Monday, September 13, 2010

The Great War, The War to End All Wars, The First World War, but especially The Ultimate Infantry War

Many scholars, including myself, spent many years carefully avoiding much of what had been written about the First World War. After all, what could you learn about a muddy bloodbath in which armies of lions were led by donkeys as line after line of infantry marched blindly into massed rows of machine guns?

Of course, in recent years we have discovered that there is actually a great deal to learn from study of the Great War as both revisionists and counter-revisionists conducted new research, old manuscripts and books were rediscovered, and a more thorough and professional study and analysis of the subject emerged. This re-assessment came with new attention to first hand material – the memoirs written by the actual combatants.

I have three such works on my shelf and recently read them as a part of a study of the changing life and evolving times of the modern (20th and 21st Century) infantryman. Two are the memoirs of British officers and the third is an English translation of a German officer’s memoirs. I strongly recommend always reading sources from both sides of any battle, campaign, war, or conflict as the best possible way to get a complete and well rounded understanding of the subject. While none of these fully reflects the experience of the enlisted soldier, as officers their authors are in a better position to tell us not only what happened but what was supposed to have happened.

Good-bye to All That, Robert Graves, © 1985 Robert Graves, Anchor Books Edition, 1998, New York, ISBN: 0-385-09330-6

A Passionate Prodigality, Guy Chapman, © 1966 Guy Chapman, Fawcett Publications, Greenwich,

The Storm of Steel, From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front, Ernst Jünger, 1996 printing, Howard Fertig, New York

Robert Graves served as a rather un-regular Army officer in a very regular army battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Guy Chapman was one of Kitchener’s New Army volunteers in a wartime battalion of The Royal Fusiliers. As a result, the two memoirs reflect the differing attitudes and atmosphere between these two British Army communities and their sometimes-strained relationship. Ernst Jünger served in the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers. The Hanoverians were a regular army regiment though not Prussians. The 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers, in fact, wore a “Gibraltar” battle ribbon on their coat sleeves commemorating their role as one of the defenders of that British outpost during the period of the American Revolution when both realms were under the rule of the House of Hanover. This gave them a peculiar relationship with their British foe and offered British Army personnel a surprise either on the battlefield or when encountering Hanoverian prisoners or captors.

Graves was a prolific novelist, poet, and translator, which is reflected in particular in this memoir by its treatment of his life both before and after the war and his many encounters with other British literary figures in and out of the Army. Chapman, who would go on to a writing career of his own as a historian and publisher, concentrates more on the war and his experiences in it. The former entered the war directly from school at about the age of 20 while the latter was in his mid-20s. Their initial experiences of army life were fairly similar as they completed officers’ training and then fulfilled various brief temporary duty billets before finally reporting to their respective regiments in France.

Both memoirs are replete with detailed accounts of battle and descriptions of life in the trenches, every bit as harrowing and at times monotonous as we might expect, as well as those often extended interludes behind the lines. Many of these anecdotes and episodes will not belie the traditional view of the war as one of bloody, mindless slaughter in the mud – but both officers also describe their efforts and the efforts of their superiors (at most levels) to try and find other, new ways of war that would protect the lives of the men under their charge (and their own for the front line officers as the deaths among the officer ranks are more frequently reported in detail).

Ernst Jünger, by contrast to our two British amateurs, was an accomplished soldier as well as subsequently successful author, earning Germany’s highest decoration – the Pour le merite – for his First World War service. He was a leader of the "storm trooper" assault formations that were critical to Germany's late war successes, though he does not go in to great detail on their training. He was also a recognized conservative and nationalist, though one who was never comfortable with or reconciled to the Nazis and their regime. Nevertheless, these war memoirs were very popular in both Weimar and Nazi Germany, with their air of youthful ardor and emphasis upon the manly martial virtues.

All three books capture the boredom of trench life and its punctuating moments of terror, as well as the frenzied ennui of life behind the trenches, usually soothed by alcohol. Jünger makes a particular emphasis upon the amount of drink consumed during these rear area respites from the horrors of war, but all three authors make it clear that Post-traumatic Stress was not an unknown reality during the First World War.