Peter Steward's Web Site
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:
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:
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
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
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
The fields that once were
And ravaged by the shards of
Blasting the land, as if in
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
That drew them, like a moth to
Until that day when they were
To loved ones far away,
Falling, broken, unknowable,
Among the stark and splintered
On cratered ground where
© Beatrice Ewart - 2006