Reviewing Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929, Herbert Read quoted a passage from the novel indicating that the men who fought in World War I would be ‘rootless’ after the war compared to the generation that preceded them, and irrelevant to the next generation to come. Although a sense of loss is central to the story Read wants to tell, a phrase from Remarque reveals another condition that is not quite the same as being bereft of home or purpose. ‘We shall be superfluous even to ourselves,’ Remarque writes, ‘we shall grow older, a few will adapt themselves … most will be bewildered … and in the end we shall fall into ruin.’ This chapter examines the condition of being superfluous to oneself as it appears in rural English landscapes created in the wartime, interwar and, more briefly, early post-Second World War periods, a condition that landscape itself demonstrates on behalf of soldiers and civilians as a wartime legacy.
Not all of the works considered here were produced in wartime, as wartime can be a condition of body and mind that outlasts conflict, perhaps especially so in the aftermath of World War I. Freud, encountering the symptoms of World War I combatants, discovered that a surplus in the form of an affective charge arises in humans when we yield to a larger cause and when we fulfil an impulse beyond the point of need repeatedly in a way that does not necessarily bring pleasure. This surplus seems to confirm our survival, as though mere existence is not enough for us. But it can also threaten survival, making human life superfluous to a collective or individual drive to experience further satisfaction and meaning. This surplus is first created as the result of interaction with the worlds in which we find ourselves and for this reason is always partly alien to us, for while lands and their historical conditions give rise to humans, we typically wish not to be reduced to them.
Both actions, that of yielding to a cause and that of repeated acts of fighting, are involved in wartime. For English combatants, the fact that World War I was fought on foreign soil further complicated matters that were already complicated by the nature of the conflict.