11.11.2018 marks 100 years since the armistice of the First World War.
The First World War was arguably the first multi-national conflict that used heavily mechanised machinery and weapons. These types of weapons had been seen before, in the American Civil War, in the Boer Wars in South Africa, and in the Balkans in 1908/1911. The First World War, however, saw the mass deployment of these military techniques across all fields of conflict. With mechanised warfare came mechanised death on a scale not previously imagined by the countries involved. It is estimated that the First World War caused 15-19 million fatalities, with a further 20-22 million casualties.
Of those killed in action, <800,000 men were British, 1.7 million were Russian, 1.15 million were French, 1 million were Austrian, 1.8 million were German, 300,000> were Turkish, 460,000 were Italian… the list goes on. It was slaughter on a scale that had previously been unimaginable. These are not tragedies when presented in this manner, these are statistics. It is impossible to comprehend numbers like this; to think about how many dead that is. These numbers don’t account for those men who was permanently injured, or who came home with shellshock (PTSD).
It can be hard to visualise what kind of impact that this level of loss and death had upon the population. The graphs below show the distinct pattern differences between 1911 and 1921.
The 1911 graphs illustrates mostly what is to be expected; a certain number of infants died before their fifth birthday, and there is a dip in the number of males age 20+. There were 40,000 more females aged 25 in 1911 than there were males.
The 1921 graph is where the impact of the First World War becomes obvious, it two key places.
The first is the massive dip (of over 100,000) of infants of both sexes between the age of 3-5. This clearly shows that not as many babies were being conceived and born in the years 1916-1918; potential fathers were either dead or away at war.
There is also a trough in the number of men aged 21+. This doesn’t come back in line with the female population numbers (relatively) until the age of 50. So whilst in 1911 the numbers of females and males aged 14 is roughly on parity; in 1921 there is a 60,000 population gap between females and males aged 24.
Of course there are other factors that must be considered in this; natural causes of death, accidental death, and of course; Spanish Flu which especially affected young men and women in their 20s and 30s. This does not explain the gap between men and women, however, as the flu was indiscriminate in those who succumbed. Therefore, the gap between males and females must be attributed to the staggering loss of life in the First World War.
The dip in births seen on the 1921 graph is reflected in the 1951 graph by the trough seen of female and males aged 30-34. This is then followed by a “baby boom” spike, seen on the 1921 graph in the number of infants aged 0 or 1. It is less obvious to see the effect of fatalities from the First World War on the 1951 graph, because those who served would have to be over 45, and death rates begin to rise naturally. There is, however, a clear discrepancy between the number of men and women still living over the age of 50, showing that the trough seen on the graph from 1921 is still effecting UK population figures 30 years later.
Of course World War One was much more than just the staggering loss of life. It just so happens that population demographics and the context in which they occur is something I’m super interested in (nerdy historian moment!).
Wilfred Owen was killed one week before the armistice. His last letter home stated:
There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.
Five days later, on November 4 1918, he was killed defending a bridge on the Oise Canal, along with 23 fellow soldiers.
He had joined the army in October 1915, and had started active service in June 1916. He was quick to discover the realities of war, and after being badly injured by a trench mortar, was diagnosed with shellshock, and transported to a military hospital in Edinburgh. It was here he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon. The book Regeneration by Pat Barker explores the happenings of Owen’s time at the military hospital.
In November 1917 he was judged fit for regimental duties, and after spending the winter in the Newcastle area, was transferred to the military base in Ripon, North Yorkshire, where he wrote some of his most well known poems; including ‘Futility’ (my favourite Owen poem). He turned 25 whilst staying in Ripon.
He returned to active duty in France in late August 1918, despite his friend Siegfried Sassoon threatening to “stab him in the leg” if he tried to return. So he didn’t tell him. Whether Sassoon and Owen shared a homosexual relationship is up for debate, although Sassoon (by his own admission) states that he wasn’t actively homosexual at the time that he knew Owen. His comment that he and Owen shared, ‘”the whole of a hot cloudless afternoon together.”‘ has often been taken as indication that they had a romantic relationship of some sort. It was through Sassoon and his connections that Owen was introduced to other famous literary figures of his day.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
I love this poem because to me, there is a mythical element to it, alongside the very immediate expression of death. The way I understand this poem is from the point of view of a comrade who has discovered the body of a fellow soldier. The manner of death is not explored, and the reader is left to wonder if it has been caused by conflict or exposure. It is futile to try and wake the man, however, for even the ‘kind old sun’ cannot bring him back from the dead, despite it once bringing life.
There is an almost Promethean aspect to this poem, which creates a two fold image of futility; 1) why did the sun give life to the clay for it to create only this (‘O what made fatuous sunbeams toil// To break earth’s sleep at all?’)? 2) The futile effort to revive the soldier in the here and now. There is a comment that it had taken so much for these limbs ‘so dear-achieved’ and that it had culminated in this complete and utter destruction. Owen is passing judgement on the sheer grossness of that fact.
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.
Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
—Is it that we are dying?
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
We turn back to our dying.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
This poem focuses on the non-combative aspect of trench warfare; the coldness, the wet, the mud, the sheer and complete misery of what goes on behind the lines. I think the line ‘We turn back to our dying’, shows that all the men, regardless of whether they were under fire or not.
The other moment that also highlights the utter darkness and terrible nature of the war in the line ‘For love of God seems dying’. To kill someone’s faith takes a moment of cataclysmic realisation, particularly in the context of the heavily Christianised context of the early twentieth century. It was the default setting to be Christian, to hold a belief in God, and yet the ‘poignant misery of dawn‘ has managed to destroy that deeply seated belief.
There is a lot more of Owen’s poetry that I could discuss here, and many more that have really important messages within them. I think the following quote is especially important in the current atmosphere of posturing and military escalation that seems to be going on around the world at the moment:
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.