Posts Tagged ‘The First World War’

Not a very intelligent species…

November 11, 2018

Ten million soldiers killed; millions more civilians still to die from Spanish flu, part of a population physically weakened by four and a half years of conflict. And were any lessons learned? It is hard to think so, for the ‘peace conference’ at Versailles set in motion the seeds of an action replay twenty years later, in which far more were to die, and further unspeakable horrors were to be perpetrated.

Having visited various areas of France where the Western war took place, I can understand why the French sought to exact reparations from a defeated Germany, an approach which was to contribute to resentment, economic collapse and the eventual rise of Hitler. Numerous peoples who had suffered under foreign yoke for years achieved independence, (including Poland, my father’s country), but as multi-racial countries which could not easily learn how to deal with their new-found freedoms; again this contributed to weak democracies collapsing into dictatorships and feeding the rise of fascism. I only have to look at what happened in Poland, where my father grew up in those inter-war years, to see the problems that had to be faced. And the ‘victorious’ powers, the British and the French, presumed to impose on the Middle East a ‘settlement’ the consequences of whose idiocies are still being visited on the entire world today. Finally, the United States emerged onto the world stage as a superpower, relatively stronger because of its much shorter participation in the conflict.

I watched a series of BBC documentaries this week, with testimonies from participants in the Great War, who spoke about the effects on themselves, families and friends. And I was shocked at the anger I felt: all these people endured all this suffering and death at the behest of their masters who themselves went through very little of it: had there been any need for the build-up to and outbreak of the war other than competitiveness between nations and futile ideas of national pride?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing… but in a world where ordinary people are asked to put their trust in politicians through a ballot-box, one ought to be able to expect intelligence from rulers, the ability to think through the consequences of their actions and decisions, otherwise what is the point? Having sown the seeds of 1939, those politicians then bowed to the common people who had no wish to see a repeat of the Great War, appeased fascism until it was too late, and we know what the end result was.

As I grow older I am torn between two competing views of humanity: collectively we are capable of astonishing achievements, and individual genius testifies to our capabilities, and yet we really do not seem to be a terribly intelligent species, for all that. We allow greed, violence and inequality to lord it over us, and allow ourselves to be diverted from reality by lies, bread and circuses… I have long been convinced that violence and war do not solve anything. I will acknowledge that the Second World War had to happen, but a truly intelligent species would never have allowed the causes of it to develop and flourish in the first place.

For me, today is a day for sober reflection, and respect for the memory of those who were killed.

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On the centenary

November 1, 2018

It’s coming up to a century since the Great War – ‘the war to end all wars’ – ended; I’ll be writing one or two specific posts about that closer to the time. But I’m very conscious of how my life has been shaped by war, and also that I spend rather more time than many people reading about war, thinking about it, and visiting places that have been at the heart of conflict. Some of you may have read some of my posts about visiting Verdun and the Somme battlefields.

Why do I think it’s so important to remember war, and its effects on us? I first visited the city of Gdansk – formerly Danzig, and where the Second World War began – in 1970 as a teenager. There were plenty of ruins left over from that war then; there are still some. I recall being intrigued by some graffiti painted somewhere on the waterfront, and asked my father to translate. “We have not forgotten. And we shall not forgive.’ I was shocked.

There is the truism that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it; we forget at our peril the horrors of the twentieth century, and the further away we get from those times, as we lose those generations who were actually alive through those events, the greater the dangers become, it seems to me: there are figures in public life whose comments are far too glib and cavalier. My mother remembers the Second World War as a primary school child, hiding under the kitchen table during air raids and knitting scarves for convoy sailors at school, but she is now 88; my father was taken prisoner by the Soviets in the first weeks of that war, and without his and his comrades sufferings and adventures on their perilous journey to freedom and England, I would not exist… his home village was burnt to the ground and the rest of his family taken off to be forced labourers by the Nazis. So I suppose I personally have plenty of grounds for my preoccupation with that war. And I have since discovered how close to the Eastern Front his home was during the Great War.

But the issue is broader. I’m also interested in human progress; I’ve read many utopias and know that there are many people who dream of a better world, and the disappearance of war from it would be a start. Yet, we never seem to be that far from war. Although, mercifully, mainland Britain has been spared during my lifetime – apart from acts of terrorism connected with wars elsewhere — there is warfare all around the world, and aided and abetted by Britain which makes so much money selling weapons to anyone who has the money to buy them… I’m truly sickened both by those who wring their hands about the terrible plight of refugees while ignorant of how we contribute to turning people into refugees, and by those who would turn them away on the grounds they are nothing to do with us.

From both political and religious conviction, I firmly believe that wars solve nothing, but make existing situations even worse. They serve the interests of the rich and the powerful, who generally do not suffer, and indeed often make tidy profits. I know some would say that mine is a simplistic attitude, but when I look at the interconnectedness of everywhere and everyone, I am ever more convinced that wars and armaments are an inevitable part of the capitalist system. I also find it sickening that there are many people who earn their daily bread from the manufacture and sale of the machinery of death.

The centenary of the end of the Great War ought to be a time for serious reflection on how the coming century might be made more peaceful; there is no place for jingoistic pride or for appropriating the deaths of millions as some kind of patriotic sacrifice – it was all an unspeakable waste of life and potential, as well as a prelude to even worse things.

 

Rupert Brooke: Peace

October 21, 2018

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

For me, Brooke typifies the gung-ho attitudes of so many at the outbreak of the Great War. It’s easy to be critical more than a century later, for hindsight is a wonderful thing; it takes an effort of the twenty-first century mind to imagine both the innocence and the patriotism of those distant days. So why the welcoming of the war? A country relatively speaking at peace for the best part of a century, apart from the Crimean War and various minor skirmishes in the Middle East, South Africa and India? Pride in what Great Britain had achieved with its Empire that painted a quarter of the globe red on world maps? Public school ethos? A pride in a homogeneous nation, in the days before refugees and mass migration? Possibly a combination of all of those things…

I don’t think I have been deliberately picking out poems which are Petrarchan sonnets in this recent series of posts on poetry of the Great War, but it is striking how many poets used this form, which is most often associated with love poetry.

I always found it useful in my teaching to approach a poem in three stages: what is the poet saying? how is the poet saying it? how successful is the poet in saying it? You can see a progression in terms of reader involvement there, gradually more demanding, moving from the simple ‘story’ if you like, to poetic technique and then personal response.

So: thanks to God for offering the youth of the nation something real to do, something that surpasses the trivial and everyday, the mundane. And the worst that can happen to you is to be killed… unlike in The Soldier, the d-word is used, and capitalised too, but here it’s still a distant and rather vague experience. For me, Brooke creates a similar feeling to Herbert Asquith in The Volunteer. We are still light-years away from the horrors of Dulce et Decorum Est.

The form is that of a love poem, which surely is significant, particularly as towards the end of the octave Brooke will mock love itself as inferior to the coming experience of war, which is more concrete, more masculine, perhaps. There is a sense of thrill in the first quatrain, perhaps like the realisation that one is in love, then a sense of something new and refreshing in the second, after a long period of tedium reflected in the long vowel sounds in old, cold, weary, dreary. I do find love described as a little emptiness rather disturbing, and the glibness – to me – of the entire sestet is shocking, revealing a total lack of awareness of the actual effect of modern weaponry and warfare.

Evaluating, I think Brooke is successful in saying what he wanted to say, but I am too far from his time and his attitudes to be able to get inside what he actually means, and if I were to choose a word to sum up his poem, I think unpleasant would fit the bill…

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…

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)
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