|British Dead, Western Front|
The European war became a laboratory for all the suffering of the century, from the extermination of the Armenians to the refugee crisis, the internments, and the unending modernization of warfare...What is most remembered about the war is the mass slaughter of combatants—over 10 million dead in four and a half years. Unlike in previous wars, very few died of disease; almost all were killed in the fighting. The survivors did not fare much better. Nearly 50 percent of all those who fought were wounded, whether seriously or not, and often more than once. Shells were the main cause; poison gas, though a new terror, caused far fewer casualties.
The new violence got under the skin and into the flesh of those who were both agents and patients. However, few would later be able to say “I survived, and I killed”—like Blaise Cendrars, the Swiss writer who volunteered to fight in the French Army:
All at once everything breaks, cracks, booms. General commotion. A thousand blasts. Infernos, fires, explosions. It’s an avalanche of cannon. The thunder rolls. Barricades. The firing pin. In light of the looming departure, oblique, ambiguous men, the index of a signboard, a crazy horse. The batting of an eyelid. The flash of magnesium. A quick snapshot. Everything disappears.
“Everything,” it seems, including bodies:
[H]e was blown up by a shell and I saw, with my own eyes I saw, this handsome legionary sucked up into the air, violated, crumpled, blasted in mid-air by an invisible ghoul in a yellow cloud, and his blood-stained trousers fall to the ground empty, while the frightful scream of pain emitted by the murdered man rang out louder than the explosion of the shell itself, and I heard it ringing still for a long moment after the [vaporized] body had ceased to exist.
It was because there was so often no identifiable trace of killed men that governments started to commemorate the Unknown Soldier.
Source: Annette Becker, "The Great War: World War, Total War," International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 97, 2015