Great War Books, A Study In Historical Criticism (It Takes One To Know One)

When France declared war in August 1914 a Frenchman teaching French at a college in Vermont, went to New York and bought passage on the first berth that would take him across the Atlantic to enlist. His name was Jean Norton Cru. He fought on the Western Front for nearly two years before being rescued from the trenches by a variety of staff jobs, none of which he wangled in order to save his skin. After returning from the trenches to resume teaching in the United States, Cru was repeatedly asked when, given his unique perspective as a French-American, he was going to start writing his memoirs. After reading some of those already on the market he decided to write a book about them, instead of adding to the deluge with one of his own. It was finally published in Paris in 1929 under the title Temoins, ‘Witnesses’. Jean Norton Cru had found a new vocation.

Temoins caused a controversy because it ignored several of the best-selling torch-bearers of French Great War literature in favour of more obscure or even amateur writers. With his own experience as an infantryman to guide him, Cru had set himself the task of winnowing the whole grain from the chaff when it came to the books of 1914 – 1918. He used two main criteria.

One: Cru asserted that the reality of battle was so intense it need neither embroidery nor hyperbole in the telling.

Two: the test facing any war book was to transmit an authentic impression of the actualite of warfare and therefore only those who could speak from first-person experience were qualified to write one. Writers who hadn’t witnessed whereof they wrote, or who had worked up their testimony in a form to suit the market, or who had massaged the facts to make them more ‘patriotic’ or ‘political’, were not only disqualified from Cru’s esteem but targets of his scorn.

‘The bibliography which I have published in Temoins has two advantages over other lists of war books; it is more complete and it is critical. With negligible omissions it includes works published from 1915 to 1928. It has been compiled with the object of excluding the accounts of civilians, non-combatants, and high-ranking or staff officers.’

Cru subjected the veracity of 304 books by 252 writers to objective scrutiny in Temoins. Only about one third were judged to be of some worth. Those titles judged to be ‘works of the first choice’ were awarded a black dot; there were 57 of these. Works ‘of the second choice’ were distinguished by asterisks; 43 of them. The rest of them, judged as literature by a professor of literature and as authentic renditions of battle by a combat veteran … pah!

There was outrage on behalf of several best-selling, internationally acclaimed French authors denied distinction in Cru’s rankings but although his prescriptive focus on authenticity has, with the passage of decades, made some of his judgements seem wrong it remains the case that any book marked with his dot is going to put its reader in revealing close proximity to the human experience of the Great War. After one-hundred years, such books are more highly prized than ever.

It is not known whether the idea of publishing an English version of Temoins belonged to Cyril Falls or his London publisher, Peter Davies, but certainly Falls read Cru’s work before writing his own and adopted his system of awarding marks for excellence and reliability. In Falls’ War Books of 1930 the severe and dedicated pioneer Cru receives two stars for Temoins: ‘He writes quite dispassionately, but his severity is so great that in this country it might almost on some occasions leave him open to an action at law. One cannot agree with all he says, but it is certain that for a full understanding of the aberrations of eye-witnesses his book is of immense value to us today, and should be even more valuable to posterity. One or two of the “best-sellers” are remorselessly stripped to the bone. It is perhaps unfortunate that he evidently knows little or nothing of British war books, and that he completed his work just before the great flood of reminiscence and fiction began.’

I have just checked on ABE and there is only one 1929 first edition of Temoins for sale, at more than £400, including the postage. I bought my own copy for much less than that several years ago but sold it to my permanent regret — and not just because it fetched half the current price. Some Great War books are great in their own right, as unique and truthful expressions of uniquely truthful spirits, and Temoins by Jean Norton Cru, is one of them.

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