Its ninety-two years since the end of World War One, and as I post this it is to the day that the guns fell silent across Europe as hostilities ceased between the Entente and the Central Powers. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War that had lasted from August 1914 through to November 1918 ceased. World War One is regarded as being the most atrocious conflict of the twentieth century and even though World War Two was much more global and devastating, the way the first conflict was carried out, in terms of strategy and the use of (the then) modern technology was pretty barbaric. We do not need to be reminded of offensives such as the Somme and their costly loss of life, it being the most bloodiest day the British Army has ever experienced, as well as the horrors of trench warfare, going ‘over the top’, mustard gas and massive artillery bombardments; all these things we picture when we think about World War One. For me, when I think about it, it was a black and white war as I recall seeing all those old monochrome photographs of mud, trenches, big shell craters, a ravaged countryside; scenes that are just dreary and dehumanising. Its only in recent times that old colour photographs of 1914-18 have been uncovered, which adds in some respects, a ray of light onto the conflict.
Because this war was so barbaric, a conflict that quite basically was a hangover from the old methods of waging war throughout the Nineteenth Century combined with modern firepower and industrialisation – old methods and new technology probably made this war what it became, it produced a wealth of poets, novels, memories and films in the literary and art world. The Great War poets, the most famous ones being Seigfried Sassoon and Wilfed Owen, expressed the horrors of the frontline in a lucid, poetical and emotional way. They were the famous ones, but there also were a lot more poets who also wrote about this conflict equally as good including civilians. Also, there are many novels, such as from the German author Erich Maria Remarque who wrote from the viewpoint of a German soldier in his novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, which contains a really strong anti-war message. Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ is another novel, semi-autobiographical as like Remarque’s book and both speak about the futility of it all, the mindlessness of those years. Even to this day their message is hard hitting and still as important as it was during the inter-war years. Films, such as Jean Renoirs ‘La Grande Illusion’, paint the conflict as almost gentlemanly – its deals with a group of French prisoners being held by the Germans in almost hotel like fashion who then escape. It is held as one of the best war films ever made and its message is anti-war. The modern authors that also have written about this conflict, such as Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’, quite easily a modern classic, is a really hard hitting, emotional book about the war. Pat Barkers ‘Regeneration’ trilogy of books deal with a semi-historical account of the poets Sassoon and Owen, and is a great series. These however are just the tip of the iceberg; there are so many many more books that deal with this conflict and its futility.
I was reading yesterday in The Independent about the women munitions workers who also lost their lives and who are not recognised as having died in the conflict by the Government and Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I guess this sparked me to write this blog, maybe also because I have read so much literature about it as well. It holds a different league than World War Two literature in lots of ways; maybe because it was so barbaric and just futile. Today, our conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan was greeted with much scepticism by our western populations and if we compare it to how World War One was greeted, with cheering on the streets, great celebrations, with a lot of the Social Democratic Labour organisations actually supporting it including those who professed a belief in pacifism – a great fanfare if you will, then there is a marked difference. I then started researching the casualty figures for Britain; close to three-quarters of a million military personnel were lost during the Great War compared to about four-hundred thousand for the Second World War, which was far more widespread and global (figures from wikipedia). This is coming from a UK population of around forty million people. That is a hefty amount in all consideration – it goes to show how bloody it was.
So we all have our two minutes silence on the eleventh of November, remembering those killed in two very bloody world-wide conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, both soldiers and civilians. We must also remember, not just those past wars, but also the modern day one in the middle east which is occurring today.