In the summer of 1914, with the war in Europe just two weeks old, Henry James knew that something had been lost forever.
“Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I’m sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it,” the American author, an expatriate in London at the time, wrote to a friend. “You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. … It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours, in the most horrible retroactive way.”
James died in 1916, two years before the armistice was declared between the allies and the Germans, and the wreckage of World War I was beyond even his imagination. Millions were dead, empires dissolved, centuries-old beliefs upended. Many survivors wondered how the world had been caught up in a war fought not for any identifiable cause, but because no one knew how to stop it.
Prolonged conflicts destroy the worlds they were born in, and few did so as thoroughly and as terribly as World War I, which began 100 years ago this month. Among writers, World War I changed both the stories they told and how they told them. Artists in general left behind an extraordinary legacy of painting, music, literature and film and many of the defining achievements of a movement, Modernism, that challenged our very identities and raised questions still being asked today.
“If you look at the 19th century, you have this whole notion of progress through technology — the notion of science, the increasing organization of society,” says Jan Schall, an art historian and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.
“What the war did was turn this ideal upside down. You had mass death through mass technological warfare — the use of chemicals, the use of machinery. And you see the impact on the kind of art that is being turned out, a sense of discontinuity and fragmenting.”
World War I was unique for the art it inspired, and for the art’s disillusion with war itself; winners and losers both despaired. In an essay written for an ongoing World War I exhibit at the New York Society Library, the literary critic Adam Kirsch notes that poetry had a history dating back to ancient Greece of treating war as a tragic, but essential rite of passage and proving ground. World War I broke the spell.
“Wars keep being fought, of course, but now they are justified on the grounds of necessity, self-defense, even human rights — never on the grounds that war itself is a splendid achievement or the true calling of men,” Kirsch wrote.
Poets and writers on both sides of the Atlantic at first cheered on the battle. Carl Sandburg’s “Four Brothers” hailed the “Ballplayers, lumberjacks, ironworkers, ready in khaki/A million, ten million, singing, ‘I am ready.'”
The New York Society Library exhibit features releases from the British publisher, Wellington House, which specialized in a line of pro-war literature. Contributors included J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy and Arthur Conan Doyle, who met with troops in the spring of 1916 and completed “A Visit To Three Fronts” over the summer.
“If there are pessimists among us they are not to be found among the men who are doing the work,” Doyle wrote. “There is no foolish bravado, no underrating of a dour opponent, but there is a quick, alert, confident attention to the job in hand which is an inspiration to the observer. These brave lads are guarding Britain in the present. See to it that Britain guards them in the future!”
The war overran and destroyed the dream. The German artist and sculptor Kaethe Kollwitz turned out a series of deathly statues, woodcuts and posters. American painter John Singer Sargent also spent time at the front and responded with an epic testament to the crimes of war, the 20-foot-long (6 meters) painting “Gassed,” in which blinded soldiers form a procession that mocks the ideal of military discipline.
Among anti-war poems, few were so bitter, or indelible, as the British poet Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” with its wretched images and scorn for the venerable adage “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori”: (“It is sweet and proper to die for your country”).
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
In “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway declared that “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” one of the touchstones of post-war literature, sketches a ravaged, barren landscape:
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
Soldiers returned maimed, traumatized, bewildered, a “lost generation,” as Gertrude Stein called them. In Erich Maria Remarque’s famous anti-war novel, “All Quiet On the Western Front,” a German soldier rejects his patriotism, abandons his humanity and loses his life. Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home” tells of a veteran named Krebs who finds that no one in his community wants to hear what really happened.
“Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie and after he had done this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it,” Hemingway wrote. “A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had told.”
World War I was the last major conflict presided over by kings and Kaisers and the last to begin with even the pretense of old-fashioned rules of battle. Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion,” released in 1937, was a classic portrait of how the war destroyed old beliefs in hierarchy and honor, embodied in the film by the bond between the aristocratic German captain played by Erich Von Stroheim and the captured French officer played by Pierre Fresnay.
The officers “were at home in the international sportsmanship of the prewar world, but the skills, maneuvers, courage and honor that made military combat a high form of sportsmanship are a lost art, a fool’s game, in this mass war,” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael later wrote of the film.
World War I was a severing of history, and a violation of logic, that justified the skepticism of Modernists who had questioned whether a book needed a beginning, middle and end, whether a song needed a melody, whether a picture needed to faithfully reproduce its subject — or even have a subject. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and other Modernist authors rejected conventional narrative and grammar. Dadaist artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Hans Richter turned out jarring, surreal paintings, plays and sculptures that mirrored their feelings about the war, while composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg produced disjointed, “atonal” works.
“War proved that everything was temporary, fleeting, and the art world reflected it,” says Doran Cart, senior curator of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. “And it helped inspire works of Modernism because the war itself was so modern and changed how people saw their communities and saw each other.”
Ironically, one of the war’s most enduring legacies was not a protest, but a call to service. In 1917, commercial artist James Montgomery Flagg was asked by the U.S. government to create a poster that would encourage young people to join the military. He sketched a furrowed, red-cheeked man with a starred top hat and white goatee, the face based in part on Flagg himself.
He added a simple caption: “I Want YOU For U.S. Army,” shortened in popular memory to “UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU.”
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