(British WWI poster, from this helpful site. A few more are scattered throughout this post. Click them for a larger view.)
There's an observation I've seen attributed to several different people, that in a democracy, sustaining a war effort over a long time depends on increasingly demonizing of the enemy. The basic idea is that pitching honor, glory and country might be great for initial recruitment, but later on, as the body count piles up, and the costs of war become more apparent at home, ideals will not motivate young men to go to fight and die. Only pure, unyielding hatred will do that.
In the United States today, without a draft, and a Pentagon policy since at least the first Gulf War of hiding and sanitizing the violence of warfare, these dynamics might not apply in the same way. War in all its ugliness can be kept relatively tidy for those not actually fighting. Regardless, this was certainly not the case with World War I for most of the nations involved.
Major nations in World War I really had no idea how horrible it would be going in, and significant factions wanted war initially. More frighteningly, in some cases their furor grew over time.
An earlier post deals more with the outbreak of war. Meanwhile, I own a slim volume of essays titled, World War I: A Turning Point in Modern History. In "The Revolution in War and Diplomacy," Gordon A. Craig describes:
...The young idealists who dashed off to the front in 1914 with their hearts full of high resolve and their minds bent on that better world which would, they were sure, be the result of their sacrifice.
Many materials in 1914 and earlier express this idealism.
Consider Germany's Crown Prince Wilhelm on the Prospect of War, 1913:
Today, indeed, we live in a time which points with special satisfaction to the proud height of its culture, which is only too willing to boast of its international cosmopolitanism, and flatters itself with visionary dreams of the possibility of an everlasting peace throughout the world.
This view of life is un-German and does not suit us. The German who loves his people, who believes in the greatness and the future of our homeland, and who is unwilling to see its position diminished, dare not close his eyes in the indulgence of dreams such as these, he dare not allow himself to be lulled into indolent sleep by the lullabies of peace sung by the Utopians...
Therefore every one, to whom his country is dear, and who believes in a great future for our nation, must joyfully do his part in the task of seeing that the old military spirit of our fathers is not lost, and that it is not sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. For the sword alone is not decisive, but the arm steeled in exercise which bears the sword...
The rest must be read to be believed. Some of this naïveté may be a class issue, but not entirely. He presents war as glorious and romantic, even more than so in "Charge of the Light Brigade."
Speaking of poetry, there's the idealized vision of war in Rupert Brooke's 1915 poem, part of a cycle:
By Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
One must account for poetic license, and this is quite stirring in its way. Additionally, Brooke died early in the war, before the worst of it. But this is also a stark contrast with the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who saw combat on the front lines.
Now we turn to one of their friends. One of the better first-person accounts of World War I is Good-Bye to All That by British soldier, poet and novelist Robert Graves. His book is cynical and cerebral, witty and sarcastic, and may occasionally be unreliable in its details. But Graves captures his own shifts in attitude, and creates a memorable, stark portrait of the insanity and horrors of WWI.
Public attitudes toward war are lighter, more full of talk of honor, early on in the book. Young men in Britain initially enlisted in large numbers, including a significant percent of the upper and upper-middle class. Graves himself was well-to-do. But the demonizing increases as the war goes on. This passage takes place in January 1917. After mistakenly being declared dead, mostly recovering from wounds, and shipping back to France, Graves has a new command and contends with new recruits and the local brothel:
There were no restraints in France; these boys had money to spend and knew they stood a good chance of being killed within a few weeks anyhow. They did not want to die virgins. The Drapeau Blanc saved the life of scores by incapacitating them for future trench service. Base venereal hospitals were always crowded. The troops took a lewd delight in exaggerating the proportion of Army chaplains to combatant officers treated there.
At the bull ring, the instructors were full of bullet-and-bayonet enthusiasm, with which they tried to infect the drafts. The drafts were now, for the most part, either forcibly enlisted men or wounded men returning; and at this dead season of the year could hardly be expected to feel enthusiastic on their arrival in France. The training principles had recently been revised. Infantry Training, 1914, laid it down politely that the soldier's ultimate aim was to put out of action or render ineffective the armed forces of the enemy. The War Office no longer considered this statement direct enough for a war of attrition. Troops learned instead that they must HATE the Germans, and KILL as many of them as possible. In bayonet-practice, the men had to make horrible grimaces and utter blood-curdling yells as they charged. The instructor' faces were set in a permanent ghastly grin. 'Hurt him, now! In at the belly! Tear his guts out!' they would scream, as the men charged the dummies. 'Now that upper swing at his privates with the butt. Ruin his chances for life! No more little Fritzes!... Naaoh! Anyone would think that you loved the bloody swine, patting and stroking 'em like that! BITE HIM, I SAY! STICK YOUR TEETH IN HIM AND WORRY HIM! EAT HIS HEART OUT!'
Once more I felt glad to be sent up to the trenches.
- Good-Bye to All That, chapter 21, pp. 236-237.
Nor was this attitude of bloodthirsty vengeance limited to military training. From "The Revolution in War and Diplomacy" by Gordon A. Craig again:
It is sometimes pointed out, as a proof of the power of special interest groups in the determination of Germany's wartime policy, that both Chancellor Theobald van Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Minister Richard von Kühlmann were forced out of office because they advocated a peace short of total victory. It is true that these officials were the victims of a military-big-business cabal that did not want a negotiated settlement, but it is surely worth noting that their dismissal elicited not the slightest evidence of any popular indignation over the treatment accorded them. Nor should it be forgotten that, when former Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne, sickened by the slaughter in the trenches, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph in November, 1917, in which her urged that a negotiated peace be arranged while there was still something of a European civilization to save, he was viciously attacked by the Northcliffe and Rothermere press, denounced by politicians who described his letter as "craven" and "inept," and – in the words of his biographer – subjected to "a flood of invective and an incredible mass of abusive correspondence which, though largely incoherent, was marked by a violence rare in English political life."
We'll see more of this insanity in "The Little Mother" and some of the other posts in this cycle, but some of these attitudes seem all too familiar today. Sadly, madness is often the fashion.
(Slightly revised for typos. This post is part of a series on war, and a smaller set of posts for Armistice Day 2009.)