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The object of my brief pieces on the First World War has not been to look at the military strategies or the history of the conflict, but to try and provide a basic understanding in words and photographs of the hopelessness of not only this war, but other conflicts as well.

There will always be aggressors and there will always be a need for armed combat to ensure that an unsteady peace exists in the majority of the nations of the world.

But the futility, stupidity and crass lying of the First World War makes it a unique subject to study. This was the point where propaganda and hypocracy  reached new heights. In my short journey I soon became aware of the lies and misleading information being used to get young men of all nationalities to sign up. If lying was the norm were these men truly gullible or true patriots?

The answer probably lies somewhere between the two. The Germans told their students that the war would be over by September so that they could return to their studies, the British were slightly more conservative in stating that the war would be over by Christmas. Were these idle promises or did the respective nations use them as a sop?

To believe the latter would lead to a total breakdown in belief in the human race. To believe the former would lead to an equal belief that the rulers of various nations were naive to say the least.

Whatever the reasons, young British men signed up to serve King and Country without any realisation of what that would entail. They thought war would be heroic - presumably a friendly exchange of fire followed by a hot meal and comfortable bed for the night.

What they encountered was so different. Sleep deprivation, miles and miles of marching with heavy equipment, water filled trenches, little food - and they were the good things about the conditions. Shattered limbs and death awaited many and for those suffering from shell shock - well they weren't killed by the enemy but by their own country!!

In his book World War One - A Narrative (1965), Philip Warner succinctly sums it all up in the following words:

It seemed incredible that thousands of young men could have been killed on the Somme and at Passchendaele because of nationalists squabbling in countries they had probably never heard of, or if they had heard of, would not be able to place on a  map.

He goes on to say: 

Even today, the battlefields and cemeteries of northern France and Belgium convey a sense of chilling horror with their rows and rows of graves, some with pathetic headstones with the name of an only son, perhaps aged 19, some with no name at all, just the inscription "A Soldier Known Unto God"

And on the conditions, he has the following to say:

For four years men lived and died in stinking, often sodden, trenches, incessantly harassed by gunfire, snipers and gas, and infested with rats, lice, bugs and fleas. The only reason why more men did not die of disease was that they were killed by bullets, shells, snipers and gas before disease could get a hold. Nothing in previous wars had prepared armies for horrors of  this scale .... As the months crawled on, all the belligerents began to feel that this situation was now the norm and there was no end in sight in the forseeable future.

And this was what the men suffered when it came to eating: 

Huge armies on the march need enormous supplies of food forage and ammunition. The two German armies on the right wing of the German sweep in 1914 soon advanced faster and further than their food supplies would allow. As these two armies alone numbered 600,000 men, it is obvious that even if they had plundered Belgium unmercifully they would still have faced dire shortages.... the troops had no bread for four days, and a day's food consisted of a piece of stale bread, a cup of soup, and a cup of coffee. From the fields and orchards through which they marched the Germans looted turnips and fruit, which they ate raw and often unripe.

The propaganda idea of the war is perfectly underlined by the famous (or infamous) Angel of Mons. The legend grew up that angels had been seen fighting side by side with the British troops.... it was not the only fanciful story to raise morale at the time ... Wild rumours circulate spontaneously in wartime and are sometimes officially inspired, if thought good for morale or misleading to the enemy.

And for those who hadn't yet taken part in the fighting there was still an optimism that far outshone the realities which they were not aware of: 

In spite of the mental adjustments to the fact that the war had not ended by Christmas, as had been hoped for and expected, enthusiasm for it by those who had not taken part in the fighting did not slacken. Volunteers continued to overwhelm the recruiting offices. The problem was not a shortage of men, but of everything else: camps, weapons and instructors... Totally unsuitable people were commissioned and put in charge of young enthusiasts. The latter tolerated the discomforts and frustrations of their early days in the Army because they believed that once they were overseas military life would be well ordered and practical... In all armies, before the grim realities of death and maiming were seen, there was a general sense of elation that this was a man's job, that it would impress ones wife or girlfriend, that it would offer comradeship, possible glory, public esteem, the chance of easy sex and, not least, a relief from the tedium of everyday existence.

Most of the young thought war was an exciting adventure, a form of crusade.... Many wrote poems which were nothing more than romantic nonsense in contrast to the later ones by Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg and others who had experienced the horrors of trench warfare.

Unfortunately, many well-educated young men, schoolmasters, lawyers, medical students, engineers etc, were so infected with romantic patriotism that they enlisted as privates and welcomed the fact that they were rushed off to the front immediately to fill the gaps left by the casualties. Many of them were soon killed in suicidal infantry attacks.... Scores of potential officers were killed in the early days of trench warfare, a process which led to an acute shortage of qualified officers later in the war.

Many of the regular officers displayed remarkable indifference to death, danger or even discomfort. Some commanding officers flatly refused to wear steel helmets and would advance across No Man's Land carrying nothing more lethal than a walking-stick. Many soldiers who had joined in order to get away from the tedium of peacetime jobs were surprised to find that war consisted of long periods of boredom, often shared with companions one would never have chosen in peacetime, and shorter periods of acute terror.

At some time in the future I will continue my look at the propaganda aspects of a war in which there were no winners, only losers.  But for now I would like to finish with a poem written by a resident of my village in England - Hethersett. Bea Ewart's grandfather Lance Corporal Henry Grant of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards was killed at the Battle of Ginchy on 15th September, 1916, and is remembered on the famous Thiepval Memorial in France which includes the hames of those who have no known grave. Bea visited the Somme in 2006 and wrote the following moving poem about that visit. I am very grateful to Bea for permission to reproduce the poem on this site. It is simply entitled "THIEPVAL."

 

For miles around, it towers above 

The fields that once were gouged 

And ravaged by the shards of war, 

Blasting the land, as if in readiness 

For those who would not leave.

 

Their names, cut in the stone by caring hands,

Now grace its piers for all who come to look 

And take a little time to think of who they were 

And what they might have been 

Before they heard the call to arms 

That drew them, like a moth to flame, 

Until that day when they were lost 

To loved ones far away, 

Falling, broken, unknowable, 

Among the stark and splintered trees 

On cratered ground where poppies grew 

Next Spring.

Beatrice Ewart - 2006