Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”
What it comes down to is that there are two sides to any event, like a war or a terrorist attack, which rallies people together. There is union, but also violence and repression to those that are in the wrong place (or of the wrong race, or nationality) at the wrong time. Triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gets so much romanticism, but for 100,000+ Japanese-Americans who were herded into camps, they suffered because of the drive to war. Intellectuals of both liberal and conservative background have often welcomed war as an engine for social good, but as Randolph Bourne thought, “using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass”. Social solidarity in wartime comes with special symptoms: jingoism, inflexibility, and mob sanction.
1917 wasn’t just about giving the Kaiser a good licking, it was about government-led oppression against trade unionists, socialists, and anyone who opposed the war. That legacy remains with us- Edward Snowden, should he end up in US custody, would face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn’t even allow him any kind of legal defense. Any justification, no matter how good, is irrelevant. That was the dark mentality of America at the time. You’re with us, or against us. No extenuating circumstances, no middle ground.
The year in which we live is unusual, in that it is an important anniversary of two separate wars beginning a long phase which is more like a meat grinder than a human endeavor. In 1864 U.S Grant did what no previous Union general did- get beat by Lee yet keep moving forward. Eventually he trapped Lee at Petersburg, south of Richmond, Virginia. The subsequent trench warfare would be repeated on a much larger scale starting in 1914. Both, to different groups of people, dispelled the idea of military glory and honor. War was dehumanizing, dirty, and the causalities were mostly pointless. Never had so many young men in their prime been sent to their deaths so casually, and without effect.
In a long view of history, it was imperial powers being unable to live with great colonial wealth in peace. The conflict was sparked due to Austro-Hungary’s attempt to keep firm control of the Balkans, and the reason Germany and other powers were so well-prepared to kill one another was the decades of geopolitical chess. Germany wanted to exploit more people abroad but showed up to the world stage with all the choices cuts picked.
Overall, the Western Front was fought in very nice country. In peacetime this was mostly productive farmland and small towns. People go there for natural beauty, yet by 1918 a vast swath of it looked like a dead moon. What this long-distance shot doesn’t show is that the no man’s land stopped anyone from burying bodies, so instead they just rotted, half buried by shrapnel and shell holes.
Dan Carlin, who did a similar series of podcasts about the Eastern Front of World War II, is presently doing a series about the Great War- Blueprint for Armageddon. Using a lot of diaries from regular soldiers, he captures how much optimism there was in the early going- adventure! Glory! Fun! That turned to terror, fear, and then a dull nihilism, where the threat of execution kept the frontlines from depleting completely. It’s recommended.
To remember the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, I dug up a poem written by Ivor Gurney on that day. I found a scanned copy of it from an old compilation in his collection on the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, run by the University of Oxford.
I can’t find the text of this poem anywhere else, so I’ve transcribed the scanned copy. I will bet you have never read this poem before, unless you are a serious fan of Gurney.
Written on November 11th, 1918.
“Day of Victory”
The dull, dispiriting November weather
Hung like a blight on town and tower and tree,
Hardly was Beauty anywhere to see,
Save – how fine rain together
With spare last leaves of creepers once showed wet,
As it were, with blood of some high-making passion,
Drifted slow and slow.
But steadily aglow
The City was beneath its gray, and set
Strong-mooded above the Time’s inclemency
Flaunting from houses, over the rejoicing crowd
Flags waved, that told how nation against nation
Should war no more, tending their wounds awhile-
Sullen the vanquished, Visitors with heads bowed.
But yet the bells from the square towers pealed Victory.
The whole time cried Victory; Victory flew
Banners invisible argent; intangible music,
A glory of spirit wandered the wide air through.
All knew it; nothing mean of fire or common
Ran in men’s minds – None so poor but knew
Some touch of sacred wonder, noble wonder.
Thoughts surface moving under;
Life’s texture coarse transfiguring through and through.
With sense of consummation undeserved,
Desire unfulfilled beyond dreams, completion
Humbly accepted – a proud and thankful nation
took the reward of purpose had not swerved,
But steadily before
Saw out, with equal mind, through alternation
Of hope and doubt – a four-year sway of Fate.
And glad was I,
Glad: who had seen
By Somme and Ancre too many soldiers lie
Too many lovely bodies racked too bitterly.
Joking, friendly-quarrelling, holiday-making,
Eddying hither, thither, without stay
That concourse went; squibs, crackers, squibbing, cracking.
Sounding; Bugles triumphing clear above all –
Hail-fellow, cat-call . . .
Yet one discerned
A new spirit learnt of pain, some great
Acceptance out of hard endurance learned
And truly, wrested bare of hand of Fate.
The solider from his body slips the pack,
Staggers, relaxes, crouches, then lies back –
Glad for the end of torment. Here was more.
It was as if the woman’s spirit moved
That multitude, and never of man that pays
So lightly for the treasure of his days –
Some woman that too greatly has beloved.
Yet willingly her care of life forgone;
Her half o being losing with her son –
Beloved, beautiful, born-of-agony one.
The dull skies wept, the clouds dropped suddenly:
No pride, no triumph there.
Belgium, the Stars and Stripes, Gaul, Italy,
Britain, Mistress assured, Queen of the Sea
Colours forlorn showed; rags glory-bare.
Night starless fell, to blur all; Fell over
That strange assort of life;
Sister and lover,
Brother, child, wife,
Parent, each with his thought, careless or passioned
Of those who gave their frames of flesh to cover
From spoil their land and folk, desperately fashioned