World War One: The Great War


-          an entry in the Larousse Dictionary (1875)


Humanity is perfectible and it moves incessantly from the less good to the better, from ignorance to science, from barbarism to civilization…. The idea that humanity becomes day by day better and happier is particularly dear to our own century. Faith in the law of progress is the true faith of our century.

-          from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (1888)

Disintegration characterizes this time, and thus uncertainty: nothing stands firmly on its feet or on a hard faith in itself; one lives for tomorrow as the day after tomorrow is dubious. Everything on our way is slippery and dangerous, and the ice that supports us has become thin: all of us feel the warm uncanny breath of the thawing wind; where we will walk, soon no one will be able to walk.

The zeitgeist of the Western World shifted perceptibly during the period from the late nineteenth century to the 1930’s. Throughout the second semester we have been studying literature that questions the liberal ideals we inherited from the Enlightenment which had become accepted throughout Europe after the French Revolution: reason, democracy, capitalism, progress and the centrality of the individual to society. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we watched in horror as liberal ideals were perverted by colonialism and racism into justifications for exploitation and mass murder.

World War One was a watershed event in European history. It inaugurated over three decades of armed struggle which wiped out a generation of young men, killed millions of civilian non-combatants, re-arranged the map of the world, opened challenges to liberal government from both the political left and right, and permanently altered our understanding of human nature. Conrad’s perception that savagery lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilization was fulfilled in the horror of total war.

Centuries before, the scientific revolution had given birth to a dream of social harmony. Instead, that dream of order brought civilization to the brink of self-destruction. Advanced technology created the great capitalist powers that emerged from the industrial revolution. Patriotic nationalist movements inspired these powers to carry contests for markets to every corner of the developing world. In Europe the industrialists began an arms race that needed only a spark to erupt into open conflict. The weapons they invented were utterly new to warfare: the machine gun, barbed wire, poison gas, the submarine, the airplane. Instead of offering opportunities for a young Achilles to find honor in battle, the new technology led to the butchery of millions.

World War I began the great test of liberalism, and upon its survival hinged the fate of Western civilization. We nearly entered a new age of barbarism. And since the bleak years of total war, modern liberal society has struggled to learn from its mistakes and so safeguard its citizens from ever again having to undergo such a catastrophe.

The Grand Illusion

In this unit we will examine how this shift in the zeitgeist of Western Civilization is reflected in the poetry of war. We will read the poems of writers who actually fought and died in the Great War. At first, these writers extolled the patriotic mission and urged young men to join up for the great adventure. They sold the idea of war to the young men as a glorious measure of character, a test of courage, duty, honor, and loyalty associated with country and class. Fighting for country and if necessary sacrificing one’s life was the ultimate act of patriotic self-assertion, of manhood. War forges heroism in the crucible of action. That was the sale’s pitch, and millions of young men bought it.

The Reality of Total War

The War forced us to question not only these notions of heroism but also our own understanding of the nature of character itself. To crack under pressure in combat was cowardly. To retreat was the ultimate cowardice. A young man proved his good character by maintaining jaunty good humor, polite manners, and team spirit even while facing the terrible realities of a new form of warfare: the tense stalemate of trench warfare with its sleepless nights, bad food, vermin and mud, its smell of open latrines and rotting flesh. Eventually, in this new type of war, you slowly came to the realization that your own death was inevitable no matter how heroic your character. The landscape of the front line was truly surreal: weird sounds and intolerable boredom were suddenly shattered by screaming shells. It is not surprising that people went mad.

The poems we will read trace the transformation of the soldiers' attitudes about war. In so doing we will watch these brave, doomed men grope for a new vision of human nature. The heroic individualism of the Romantic age and the comforting stability of the Enlightenment’s faith in reason will be shattered. In its place the writers will subject all the time honored notions of beauty that we inherited from Greece and the Renaissance to rigorous skepticism. Balance, the composition of parts to whole, idealized physical forms, universal moral truth, the beauty of language, these ideals no longer conformed to the truth. The soldier had to discover new principles that would give his sacrifice meaning and new language in which to express them. The soldiers found such meaning in each other, in personal loyalty to their fellow soldier and in a tough, unflinching vision of the truth about war.