My daughter and I are watching and very much enjoying the period splendors of Downton Abbey, showing on the local PBS channel here over the last couple of weeks – just as much as my parents and I enjoyed Upstairs, Downstairs – the original version, yea these decades ago. Of course, the thrust of this season is the effects of WWI on the grand edifice of Edwardian society in general. The changes were shattering … they seemed so at the time, and even more in retrospect, to people who lived through the early 20th century in Western Europe, in Russia, the US and Canada. In reading 20th century genre novels, I noted once that one really didn’t see much changing in book set before and after WWII, save for the occasional mention of a war having been fought: people went to the movies, listened to the radio, drove cars, wore pretty much the same style of clothes … but in novels set before and after WWI, the small changes in details were legion.
England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia – they were the epicenter, seemingly – the place where it hit hardest, and afterwards nothing was ever the same. Of course, in Russia with the Red Revolution and all, things were quite definitely never the same, and Austria lost the last bits of empire … and the other nations were gutted of a whole generation of young men. In the American experience, the only thing which came close was the Civil War, where a single battle in Pennsylvania, or Virginia or Tennessee could be the means of casually extinguishing the lives of all the young men in a certain township or county… just gone, in a few days or hours of hot combat around a wheat field, a peach orchard, a sunken bend in a country road. The Western front (not to negate the war in the Italian Alps, at Gallipoli or the Germans and Russians) went on more or less at that horrendous rate, week in, week out – for years.
The marks of it are still horrifyingly visible, even though the numbers of living veterans of it can be about counted on the fingers of a pair of hands. Because it’s not only the survivors’ trauma – it’s the mark and void left by the fallen. So many that I remember a college textbook of mine – I think that it was a required sociology or statistics course – had the population breakdowns by age of various European countries. In all cases, there was a pronounced dip in the numbers of males who would have been of early adult age in 1914-1918. This is reflected again in the acres and acres of white crosses in Flanders, on the tight-packed lists of names carved on memorials large and small; not too much marked in the United States, but in the Commonwealth nations, and in Britain itself, that sense of loss must have seemed suffocating. Even low and middle-brow genre novels showed the scars that WWI left, especially if they were written by contemporaries to the conflict. Memoirs, histories, memorials and all… there was loss written large, by people who looked at the ‘before’ and then at the present ‘after’ with an aching sense of the void between, a muddy void into which friends, schoolmates, lovers, husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers and certain illusions had all vanished.
Nothing was the same, afterwards.
Although perhaps the war wasn’t directly the change agent, it pushed some developments already in the works farther along than they would have been. The war served as a handy delineating point for those who lived through it … electricity everywhere, motor cars ditto, airplanes as something more than a toy for enthusiasts, women voting and wearing short skirts and routinely forgoing corsets, half a dozen live-in servants in a big house which once had been staffed by three times that many … all that. The worst loss was something a little less concrete – and that was, I think, a certain sense of confidence and optimism. I like writing about the 19th century because of that very thing: generally people believed with their whole hearts and without a speck of cynicism, that the conditions of their lives were steadily improving, that conditions which had plagued mankind for centuries were fixable, and that their leaders were able and well-intentioned. All those beliefs were deeply shaken or utterly destroyed during those four years – and that is why that war still casts a long shadow. And makes for an interesting and evocative television show – like Downton Abby and Upstairs, Downstairs.
(Crossposted at www.ncobrief.com)