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November 8, 2021

PONTIN | From the Trenches

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While each instance in the United States’ long history of warfare is discomforting for its own unique assortment of reasons, there’s something about the first World War that I still can’t quite wrap my head around. So much academic and colloquial discourse has zeroed in on the second iteration of global total war as a more complex, more consequential sibling, yet there is something singularly distressing about the original case that makes it feel more and more unsettling each time I cross paths with it in a textbook or popular culture. 

So much of World War I in academic critique is condensed down into a triad of consequential events: the assasination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and Woodrow Wilson’s supposedly admirable Fourteen Points and the pie-in-the-sky plans for the postwar global order they projected.

In something of a similar sense, trench warfare is a commonly discussed yet insufficiently explored fact of the conflict. Again, it is often mentioned only in the context of the far more innovative and intricate war technologies that would come to bear in subsequent altercations: nuclear bombs, radar and jet engines. Even when the trenches are given adequate attention, they are degraded as a strikingly inefficient and slow-moving means of making progress. The psychological anguish that festered within them, as well as the art spawned by these emotional swells, is rarely upheld as a worthy topic on its own. 

Life in the trenches was the polar opposite of the oftentimes romantic images plastered on enlistment propaganda. It was not uncommon for soldiers to remain cooped up in their narrow, snake-like ravines for weeks, drowned in the ubiquitous threat of enemy attack. Close quarters and little to no infrastructure for sanitation bred rampant disease, giving dreaded afflictions like “trench foot” and “trench mouth” their names. The only relief from the confinement of the trenches came from trespassing into no man’s land, which meant almost certain death and certain terror. Take the Battle of the Somme, for example, during which the British lost close to 60,000 men in a single day. 

Needless to say, the mental health of these soldiers — much like the landscapes they inhabited and poured their labor into — was in shambles. “Shell shock,” now referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, became a widespread descriptor for many of the service members returning home from the front lines. The condition, however, was not formally added to the American Psychological Association’s vanguard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until roughly 60 years later in 1980. Of course, World War I veterans were not the first group in history to experience PTSD, yet the lack of public understanding about their persisting excruciation made the transition back to civilian life especially painful. 

It was out of this torment that an eruption of poignant artistic expression took root, traversing mediums and homelands. Perhaps the most popular piece to come out of the experiences of the First World War was Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front. The incredibly popular tale recounted the horrors of the conflict from a German antiwar perspective, and its conversion to the big screen in 1930 was similarly beloved. The novel itself would garner a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, and the blockbuster would even secure the Academy Award for Best Production. Both versions of the story were renowned for their candidness about the way that war had unfolded and the way it had played out, for its subversion of the cliche narrative of the happy soldier returning home. It was this portrayal that made it such a salient target for the rising Nazi party, with roughly 25,000 copies burned on a single occasion in 1933.

The title itself is indicative of the underlying social dynamics that were simultaneously borne and perpetuated by the war inself. All was “quiet,” perhaps not for a lack of these men’s cries for help, but rather the fact that those at home weren’t fully listening. As politicians and strategists on both sides grappled with mobilizing troops and keeping the manufacturing industry afloat during the fury of wartime, the acutely vexing nature of quotidian life in the armed forces seemed to fade into a haze. 

Poetry also rose to prominence as a medium for articulating the incoherent or otherwise challenging emotions men brought home with them from the front. Poetry was an ideal artistic endeavor for this function, allowing writers to freely chronicle their experiences without imposing any sort of structure or formal architecture on this stream of consciousness. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both of whom saw combat under the British banner, harnessed the written word to paint pictures of the atrocities they witnessed and endured in battle. Take this stanza from Owen’s 1917 “Dulce et Decorum Est,” one of the most well-known poems to come from the era: 

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

The last line, attributed to a poet of ancient Rome, can be translated to mean “How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” In this way, the work is haunting not only for its gruesome illustration of warfare, but also for its broader critique of rising nationalism and militarism. 

Sassoon’s “Repression of War Experience” is a similarly unsettling read, with a final stanza that speaks to the internal toils of those forced to see war with their own eyes: 

“You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;

You’d never think there was a bloody war on! …

O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.

Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft … they never cease—

Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out

And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;

I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.”

These stories are ones we continue to grapple with even today, over a century following the Treaty of Versailles that ultimately closed the war. Movies like Sam Mendes’ 1917 and a more contemporary remake (albeit from 1979) of All Quiet on the Western Front, this time spearheaded by an American director, captivate us even amidst the far more abundant retellings of World War II. 

Glazing over World War I as little more than a precursor to a “more transformative” world war is a grave mistake. Doing so not only discounts the contributions and sacrifices of those at the front and powering the war machine at home, it also effectively neglects the unique profundity of the art that was cultivated by this conflict. It is impossible to wrestle with the full spectrum of repercussions of the “Great War” without delving into these art forms and the frustrations that lie behind them. It is clear, then, that much of the work precipitated by life in the trenches is both a powerful mechanism for artists’ introspection and a poignant tool for our own retrospection, even almost one hundred years after the final advances into no man’s land.

Megan Pontin is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected] Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.