Jean Norton Cru

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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Why We Love Cyril Falls

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The supply of bibliographies of the Great War has conspicuously failed to keep pace with the volume of books produced on the subject. Even before the War was over, its bibliographers found themselves running out of stamina. Of those bibliographies that reached a semblance of completeness only two have stood the test of time: Temoins, by Jean Norton Cru (Les Enticelles, 1929), which deals with French books; and War Books by Cyril Falls (Peter Davies, 1931), which is more general and less prescriptive in the Englishness of its approach. Both books came out during a boom in sales triggered by the publication of All Quiet On The Western Front which brought a flood of titles onto the market as writers and publishers sought to benefit from the publicity generated by Remarque’s best-selling success.

Falls’ War Books divides Great War books into categories, History, Reminiscence and Fiction, and deals with them comparatively, awarding stars according to merit. He was not generous with approval. Falls, like Cru, served on the Western Front during the Great War. He was a Staff Captain with the 36th (Ulster) Division and therefore thoroughly familiar with the raw material of the infantry experience. After the War he worked on several volumes of the British Official History under the general editorship of Brigadier Sir James Edmonds. This led to a long career in military history, culminating with a professor’s chair at Oxford. If anyone knew about the Great War and its literature, that man was Cyril Falls.

In the category of ‘History, General’ Falls considered 223 books, from Abbott, G.F., Greece And The Allies 1914 – 1922 to Yapp, Sir Arthur, The Romance Of The Red Triangle. Six books in this category received the maximum approval rating of three stars by virtue of their ‘superior merit’; 16 books received two stars; 51 books received one star. In ‘History, Formations & Units’, Falls considered 119 books, from Aitken, Sir Max, Canada In Flanders, to Wyrall, Everard, The West Yorkshire Regiment In The War. Five books received two stars; 32 received one star. A total of 49 books were included by Falls in ‘History, Foreign’, from Anonymous, Les Campagnes Coloniales Belgesto Zwehl, Erich, Von Falkenhayn. Only one book in this category received three stars; six books received two stars; 19 received one.

In the category of ‘Reminiscence’, Falls considered 177 books, from Abraham, J. Johnson, My Balkan Log, to Young, Francis Brett, Marching On Tanga. Two books were awarded three stars; 12 received two stars; 33 received one star. In ‘Reminiscence, Foreign’, Falls considered 20 books from Bloem, Walter, Vormarsch, to Vogel, Dr Hofprediger Kilometer Mit Der Garde-Kavallerie. One book received two stars; six received one.

In the ‘Fiction’category, Falls considered 106 English language books and 12 foreign ones, from Acland, Peregrine, All Else Is Folly, to Zweig, Arnold, The Case Of Sergeant Grischa. Three books were awarded three stars; 14 received two stars; 31 received one.

So. Out of the 706 books Falls read in order to write War Books 12 were considered by him to be of superlative merit; 52 were judged to be very good; 172 merely good of their type. He wrote in his Preface that he expected his list to prove disputatious, but probably not for applying too rigorous a standard of judgement. At the time Falls was active, slang, woolly thinking, posturing, polemic, immodesty, hyperbole, wilful idiosyncrasy and blatant pandering to the market were considered to be bad behaviour in a serious writer. Exactitude, emotional restraint and craftsmanship were esteemed. Such conventions held strong while British universities produced graduates in their thousands. Today we produce them in their hundreds of thousands and every person with a computer can write and publish without constraint. Which is great if people have something interesting to say and a powerful way of expressing it. Which is why we like Cyril Falls. In the arena of Great War books he exerts the power to discriminate. Here are the twelve titles receiving his maximum three stars:

Official History Of The Great War, Military Operations: Gallipoli, by Brig.-General. C.F. Aspinall-Oglander, Heinemann, 1929. ‘No serious student of the War can avoid reading this book.’

The World Crisis, 1911 – 1918, by the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, Thornton Butterworth, 1923-1929. ‘It is probably the best general guide to the development of British policy during the War yet published.’

Official History Of The Great War, Military Operations: France and Belgium, Vols I, II, III, IV, by Brig.-General Sir J.E. Edmonds and Major A.F. Becke, Macmillan, 1922 onwards. ‘The reader can always feel secure that he will find no essential neglected.’

Revolt In The Desert, by T.E. Lawrence, Cape, 1927. ‘The book belongs to the select top shelf of war literature.’

History Of The Great War Based On Official Documents. The War In The Air., by Sir Walter Raleigh and H.A.Jones, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922 – 1928. ‘Altogether a very fine piece of work.’

Fix Bayonets!, by John W. Thomason Junior, Scribner, 1926. ‘The best American book on the War, and one of the best books of any nationality on the War.’

Schlachten Des Weltkrieges. In Einzeldars-Stellungen bearbeitet Und Herausgegeben Im Auftrage Des Reichsarchivs, Berlin, Stalling, 1921 onwards. ‘The care and skill with which they have been prepared are most praiseworthy.’

Undertones Of War, by Edmund Blunden, Cobden-Sanderson, 1928. ‘An almost perfect picture of the small events which made up the siege warfare of France and Flanders.’

Marching On Tanga, by Francis Brett-Young, Collins, 1917. ‘So much grave beauty of description and of sentiment it is hard to find in any other book descriptive of the War.’

The Whistlers’ Room, by Paul Alverdes, Secker, 1929. ‘The little story is half comedy, half tragedy, and in its fashion a masterpiece in miniature.’

Debits And Credits, by Rudyard Kipling, Macmillan, 1926. ‘Equal to the best their author achieved in the great old days.’

Her Privates We, by Private 19022 [Frederic Manning], Peter Davies, 1930. ‘Here indeed are the authentic British infantrymen.’

The men and women who served in uniform, 1914 – 1918, were better placed to judge the authentic voices of the Great War than their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They recognised the rarity of the superlative in any form of activity and tended to judge writing about the Great War according to the seriousness of what was at stake. Falls was probably typical of his class and type. He deprecated the exhibitionist and valued originality, sincerity and authenticity. He also foresaw the further rapid publication of Great War books, which is why every section of his book is provided with blank pages allowing the serious reader to add new titles as they appeared. Surveying the field of Great War books today, and despite the oceans of ink spilled on the printing them since 1931, it is questionable whether the ghost of Cyril Falls, should it appear in a bookshop near you, would feel obliged to reconsider too many of his literary judgements nor find an excess of new works worthy of his highly old-fashioned and discriminatory three-star accolades.

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Copyright in this work is held by the Great War Bookshop, 2014.