RERUN–August 1, 1914

Donald Sensing reminds us that the First World War began on August 1, 1914. Don has a summary, and there is a fairly extensive entry at Wikipedia.

I’m not sure that most Americans understand just how devastating this war was for Europe. The casualty levels were immense, representing significant portions of an entire generation.

At the French military academy of Saint-Cyr (the French equivalent to West Point) a memorial was erected after the war with the inscription “To the class of 1914.” Every single member of that class was killed in the war. (Reference here.)

The following passage is from F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night. The time is about 10 years after the end of the First World War. The setting is the battlefield of the Somme.

Rosemary waited tensely for Dick to continue.

“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”

“Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco—”

“That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty- five.”

“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

“You want to hand over this battle to D. H. Lawrence,” said Abe.

“All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,” Dick mourned persistently.

UPDATE 8/8/2012: See also Sgt Mom’s well-written post about her visit to Verdun.

7 thoughts on “RERUN–August 1, 1914”

  1. If only Sherman had been the model for WWI. His battles were of maneuver and minimized casualties. Grant was the hammer and the anvil. Without Sherman, he would have been at stalemate. Lincoln would have been defeated in 1864. Yet, Grant, not Sherman became the model. The French did not use the tank properly and were all about static defense, the trench. The Russians could have been Sherman but they were too poorly led. Sherman’s “bummers” were the style of his army. Total mobility.

    Joe Johnston, his opponent, was relieved by Jeff Davis because he kept being outmaneuvered by Sherman, His successor weres destroyed and Johnston eventually brought back but it was too late.

    Johnston was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. The weather was bad and Johnston was old. He was warned of the risk to his health. He said, “Sherman would do it for me.” A month later he died. Thus died the only two gentlemen of the war.

    Liddell Hart called Sherman “The First Modern General.”

  2. WWI gutted England, Germany and Russia … but France worst of all, I believe. As we’re going about with our very best archive posts, I think I’ll put up one of mine, too. A visit to Verdun and Bar le Duc in 1985.

  3. It did not gut England and Germany as WWII did. France was the scene of all the Western Front battles. A few were in Italy-Austrian territory. The devastation was economic and human. They are still finding German remains in Belguim with road building. A friend of mine, retired from the British Army, conducts tours. I’d like to take one someday.

  4. I always remembered a statistic in the Battle of the Somme – 50,000 killed in one day I think this was the reason Britain and France were so hesitant in confronting Hitler. Most of a generation had been killed/maimed.

  5. After the first day of the Somme, the British finally accepted the use of blood transfusion which the Americans and Canadians had been advocating since 1915. Not all incompetence was in the generals’ chairs.

    A major problem early on was tetanus in Belgium. The Belgians fertilized their fields with horse dung. There were thousands of cases, mostly fatal. It was not a problem in the Civil War as the southerns did not use horse dung for fertilizer.

    Tetanus toxoid, an inert vaccine, was used in WWII and there were 6 cases total in the US army.

  6. The first day of the Somme is estimated to have cost the UK close to 57,000 casualties, of which about 19,000 were fatal according to Wiki. This is consistent with other estimates. Oddly enough these numbers were often dwarfed by those killed in battle by edged weapons-one thinks of 50,000 plus killed at Cannae by Hannibal in one day. Edged, muscle powered, weapons made concentration militarily necessary,creating a target rich environment conducive to butchery..

  7. I had not realized that Fitzgerald had written such a powerful analysis of the Great War. Thanks for posting it.

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