As I read further into Max Hastings’ book, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, I wondered, as I have done in the past when reading similar books about that time, what my grandfathers must have felt when that war broke out.
What it meant to them and their worldview, and to their imagined futures, both at the start of the war, and then at the end, after four years of struggle, of deprivation, of fighting.
What was it like to finally come home? What did they think, then, of the world? Of their leaders? Of their own nationalism? Of the results? Was it worth the years? Was it worth the cost of their youth, their innocence? Did the end justify the means?
I’ve looked at the photographs taken then, but they only give me a generic appreciation, a two-dimensional view. A book in my library, Collier’s Photographic History of the European War (1916) has photographs taken during the first two years of the war, of the leaders, the soldiers, of the ruined cities, of the armies, but while they fascinate me, none really convey the sense of horror, desperation, and terror that the war engendered.*
What did my grandfathers feel? How did they sleep? Did they dream of bombs and artillery shells? What did their wives at home think? Was every passing day without news a good dayor a reason to worry more? Did they sit alone in the evening as the sky darkened and wonder where their young husbands were? Did they imagine them dead?
Both my grandfathers were young men, in their mid-20s in August, 1914. It was expected that they would join the war. That’s what patriotic young men did. Duty to king and country. And, although I don’t know the exact dates they enlisted, both men did.
I only know my grandfather in England signed up in Oldham or MAnchester, and went to war in Egypt and Palestine. Across the ocean, my grandfather in Canada went aboard the Niobe in Halifax, to patrol the Atlantic. They survived the war, both of them, and came home intact. Millions didn’t.
Both had grown to manhood in a period of great change and upheaval in the previous two decades: technology, industry, politics, medicine and science all went through transformations that changed the way people did and perceived things. It’s hard to imagine now, but the technological changes in the years before WWI were earth-shaking. They transformed everything and everyone they touched.
But so did society change. Old orders were challenged. New politics emerged. New ideas often expressed themselves in dramatic and violent ways, polarizing everyone involved.
There was, for the first time, a shared popular culture: theirs was the first generation raised under the influence of the phonograph. It’s hard for us, more than a century later with our iTunes and iPods and streaming media, to imagine what impact that one device had on culture and society, but it was huge in their day. It created mass – pop – culture.
It was only a couple of decades before their birth that submarine telegraph cables linked the world so messages could be transmitted instantaneously. That changed the way people saw the news, therefore their world picture. News that once took weeks, even months to travel by post now took seconds. Events that took place around the globe were no longer distant in both time and geography. They were immediate. And immediacy helped propel the war.
Theirs was also the first generation to grow up with the telephone. While still limited in range when they left for war, it would within their lives reach from across town to across continents and then overseas.
In November 1915, the one millionth car rolled of the Ford assembly line. That is just one car company of several in America at the time, and it had been in business only a dozen years by then. The automobile was rapidly changing social and community life, changing the way people travelled and worked. It de-isolated people from their surroundings.
So did the airplane. The short flight at Kitty Hawk had taken place the same year Ford opened his factory: 1903. While commercial air travel was still years away, the airplane fired imaginations and would play an important role in the war.
Einstein’s remarkable insights into the cosmos were forcing a re-evaluation of how the universe worked, how it was structured. New forms of literature, of art, of music, poetry and even dance flooded popular culture.
Nothing seemed solid. Everything was shifting, in flux. Old rules, old ideas were being overthrown and replaced with the new. It seemed an exciting time, but also a time when everything has become unstuck, unanchored from its past. Tradition fell prey to novelty.
As both Hastings and Tuchman point out, however, old world nationalisms, old world politics and economics, old world racism and sexism, old world attitudes and old world leaders – all men, because few countries then even gave women the vote – were still the way of governments.
Ossified in their establishments, they played at politics as they had in Victoria’s heyday. A gentleman’s game; a chess set composed of nations. So, too, were the military leaders who readied for war, planning their actions based on methods and maneuvers not very far removed from the Napoleonic style. Some fervently believed that will alone could win. Elan, spirit, gumption. Most of which died in the face of machine guns and artillery.Technology changed war, too.
The sweeping popular movements – trade unions, socialism, suffragettes – were treated as annoyances to the established order pre-war. But when war was declared, a lot of this, and a lot of the movements’ leaders went into stasis; frozen while most declared their support for king and country. And for war.
And that old order was one of the casualties of war. At the end of the conflict, only one of the major royal houses was left intact, and most of the supporting governments had been wiped out, too. The world was plunged into chaos as new governments and new forms of governing arose from the ashes. Not all were benevolent democracies.
Were my grandparents moved by the jingoism, by the ideologies of their day? By the promises of a short, sharp war that would teach the Hun a lesson and have the boys home by Christmas? By the propaganda? WWI marks the dawn of a new era of mass propaganda that utilized all the new technologies to sway public opinion. It would have been hard to resist it.
Did they throw their hats into the air and cheer hoorah when they heard war had been declared? Pledge allegiance to the king, and march off singing to the recruitment office? Imagine their service as a grand, glorious adventure?
Many young men did. And many of them died. The death toll was in the millions.
Or did they shrink inside, a little afraid of what might happen? Did they worry what would happen to their lives, their families, their children if they didn’t make it back? Would they die on the battlefield? Would they be crippled; reduced to a life of begging and pity? There was no welfare state, no pension or health care back then.
As the grandson of veterans, and the son of veterans, I often think about what my families endured in those dark years of two wars. I’ve tried to understand what they felt, what emotions moved them, what they experienced in their time. I’ve tried to see it through their eyes.
War is so easily mythologized afterwards, so easily turned into a simple, rigid chiaroscuro: us-them, good-evil, light-dark, winners-losers, that it becomes difficult to untangle the reality from the rhetoric.
They are no longer with us, so I cannot ask them. Nor can I ask my parents, who have both passed away. Instead, I read a lot about their time, about the wars and the events that led to them. I try to fill in the picture with as much detail as possible to make their world real, not simply a sepia photograph of the past. But at best, all I can do is look back at their world through the haze and distance of time and wonder where they got the strength to get through it. Still, in their memory I continue to pull at that curtain.
* This was an American publication, printed before America finally entered the war (in 1917) with the Allies, and it has images from both sides of the conflict taken by their official photographers. It has some small text to accompany the images.