World War I ended 100 years ago, and the sad truth about the conflict is that serious moral and social lessons weren’t learned because of upheaval in the 1920’s and the rise of dictators in the 1930’s.
In my opinion, one of the most serious issues to come out of WWI is “shell shock,” or what we today call “post traumatic stress disorder.” The soldiers who were sent onto the battlefields of WWI had not idea what they were about to experience, and neither did their commanding officers, or their friends and families.
Warfare in Europe prior to the Industrial Revolution was a rather polite affair. Royal houses competed for land and colonies, and almost immediately after suffering a defeat, a European power would be planning to retake lost territory. Rarely was anyone other than a soldier involved in these battles.
But the ingenuity and creativity of the Industrial Revolution crossed over into military technology as well. Weapons like rapid-firing rifles and pistols, hand grenades, landmines and, most especially, machine-guns and barbed wire would change battlefields forever. It seems politicians and military commanders didn’t really appreciate this fact even into the 20th Century. Outdated Napoleonic strategies such as massed infantry attacks uphill against an entrenched enemy were carried out early in WWI, resulting in horrific casualties. A good example was the Battle of the Frontiers, fought not long after the war broke out over August and September, 1914, and saw the French suffer 27,000 killed in one day of fighting, Aug. 22. That’s right. One day.
The effect this had on the men fighting in such conditions would linger for decades, until it was better understood over the second half of the 20th Century. An entire generation of men was being machine-gunned to death and those who witnessed the slaughter of their friends and comrades could never forget what they saw and experienced.
The generation who fought WWI were later called, “The Lost Generation,” as they had trouble fitting in once returning home. Wandering aimlessly through life, these survivors seemed unable to make sense of the slaughter they witnessed, or the fact they themselves survived.
Those curious about learning more should watch the excellent Academy Award winning film, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Even though a 1930’s era black and white film, it perfectly captures not only the waste of the First World War, but the agony of those who survived it.
Fans of fantasy fiction no doubt recognize the name J.R.R. Tolkien, famous author of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien fought in the First World War; he volunteered and was subsequently sent as a signal officer to the 11th (Service) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers and he fought at the Somme, a battle in British history characterized by office incompetence and the wasteful destruction of human life for virtually no gain. Many of Tolkien’s friends were killed; Tolkien himself said that by 1918, all of his friends from childhood except one had been killed. Watching the wholesale slaughter firsthand changed Tolkien, and observant readers can see it in his work.
In the Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf and Frodo are discussing the corrupt murderer Gollum, and Frodo laments that his uncle Bilbo hadn’t killed Gollum.
Frodo: “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance.”
Gandalf: ‘Pity? Yes, it was pity. Pity…and mercy. The mercy not to kill when there was no need. Many who live deserve death. Many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Don’t be so quick to deal out death in judgment.
“Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.