For some time now, on and off, I've been reading my way through Chesterton's Illustrated London News articles, thanks to the Ignatius Press's Collected Works . I've reached his World War One articles now, which are rarely anthologized and which are-- to be blunt-- rather dull and plodding, compared to most of his work. Sometimes they even border on the shrill, though Chesterton made a conscious effort to avoid jingoism. (He was not afraid to criticize England in his World War One articles; but when he did, it was usually for being too German.)
But what interests me is how seldom Chesterton's attitude to the Great War is discussed. Surely it's far more significant than the (perhaps) regrettable rhetoric he sometimes used when discussing the Jews, and which has provoked so much hand-wringing. It's entirely possible that Chesterton's articles prompted young men to go and die in the trenches. His record of opposition to the Boer War, as well as his general independence of mind, would have made him the most precious of propagandists.
Mind you, I'm not assuming that the First World War was an unjustifiable war. We've all taken that message in with our mother's milk, through Wilfred Owen poems in school, Shane MacGowan singing about Suvla Bay, and Blackadder Goes Forth. Considering what other messages are pounded into us by the liberal intellectual establishment, I can't help wondering, sometimes, if this is another Big Lie, one that has passed under the radar completely.
Then I think about the carnage of the Somme and the fact that historians are still scratching their heads over what it was all for, and it's hard not to believe that this is one that Chesterton got wrong. Horribly wrong.
Argument over World War One tend to be arguments of fact-- whether German atrocities were committed in Belgium, for instance. Reading Chesterton's essays, it's clear that he saw the War as much more of a moral crusade than a defence of Britain's national interests. What he hated was Prussianism; for him, the glorification of power, the worship of blood and iron, the glamorisation of the bully. As always, it was St. George against the dragon.
Doubtless most people today would say that was a romantic view, and such romantic ideas evaporate when faced with the appalling realities of mustard gas and astronomical casuality lists. But Chesterton died in 1936; by this time, the realities of the Great War must have been well-known, but even in the autobiography that he wrote in the last year of his life, Chesterton continued to support the Allied Cause.
Much of Chesterton's philosophy could be boiled down to the idea that the romantic is the realistic; for instance, when he defends English radicalism against Tory ideas, he tends to appeal to the romance of the smallholder against that of the aristocrat, rather than railing against the tawdry tinsel of coats of arms and coronets. He attacked the aesthetes, not because they loved beauty too much, but because they had no real humility before it. ("Their emotion never impressed me for an instant, for this reason, that it never occurred to them to pay for their pleasure in any sort of symbolic sacrifice...Men might go through fire to find a cowslip. Yet these lovers of beauty could not even keep sober for the blackbird"). When he attacked divorce he was not attacking wild passion, but the want of wild passion; the passion that makes a promise for life and keeps it. I can't remember a single instance in Chesterton's work where he condemns an idea as too romantic; except perhaps the Suffragette's notion that the average man's working life was one of "going forth to wield power, to carve his own way, to stamp his individuality on the world, to command and to be obeyed".
Even the horror of trench warfare-- and the death of his own beloved brother-- didn't seem to shake Chesterton's heroic ideals. It is a testament to Chesterton's conviction that they survived even the Great War; but it's always puzzled me that his championing of the Allied cause seems hardly to have dented his reputation.