Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Little About World War One

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, 19 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. (from the Imperial War Museum collection)

I suppose it's foolish to try to say "a little" about the first World War.  It was the greatest man-made calamity in human history at the time - 15 million deaths, 20 million wounded.

I remember a lecture I attended (long ago!) on my first day as a student at McGill University in which a particularly daunting English professor announced, with perfect authority, that the 20th century began with World War I.  I was confused by this at the time since I knew that the War hadn't started until 1914 (ending in 1918) but I understand now what he meant.  The Great War, as it was known until the next world war was placed by its side in the horror scale, swept away an entire world - especially in England.  I have heard it said that World War I did  to England what the American Civil War did to the American south, namely blasted away an entire way of life. Gone with the wind was the Edwardian world of cricket on the green, vicars riding bicycles with straw hats and butterfly nets etc.  We know what came next.

At Quarter Sessions, of course, the War killed all hope of a future that could resemble its past as both Fisher sons were killed.  Critically for Up, Back, and Away, the War killed Taffy Davies and set into motion the events that would eventually compel Miles in 2012 to leave his comfortable home in Texas for England in 1928.

The England of that time, the one that Miles comes to know, is still reeling from the effects of the War.  Miles' new English friends, the Peppermores, have had their lives wracked by the loss of Mr. Peppermore during the War.  In fact, everybody in England in 1928 who had lived through the War would have a story of the War and its impact upon his or her life.  It was a War fought by every layer of society, unlike most of the wars that have followed, and it wiped out the sons of the aristocracy as thoroughly as it did the working men.  The casualties, the maimed and the halt and the otherwise impaired, created a huge new burden on society after the War ended.  There was no National Health Service then - remember the 20th Century was still  being dragged into being - and the old-fashioned hospitals and medicine were inadequate to the task of caring for wounded and damaged veterans. Here's a poster from my own little art collection which was made in 1926 in connection with a fundraising effort to improve the situation.

 Up, Back, and Away's Dr. Slade was terribly burned while carrying out his duties as a medic near the end of the War.  In 1928, when Miles gets to know him, the Doctor is just coming to grips with his disfigurement and also beginning to understand that the lack of marriageable men actually means he is something of a hot property, despite his scars.

It's interesting to note that the population of Great Britain and Ireland before the War in 1911 was about 45 million and in 1921, it was 42 million. (No one should have to do math when they are reading one of my blog posts so the point is that the population actually fell by three million people during that time). When a broad swath of young men is mowed down in their prime, the results are long lasting... How should we calculate the dead of World War I when you also consider how many people never got born in the first place?  Miss Everett, the headmistress of St. Hild's is an example of a woman who is making a life without a husband as many women did in the wake of the War.

I have always preferred to get my history in the form of literature, which allows me to get a feeling for events along with some of the facts. As a result, most of what I know about the War and its aftermath I learned by reading novels and poems.  My favorite books on the topic were written by the great Siegfried Sassoon.  His "Sherston Trilogy" of novels, which follows the arc of the life of  young George Sherston from his peaceful pre-War life through the War and beyond, was a great influence on me.  I recommend it, especially the first book, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (first published in 1928, incidentally).

1 comment:

  1. Back in 1999 when all of the magazines and news organizations were contemplating the "Person Of The 20th Century," I sent in a nomination of Gavrilo Princep, the clown who started the ball in WWI. Everything about the 20th Century has roots in that moment in Sarajevo, 1914 when he popped the Archduke: Destruction of the age of Empire, the rise of Fascism, Communism, WWII, Cold War, Middle East problems, Rise of America, etc. One wonders how our world would be had he missed his shot.