Contrary to the calculations and expectations of the generals, the First World War was not only protracted but also acquired a global scale and became a “big war.” German historians also note that it was the first “industrial” or “machine war” in world history (Charles River Editors 19). In this war, new weapons, the production of which was associated with the development of the first scientific and technological revolution were used for the first time. During the war, flamethrowers, tanks, fighter planes, etc. were introduced. As the battles of Verdun, Somme, and Maas showed, they had a greater destructive ability, which led to the deaths of many millions of people.
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On all fronts, the war became a positional, trench one. The operations consisted of either trying to turn the tide of events using new weapons (gas attacks by the Germans, the use of tanks by the Entente) or, when this was not possible, exterminating the maximum possible manpower of the enemy. The classic example of a major battle of this war was the famous “Verdun sausage grinder” in 1916: a series of frontal attacks by the warring parties, which lasted almost a year, took the lives of more than a million soldiers and did not lead to any real changes in the front line.
Such losses, of course, had a tremendous psychological impact on the perception of the realities of war by front-line soldiers. These tragedies and horrors of the First World War found their reflection in some great literature of the century, in particular, Remembering the Great War: Writing and Publishing the Experiences of World War I by Ian Andrew Isherwood. The book is unique in the sense that it is both scholarly and interesting for the usual reader. It represents an invaluable summary of experiences and evidence of patriotism and cowardice, real human feelings, motives, and fears in the trenches of World War I. As the author himself notes, “today, the war is remembered largely from accounts by survivors who wrestled with its legacy” (Isherwood 9).
The author builds his analysis in the broad context of society, culture, politics, and propaganda as if comparing it with the reality on the battlefields and in the minds of people. For many soldiers, participating in a machine war, killing the enemy turned into something similar to work, a kind of “production process,” while for others it became a difficult moral trauma that they could not cope with. Many factors of the psychophysical state of the troops first appeared namely in the First World War; therefore, an understanding of these features is important for assessing their role in modern military conflicts. Thus, the scientific significance of the book under consideration should be noted – it is important for understanding the mechanisms of the formation of the psycho-physical state of combatants in modern warfare, which humanity first encountered in 1914-1918.
The most difficult challenge at the front for the soldier was the need to constantly remain extremely careful to have a chance to survive. This led the military to a state of constant mental stress. The trenches turned into a place in which the soldiers experienced fear and boredom, impending mortal danger, and stagnation. In the most complete forms, the soldier “microcosm” took shape in the northern sections of the Western Front (Isherwood 54-57). It was about the situational logic of survival in a space saturated with various forms of violence, about attempts to build some kind of counterbalance to the principle of “kill and be killed.” Isherwood notes that for World War I participants, life was divided into two worlds – an idealized world before the war (which they saw in their youth) and a period of maturity after they became eyewitnesses of violence and death. The phenomenon of the “lost generation,” described later in literature, is directly related to this.
The experience of each participant in the war is unique and individual, but, at the same time, is quite typical in the context of that time. Therefore, it is so important for the modern historian to penetrate the inner world of compatriots who, with arms in their hands, defended the interests of their country, to study in detail the complex and multifaceted ‘dimension’ of frontal everyday life. This new knowledge of objective-subjective reality, seen through the eyes of a person who is in direct contact with the enemy, experienced by him and reproduced in synchronous and retrospective sources, provides a lot to understand the state of a country, society, state, waging a specific war, and the consequences of this war for the whole society, its post-war life. “The war was great cultural event,” as Isherwood writes in his book (Isherwood 10). The front daily routines of the First World War represent vivid proof of this.
The First World War shocked the world’s public consciousness. It was psychological stress for the whole of modern civilization, showing that all the scientific, technical, cultural, and supposedly moral progress made by people is not able to prevent the instant slide of humanity to a state of bloody barbarism and savagery. The year 1914 opened the way for the wars of a new era in which mass and sophisticated cruelty unprecedented until then appeared. This, all the more so on a massive scale, did not happen in any previous wars, even the most destructive ones. Such was the everyday reality of those who turned out to be a direct participant in the First World War – the reality in which people lived and died. The description of the consequences of this reality for society and the individual, based on documentary evidence and personal letters, presented in the book of Isherwood, is a valuable contribution to a systematic understanding of the First World War in the context of historical, social, literary, and even psychological research.
Charles River Editors. The Weapons of World War I: A History of the Guns, Tanks, Artillery, Gas, and Planes Used during the Great War. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
Isherwood, Ian. Remembering the Great War: Writing and Publishing the Experiences of World War. I. I.B. Tauris, 2017.