Monday, March 24, 2008

Same Old, Same Old... As the 'Lost Generation' Passes On

Thoughts on 5 Years, 4,000 Dead, and the Last of the World War I Vets

Frank Buckles.

As we passed the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, and crossed the threshold of 4,000 US deaths in Iraq shortly afterwards, I also happened to notice that at the age of 107, Frank Buckles was recently honored for being the last surviving US veteran of the First World War.

It was also reported that the last surviving French World War I veteran passed away recently at the age of 110. Apparently, worldwide, there are just a handful of surviving veterans remaining from that conflict, billed at one time as "the War to End All Wars."

If we look at the rates of those killed in action in Iraq, it has been at the rate of about 3 per day, with spikes occurring around the battles in Fallujah and in certain phases of the surge. The last thing I would ever want to do is to minimize the suffering that has been endured by our wounded vets, the families of those who have lost loved ones, and of the innocent people of Iraq caught in the crossfire. As the last of the "Lost Generation" of World War I passes away from history, however, as terrible as the Iraq numbers are, I can't help but to be aghast at the comparative numbers lost in the muck and maw of that war nearly 100 years ago, a war that in many ways gave shape to the world and the enduring conflicts we see to this day.

A book I'm reading now called 14-18 presents statistics that are almost too horrible for the mind to grasp. With the exception of Russia, the average daily mortality rates for the major combatant nations were worse in WWI than they were in WWII. For Germany, it was 1,303 per day. For Great Britain, 457 per day. For the US, 195 per day, which spiked up to 820 per day by the time we became fully engaged in the Summer of 1918. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916, the British lost 20,000 men killed and 40,000 wounded.

Last year I posted about Erich Maria Remarque and the invention of the anti-war novel. I've been plowing through some of Remarque's novels dealing with the post-war period lately. His books really speak to me for some reason, but I've had to put then down for a while. They never end happily. In fact, the endings are invariably disturbing. It gets to be too much.

As I think about the Iraq War and the manipulation of certain data in the run-up to it, I'm reminded of the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, World War I veteran, and author of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. Siegfried was an apt name for him. He was a courageous and ferocious soldier; an absolute terror to the Germans (something to bear in mind when considering the controversy over gays in the military). He was a highly decorated officer, but by 1917 he had had enough and renounced his commission, refusing to return to the front after recovering from wounds. In a public announcement in the Bradford Pioneer newspaper:

Second-Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon,
Third Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers

“Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”

(This statement was made to his commanding officer by Second-Lieutenant S. L. Sassoon, Military Cross, recommended for D.S.O., Third Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, as explaining his grounds for refusing to serve further in the army. He enlisted on 3rd August 1914, showed distinguished valour in France, was badly wounded, and would have been kept on home service if he had stayed in the army.)

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insecurities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

July, 1917. S. Sassoon.

Same old, same old... Does anything ever really change?

His friend Robert Graves, fellow officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and poet in his own right, noted in his book Goodbye To All That:
England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language, and it was a newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible. Quotation from a single typical document of this time will be enough to show what we were facing.

A Mother's Answer to 'A Common Soldier'

Going up against such steadfast jingoism, Graves testified at Sassoon's court-martial, doing the only thing that he could with any chance of success - Arguing in front of a medical board that Sassoon should be declared to have shell shock instead of being being court-martialed.

There are many way of course, that people deal with immense grief and sorrow. The "Little Mother's" is one familiar way. There are other ways as well. One especially pernicous aspect of World War I is that a huge percentage of the bodies of the fallen were never recovered. In Britain there was a huge upsurge in spiritualism, occult practices, and the holding of seances. Practitioners included such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, who both lost sons in combat. Graves told a story: Towards the end of September, I stayed in Kent with a recently wounded First Battalion friend. An elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and their mother kept the bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, the linen always freshly laundered, flowers and cigarettes by the bedside. She went around with a vague, bright religious look on her face. The first night I spent there, my friend and I sat up talking about the War until after twelve o'clock. His mother had gone to bed early, after urging us not to get too tired. The talk had excited me, and though I managed to fall asleep an hour later, I was continually wakened by sudden rapping noises, which I tried to disregard but which grew louder and louder. They seemed to come from everywhere. Soon sleep left me and I lay in a cold sweat. At nearly three o'clock, I heard a diabolic yell and a succession of laughing, sobbing shrieks that sent me flying to the door. In the passage I collided with the mother who, to my surprise, was fully dressed. "It's nothing," she said. "One of the maids had hysterics. I'm so sorry you have been disturbed.” So I went back to bed, but could not sleep again, though the noises had stopped. In the morning I told my friend: “I'm leaving this place. It's worse than France.” There were thousands of mothers like her, getting in touch with their dead sons by various spiritualistic means.


crystal said...

He's an interesting guy. I've read some of his poetry and it's really moving. I think I read that his brother was killed at the Battle of Gallipoli - I wonder if that had an effect on his feelings about war.

Jeff said...

I didn't know he lost a brother. It may very well have shaped him.

Great poet. Thanks for the link!

cowboyangel said...


Excellent post on a tough subject.

I didn't know any of that about Sassoon and Graves, so thanks.

Interesting you mention the numbers from WWI. While you're reading that, I'm reading the Hobsbawm book, which, for the first time in my life, really drives home how terrible that war was. The numbers are staggering. I don't have any in front of me, but I know in France there was an incredible % of that generation of men that were wiped out.

And, though I never considered it before, Hobsbawn argues that it was the devastation of WWI that led to such unpreparedness for WWII on the part of France and many in England. People simply didn't want to go through something like that again.

Very interesting time period.

Did you ever read The Peace To End All Peace? Did we talk about that before?

Jeff said...

Hi William,

How are things?

You know, I've been interested in that Hobsbawm book ever since I noticed you were reading it. I'd like to take a run at that. I've been reading a book by Michael Burleigh, which also deals with big 20th century themes, and Burleigh is very conservative. I'd like to see the contrast between his take on things and Hobsbawm's.

As for the percentage of casualties in France, yes, it was huge. In 14-18, it says the mortality rate was slightly less than 1 out of every 5 men in uniform. For officers, it was higher than that. Yeah, I suppose they can say that the pacifism embraced by the British after that war had a lot to do with their unpreparedness in 1939. On the other hand, the militarism in Germany had a lot to do with their humiliation at Versailles and the ensuing suffering caused by the hyper-inflation that it created, despite the fact that their borders had never been breached in the war. The German shock troops of WWI became some of the very first fascists... Desensitized men who kept living the values (or lack therof) of the war, looking down on the "decadent" values of the weak Wiemar Republic. Mussolini's men in Italy were of the same background and mindset.

Did you ever read The Peace To End All Peace? Did we talk about that before?

Yes. A good description of how we got to where we are in the Middle East. When I heard the Republican candidates in the debates claiming to have read a bit of Qutb's writings, saying that "they hate us for what we are, and not for what we do", I remember thinking that they might want to read Fromkin's book to get a better perspective on that.