The Reality of Trench Warfare in Literature – WWI

Wikipedia CommonsPrior to WWI, warfare was little different than it was in the Medieval and Renaissance period. Armies would meet on the field of battle, and a series of charges, defensive maneuvers and tactical strategies would take place until one side or the other conceded.  With the advancement of technology brought on by the first and second industrial revolutions, however, all that began to change.  It was no longer feasible for two lines of battle to stand on opposite sides of a field firing at each other, especially with the introduction of rapidly firing weapons like machine guns and artillery.  Armies would have (and did) get chewed up and the carnage introduced with this level of modern warfare was unparalleled.  While carnage and horror has always been a part of warfare since the invention of weapons of any kind, it was entirely possible that no one – from the leadership down to the common infantryman – could have foreseen the kind of fighting that became a staple of World War 1.

While on the Homefront, propaganda about the war lingered with tales of heroism from the allies and their soldiers and the enemy was painted as evil that had to be utterly destroyed, the reality of the front lines, especially on the Western front were far more grim. Those realities, and not the propaganda generated by the governments, is what lingers when thinking about WWI and its horrors and it is reflected in literature.  While prior poetry and artistry reflected death on a battlefield as a high honor as we saw in last week’s reading, Expressionism really took a foothold during the war and in its remembrance.  Writers struggled to capture the nature of the reality of war, and did so by describing in detail the feel of the battlefield, the life and death struggle that the soldiers endured and the grim realities they faced between charges attempting to gain the upper hand, artillery fire aimed at the trenches, sniper fire from the enemy camps, poison gas and explosives and so on.[1]  In the poems provided for this week’s reading specifically, the soldiers who are risking life and limb on the battlefield are described as cattle, standing helpless in front of deadly technology designed to tear them apart.[2]

While being an average soldier in any kind of battle has to be psychologically traumatic even for the bravest of people, I can only imagine that being stuck in a hole that was dug in the ground, watching your friends die around you, waiting for an order to charge towards certain death and wondering if the next shell, bullet or gas was going to take your life must have been much more difficult than a single decisive battle where death was possible but you may get lucky and survive.  Psychological issues like Shell Shock rose from this period, and many soldiers were tried and/or executed for desertion or acts of cowardice.  Some even injured themselves to be able to escape the realities of the trenches.[3]  I cannot imagine a reality so terrifying that I would be willing to risk shooting off a finger or worse as my last recourse in hopes of escape – only to risk execution if I was found out.

[1] Felix Gilbert and David Clay Large, The End of the European Era 1890 to the Present: 6th edition (New York: W.W. Norton & company, 2009), pg. 136-137.

[2] Wilfred Owen, Anthem for a Doomed Youth, Modern History Sourcebook: WWI Poetry, web, accessed 2 November 2016, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1914warpoets.html

[3] Michael Duffy, Self-Inflicted Wounds, FirstWorldWar.com, web, accessed 2 November 2016, http://www.firstworldwar.com/atoz/siw.htm

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