily served a civilian purpose and was not only a source of pride but the chief collective embodiment of the power of the nation. To an extent, the military was primarily for display and not intended for use; peace was assumed 'And a great army but a showy thing', as Yeats remarked of the Edwardian period in his poem 'N ineteen Hundred and Nineteen'. Eric Hobsbawm explains that 'It is difficult for anyone born after 1914 to imagine how deeply the belief that a world war could not "really" come was engrained in the fabric of life before the deluge' (Hobsbawm 1987: 302-4).