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Thursday, November 11, 2004


a satire of circumstance: 1914

from "a satire of circumstance", chapter one of paul fussell's "the great war and modern memory":

the british fought the war for four years and three months. its potential of ironic meaning, considered not now in relation to the complacencies of the past but in itself alone, emerges when we consider its events chronologically. the last five months of 1914, starting august 4, when the british declared war on the central powers, began with free maneuver in belgium and northern france and ended with both sides locked into the infamous trench system. before this stalemate, the british engaged in one major retreat and fought two large battles, although 'battles' is perhaps not the best word, having been visited upon these events by subsequent historiography in the interest of neatness and the assumption of something like a rational causality.

to call these things battles is to imply an understandable continuity with earlier british history and the imply that the war makes sense in a traditional way. as esme wingfield-stratford points out, "a vast literature has been produced in the attempt to bring (the great war) into line with other wars by highlighting its so-called battles by such impressive names as loos, verdun, the somme, and passchendaele...." this is to try to suggest that these events parallel blenheim and waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning.

the major retreat was the retreat from mons on august 24, necessitated when sir john french's four divisions -- the whole of the british force engaged -- found themselves outflanked. in early september this retreat merged into the first of the 'battles', known as the marne, where the british and the french gradually stopped the german advance on paris, although at the cost of half a million casualties on each side. prevented from going through to paris, the germans sought an opening further north, and each side now began trying to turn its enemy's western flank with the object of winning the war rapidly and economically; it was still thought by some that this was a compassable object.

the ensuing maneuvers during late october and early november are variously misnamed "the first battle of ypres" and "the race to the sea" -- that is, to the belgian seaports. the journalistic formula "the race to the ______" was ready to hand, familiar through its use in 1909 to describe peary's "race to the (north) pole" against cook. rehabilitated and applied to these new events, the phrase had the advantage of a familiar sportsmanlike, 'explorer club' overtone, suggesting that what was happening was not too far distant from playing games, running races, and competing in a thoroughly decent way.

by the middle of november these exertions has all but wiped out the original british army. at the beginning of the war, a volunteer had to stand five foot eight to get into the army. by october 11, the need for men was such that the standard was lowered to five feet five. and on november 5, after the thirty thousand casualties of october, one had to be only five feet three to get in. the permanent trenchline had been dug running from nieuport, on the belgian coast, all the way to the swiss border, with the notorious ypres salient built in.

the perceptive could already see what the war was going to be like. as early as october 1914, captain g.b. pollard wrote home, using gingerly a novel word whose implications would turn more and more ghastly as time went on: "it's absolutely certainly a war of 'attrition,' as somebody said here the other day, and we have got to stick it longer than the other side and go on producing men, money and material until they cry quits, and that's all about it, as far as i can see." lord kitchener was one who agreed with captain pollard. near the end of october he issued a call for 300,000 volunteers. most of them would be expended on the somme in 1916. the first christmas of the war say an absolute deadlock in the trenches. both british and german soldiers observed an informal, ad hoc christmas day truce, meeting in no man's land to exchange cigarettes and to take snapshots. outraged, the staff forbad this ever to happen again.

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