World War I, young soldiers pursuing honor and glory only to loose their innocence through experiencing the historical tragedy of the massive human deaths incurred during this Great War. A war that resulted in 8.6 million killed in battle or died as a result of wounds or disease and 21 million wounded (Feure 76). In Remarque’s, All Quiet On The Western Front, young men were encouraged to enlist and fight based on the propaganda of their teachers. Similarly, English battalions were assembled quickly by towns and villages mustering their youth with the ideas of nationalism. Remarque’s characters found that by the age of twenty they felt that war had aged them to the status of “old men” worn and tattered. War eventually changed their perspective to one of survival over heroism, honor, fame and glory. The Great War was a war of wholesale slaughter that destroyed the dreams of glory and honor instilled in the minds of disillusioned youth.
Young soldiers like those portrayed by Remarque ask, “Why couldn’t they teach us something useful in school” like how to bayonet a man in the belly and not the ribs where it could get stuck, or how to light a cigarette in the rain” (Remarque 85). Soldiers quickly learn and discern the practicality of things; knowing the difference between what is really important for survival and physical health over that of the intangible principles, values, moral issues, thoughts, and dreams. Eventually, they debate and search for the “why” are we fighting and “why” is it worth dying. Then the reality of battle sets in and these soldiers begin to lose faith in their leadership and “in the idealism and the enthusiasm that had existed at the beginning of the war (Feure 76).”
In the third verse of John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, he speaks of an unending quarrel with the foe. However, the history of WWI as we know it there is one clear point: there was no quarrel between the soldiers. The quarrel existed only in the minds of some politicians and high-ranking officers who in many cases never experienced the horrors of the battlefield. So for those soldiers the question was, whom does the war really serve? Remarque’s characters and McCrae’s poem similarly infer the concept that these soldiers fight for politicians, generals, and kings, men in high places they themselves don’t really know. Yet we fight their battles while they sit in safety waiting the outcome and dream of their glory and honor.
Soldier-poets came forward to try and express the events, feelings of trench warfare experienced by both sides of the war. Poetry such as Charles Sorley’s Poem 107 which speaks to so many dead that they become faceless and too many voices to remember that they become voiceless memories. Eventually, soldiers become desensitized to the death of others as they keep seeing it and finding it. Remarque’s characters describe seeing body parts, a man ripped in half at the waist, tacked to a tree with his clothes ripped off, a limb, a piece of flesh, maybe a shoe with the owner’s foot still in it. These things become “normal” sights to the soldiers as they walk, run, fight, and crawl through the battlefields.
Death is accepted as routine in the hospitals, as well as, on the battlefield. Remarque’s depicts events within a hospital such as the scene where Paul is watching the routine moving of soldiers to the “dying-room” and eventually, his own trip to the “dying room.” With the mass quantities of wounded and dying common to both sides of the war, a selection process was created by the military medical community to determine who would or would not be treated.
Offensive actions were generally unsophisticated operations preceded by intense artillery bombardments (Feure 75). British shelling by super heavy mortars would shake the ground with their intense explosions, combined with the violent noise accompanying the physical impact of the explosion grated the German’s nerves and drove some to hysteria (Keegan 236). During a seven days and nights period, the English artillery, mortars, and aerial torpedoes pounded relentlessly on the German trenches. This effort made sleeping difficult, if not impossible, for the German’s adding to the heightening stress and fear in the entrenched solders.
The British mixed chlorine gas with their artillery rounds and fired against the German trenches during the bombardment prior to infantry troop movements. The chlorine gas would creep through the trenches invading the lungs of its victims bringing with it a slow gruesome death or permanent physical damage. Though poison gas was “never used effectively,” it still had a great “psychological effect and many men were killed or suffered life-long injury through exposure to it, as Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est makes vividly clear (Feure 77).”
Keegan describes an attack attempted by the English infantry units and the subsequent deadly results. The English had climbed over the parapet and moved forward from their positions. The German trenches were clearly visible. The ground was open and the German troops could easily see the advancing British infantry. In front of the German lines “lay thick belts of uncut wire, breached by a few narrow gaps (Keegan 248).” “Towards that wire more than 60,000 English infantrymen set off at zero hour,” unconsciously assuming hunched over crouched positions, as men do when walking into the face of heavy fire (Keegan 248). Hundreds of soldiers found themselves caught in the open and easily slaughtered by German machine-gunners, death in the hundreds and in only a few minutes. The Great War as seen through the events Keegan describes about the Battle of Somme and in Remarque’s, All Quiet on the Western Front, bring no less descriptive a thought to mind than whole-sale slaughter of men.
In Isaac Rosenberg’s poem Break of Day in the Trenches, he portrays the feelings of a soldier stranded in either an artillery crater or trench and locked-in the struggle to avoid the enemy’s fire. Rosenberg describes a “sardonic rat” to relate the irony of a soldier’s chances of survival; the soldier is trapped in the trenches unlike the rat that happens by who can “cross the sleeping green between” the battle lines. The rat can travel across the ground over no-man’s-land with the freedom not shared by the soldier whose death would come most assuredly if he was to rise out from his trench or crater. No matter how strong and athletic the soldier may be he has a lesser chance to survive than that of the rodent.
Based on the decision of the British 34th Division commander, four Tyneside Irish battalions “underwent a bizarre and pointless massacre.” The decision gave the “last brigade a mile of open ground to cover before it reached its own front, a safe enough passage if the enemy’s machine-guns had been extinguished, otherwise a funeral march (Keegan 249). A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish describes how it was: “I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the patter – patter of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself (Keegan 249).” For the English, “militarily, the advance had achieved nothing (Keegan 249).” The concepts of fighting and dying for honor and glory of one’s country lost its romantic idealism when these soldiers realized that their chances of survival were small. They begin to evaluate whether or not death would serve some practical purpose. Usually, these soldiers chose to live versus dying for some idealistic principles. “While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger (Remarque 13).”
Custom Academic Publishing Company (CAPCO), War and Human Experience, Oklahoma City: CAPCO 1997 99-102
Feure, Bryan, HUMANITIES 530, War & Human Experience, CSUDH 1996 75-7
Keegan, John, The Face of Battle, New York: Viking/Penguin 1983 236, 248-9, 272
Remarque, Erich Maria, All Quiet On The Western Front, New York: Fawcett/Ballantine 1982 13, 85, 109