Although the Great War of 1914-1918 is skewed in most people’s memory, it did nonetheless bring many large scale changes that shook the foundations of our planet. There was the use of chemical weapons in the Western Front, with exploding canisters giving rise to shouts of ‘Gas!’ by the soldiers. An entire generation were mercilessly sent to the slaughter, with old world tactics of ‘proper attacks’ by unwitting generals confronted by the new order of fortified artillery and machine gun fire. Some soldiers signed up thinking of it in a sense of an adventure and what they found instead was disillusionment. The picture of a world with a jackboot forever on your face or a court-martial if abscond was popularized in this era. Then there’s also the gripping thought of the survivors of this war becoming the trainers of posterity in an even greater war by the mid of that century – giving a whole new meaning to the notion of ‘fathers and sons.’
The Hapsburg, the Ottoman and the Romanov empires were on the verge of collapse. The British empire knew that its hold on the world was dwindling rapidly. And America as the next superpower, although still a few decades away, was in the making. One also ought not to forget the great art the war had inspired – the poems of Wilfred Owen, the overwhelming numbers of great memoirs and novels, and a few films as well (the most recent I’d seen was Sargent York – absolutely riveting to say the least.) So without further ado, here are the two books I’ll be revisiting today.
The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan
There have been a slew of new historical accounts on the war in recent years, and I’d like to pick this one as amongst the most intelligible with a concise writing. Margaret MacMillan does an excellent job on looking back at the various causes of the war, giving us a balanced approach on the ‘whose fault was it’ question, casting new eyes on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and revising notions such as honour, militarism, the ‘futility’ aspect, and a short discourse on the effect of the war on empire and imperialism in general. Although the eastern theatre of the war hadn’t received much attention here, there are a few incidents overviewed as well – such as the war’s relation to the bolshevik revolution in Russia. All this is weaved in without losing the sense of historical importance and the literary and poetical aspects as well. I love how the book begins with a quote from one of my favorite books – Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague):
There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise.
Although the rats may have gone underground for many decades now, one must from time to time be on guard as they may yet rise and cull the living city.
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
Ah, well, this is one of the classics here – incredibly intriguing content, fantastically good writing, abnormally curious in its explorations. I’ll just leave you with this excerpt, and I urge you to buy and read this book: it might completely change the way you think about the war (and war in general.) Taking an excerpt from Heller’s Catch-22 as an embodiment of the book, the scene involves Yossarian heading to the tail of a plane to help the wounded gunner, ‘Snowden.’ Although Snowden’s initial cries of “I’m cold, I’m cold,” is taken literally, everything soon is proven to be not under control:
“i’m cold,” Snowden moaned. “I’m cold.”
“You’re going to be all right, kid,” Yossarian assured him, patting his arm comfortingly. “Everything’s under control.”
Snowden shook his head feebly. I’m cold,” he repeated, with eyes as dull and blind as stone. “i’m cold.”
“There, there,” said Yosarian….”There, there….”
And soon everything proves to be not under control at all:
Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest movement of his chin, down toward his armpit…Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.
Yossarian “wondered how in the world to begin to save him.”
“I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered. “I’m cold.”
“There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. “There, there.”
And the scene ends with Yossarian covering the still whimpering Snowden with the nearest thing he can find to a shroud:
“I’m cold,” Snowden said. “I’m cold.”
“There, there,” said Yossarian. “There, there.” He pulled the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.
After which, the summation by Fussell himself is a great synopsis for the contents of the book:
This “primal scene” works because it is undeniably horrible, but its irony, its dynamics of hope abridged, is what makes it haunt the memory. It embodies the contemporary equivalent of the experience offered by the first day on the Somme, and like that archetypal original, it can stand as a virtual allegory of political and social cognition in our time. I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.
Indeed, application of mind and memory to the War does play a great part in modern remembrance. Who hasn’t gone to a World War 1 cemetery thinking that each gravestone stood for an individual soldier, when in truth, there were many others unidentified buried along as well? To rethink these things is to flip the architecture of your brain horizontally (or vertically.)
If you readers have any recommendations of your own, I’m all ears.