You know I read a lot about both the world wars. And I watch all those shows on the History Channel, Discovery, the Learning Channel, PBS, all that good stuff. In particular, I’ve been reading a lot about World War I. Between that and The Fog of War, I’ve been thinking about war a lot lately. So I thought I’d tell you about what I’ve been thinking.
In many English town squares you can find a beautiful memorial to the men of that town who died in the Great War, which is what they called World War I when there only was one world war. It always is a moving sight.
Often somewhere on that memorial will be another plaque added thirty years later to commemorate those who died fighting Hitler.
Imagine a war so bad, the dead of WWII would be a footnote.
Well, you and I both know that’s not true. The more I learn about WWII, the more I marvel at the guts it took for the Brits to stand alone against Hitler until we got into the fight.
But I’ve always wondered what made it so bad. The First World War.
You Started It! No, You Started It!
It always strikes me how nobody can ever really explain what that war was about. It’s almost comical. Imagine a war so messy, they can’t even tell you why it started.
Those nebulous reasons break into a couple categories:
1. The assassination of the Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.
2. Entangling alliances.
3. German militarism.
My only mental association with item #1 is the movie “Mayerling.” I think I saw this movie when I was quite young. I can only remember something sad, tragic, royal, ancient, and romantic.
Someone once told me the biggest lesson of the first world war was that it’s bad to have too many entangling alliances. Probably my grandfather. His parents came from Germany not all that long before the war.
This is pretty much what I’ve decided about this. The reason for the war was that they wanted to. They all just collectively and separately decided they wanted a war. Austria didn’t have to declare war on Serbia. Nobody held a gun at the Tsar’s head and made him declare war against Austria, and the same is true of the Kaiser.
The Germans wanted a war with France, and set about finding a way to make it happen by whatever means was necessary. That’s why.
Now you’re going to ask me why Germany wanted a war with France. I could tell you about how Kaiser Bill had a new navy he wanted to try out. How he felt like the “poor relation” in the family of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, how he had a withered arm and tended to overcompensate for his shortcomings with a military obsession. How the Germans wiped up the floor with the French during the Franco-Prussian War 20 years earlier and they wanted more. And all of that might be true but I’m not gonna stand by it. So you make your own choice about that.
Hell on Earth
Somewhere in my life, I absorbed certain images that added up to leave me with an impression of that war as a kind of hell on earth.
In the Classics Illustrated comic-book version of The Time Machine, the Rod Taylor character learns from the spinning discs of the terrible war that led mankind into utter destruction. I’ve retained an image of a flashback frame showing a WWI-era gas mask.
And in the movie version of that story, the sirens signalling the Eloi to walk off to their death were the same sirens used in England for air raids in WWII. My mother must have told me this, otherwise I have no idea how I’d have known that. So to me the sound of those sirens was associated with the image of horrid Morlocks leering at me in the dark, not bombers in the skies.
I learned only a couple years ago, thanks to the movie “Gods & Monsters,” that the man responsible for the vision of desolation we see in the first two Frankenstein movies was only recreating what he’d seen in France during the war. Something in me recognized that as soon as I heard it. I’d always known that the cracked, broken, torn earth of that movie was hell on earth.
The Deepest Horrors
The deepest horrors of that war are not the stuff they tell you about, like poison gas or drowning in mud. The deepest horrors of that war was this:
1. Death on a massive scale. That mankind is capable of and would with a will devise such an efficient killing machine, a mechanism to kill soldiers, millions of them.
2. Dying in horrible ways. But it wasn’t just death. It was the dying that made it worse. The dying would be a psychological torture and physical torment unlike anything we’d concocted before or since.
It might be worthwhile to consider all the ways men died or were wounded:
- Bullets or shrapnel, from a rifle, a machine gun, or a shell
- Skewered by a bayonet (very few deaths from this, actually)
- Being blown to bits or having parts of you blown off by a shell (by far most common)
- Burned with flame throwers
- Poison gas. You could die, you could be blinded. Or it choked you to death. It could kill you in a few agonizing moments or in the case of phosgene, it could take 48 hours to kill you. Mustard gas blistered you to death, inside and out. Dying from mustard gas was slow and excruciating. It could take up to 3 days to die. They had to be strapped down. Very few died of this after 1915, once they figured out a good gas mask.
- Buried alive in earth or mud in a shell explosion. Pretty common.
- Drowning in mud.
- Drown in water.
- Trench fever, which was from a germ carried by the ever-present lice.
- Trench foot, which was from standing in water for days on end. Your feet begin to rot. There were actually a handful who died of it
- Gangrene in a wound. A wound would begin to go septic in six hours without treatment.
- Something called gas gangrene. The earth of that area was so rich in fertilizers, when a bullet of a shell fragment tore through your uniform as it hit you, it brought bad germs from the cow manure and stuff into the wounds, which would cause a horrid infection. This was very common.
For days, weeks, months on end, waiting for death or a wound (which was the only way out), for the day their number was up, praying that when it did come, it would come quickly. Hoping there would be enough of you left to ship home and bury. This is what you have to endure, beyond the exhausting marches, the rotten food, the water that tastes like petrol, and the horrible extremes of weather:
- You are put in this narrow grave-like hole, great gashes in the earth. We poured millions of lives into this grave and left them in that hell, and ordered them to stay. They were trapped, unable to move. Surrounded by mud, buried by mud, never seeing anything except a strip of sky above you.
- You are required to squat on heaped corpses and to shovel through disintegrating bodies. You’d see your friend literally blown to bits and find your pal’s body parts sticking to your clothing.
- You live side-by-side with thousands of rats, rats big as cats gorging themselves on the rotting corpses all around. They’re waiting for you to be next.
- Being subjected to unendurable noise for days and days without pause.
- Being given a challenge that you have no hope of winning. Success is not possible. Failure is a certainty. You have to do it anyway, not once or twice, or even enough times to count. You stopped counting.
- Your manhood is questioned if you show any reluctance. Consequences can be severe.
- With no faith in the higher-ups. Knowing the people making decisions don’t give a fuck about you, but worse – are capable of making devastatingly stupid decisions that not only will get you killed, but will also make all your efforts futile, so you know your life will be lost for nothing.
- And so in spite of all that, you have to keep going so that the others will keep going. You owe it to them. If you don’t go ahead, you let them down, and they are the only ones you can believe in.
So Many New Way to Kill So Many
In The Great War, we were introduced to lots of new technology:
- Machine guns
- Barbed wire
- Flame throwers
- The whole war in the air: zeppelins, observation balloons for tracking enemy positions, airplanes for the same, dogfights…
- Poison gas (chlorine, phosgene, mustard gas)
Now On The Menu: Mass Murder From The Air
What a conceptual barrier that was! Imagine the thrill of being freed from a ground war? But airplanes were still newfangled in WWI. We hadn’t quite figured out the best way to use them, and so used them for aerial recognizance mainly (apart from the odd dog fight). That had changed, of course, by the time WWII came around.
All Their Assumptions Were Wrong, Nothing Worked The Way They Planned, and Nobody Had A Backup Plan
The war did have small successes here and there, some spectacular, but most of the time, it was a case of wearing each other down, not wins and losses. This is called A War of Attrition. We don’t like those.
Why did this happen? It was like a jinx. Nothing ever worked the way it was supposed to. You could pretty much figure that if they told you this shell was going to hit that target at this distance, it would not. Or that if the bombardment before the attack would wipe out their machine guns, um, nope.
They’d plan a big offensive and it would bounce off the Germans like bullets off Superman’s chest. They’d wheel out their new secret weapon -- and it would break down.
It was more than bad luck though. In one incident after another, the people making decisions fucked up. They made decisions with wrong information or they forgot to account for obvious factors. Either their subordinates were incompetent in not giving them the information they needed to make a good decision, or the decision-makers deliberately decided to turn a blind eye to certain things.
It was like this for four years. Nothing they tried worked, everything they tried failed. They weren’t little failures either – they were big ones, over and over.
I was flabbergasted at how stupid they were.
How Stupid Were They?
You can break most of the stupidity down into a few major categories:
- You don’t thrust people out in an advance to attempt to break through enemy lines if you don’t have the reserve troops behind them to back them up, to exploit the breach. Time after time after time, efforts to bust through a line would fizzle out cuz they couldn’t be sustained.
- Lack of ammo. It took a while for the war machine to crank out enough shells and they really didn’t want everybody knowing it. It took a year to rev up the War Machine, and the war required way more shells than they ever dreamed, waaaaaay-haaay more, and then twice that, and then more after that. They had no fucking clue how much artillery would be needed to win this war. It was a huge issue.
- In order to move more shells to the front faster, they suspended their Quality Control measures. A lot of the shells meant to take out the German positions before the offensive at the Somme were duds, which helps account for the severity of the slaughter that first day and in the days that followed.
- This is a huge issue. They were unable to fine-tune the aim on their artillery well enough to hit targets accurately. They were all the time killing their own guys. Where they were meant to go in ahead of an attack and soften up the enemy before sending in the infantry, they’d miss badly enough that the soldiers would charge into No Man’s Land only to be cut to pieces instantly by machine guns. Essentially making the preliminary shelling pointless. They shelled nonstop for a week before the Somme and even with the ones that weren’t duds it was pretty much useless in a lot of places.
- Crappy communication. There was no real wireless communication, so everything had to rely on phone lines. The phone lines were often the first thing to go, so after that it was runners or maybe pigeons.
- Inability to go to Plan B in a timely fashion, which could just be an extension of #5, but why did it take them months to call off offensives that were simply slaughter, day after day, week after week? You gotta have a Plan B and you gotta have a clear idea of what conditions call for a mass movement to Plan B, and then you gotta make it doable.
And the Biggest Questions: When Do We Stop?
Nobody expected the war to stalemate so quickly and so finally, but it did. As the months stretched on, it became apparent that there was no quick decisive victory and that both opponents were about evenly matched. It could go on forever.
That was the soldier’s nightmare. There was no way out. The war would go on and on, until he himself was dead or wounded – and the wounds during this war were pretty horrible. Those options were not good.
Go look at the map, see the line of where the war started in August 1914, where it was by Christmas 1914, and where it was four years later. They fought for, died for, lost, retook and lost again the same land over and over. The earth was saturated with corpses, relentlessly.
We can run some numbers:
Let’s take a look at some individual battles during WWI. Different sources cite different numbers, so I’m going to put down an assortment of what I found.
The big problem with pinning down numbers on these battles is the fact that a lot of these battles tended to linger on for months. The initial offensive might last for 2 months, but the whole operation doesn’t shut down for another 2 months after that. When do you stop counting?
Just for reference, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, total deaths worldwide are listed variously as 13-30 million.
The reason you see so many listed as missing is cuz very often if you died, there wasn’t enough of you left to prove it. You were blown to bits or you lay out in No Man’s Land until you rotted. Huge numbers were lost this way.
After the war, so many families in Britain had lost a son, husband or father, but had no grave to visit, nothing to memorialize their loss. This is why they set up the first Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, so that these families would have a grave to visit and a place to grieve.
Institutionalized Ritual Infanticide on a Global Scale
Reading Robert Graves’ biography “Good Bye To All That,” I was struck by the way the tone of his voice changed once he arrived in France. He talks about that experience with a coldness, a detachment that I can only assume was necessary in order to not go mad. He said the first thing he saw upon arriving and the last thing he saw before leaving were suicides.
He was there when the British used poison gas for the first time and found out the hard way about how you better make sure you know about wind direction before you go messing with this shit.
The thing that blew my mind about that book was that after the war, all his friends were dead. Everybody he knew, people he hung out with, they were all dead, except for a very small handful of survivors. Throughout the book, he’ll introduce you to a friend or relative or school chum and tell you where he died on the Western Front, one after another after another.
And the ones who came back felt like they carried the mark of Cain on them. Their survivor’s guilt was the fuel that set the Roaring 20s on fire.
It was then that we knew without question that the old ideas of how the world was run were now and forever broken. We learned that the leaders, without question, the people in charge, the people who were supposed to know better, the educated people in whom we place our trust – would stand by and let millions die, would set events in motion that they did not know how to stop, and would lie, misrepresent, and manipulate all to obtain their ends -- and would profit by these actions.
An implicit understanding that had lasted for centuries was destroyed, the trust irrevocably broken. Boiled down to its essence, the understanding was this:
- The higher ranks, the officers, were made up exclusively of the educated upper-classes. These men were bred for leadership, ready and able to take responsibility, make decisions, and command others.
- The “other ranks” were made up entirely of the common laborers, the uneducated workers who were capable only of following orders.
It was as simple as that, a throwback or outgrowth of Europe’s feudal past. The local warlord or chieftain or duke or king lived high on the hog in exchange for extending his protective arm over the little people who farmed his land. He was like a parent and they like children. As the centuries rolled on, the labels changed, but the understanding behind it remained.
In this war, an officer on average lived about four months. Three out of four junior officers did not survive. So when the British population had run out of educated upper-class males, they went to the public schools, shaking young ones out of trees -- and when they were gone, they had no choice but to promote the most promising underlings -- the ones with the rough accent, the ones who didn’t know the Secret Handshake.
Now in positions of responsibility, these uneducated, rough fellows with the wrong accent rubbed shoulders with men far above their own class. The experience was a revelation to both of them.
What they discovered was that the “understanding” was a myth. The leaders were not infallible. Those leaders were dead wrong about some pretty big things. A lot.
No, it was worse than that. Not only were they wrong, those leaders might just be mad, the whole lot of them. They’re mad and we’re at their mercy. They meant to keep pouring lives into that wound in the earth until they ran out of bodies. That was the real truth.
But the most revolutionary truth to emerge from this catastrophe, was this: Those common laborers, the unschooled, the sheep only fit to follow orders -- many of them were just as capable of leadership as an officer, far beyond anything hitherto imagined. There was nothing magic in the breeding of an old Etonian that wasn’t transferable to a Cockney cab driver. With proper education and support, the baker’s son could command men and make decisions as effectively as a duke’s son.
To our modern ears, this concept may seem anticlimactic. We Americans are quite blind to the nuances of class distinctions in England. But I’ve come to appreciate that this was utterly revolutionary and in many ways undermined the very foundation of British life. It was not unlike the American Southerners who truly believed deep in their hearts that people with dark skin were basically mentally retarded, unable to learn, simple-minded, almost animalistic.
When people say the first world war destroyed the class structure in Britain, we say this as if it was of little consequence when in fact, it underlay nearly every presumption in English daily life.
An Ugly Little War At Home Too
This was the first war to use propaganda to fire up support for an unpopular war. When war “broke out” (as if it were a forest fire when lightning strikes), most ordinary people hadn’t a clue about why they were supposed to care. So outright lies were told, such as the Belgium women raped on the steps of churches or Belgian babies skewered on Prussian bayonets. In fact these stories originated with the *real* atrocities committed by the Belgians in Africa.
People at home were bullied into fighting or humiliated by being handed a white feather. My son is fighting, why isn’t yours?
Posters everywhere urged women to pitch in: to work in the munitions factories or to take over jobs to free up the men. Everyone was expected to take some *visible* part in supporting the war. If you didn’t, it was more than just raised eyebrows. You might even be suspected of being a collaborator or an informer.
Class divisions at home were elbowed around as well. For the first time, an upper middle class woman might take orders from an erstwhile charwoman while handing out hot coffee to officers arriving home on leave.
This was the first war to recognize conscientious objectors. But don’t think it was civilized. Many COs were victimized, their homes vandalized, some imprisoned.
Bigotry isn’t just about skin color, and nationalism always walks a thin line with racism. Many German people (or simply people with German names or of German extraction) living in England were attacked, their businesses vandalized, or were driven out of neighborhoods.
And then there were the profiteers. We hear this word bandied about nowadays too. A lot of people made their fortunes exploiting the opportunities this war offered. The common soldier AND the officers feared that too many powerful men were making too much money on this war to end it. It’s not unlike people who believe today a cure for cancer will never be found because such a thriving industry has been built up around cancer treatment.
It’s the loss of faith. Knowing the people in charge are not infallible, that they are wrong and unwilling to face it or admit it, that they are capable to setting something into motion that they don’t know how to stop – and they will manipulate and deceive in order to keep feeling the monster. .
That is our worst fear about war.
How Did It Finally Come To An End?
Did we suddenly regain our senses to realize all was lost? No, nothing that dramatic.
- The Germans really were wearing themselves down. Even after Russia pulled out, a lot of German troops were jumping ship as they were being sent back to fight in France. They’d been blockaded and people were starving at home.
- The US entered the war and was able to actually start taking part right at the same time the Germans had shot their wad with the Ludendorff offensive in early 1918.
- The Allies were finally able to aim accurately enough to make their advances effective, at the same time that the German army was weakening.
- The Allied war machine had revved up to full speed. We were cranking out shells at a huge rate.
I remember an anti-war slogan of the 1970s: What if they called a war and nobody showed up? The Great War was like the reverse: What if they called a war and everybody died?