Young, fit and doomed: the lost generation of the first World War
War writing is often jingoistic, featuring our heroes and their villains, but this collection of fiction avoids glorifying war as a noble calling
Lost to war: part of Gassed, painted in 1919 by John Singer Sargent. Photograph: Imperial War Museum via Getty
No man’s land. Writings from a world at war
War writing is like no other genre. It is bloodier than adventure literature and noisier than espionage literature. There is no space for the cloud of doubt of the whodunnit or for the calm of the writer who knows the answer but won’t let us in on the secret. War writing has relatively little space for women or children, and it almost always skirts gently around the issue of the nature of the love men in uniform have for each other.
Many others had written about war before 1914, but thereafter a new kind of writing emerged. The Great War turned war literature red; gone were the days of individual heroism and derring-do. Gunga Din dying on the roof of the barracks warning the sahibs that they were about to be attacked became a thing of the past. Instead a river of what Edmund Wilson termed “patriotic gore” burst through the banks of both wartime and peacetime publishing, creating a completely imaginary war suitable for those who wanted the real world to disappear completely.
To tell of the revolution in warfare that took place between 1914 and 1918 required a different kind of prose, remote from both tales of the Raj and the absurd stories cranked out by the propaganda mills of all the combatant countries. To clean language from the stench of the lies and fantasies of the wilfully blind was a difficult task. It took courage and time to break through the shibboleths of the day. But slowly writers emerged in every part of the world to tell a different kind of war story. The best of them are found in this volume.
What do they have in common? Many frame their story as a passage from innocence to experience, from illusion to the sad but wise nodding of the head, accompanying a phrase or a line of verse to the effect that, yes, that is what it was like. These writers told a very personal story, and not surprisingly they were highly proprietary, indicating that most readers were in no position to judge the veracity of the tale, as only soldiers knew what war was “really like”.
Others added that the women who cared for them in casualty clearing stations and hospitals, who tended their mutilated bodies, knew a thing or two about what war was “really like”. These nurses were party to the soldiers’ tale too. But not the rest of us. We were not initiated into their bloody mysteries.
War without glory
These writings were and are that initiation. Here we see everything that made the war unique: the scale of combat that beggared the imagination, the geographical spread of mobilisation that brought the whole world into trenches, or mountains, or ships, or ports or great cities.
What we do not find are the words glorifying war or the language of those stupid enough to keep faith with war as a noble calling. The Great War brought glory down to earth, down to the mud of Flanders and France, and drowned it once and for all. Where was glory in the tents where nurses and doctors hopelessly tried to stanch the tide of blood and wounds ebbing and flowing with one offensive after another?
If there was nobility it was in denunciations in poetry and prose of the Great War as an enormous exercise in futility. It took guts for serving men to say this, especially during the conflict. In this anthology we find Turks and Armenians, Hungarians, Poles and Russians, all trapped in the war, trying to use language like a gas mask, to protect them from lies and insanity, and to help them to outlast a war over which the high command had lost control right at the outset.
Many did not make it, and in this anthology we hear from those who did. There are three registers these war writers explored. The first is the language of warning. They wrote to tell the yet unknowing world about these casual slaughters and false judgments fallen on their inventors’ heads. They wrote to tell the young to think again before envying the men in the trenches, and to wish for anything other than to repeat their baptism of fire. They wrote to strip war of all its seductive power.
The second register was as a language of bereavement. What they wrote about most was the dead, and their memories of some of the 10 million men who died in the conflict. Grief and mourning are everywhere in this anthology. Writing about the war was writing about the dead, and it remains so today.
The third register was to express the guilt of the survivor. “Why did they fall while I made my way home?” is a constant reprise in a dozen languages. In the east of Europe the killing continued, making Isaac Babel a prophet of the postwar killings unleashed by the slaughter of the Great War. He and a host of others described a continuum of violence that stretched from Ireland to Siberia and disfigured so much in between.
But those who made it through the mayhem had to wonder why the arbitrariness and sheer stupidity of war had passed them by. Why had shell fire landed an inch to the left of their exposed heads, taking away the life or the arms or the face of a fellow soldier but leaving them intact? There are no answers to this conundrum, but the questions endured.
The sheer chaos of war is the chief subject of much of this literature. And as the Great War inaugurated a century of similar butcheries, it is right and proper that Pete Ayrton and others present to us the literary legacy of war. Dip into this collection and you will see why the Great War seems not only so remote from us but also so terribly close. War literature is the signature of the century of total war, a time we and the millions trapped in Syria and in other war zones still live through today.
It is the great advantage of this collection that the anthology escapes from a concentration on Britain, Ireland, France and Germany. Now, a century after its outbreak, the Great War can be seen as a global catastrophe, undermining or destroying one imperial order, without creating a viable imperial order in its place. Gone were imperial Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, but still intact were the British and the French imperial orders and the informal empires that surrounded them. France and Britain were impoverished by the war, and they could hardly keep up payments on the imperial garrisons that kept the nonwhite races at bay. There are yellow and brown men who speak of war in this anthology, and their time would come. A second war would bankrupt the imperial order, leaving it vulnerable to anti-colonial movements born in 1919 and that came to power in the 20 years following the 1939-45 conflict. The Great War was both the apogee and the beginning of the end of empire.
Reading these selections reinforces the view that the great European powers all lost the war. Only Japan and the United States prospered, but that prepared the way for their great collision 20 years later. As the great French critic Paul Valéry put it, western Europe came to know at the end of the war that its “civilisation” was mortal; the bipolar world of the cold war was looming. War literature constitutes an elegy for that vanished world of 1914 and for the lost generation of 10 million men unfortunate enough to have been young and fit and doomed at the time. Listen to their voices captured by authors who wrote of them, to them, for them, and you will be well positioned to commemorate the centenary of what we still call the Great War.
Jay Winter is professor of history at Yale University. His books include Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, 1914-1918