Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

14–18: Understanding the Great War
reviewed by Jim Gallen

14-18: Understanding the Great War
by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker. Trans. Catherine Temerson
Hill and Wang, 2002

Soldiers of the Great War

The Centennial is bringing a flood of new and re-issued books on World War I. 14–18: Understanding the Great War is a re-issue of a 15-year-old work written by two French historians who specialize in this war that brought so much suffering to their homeland. The translation from the French by Catherine Temerson provides English readers with a French viewpoint on the cataclysm. Interpretations of historical events vary over time, and this book offers current readers the war as interpreted a decade and a half ago focusing on the French experience, yet not to the exclusion of other belligerents. It is less history than interpretation. It helps the reader understand the war through the understandings of those who fought it, lived through it, and commemorated it. Chapter by chapter the authors examine how civilized societies turned into brutal warriors, collectively and individually, and how they dealt with this transformation.

From these pages I did pick up new facts of interest. Australia was the only significant belligerent not to adopt conscription. (For Ireland, a conscription law was passed but was never put in effect; no one in Ireland was drafted into the British Army.) Most armies were dominated by peasants, and countless war memorials listing the dead and tombs of the unknown arose in the wake of the Great War. Even in defeat German soldiers were hailed as the heroes who kept the enemies from their land. Hence was born the myth of the undefeated Reich.

Order Now
The Great War expanded our vocabulary and provided precedents against which later atrocities would be measured. In my view, a fairly balanced study of the Armenian Massacre, but one with which both the Armenians and the Turks may take exception, is presented, as the Turks sought to remove civilians potentially sympathetic to the Ottoman Empire's Russian enemies. The Armenians were deported to areas where they were viewed as posing less of a threat. Their route was accompanied by starvation and massacres before the survivors were "concentrated" in camps, popularizing a term that had first arisen during the uprising in Cuba in the 1890s. The attack on a whole Armenian people gave us the word "genocide." Allied propaganda would identify the Turks as worthy partners of the Germans who perpetrated atrocities in Belgium. Hitler would later minimize the significance of his own crimes by asking: "After all, who still talks about the annihilation of the Armenians today?" The magnitude of the struggle was unprecedented with Germany's loss of 15 percnet of its soldiers and France's 16 percent being dwarfed by Serbia's 37 percent.

The war seeped into every fabric of society, even reversing the progress in table manners as men stepped back to more primitive lives. The neat wars of the past between professional armies were replaced by total war as masses were inducted into the military and entire nations were channeled into support of the war effort. Civilians turned soldiers who had never fought before found themselves hating enemies they did not know, picking off perfect strangers and cleaning trenches of the frightened and wounded. What would they report about their service? Although uniformed personnel suffered most of the casualties, civilians found themselves bombarded, expelled from their homes and forced to work for their country's invaders. How do they reconcile their loyalty to homeland with their acts of self-preservation? How did the war affect the people's faith and how did men of the cloth and their flocks pray to the same God for help in killing their fellow men? How did individuals and nations assuage their grief and with what rituals did they conduct their mourning?

Authors Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker raise and try to answer these questions and more and thereby help readers appreciate why the Great War evolved the way it did and the impact it had, and continues to have, on the world to this day. At times they run counter to modern trends that characterize soldiers as innocents who recognized their shared humanity more than their national hatreds. The writing flows so well that I would not have known that it was a translation had I not been told. This is a book that makes the reader ponder the swirling passions and events of the Great War.

Suffering Serbian Soldiers During Their Retreat

What we see will depend on our own knowledge and experience. At times I concluded that the American Civil War anticipated the course of World War I and its aftermath. Didn't both involve the whole populace, leaving every family with an empty chair and survivors bitter at their enemies? Were the Turkish fears of Armenian treachery any more or less justified than later American suspicions of Japanese-Americans? Did the respective deportations vary more in degree than in initial motivation? At the end of this work I felt that I was aware of some currents flowing below the surface of battle and politics that so often dominate other tomes. Understanding will require more study and reflection. 14–18: Understanding The Great War is a good read early in the Centennial as it will help readers appreciate some of the thoughts they will encounter in future histories.

Jim Gallen

1 comment:

  1. This is a really informative and helpful review. Gave me insights I'd never had before. Thank you!