Posts Tagged ‘The First World War’

Other Voices of the Great War

April 29, 2018

You don’t need to look far on this blog to be aware of my interest in the First World War. I’ve read many of the great works of literature – poetry, prose and drama – that came out of those tragic years, and I’ve explored some of the sites of the conflict, on the western front at least.

What I’m gradually discovering are the other, smaller voices from those years, that have fallen into obscurity, but that are nevertheless interesting and powerful documents, often with an unexpected immediacy. It wasn’t just combatants from the warring nations who wrote, but civilians, nurses, volunteers: all sorts of people from all walks of life, and their voices are filling out for me the impression of its having been a world war in the sense of involving everyone.

Some of these texts are available in print, some exist online in archives such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, and others have been carefully recorded by the volunteers at Librivox, so it’s clearly not just me who is interested in, and has been moved by, these accounts.

The Martyrdom of Belgium (librivox) is quite a shocking document. Both sides produced a fair amount of ‘atrocity propaganda’ at various times, but this was the report of a commission set up to investigate and document various deeds committed by the Germans as they swept through neutral Belgium in the early days of the war, and it’s the names, places, streets, villages and towns, along with the precise numbers of murdered civilians that appalled me. Obviously the events described pale into insignificance compared with what came later, but there is clear evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians in a bid to terrorise the local population.

The American writer Edith Wharton‘s account of the early days of the war from Paris and her visits to the front lines is fascinating, replete with a sense of immediacy. I’ve written about it before, here.

Nurses were often horrified by what they saw and experienced; Vera Brittain‘s accounts are well-known, but the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front is just as powerful, as is Ward Muir‘s Observations of an Orderly (both on librivox).

While I was travelling recently, I listened to E W Hornung‘s Notes of A Camp Follower on the Western Front. He was a civilian volunteer with the YMCA, who attempted to provide comforts for the troops when they were sent behind the lines for rest and recuperation; he spent a lot of time making tea and cocoa, and putting together and running a small lending library for the troops, as well as watching, and having many conversations with men, many of whom he never saw again, because they did not survive. I was reminded of the vital role of people like him when I visited Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Accounts such as most of these I’ve mentioned are often effective because they do not benefit from the distance, the passage of time and the hindsight that other, more well-know accounts have: we are reading or listening to accounts where the final outcome is not known, where the writer and their initial readers did not know what was still to come: responses and judgements may have been rendered erroneous or inaccurate by today, but that does not matter: we have a real document from the time, which can still speak to us powerfully, across a whole century…

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My travels: Y is for Ypres

April 28, 2018

I’ve travelled around quite a few of the Somme battlefields over the past few years, familiarising myself with the places and landscapes I’ve read so much about, and which has formed the background to a lot of the novels, poetry and drama I taught over the years. The other major sector of the western front in the Great War, Flanders, I don’t know very much about at all, and so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days there on my return journey from walking in the Ardennes.

I’d read about Talbot House a number of times, and finally went there. There’s plenty of information about it online, but basically it was a large, upper middle-class Belgian house behind the lines in the small town of Poperinghe, that was taken over by a couple of Anglican chaplains and turned into a place of rest for troops who were enjoying a few days away from the front. There was entertainment, an endless supply of cups of tea, ways of contacting other comrades, a chapel, spiritual help and comfort, a garden… a small oasis of sanity a few miles outside hell.

I found the place strangely moving, especially the simple chapel right under the eaves of the house, and the large and beautiful garden, too; it gave me a different perspective on the war, made me reflect on things I hadn’t considered. And it offers B&B too, ideally situated for exploring the Flanders sector of the western front, which I haven’t done yet…

I also took myself into Ypres, to look around the splendid In Flanders Fields Museum, in the old (and completely rebuilt) Cloth Hall. I didn’t really learn anything new about the Great War, but the events seen from the Flanders perspective were most illuminating. I learnt a lot about German atrocities at the start of the war, and also how much use was made of flooding low-lying ground as a way of halting German progress. There was also an interesting walk around the old ramparts of the town, which led inevitably to the famous Menin Gate, on which the names of over 50,000 British troops whose bodies were never recovered, are engraved. It’s enormous, perhaps not as impressive as the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in terms of its setting, but sobering, nevertheless. And I found myself thinking yes, and if you wanted to commemorate the names of all the British men who were killed in that utterly pointless war, you’d need twenty of those gates…

As on the Somme, there are war cemeteries dotted all over the landscape. I decided that I would be returning for a few days to visit some of the smaller sites and museums that I’ve come across mention of in various memoirs I’ve read over the years.

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 11

March 15, 2018
IMG_0808
Massacre of the Infantry
The infantry – queen of the battlefield – was particularly tested during the 
1914-18 war. One infantryman in 4 was killed.

Proportionally, infantry losses were 
3 times greater than cavalry
4 times greater than artillery
6 times greater than the combined aviation, supply train teams 
and other front-line services

Finally, General Percin calculated that 75,000 Frenchmen were cut down by 
our own artillery (friendly fire)
(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
 

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 10

March 13, 2018

IMG_0807

The greatest victims:
4 limbs amputated 3
3 limbs amputated 12
2 arms amputated 96
2 legs amputated 1,289
one arm and one leg amputated 191
blinded and 3 limbs amputated 3
blinded and one limb amputated 121
blinded 3,528
paraplegics permanently confined to bed 100

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
 

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 8

March 7, 2018

IMG_0805

Losses by region

I’m afraid I have no way of knowing what regions the different numbers refer to; Paris & Lyon are named at the bottom of the list. I include the table for the sake of completeness; if anyone can enlighten me further, please do.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 7

March 6, 2018

IMG_0804

The war by the minute: during the war 

4 killed per minute
240 killed per hour
6400 killed per day
(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
 

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 5

March 3, 2018

IMG_0802

Some comparisons…

the Funeral March If the war dead were lined up in fours for a march-past, a battalion at the rate of one every seven and a half minutes, the funeral procession would take 81 days and 81 nights to pass by.

the Crazy Dance If the war dead held hands in a massive and macabre dance they would reach more than halfway round the world at the 50th parallel, which runs through France.

the Tragic Column If the bodies of the war dead were placed in coffins one on top of another on the site of the Arc de Triomphe, they would form a column 110 times the height of the Arc (5,500 metres), which is 700 metres higher than Mont Blanc.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 4

February 28, 2018

IMG_0801

Men (these are figures from all the nations involved in the war)
10 million dead
19 million wounded
10 million mutilated (I think this refers to amputees)
7 million prisoners
9 million orphans
5 million widows
10 million refugees
74 million mobilised

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Edith Wharton: Fighting France

September 29, 2017

51zB99-bd4L._AC_US218_Another very interesting Librivox find: despite having taught Great War literature for years, I do keep coming across interesting finds. I’ve never felt moved to read anything by Edith Wharton but downloaded this a while ago. Apparently it was a best-seller during the war years.

An American by birth, she was living in Paris when the war broke out, and describes the scenes in there at the time, as well as her own impressions and reactions. Her account covers roughly the first year of the war, and in 1915 she embarked on a tour of the Western Front from Dunkerque to Belfort, with some official help; aided by her connections, she was one of few foreigners allowed to travel like this. I have the impression that the French wanted the right kind of message to get back to the USA, and her narrative is also spiced with stories of German atrocities. She got to visit Verdun, and various other places now part of the history books including Ypres and Dunkerque; she got taken to front-line trenches, watched bombardments, and did seem to have been in one or two slightly hairy situations, saw parts of Lorraine which had been re-captured from the Germans, dined and conversed with French troops and officers… All very different from the ways in which reporters and journalists are handled in war situations today!

It’s a relatively short book, only six chapters, the last of which sums up her impressions of France, the French, and their efforts thus far. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing: clearly the dreadful grind of the later years was still to come, when such journeys could not have been undertaken, and there is also a certain freshness and innocence in accounts written while the war had not reached its end. On the other hand, there is no indication of the horrendous French casualties in the early months of the war when they threw everyone they had at the Germans in a desperate attempt to halt their advance. A very interesting read, or rather, listen.

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

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