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.