The Great War, or what has come to be known as World War I, shattered how many Westerners thought of themselves and destroyed a belief in the inarguable good of progress. During this first fully mechanized war—the first to include airplanes, tanks, and modern chemical weapons—nation states used technological advancements to decimate cities, landscapes, and human bodies to a degree never seen before.
As much as for its technological horrors, the Great War also became known for psychological trauma. The nascent field of psychology came into its adolescence during the war and its various practitioners found ample fodder to test out their theories of how the human mind works. The evocative term “shell shock” arose from a belief that soldiers exhibiting odd behavior had been jarred by proximity to exploding shells. But this assumption was ultimately replaced by a realization that soldiers were exhibiting something else—an illness of the mind, of the soul. Blaming the symptoms on physical injury waned. Shell shock as a name and a metaphor remained.
As with any war, civilians suffered as well, many of them exhibiting the same symptoms of psychological trauma as soldiers. The conflict was so devastating the writer H. G. Wells dubbed it “the war to end all wars.”
Many writers turned their pens to representing the conflict and its aftermath. Ernest Hemingway focused on love collapsing under the horror and its aftereffects in both A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. Rebecca West’s short novella The Return of the Soldier depicts a soldier whose shell shock has reverted him to a younger version of himself. Virginia Woolf plumped the womb through absence in Jacob’s Room and brought the war’s constant repercussions into a simple, lovely party in Mrs. Dalloway. Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that he and his kind were all a “lost generation.” T. S. Eliot claimed that the world would end, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.”
At the end of volume three of Ford Madox Ford’s opus Parade’s End, the day of the Armistice brings together protagonist Christopher Tietjens and his beloved Valentine Wannop. Tietjens is married but the end of the war makes the pair realize that none of that matters, so long as they are together. Valentine thinks:
“Ah, the dreadful thing about the whole war was that it had been—the suffering had been—mental rather than physical. … He had been under fire. … If he had been killed it would not have been so dreadful for him. But now he had come back with his obsessions and his mental troubles. … / Hitherto she had thought of the War as physical suffering only; now she saw it only as mental torture. Immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds. That remained. Men might stand up on hills, but the mental torture could not be expelled.”A Man Could Stand Up– , volume 3 of Parade’s End.
While Ford and other writers unpacked the war and its horrors, both during and beyond, many citizens still spoke of glory and honor and bravery. Retorts Hemingway’s Frederic Henry:
“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean any- thing. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”A Farewell to Arms
The war ended on November 11, 1918, 101 years ago today. The holiday Armistice Day commemorated the cessation of a conflict that ripped Europe apart and changed the world forever. It was meant to memorialize loss beyond reckoning, violence that should never happen again. Concurrently, many feared that the terms of the Armistice, so punishing to Germany, merely set up conditions for the next war.
And then of course it did, with a conflict even worse than before. And in 1954 Armistice Day became “Veterans Day” in the US, a holiday celebrating the ceaseless parade of men and women who risk life and limb for their country.
I dig up this history not to devalue the sacrifices of those who’ve served in the armed services throughout the last century. Instead, I wish to highlight that a holiday meant to remember the war that ended all wars has since been erased in the face of the ever-hungry maw of global conflict. November 11 is a palimpsest and underneath Veterans Day lies Armistice Day, obscured but not forgotten, now a memorial to our cultural failure to never repeat such horrors.
Dolce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.