From the illusions of romantic warfare to the carnage of a repugnant war. World War One and the impact on literature.

17 July 2016

How much of an impact can a single person have in the world? On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip answered that question. Gavrilo fired shots into Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, igniting the powder keg of war. As a result of the assassination, in excess of 65 million soldiers were mobilized for their nation’s defense or offense (“World”). Greater than 50 percent of those soldiers would be killed or injured in the subsequent war (“World”). The fuse that was lit by Gavrilo shaped not only the world of his time but caused a wave that is still felt at the present time.

One of the lesser-known casualties of the war is the ideal of Romanticism associated with war, by the end of World War One, Romanticism will be replaced by a realistic view of warfare through the move to Modernism.

In Europe, the time between 1871 and 1914 is referred to as the Beautiful Age. Citizens witnessed relative sustainment from war. There was a slight improvement in access to literature and art, as well as education (Wilde). Until the end of this time, warfare was portrayed as a romantic adventure, a noble endeavor to test your mettle and prove yourself as a man. The foundation of these sentiments can be observed in The Life of King Henry the Fifth. “And gentlemen in England now a-bed. Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks. That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day” (Shakespeare). The reader is placed in a world where the very value of a person is based on the experiences of war and shames those who did not participate.

Prior to 1914, virtually every notion about warfare was viewed as romantic. French cavalry units riding into battle at the onset of WWI were dressed much as Napoleon’s Army was almost 100 years prior. Regaled with crimson pants, blue coats, horsehair helmets, they thought they were fighting a gentleman’s war, a war with strict rules. The machine guns and mustard gas of WWI would prove to make mounted soldiers among the last fleeting images the Beautiful Age. In stark contrast to Henry the Fifth, Suicide in the Trenches captures the reality of the soldier on the battlefield. “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye, Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you’ll never know The hell where youth and laughter go” (Sassoon). What was once the test of one’s resolve, was now anguish and turmoil endured by soldiers, hidden behind a facade.

As the deceased bodies piled up by the millions, literature writers continued to try and bring the reality of war back home. In Anthem for Doomed Youth, the writer firmly entrenches just a segment of the sounds on the battlefield. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle. Can patter out their hasty orisons” (Owen). The first week of the battle of the Somme saw over 1.7 million artillery shells fired at German lines (Trueman). Owen’s words merely touched on those monstrous sounds, but would be known in a name for war stress, called “shell shock.” In the period of reflection after the war, T.S. Eliot wrote several pieces that are attributable to the eyes of soldiers. In The Hollow Men, the reader experiences isolation, broken dreams, taking orders that one does not wish to carry out. “Remember us-if at all-not as lost, Violent souls, … As the hollow men…” (Eliot).

The move from Romanticism to Modernism did not end warfare as we know it, while one is less likely to think of war as a romance, it still can be viewed today. The motto of the United States Marines is “The few, the proud, the Marines,” placing these individuals as nobler for taking up arms in defense of the country. The Marines motto speaks similarly to The Life of King Henry the Fifth, being part of a special club. The further removed a person is from war, the less actual impact it has on them. In a technological world, war is a spectators event, something witnessed by the masses and participated by the few.  Art and literature still provide some of those images of the glory of war.  Those who have served, and those who heed the warnings of the last 100 years of literature about the realities of war, should be wary of what they hear.

Works Cited

C N Trueman “The Battle Of The Somme” The History Learning Site. 17 Apr 2015. Web. 17 Jul 2016.

Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men.” All Poetry. All Poetry. n.d. Web. 17 July 2016.

Owen, Wilfred. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” The War Poetry Website. War Poetry. 2010. Web. 17 July 2016.

Sassoon, Siegfried. “Suicide in the Trenches.” Harvard U. Harvard Online. n.d. Web. 17 July 2016.

Shakespeare, William. “The Life of King Henry the Fifth.” MIT U. MIT Online. n.d. Web. 17 July 2016.

Wilde, Robert. “The Belle Époque (‘Beautiful Age’).” About Education. About Inc. 2016. Web. 17 July 2016.

“World War One Casualty and Death Table.” The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. PBS. KCET / BBC. 2004. Web. 17 July 2016.

The photograph is the lone standing guard tower at the former Manzanar Internment Camp for the Japnese living in the country after the incident at Pearl Harbor. Manzanar is located in California. 10,000 Japanese-Americans lived in the camp between 1942 and 1945.