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Remembering the Great War

By May 24, 2014 No Comments
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This year being the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, I’m going to be posting reflections from time to time about books new and old on that conflict. I discussed some new titles last October (, so today it’s the turn for some classic works, particularly memoirs and novels. Not a definitive list of greatest hits; more of what I’ve been sampling by way of book orders for teaching next fall.   

I started, as one must, with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I probably first read this book some fifty years ago and so was a bit bemused, this time, by its mundane and nonchalant opening chapters. The wartime action picks up soon enough, though, and reminds you of why this book has left such an impression over the years. You feel what trench warfare was like, especially the intense shelling—but then also the threat of death, and tedium, everlasting. One by one the narrator’s friends (they went into the army together, fresh out of school) fall to fates bizarre or banal. In the process Remarque brings out strongly the one theme common to all these books—the overwhelming sense of loyalty to the mates in one’s unit. All the home-front bluster and sentimentality, all the idiocy of high command, all the fickleness of fate—over against all of it, only the bonds of shared hardship, survival, wicked humor, and crushing love are real, can endure.

From All Quiet (1929) I moved on to The Road Back (2311), the sequel in which Remarque explores how battle-weary veterans adjusted (or not) to civilian life. The story is necessarily not as dramatic as that of the trenches, but no less precise and poignant in its depiction of how a war-weary and defeated society either could not or did not care to understand the bedraggled survivors returning from the front. The band of brothers finds nurture only in each other. Remarque shows each of them exploring a path back to normal life, the hazards attending thereunto, and the callousness, persistent privation, profiteering, fear, and cynicism that set the tone of postwar German society. I found this book just as hard to put down as All Quiet, and ultimately sadder for its closer proximity to ordinary life as we experience it.

Quite by contrast, Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, one of the earliest (1920) chronicles of trench warfare, was long controversial for the glorification of combat that can be inferred from it. Jünger himself was wounded often in the war, but never regretted having to return to the lines upon recovery for, as the book shows, he never felt quite so alive as under fire. Oddly, the non-combatant Remarque leaves you with a more vivid sense of battle than the four-year veteran Jünger, who renders battle action abstractly and seems more concerned to identify rival units by their number, position, and reputation than by their common experience of being shelled or surging across no-man’s-land. Personal thoughts and patriotic sentiments, on the other hand, come through with precision and verve. The book climaxes with Jünger’s exhilaration at the spring 1918 German offensive that brought them close to Paris once again. The sharp and disastrous reversals of that summer and fall he passes over obliquely, in a fog. The memoir concludes with an ode to the German nation’s irrepressible strength and resolve for future glory, and we go away knowing a little better how embittered veterans like Adolph Hitler could cultivate enthusiasm for another go at what gave their lives meaning.

World War I being a total war, it’s important to gauge home-front experiences as well. Two English novels for your consideration, both by women as is appropriate to an era that saw women’s suffrage coming to a radical crescendo just before the war and winning a bittersweet victory by its end. Rebecca West would go on to a distinguished career in letters, but her first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), though really more a novella, rates as a notable debut. It situates three women around a veteran who has been remanded home with shell-shock. The real combat in the book involves class bigotry on the home-front, persisting in the face of what for Britain was a ruthlessly democratizing war. The action here is close and intricate, savage and savagely observed at West’s deft hand. A cross-class love re-emerges out of the veteran’s PTSD—a trip back into an innocence forever lost, in a story that works a moral demolition of England’s status hierarchy as ruthlessly as the war did its material base.

Much longer, more nuanced, and for me the prize of the bunch is Vera Brittain’s famous Testament of Youth (2313). It is not just the war, not only Brittain’s vividly rendered service as a nurse in hospitals both on the front and back home, that come to life here. She also registers all the other forces and movements of the times that were underway before the war and deserve to be remembered beyond it, but also as complicated by it: the cross-currents of feminism, the cult of True Love with Earnest Feeling and Noble but Sure to be Frustrated Ideals (all depicted in poetry that makes us glad that Brittain found her way to prose), the unbelievable reticence about sex (kiss the girl already, departing soldier; you’re engaged for pity’s sake!); the pettiness of civilian complaints about wartime scarcities, particularly the poor supply of good help to assist Mama and Papa in their summering at seaside.

Through this dense maze Brittain quietly, powerfully layers up her losses—of lover, brother, friends, dreams. She eventually returns to Oxford after war’s end, only to find everyone hell-bent on forgetting the hell the nation has just been through, to the point of marginalizing those who had harrowed its depths. Vera scrambles for a career in writing and politics, and tries to keep the feminist flame alive. Eventually she does find love again, a much calmer, almost tentative and rueful venture, but deeply seasoned after all, and most precious.

Such was the humanity that survived World War I. God didn’t so far as these books are concerned. Vera Brittain’s is the only one to pay attention to religion at all. She still attended some services, the liturgy and music resonating deeply, but the chuch’s theological claims and ethical assurances were dead beneath a million shells on the Western front. It was that image—flashes of lightning which momentarily illuminate our way across a field of death and terror—that came to be used to describe divine revelation in the neo-orthodox reconstruction of theology that emerged in the years between this World War and the next. A spare salvation, difficult to see. Fit for the life, and deaths, here recounted.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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