For more than two years, I have been immersed in a project designed to commemorate the centenary of World War I in my freshman composition classes and–this November–across the campus of the community college where I teach. I have already chronicled some results of this venture elsewhere on the blog, so I won’t repeat them here; if you’re interested, you can find the previous posts by typing “World War I” into the search field on the right. However, I will return briefly to the most precious gift I have received during the entire two years–the ability to experience firsthand the horrors of life and death on the Western Front through the books I have read. They have been mostly novels, some written soon after the war by veterans or their contemporaries, an equal number of more recent vintage.
These novels are mostly by British authors, but also by American, French, and German writers. Some narrate the experiences of officers, but the most powerful and revealing chronicle the lives of those the British called “the Other Ranks.” And the most significant lesson I have learned from these gripping tales of the tommy, the poilu, the boche, and the doughboy is that their experiences of the war were the same. Although the German trenches were generally better engineered and built, all were frequently filled with mud–rather, with noxious slime comprising not only rainwater, but also feces and body parts, and giving rise to trench foot and who knows what other diseases. Soldiers on all sides were infested with lice, which added to the stench. They all dreaded gas attacks, and they all longed for home. But when went there, they learned that they were no longer the idealistic boys who had enlisted, they had nothing in common with those they had left behind, and they longed only to return to their mates in the trenches. As the war they thought would be over in a few months lengthened into two years and then three, they no longer saw any purpose in fighting in that endless war of attrition. And if they encountered an enemy soldier, they found that he was just like them–for all the same reasons.
Notably, the novels I have read include little about the girls left behind. But I have frequently encountered this aspect of the soldiers’ lives while searching eBay for memorabilia of the Great War. These poignant reminders I found in post cards, which I will share without comment. I am sure they speak for themselves, disproving in the process the timeworn adage about love and war.
[Click on the photos below to enlarge.]