World War I: Historical and Literary Descriptions (Part I)

Here’s an essay I wrote which looks at both the historical and literary descriptions of World World II. The historical descriptions are from noted historical John Keegan, and the literary descriptions are from Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. 

World War I had an ebb and flow to it like no other war.  The soldiers on opposing fronts were close to each other – very close.  Despite the closeness, a string of barbed wire and a stretch of wasteland called no-man’s land could make it seem like there was a massive gulf between the two sides. The historical and literary descriptions of the war show a conflict of modern warfare carried out in a very personal, profound, and barbaric way.

The soldiers of the World War I front lines found themselves in a surreal environment between the grim face of war one day and a jaunt to a local town the next day.  One moment they would be slipping into a local village for rest; the next moment they would be running reconnaissance by jumping from shell crater to shell crater in no-man’s land against the backdrop of constant machine gun fire.  Erich Maria Remarque in the novel All Quiet on the Western Front portrays the experiences of German soldier Paul and his comrades as they fought against the French and British on the western front.  The soldiers are portrayed as having a lot of down time in which they try to keep sane by playing cards or scrounging for something good to eat.  At rest they lie in a field five miles from the front and watch the clouds in the sky go by (9) and have time to play practical jokes on their former drill sergeant (49).  Life away from the front is a world away – a life which is almost incomprehensible to the soldier who has experienced the hell of war at the front. It is a life that almost cannot be enjoyed because of the horror which will stick with them forever.

The trench warfare produced stalemate.  This provided ample time for battalions to leave the trenches on a regular basis for rest and relaxation where they enjoyed sport, ate local food, and could enjoy beer (Keegan 211).  This environment was a rather static setting in which you might spend a great deal of time getting to know the surrounding neighborhood until your battalion was once again called on to man the front.

The front lines were very close to each other sometimes only separated by a single line of wire which marked the international border (Keegan 211). Other places, the lines may be 500 yards or more away from each other (Keegan 247). This closeness heightened one’s consciousness of war as soldiers spent hour after hour in the trenches or dugouts waiting for an attack; they knew the enemy was nearly within conversation range yet would have to run exposed across the narrow no-man’s land with little or no cover. It was a terrifying balance between protection in the trenches and sure death in no-man’s land.

The bombing and shelling of the lines of German defense was merciless and unceasing.  In preparation for the Battle of the Somme, the British pounded German positions for 6 days (Keegan 217).  At times like these, the German soldiers would hunker down in their dugouts and simply wait for the bombing to stop (Keegan 235).  Remarque describes the soldiers nearly becoming numb as they had to wait out the bombardment (107) while others would literally go mad (110).  There was nothing to do, and no one to shoot at during these times; everyone on both sides had to wait out the shelling.  Remarque’s description, however, does vary somewhat from this.  Paul, the protagonist, knows that the bombardment means that eventually an attack will come; however, he describes the machine guns rattling away the same time of the bombardment (213).  This seems to lack logic because there would not be anything to shoot at when everyone is under cover.  Perhaps, however, this is simply an acknowledgment of how close the two sides really were.  He could be describing the French or British firing machine guns at Germans who are ducking out of the way or trying to escape trenches which are no longer useful.  Whatever the reason, the end of the bombardment moved the battle into another phase.

The barrage attack would come next.  It is described as a “curtain of exploding shells” which would precede any attack (Keegan 217).  This tactic seems to be a way for the offensive side to shower down explosives in such force as to stunt the movement of the defense so the attacking troops could run out of the trenches and make it across no-man’s land before they were ready to defend with their machine guns.  However, the barrage rarely worked as intended.  Paul always questioned how so many men could still be alive after the bombardments; he acknowledged that survivors would pour out from the trenches all over and would quickly set up machine guns to defend against the attack (Remarque 112).  The German soldiers certainly did survive the bombardments relatively unscathed proving the endless shelling as more show and theatrics rather than anything else.  The bombardments were ineffective in destroying the men in the trenches – many of whom were holed up in 30 foot deep dug-outs that could withstand any shell weight (Keegan 232). So the offense would begin with the hope that the defensive side was severely weakened.  It would not be so.

(Part II Tomorrow)

Works Cited

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. Print.

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine books, 1982.Print.

Sorley, Charles. “107”. War and Human Experience: Additional Reading. California State             University Dominguez Hills Custom Publication #16679, 1996. 118. Print.

 

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