“You will be home before the leaves have fallen from their trees.” As in most war, the first casualty was the truth. When Europe slid from a nervous peace into raging war, almost everyone anticipated a brisk, spectacular and triumphant campaign. In the summer of July 1914, war was a great and glorious suggestion. Not yet real, a ‘good ole biff’ was a glamorous image that appealed to soldiers and civilians alike. Indeed, attitudes towards war were most enthusiastic and joyous amongst almost everybody in both Britain and Germany.
It had been a long time since either side had experienced a real war. For Britain, it had been a century since any large-scale violence. Not since 1871 had any German seen a bloody battle. As it was, not even anybodies great grandfather could tell the people what it is like to live in war. By 1914, enough time had passed for the ugliness of war to be clouded by romance. A joyous crusading mood swept Europe as the righteousness of each nation was indubitable. It was built into the psyche of Britain and Germany that it was the other side that was up to no good and stirring for a fight.
Everybody willfully accepted that it war guilt was completely on the hands of the enemy. Prime Minister Asquith of Britain announced to parliament, “No nation has ever entered a great conflict with a clearer conscience or stronger conviction to defend principles vital to the civilized world.” Ironically, claims to righteousness were echoed in Germany. Popular culture, in the form of poetry, novels and cartoons, celebrated the arrival of a chance to show the greatness of your nation. In Germany in particular, the whole population had embraced the culture of war with books and poems celebrating its glory topping the best-seller lists.
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British writers and artists also exploited the hunger for war. Patriotism, bordering on racism, was the theme of almost everything. Thomas Hardy’s popular poem, Men Who March Away referred to the German people as “braggarts” and claimed, “They surely must bite the dust.” Boy’s magazines, immensely popular at the time, stereotyped the Hun as deviously mustached always plotting some evil scheme to ruin the world.
Another good indicator to the high-spirited attitudes was the unprecedented volunteering to fight. In the euphoric climate of blind patriotism, Kitchener’s call to arms was eagerly answered. In fact in this time of war romance, the worry among men was the war would be over before they had time to get involved in such an appealing cause. One man wrote: “I feel restless, excited, eager to do something for the desperate cause of England.” Justification for enlisting was obvious. Another man wrote: “It should not be seen as un-Christian to carry a gun when one uses it to carry out God’s will.” AJP Taylor describes it as “the greatest surge of willing patriotism ever recorded.”
With God on their side, and the “Women of Britain saying go”, the men of Europe happily dived face first into the war. So with hysterical nationalism thwarting logic and cool thought, the ancient motto of dulce et decorum est came into the fore. Latin for it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country; all encouraged this old virtue. So it was that the naïve men of Europe marched off amidst wild parades of frenzied patriotism. Unfortunately, they would not be home for Christmas.
Four months of fighting passed. Christmas came and Kitchener’s sobering yet logical July prediction was realized. By the time Christmas trees were going up, Germany’s Schlieffen Plan had failed, the race to the sea had ended, a 700km trench line had been dug, the machine gun’s deadly effectiveness had been observed, and the flower of the French and British armies had been decimated lying dead in Belgium and France.
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The ugly stalemate was completely contradictory with to the image of splendid warfare promoted in August. The glamorous promises made by the Kaiser and King turned out to be a lie. Instead of enjoying Christmas dinner, showing off medals of bravery to wife and children, the men who had marched off in wild parades were either dead, diseased or soon to be one of these.
Despite this ominous picture, attitudes of civilians, including the large numbers who were to enlist as soldiers, remained buoyant. Instead of making the people realize the stupidity of untamed patriotism, the dark situation of Christmas 1914 actually bolstered the determination of the people to fight.
This maintenance of war enthusiasm was largely a result of the propaganda and censorship that became part of government policy. In this new style of warfare that required a large proportion of the civilian men to fight, it was vital to the government’s of Europe that public opinion remain strong. Consequently, the patriotism of the recruitment campaign morphed into blatant propaganda and media deception. The tabloid papers of London became the mouthpiece for the militaristic government to insight hatred of the enemy. False reports of German atrocities flooded the news. Apparently, Belgian babies were bayoneted and their mothers raped and murdered. Magazines posted graphic, yet staged, photographs of German soldiers standing over dead nuns. A similar campaign of propaganda and outright deceit was used in Germany. Again, professed enemies mirrored each other remarkably well.
The campaigns of propaganda were frighteningly successful. Evidence of the continuing loyalty to the cause of war was the unceasing flock of men on both sides, enlisting to join in the war against evil. While the smell of Christmas dinner was still in the air, more and more men lined up to fight a war that was promised to be over by now.
Most of the British who signed up did so under Kitchener’s radically successful Pals scheme. To use Churchill’s phrase, this rallying of “the ardent ones” proved the public will to continue the war was as strong as ever.
But attitudes based on illusion cannot last forever.
1915 came and the butchering of the regular armies sadly transformed to the slaughter of virtually civilian men. The tragic combination of the romantic ‘cult of the offense’ and the pragmatic mechanics of the machine gun, saw continuous waves of men marched at enemy trenches in ridiculously futile attempts to ‘biff fritz,’ or ‘torment Tommy.’
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This horror on the front saw a spiteful gap open up between the attitudes of the propaganda-blinded citizens on the home front, and the tortured men living in muddy blood soaked trenches. Shell shock became a mysterious disorder resulting from continuing exposure to extreme stress and trauma. But in the empathy devoid attitudes of those reading about war in the tabloids, this frightening phenomenon was callously put down to weakness and cowardliness.
Ordinary men who had slept next to the corps of their friends while rats scampered on his face were thrown into utter mental torment. Unfortunately for the government, telling the tormented man the same lies the papers told the population at home was not a cure. The illusion of glorious war still maintained at home by the propaganda and censorship was completely shattered by anyone who served on the real front of the war.
But the blissfully ignorant attitudes of those at home were soon to catch up with those suffering on the front. The dismal failure of the ‘big push’ in July 1916 forced the previously comfortable civilians to experience some of the pain of war. The successful allied recruitment campaign under Kitchener’s pals scheme had gathered hundred’s of thousands of young friends from all over the countryside. The young men were reserved to be used in the ridiculously optimistic Somme offensive.
After General Haig’s relentless artillery bombardment of a 20 km section, 120 thousand young men, yet to see any action at all, climbed out of their trenches to claim the cleared out territory. But the territory wasn’t at all cleared. Densely packed brigades of pals walked slowly into sprays of bullets. The eager young friends were simply cut to pieces. No glory. No chance for dashing skill and bravery, no ‘sticking it to the bosche.’ They were simply killed straight away. The first day on the first of July was the last day of 20 thousand volunteers, and the wounding of 40 thousand more.
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Haig ordered persistence at the expense of 3 thousand more young lives every day until the offense finally ground to a halt in November with a trivial result. The offensive was not only a British tragedy. The bloody attrition killed tens of thousand of Germans and smashed apart much of their morale. As with most battles in the Great War, there had been two losers.
The massacre at The Somme was too big to be hidden from the people at home. The government could not lie to whole communities robbed of a generation. ‘Tow years in the making, two minutes in the destroying.’ This popular, yet depressing witticism sums up the new sober mood of people who never see their sons again.
Staged posters of Satanist Germans were no longer enough to justify the war to a population robbed of an age bracket. Poetry was an effective means of taking the people at home on a gruesome mental journey to the front where poisonous gas choked and blinded innocent men. Wilfred Owen referred to the motto of dulce et decorum est as ‘the old lie.’
Reactions following the Somme saw the morale and attitudes of civilians and soldiers alike crushed into disillusionment and spite. The revered aristocracy of 1914 became, as Sassoon wrote, ‘incompetent swine’ who played with thousands of men like plastic pieces on a map. As it reads in Tommy goes to War: “The Somme was an event so cataclysmic, it killed the breezy, crusading spirit of 1914 and 15. It destroyed once and for all the grand heroic view of war.” With Public opinion shattered, the British government was forced to join the Germans and employ conscription to get the newly aware population to fight for them. Unfortunately, the attitudes of the Generals, safe behind the lines, did not change with civilians and soldiers. The slaughter continued.
But as 1918 came and the Americans entered the war and the British blockaded Germany, the frustrated public could see the end. Four years of stalemate broke, as the Hindenburg line was broken. November came and peace was on the table. Movements for harmony were made as the Germans capitulated. The Kaiser abdicated amidst a long time coming surge of revolutionary ideas in Germany.
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Disillusionment was replaced by mutiny and the Allies, with American exception, were not keen to pursue the war any further. All attitudes were well and truly peaceful. The armistice was signed on the 11th of November and weary civilians rejoiced while traumatized troops returned to live with gruesome nightmares for the rest of their lives.
A wise historian once said, “War a glorious idea, but glorious only in idea.” In truth, war is ugly, tragic and ultimately has no victor. Sadly, it took four years of fighting for the people and soldiers of Europe to learn this.