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

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Trick the War Played—From Jules Romain's Verdun

Never before in the world’s history had so many men, at one and the same time, said good-bye to their home and families preparatory to cutting one another’s throats. Never before had such crowds of soldiers marched to war so firmly convinced that the “cause” for which they were to fight was personal to each one of them.


No one doubted that, sooner of later, the whole world would be involved in this business of fighting. Already a good part of it was caught in the toils. But, true to tradition, scrupulously observant of all due rights of propriety, the thing had begun as an affair of Frenchmen and Germans before spreading to the rest of the inhabited globe.

Each of the two nations had prepared for hostilities by conjuring up as thrilling a vision as possible of the nature of war.


It was Joffre’s view that some early success in the field, however devoid of real value it might be, was absolutely essential. The anti-militaristic spirit in France might well be but momentarily numbed by emotionalism, and there was always the danger that it might once more get the upper hand. The nation must be given a quick and heavy draft of victory. The army’s stock would soar; there would be no turning back.


Certain truths began now to emerge from a study of the operations and had upon the leaders of both sides a more sobering, because less expected, effect even than the stench of decaying corpses. It became clear that there could no longer be any question for either side of striking a decisive blow or of carrying out brilliant tactical movements. It was equally impossible to break the enemy’s center or to envelop his flanks.

The romantic view of war which had done much to keep men’s hearts high in the early days had received a stab in the back from which it never really recovered. War played a dirty trick on the warriors by turning out to be quite unlike what they had expected. The journalists and orators behind the front did not at first realize what had happened, or, if they did, they set about doing everything they could to hide the fact. The men in the line, however, had no illusions on the subject; nor had their leaders, nor even the political heads of the combatant nations. It was not yet obvious that the war would bring misery to the whole world, but it seemed probable that it would no one any good—except the contractors…

As to the generals, nervously fumbling in this strange new world, biting their lips to make sure that they were not dreaming, they gradually awoke to the fact that what they had so leisurely prepared, without ever clearly seeing the upshot, was something that had turned out to be utterly unpredictable—a war of millions.

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