|"Never Such Innocence Again"
from The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)
by Paul Fussell
Although many of its usages now seem archaic to the point of quaintness, the First World War (called the Great War or simply The War until the outbreak of the Second necessitated a name-change) remains the prototype of modern wars. For one thing, it killed and wounded a great many people, over 37 million of them, in fact, more than three times the population of the state of Pennsylvania. It was also the first to make significant use of machine guns, and by the tens of thousands, as well as to feature barbed wire, steel helmets, tanks and flamethrowers, poison gas and gas masks, and fighter planes and aerial bombardment (1,413 people were killed in Zeppelin raids over England), and it was the first war to use the telephone to convey reports from the front lines to the rear and orders from the rear to the front, making possible the very "modern" assumption— i.e., skeptical and adversarial— that the staff doesn't know what's going on. This war also established unevadable conscription as the national means for waging war with mass armies, thus providing civilians with a novel insight, formerly limited to the military, into the experience of socially sanctioned murder. The result was a literature of shock and outrage, a product of horror impinging on optimism and innocence.
"Never such innocence again," writes Philip Larkin. He is thinking of the rush to the British recruiting stations in August 1914. England had not been in a major war for a century, and people were unaware of the potential effects of industrialism on an activity conceived largely in terms of cavalry, chivalry, and "honor." Most British and French expected the war to be over by Christmas 1914, and the men in the training camps were anxious to do their bit with enthusiasm and "pep." The novelty of escaping offices and classrooms for tents in the field and a boyish life of athleticism and good fellowship was a heady experience, and as Rupert Brooke stressed in his famous sonnet "Peace," at the outset the war seemed to offer an invigorating flight from a tired, cynical society. "I adore war, wrote the young poet Julian Grenfell, "Its like a big picnic.... I've never been so well or happy." He went on to write about "joy of battle," but in 1915 he was killed at Ypres.
In her poem "Flower
of Youth" Katharine Tynan sought optimistic solace in the
idea that the war was making heaven a more wholesome and cheerful
place, populating it now with clean and laughing lads.
It had all begun in June 1914, when Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina, by a Serbian patriot fed up with Austrian domination of his country. Austria-Hungary used the occasion to pick a long-desired quarrel with Serbia and to issue an ultimatum that could only produce war. At this point the system of European alliances, negotiated over many decades, had to be honored: Russia came to the aid of Serbia, whereupon Germany jumped in on the side of Austria-Hungary. France then honored her treaty with Russia, Britain hers with France. By October 1914, Turkey had joined the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary (the "Central Powers"). By the end of the year the notorious trench system was emplaced in Belgium and France, running 400 miles from its northern anchor at the North Sea to its southern end at the Swiss border, while in the east, another front developed along the Russian border with Austria-Hungary. Italy came in on the side of the Allies in 1915, opening a front against Austria. And in April 1917, the United States, exasperated by German sinking of its ships, joined the Allies, although it took many months for an American army to be
assembled, supplied, trained, shipped to Europe, and
installed in the line. The Americans arrived so late in the war that
although they fought impressively and were generally credited with
supplying the needed weight to win the war, they suffered only about
one-tenth the casualties of the British, and more American soldiers
died from influenza than from gas and bullets and shells.
Ideally, there were three parallel lines of trenches facing the enemy, with the front-line trench fifty yards to a mile or so from its hostile counterpart across the way. Several yards behind the front-line trench was the support trench, and several yards behind that the reserve. These were "firing" trenches, connected by communication trenches running perpendicular. "Saps," shallower trenches, ran out into No Man's Land, giving access to forward observation and listening posts, as well as grenade ("bomb") throwing positions and machine gun nests. Coming up to the trenches from the rear, you might walk in a communication trench a mile or more long. It often began in a town and gradually deepened, and by the time it reached the reserve trench it would be eight feet deep. Into the sides of the trenches were dug "funk holes," where one or two men would crouch when shelling became particularly heavy. There were also deep dugouts, reached by crude stairways, used as officers' quarters and command posts. The floor of a well constructed trench was covered with wooden duckboards because the bottom of a trench was usually wet and the walls, always crumbling, had to be reinforced by sandbags, corrugated iron, or bundles of reeds. A trench was protected on the enemy side by copious entanglements of barbed wire, placed far enough out to prevent the enemy's crawling up to grenade-throwing range. The normal way of using the
trenches was for a unit to occupy the front trench for a week or so, then, replaced by fresh men from the rear, to move back to the support trench, and so, after another week, to the reserve. Then perhaps a few days in a battered town way back, and then the sequence all over again.
British optimism and complacency guaranteed that their trenches were especially miserable. As one soldier explained,
And lousy there is literal. The men's hair and clothing bred colonies of lice, which the delousing stations and baths behind the line, used when the troops were at rest, repressed only temporarily. The trenches also harbored millions of rats, which fed largely on the flesh of corpses. The stench of rotting meat was everywhere, and you could smell the front lines miles before you reached them. Remedies for this unpleasantness were offered by the British instructions for military hygiene, issued after the war had been in progress a while:
A day in a front-line trench, amid such phenomena as bodies sprayed with solution C, began about an hour before first light—say, 4:30. This was the moment for the invariable ritual of morning stand-to, when everyone stared across No Man's Land, weapon ready, and prepared to repel attack. After the dawn danger had passed, the men stood down and prepared breakfast in small groups, frying bacon and heating tea over small, preferably smokeless fires. In British trenches the daily rum ration of about two
tablespoonsful was then doled out to each man. Before attacking, when the troops would have to climb out of the trench on ladders and cross No Man's Land, larger doses would be vouchsafed. One medical officer deposed after the war was over, "Had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think we should have won the war."
During the day everyone stayed below the top of the trench and cleaned weapons or repaired those parts of the trench damaged by the night's artillery fire. But when nighttime came the real work began. Wiring parties went out in front to repair the wire and to install new entanglements. Digging parties went forward in saps to extend them. Carrying parties negotiated the communication trenches, bringing up rations and ammunition and mail. All this night work was likely to be illuminated suddenly by enemy flares, and it was often interrupted by machine-gun and artillery fire. The British trenches, where this murderous parody of the normal world of "work" was going on, were just seventy miles from London, and the absurd proximity of the wartime existence to real life was ironic and poignant, for one could breakfast in the trenches and be back in London for dinner in the evening, and not just dinner but dinner at a classy setting like one's club or the Cafe Royal. One officer, returned to the trenches after an evening spent at a London musical show with his wife, commented:
But now and then trench routine would be dramatically violated by an attempt at a large-scale advance. Most of these proved futile and disastrous, none more so than the battle of the Somme, which the British fought from July to November 1916. Planned meticulously for over six months, new railway lines were laid, masses of ammunition and supplies were laid in, a seven-to-one superiority in troops was assured, the German lines were deluged with a full week's artillery fire from over 1,500 guns—the Somme attack had every reason to succeed, At 7:30 on the morning of July 1, 1916, the attacking waves of eleven British divisions left their trenches and, filled with hope, began walking, their rifles at port arms, toward the German trenches. A minute later the machine-gun units of the six German divisions facing them carried their weapons upstairs from their deep dugouts and simply hosed down the attackers. One astonished German machine-gunner recalled, "We were very surprised to see them walking. We had never seen that before. . . . When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them." Of the 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded before the day was over. More than 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in No Man's Land stopped crying out. The failure of the attack seemed
to encapsulate all the bizarre anomalies and frustrations of the First World War. Trying to make sense of the events of July 1, 1916, Edmund Blunden concluded that the stalemate was hopeless, the war ridiculously static, triumphal breakthrough impossible. "By the end of the day," he wrote, "both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning."
This sense of despair verging on the absurd became the dominant tone of the writing that emerged from the First World War. Among the troops, hatred for the kept and censored press was widespread, fueling anger that their friends and families at home had little idea of the horrors being enacted in their name. In public rhetoric like sermons and editorials, terms like gallant, steed, and warrior were still to be heard. The war was being mediated through the language of a dead chivalry rather than that of the new industrialized murder. "Pluck" was now irrelevant: the artillery shell found you whether you were brave or cowardly, and no amount of courage or swank kept the machine-gun bullet from going through you.
Of all writers, it can be assumed that poets are especially sensitive to the adequacy of language to register honest experience, and it was the poets of the Great War who protested most effectively against human debasement and verbal fraud. Perceiving that the protest on behalf of sense and humanity was largely the work of poets, Hemingway has reasoned that "poets are not arrested as quickly as prose writers would be if they wrote critically." Indeed, among the untutored, who may have dimly remembered the reputations of such as Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, poets were regarded as dreamy, if not hopelessly effeminate or half-mad. When the young infantry officers Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon wanted to meet and talk about the poems they were writing, they did so secretly, since discussing such stuff was considered "a disgrace to the battalion." One reason Sassoon performed so bravely at the front, according to Arnold Bennett, was that he was "jealous for the military reputation of poets."
But to be effective as protest, poetry must be read, and by large numbers of people. The soldier poets of the First World War happened to write at a moment remarkably favorable to both the writing and reading of poetry. Both they and readers who were sophisticated assumed that major public awareness could find a lodging in lyric poetry. There was deep respect for literature in those days, and it was this respect that invited these young trench-horrified privates and junior officers like Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, and Sassoon to couch their views of the war not in journalism, polemic pamphlets, or works of exposition and argument, but in poems.
And it's notable that while others, like Eliot and Pound and Joyce,
were writing "experimentally," the poets of the First World
War tended to write in a traditional style. An example is the way
Wilfred Owen proceeds in his famous "Dulce et Decorum Est". What one
encounters in the poem— the soldier choking to death in a gas attack,
exhibited by Owen to shock some sentimental and ignorant stay-at-home
"friend"— is so compelling and "modern" (in the nasty way) that it's
easy to overlook the poem's nonmodern form. Owen writes it not in any
novel style as a correlative of the novel message but in quite standard
iambic-pentameter lines arranged in formal quatrains. Owen seems to
eschew bolder modernisms because he wants desperately to
communicate— not his technical cleverness but his point, and he knew he
had to reach that well-bred literary audience he wanted to shock into a
new understanding. These readers respected the appearance of order in
poetry, and to convey news of disorder and scandal, he had to remain
within a formal technique bespeaking traditional ideas of order.
Indeed, a large part of the ironic effect of First World War poems,
those dwelling on meaning-less slaughters, fatuous errors, and
appalling mess and hopelessness, results from their being conducted
with so high a regard for order. Collapsing so seldom into the hysteria
one might think appropriate, they remain conventional in means, and
their conventionality doubly emphasizes the awfuless of what they
convey. The British social habit of understatement was luckily
available to suggest the method. It's curious that the anxieties of the
trenches impelled the poets toward an apparently retrograde formalism,
while safely at home, far from the carnage, Edgar Lee Masters, Hilda
Doolittle, and Carl Sandburg were practicing writing poems without
rhyme or meter, William Carlos Williams was freeing himself from
inherited poetic forms, and Ezra Pound was finding rhyme largely
irrelevant to the task of the Cantos. Front-line
mess and trauma seem to invite a compensatory reliance on form as a
In July 1917, Siegfried Sassoon issued his famous public statement in which he declared his refusal to serve any longer in the brutal, purposeless shambles the war had become. A month earlier, T. S. Eliot had sent the Nation "a letter lately received from a young officer ... [who] entered the army directly from a Public School and began his service in the trenches before he was nineteen." The young officer, angry because no one at home seems sufficiently aware of the realities of the front, offers civilians
"But these are only words," says the young officer, "and probably convey only a fraction of their meaning to the hearers. They shudder, and it is forgotten."
When the war finally ended, Sassoon, watching the hysterical flag-waving crowds celebrating in London, said: "It is a loathsome ending to the loathsome tragedy of the last four years." Sensitive observers knew now that winning is losing, and that "victory" is now as archaic a myth as "valor," and both as hollow as "glory." When four years after the Armistice the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Vera Brittain, whose brother and fiance were both destroyed in France, couldn't even bring herself to read the text. As she says, "I was beginning already to suspect that my generation had been deceived, its young courage cynically exploited, its idealism betrayed, and I did not want to know the details of that betrayal." Sensing that the treaty simply invited a renewed war ("It is not peace," said Ferdinand Foch, "it is an armistice for twenty years"), Vera Brittain threw herself into pacifist agitation and saw her prophecies of nonsensical disaster fulfilled when the Second World War broke out in 1939.