As we are in the centennial years of World War I, coming up to the culmination of the process in November, we would be wise to realize that so many of our modern issues stem from that conflict. But even more than geopolitics, it brought about a profound cultural, literary, and intellectual change in the Western world that we still deal with on a daily basis.
The Great War was the end of the Old World of kings, plumed cavalry, and the Victorian era. Actually, in Britain, even the Edwardian era had already passed into the reign of George V. It broke a general peace that had lasted since the defeat of Bonaparte and the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In 1919, at Versailles, where the victors imposed a harsh and shortsighted peace on Germany, two major heads of state, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Czar Nicholas II, respectively uncle and nephew to each other, were gone from their perches. Wilhelm had abdicated. Nicholas and his family were shot in a cellar by Bolsheviks after the other nephew, King George V, refused him sanctuary in Britain. The mood at Versailles and the draconian sanctions laid upon Germany motivated Marshal Foch, the French and Allied Army chief, to remark, “This isn’t a peace. This is a twenty year cease-fire.” He was right, down to the exact year.
One could even make a case that the wrong side won, as this was not a war like WWII with clearly defined good guys and bad guys like a Hollywood film. It wasn’t morally black and white like a simple screenplay. It was a dark muddled feldgrau, like a modern poem. World War II was a war of movement. WWI was a brutal static war of fetid trenches. When it wasn’t, it was generally a debacle.
Regardless of that persnickety twit Woodrow Wilson’s line that this was a “war to make the world safe for democracy,” ideology and democracy had little to do with it. It was a brawl, pure and simple. It was about French revenge, Russian pomposity, German arrogance, British honor and, as usual then, American naiveté. All sides engaged in wildly exaggerated propaganda and claimed a heavenly “Gott Mit Uns” mandate for their war. All sides were wrong. God stayed out of this one.
And the reason the thing started in the first place? As the Kaiser opined when asked, “If only we knew.”
But he had a good idea of the reason, because he was behind some of it. After marching into Paris and establishing the German Empire in 1871, the whole of Europe with Germany in the lead had been cruising for a bruising while rearming at a fast pace. A lot of big belligerent kids on the block, and it makes sense that someone is going to want to kick ass. The French wanted revenge for stolen territory and the humiliation of the aforementioned Franco-Prussian War. The Brits didn’t want anyone to upset the balance of power negotiated in 1815. The Germans hid their geopolitical inferiority complex by racing for colonies and challenging the Royal Navy at sea. The Russians thought giving the Boche a good pranging would distract their populace from a domestic political cauldron. The Austro-Hungarians, Italians, and even the Japanese? The typical stuff of national avarice, confused loyalties, and unrealistic jingoism. The first two, the Austros and the Italians, didn’t come out of the brawl with a lot to show. The Austros lost their emperor and the Italian campaign really only served as a training ground for young officers like Erwin Rommel. The Japanese? By moving in on land all over the Pacific, they made out well, very well.
Technology had surpassed strategic wisdom by far on the battlefield and the machine guns that mowed down infantry like chaff gave scant tactical support for the concept of the French elan vital or British over-the-top courage. But over the top they still went. They did so because for centuries tales of knights, personal honor through combat, and boyish valor had permeated the spirits of the upper classes who by and large staffed the armies of all the powers. They wore different uniforms. But morally and culturally they spoke the same language. And after the mud and slaughter of the Somme, they shared the same disillusion.
Today we see headlines about Turkey and its place in the world, European integration, German leadership of Europe, whether Britain should look across the ocean or over the channel, and, of course, everyone wonders what the Americans will do. We saw the same in 1916. The Tommies and Doughboys read their papers and realized they were on the continent not for flag or democracy, but to keep the Hun in check. If only they had. For a blinded by gas highly decorated Bavarian infantry runner, who cried when he heard his nation had capitulated, had other plans.
It hadn’t started in this manner, as youth of all nations saw it as a bit of a summer lark. In the common refrain of all wars, home by Christmas. Sainbury’s ad notwithstanding, it didn’t work out that way. The British soldier poet Rupert Brooke, who died of sepsis in the Mediterranean relatively early on, as he left for campaign, wrote this in the gentle ethereal British literary style of the period:
“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home…”
It is my favorite poem of all time. But it was a poem about the beginning. At the end, Wilfred Owen, a British infantry officer who had survived the gas, the shells, and the muck of the trenches, wrote this:
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind…”
And with Brooke’s lyrical patriotism replaced by Owen’s hard realism, out went a light that had motivated Western man for thousands of years: the civilization-wide highly held concept of masculine honor.
Not that honor was not possible after that or today. But after the carnage of the Western front, ideals like pure gallantry, God and country, and Eton playing field chivalry seemed like a sucker’s bet to the men who had bled through it. Fairly or not, they saw little honor in the mud, and with that they reset cultural parameters and gave us the acceptance of the anti-hero.
After the war, writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Erich Maria Remarque remade the hero from a good-natured dutiful chap to Bogart’s Rick Blaine, a cynical once-idealist who believed in himself above all. Oh, he might be effective, even heroic in his own way, but he was no Boy Scout. One could easily argue that the current occupant of the Oval Office, who I strongly support, fits that mold. He is no chump and doesn’t adhere to a set ideology foisted upon him by grace or tradition. He doesn’t walk blindly into machine guns, and his gas mask has no leaks and is pulled on tightly, thank you very much.
So as we pass the days until November and rightly mourn our fallen, we would do well to mourn ourselves, and what we used to be. It was a different world in 1914. It glittered with the lights of a thousand chancellery balls and whispered with the innocence of lofty poetry. It clanked with bejeweled swords and the rustle of imperial medals on the chest of a then modern major general.
But not too long after, that world ended with the clanking of engines: the engines of the first tanks to cross the trenches.