1914: My Grandfathers’ Year

War is announced in London

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.

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