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

Read Part I: HERE!

Part II: continued.

In the battle of the Somme, the English were caught flat-footed in no-man’s land.  The six days of bombardments and the barrage did not cut through the wire as they anticipated and many battalions would be caught in the middle and would either luckily find a way through or would become completely disabled before reaching the German lines (Keegan 250-251). Keegan called the attack the “race to the parapet” meaning that whoever reached the enemy parapet first would live and the others would be gunned down (237).  Remarque describes the machine guns having stoppages which eventually would enable the attacking line to come closer and closer (112).

Those men who were lucky enough to find their way through the wire found themselves no longer subject to any barrage because the defensive side wouldn’t threaten their own troops (Keegan 251).

Once inside the enemy trenches, the warfare was not as personal as one might expect. The attacker and defender who found themselves in the same trench would be very close to each other but rarely faced each other.  The walls of the trenches were dug at angles in order to prevent straight shooting from one end to the other.  Both sides would try to neutralize the other by throwing grenades up and over the earthen walls.  Others may try to attack from the top but would then be exposed to machine-gun fire (Keegan 256-257). At times the machine gun fire at the top would be so thick that a soldier could not get up out of the trenches at all without being hit multiple times (Remarque 217).

One item in which all accounts agree is that the men on the front lines were inadequately trained and the new recruits knew little of what to do except when it came to dying.  Remarque describes Paul and his comrades as grizzled veterans of 20 years old compared to the young recruits who seemed like ‘infants’ (35).  The new recruits were described as knowing nothing about warfare except knowing how to die (80).  Paul talks about how the new recruits were killed at more than a five to one ratio over the experienced ones (131).  On top of the inexperience of the soldiers, the army battalions lacked sufficient commanders, proper organization and inadequate training (Keegan 223, 226).  This all adds up to a war environment like no other where young men were led to slaughter battalion by battalion.

This slaughter – this death – becomes perhaps the preferable option because many could not reconcile the horrors of war with normal life.  Poet Charles Sorley describes the war as a scene to be detached from where no pep talks should be spoken, no talk of honor should be stated, and no familiar faces should be remembered because it is just easier to be dead.  This sentiment is echoed by Remarque when he gives Paul a calm expression on his face as he dies.  World War I was a war that was so personal, so deadly and so horrific that many thought that it surely was the Great War to end all wars.

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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