THE CENTENARY OF THE END OF THE GREAT WAR
For much of my life World War I has hung in the dim past; a brown and white strip of celluloid showing huge, cumbersome guns, and soldiers marching through mud, sometimes at a pace speeded up by old movie film. People in my immediate family didn’t talk about it much, although my grandfather was there, a captain, awarded an MC, with an experience rather similar to George Sherston, aka Siegfried Sassoon (https://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/1099). The war was too long ago to be spoken of in detail, although my mother (still alive today) was born at the end of it. There are photos of Grandad sitting in his neat, military uniform. And I realise now that some of his habits and expressions come from that time: ‘on the word one, quick march’, he would say as we set off on a walk together.
I came to see that war a little differently when, more than 30 years after his death, I came across letters Grandad had written from the trenches. He was ‘verminous’. He asked a friend to send some warm socks (as though he were on holiday). As an officer, I regret to say, he sometimes seemed to approach the war as a kind of rugby match – one side had to win. That’s what he said to friends and family, but maybe talking like that was the only way he could cope.
No war historian, I started to think about World War I as the beginning of modern warfare. There were still battlefields, as there were at Waterloo or Trafalgar, or even the Wars of the Roses, but the enemy (and presumably the allies) did unsportsmanly things, like throwing bombs at the other side’s latrines. There were planes; fragile bird-like things, but they could bomb cities and kill civilians.
Fighting was no longer confined to a battlefield. Horrific numbers of soldiers were killed. My English teacher’s fiancé was killed in World War I – and this was typical. There were so many unmarried women of that generation because, due to the casualties, there was a disproportionate number of women left in the world. In spite of the ministrations of devoted nurses – many miles away from home for the first time in their lives – young men died terrible, often lonely deaths, without pain killers and without drugs to stop infection.
Young men from Australia and New Zealand went off to see the world ‘for free’, and they’d be home by Christmas. To volunteer was noble, doing your bit for your country. But these callow youths were soon squelching around in putrid trenches and standing next to friends whose guts were ripped out by grenades. They weren’t home for Christmas.
‘Lest we forget’ … But will we? Technological developments of the time created not only horrific weapons of destruction, but the camera. Soldiers had their own box brownies and could snap scenes to remind us of the pitiless horror they experienced. Because of these amateur snapshots we know far more of the detail of what fighting that war was like than we do about, say, the Battle of Waterloo or even the American Civil War. The ‘war to end all wars’ certainly didn’t achieve that objective. Was anything learned as a consequence of that war? The world today is certainly not a more peaceful place.
One way of helping us to experience what that war was like, so long ago, is the excellent ‘The Great War Exhibition’ that I visited while I was in Wellington, New Zealand. There are displays of all kinds of weapons, recreations of a recruiting office, a double-decker London bus like the 900 that were used as ambulances and to transport troops, and a shorthorn reconnaissance aircraft with its original engine hangs above us.
There were two things in this exhibition that were outstanding. The first was a ‘Trench Experience’, where a group of no more than 6 at a time was taken on a guided tour of a trench, reconstructed to resemble Quinn’s Post trench at Gallipoli. Although it wasn’t damp, most other features were present: the noise, the narrow walls, uneven surface, and an attempt to recreate the smells (although I thought perhaps they had been toned down a bit). We were led through these winding passages and at each turn we would come across a soldier or group of soldiers acting as they would have – eating (cans of fly-infested bully beef), cleaning their weapons, preparing for attack … and then, near the end, there was an attack.
These very realistic three-dimensional scenes were created by up-to-date digital film and a technique called Pepper’s Ghost, which uses foil to give an illusion of ghostliness. The soldiers spoke directly to us, and when the final attack came, they had ‘arranged for our evacuation’. Some members of the group I was with found the experience quite claustrophobic – and we were only in there for about 15 minutes!
The other feature of the exhibition that I found quite exceptional were the photographs – so many, all taken by soldiers at the time, mainly with their box brownie cameras, bought on the way, in Egypt. Sir Peter Jackson (famous for his direction of Lord of the Rings) had the photos painstakingly digitally colourised by his team at Weta Digital. As he says, the troops saw the war in colour.
Sir Peter Jackson at the exhibition
There were also displays of descriptions written by soldiers at the time – mainly taken from letters. I noticed a tendency for those in higher ranks to focus on the successful outcomes, it was those in the lower ranks who wrote of the vermin, the pain and the hunger. World War I is no longer a drab, crackling old movie for me.
11th November 2018 will be the centenary of the end of the terrible war that didn’t end all wars. There will be all kinds of commemorations. My writing group, Elwood Writers, (Elwoodwriters.com) has been asked to present a program for the Vision Australia Radio program Cover to Cover. We will be reading pieces we have written; fiction, poetry and memoir. The program goes to air on Friday at 8 pm (AEST) and on Sunday at 1.30 pm (AEST). Locally the station is found at 1179AM, also on VAR digital (https://radio.visionaustralia.org/podcasts/podcast/covertocover).