“Trauma” is a relatively new term in our language. From the ancient Greek “traûma” (τραῦμα) meaning damage or wound, it was first used in English in medical texts of the late 17th century. Physical traumas can be so devastating they cause the body to go into shock, organs shut down. Systems collapse. You die.
There comes a point where a stress is simply too much for the the body, or mind, to handle.
It wasn’t until decades after Freud first posited his theories on psychiatry that the idea of psychological trauma was described. It had always been present, recognised, but never understood. Shakespeare and Dickens wrote about it. It had a dozen names in as many languages. Surivors of railway accidents had “railway spine”, US Civil War veterans had “soldier’s heart”. French physicians diagnosed Napoleon’s soldiers with “nostalgia”, while Spanish doctors refered to men being estar roto…broken. Modern armies call it “combat fatigue”.
Soldiers in World War I called it shell shock.
The stress and fear and death and disease and rain and mud and blood and rats and shit and guns and shells. And no sleep and no food and no choice. It broke men. Thousands of them, millions.
That was over a hundred years ago, today.
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
There was a generation, of every nationality imaginable, who were victims of one of the greatest crimes in history. Today they are all gone. The last veteran of World War I died nearly ten years ago. The last of the “heroes, fit for homes” passing, one hopes, to a kinder world. Where their stresses are eased, and their persecutors judged. The oldest of human desires. The soul’s greatest wish. The last of the broken men, fixed for eternity. They deserve it.
But still, we’re here. And we remember. Why?
Jung theorised that people are joined beyond the physical boundaries of reality. Each person has a mind and thoughts and ideas and dreams as an individual….there are also collective archetypes. The group mind. Water, Shadow, the Tree of Life. Shared ideas, known by instinct, understood by everyone.
Logic would suggest a group mind is as liable to break as an individual. A shared consciousness can be traumatized as much as a private one. We can see that in our own recent history. America’s national consciousness was broken by the JFK assassination, then further fractured by Vietnam. Japan has never recovered from Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Russians carry the starvation and suffering of the siege of Leningrad in their very bones.
You can see World War One through this lens: A global trauma, species wide. We all felt it, we all feel it still. An old wound that refuses to heal.
I studied First World War history at secondary school, and then in more detail at college. I have seen the Great War documentary series and countless others like it. I have read soldiers diaries and letters home. I have digested Regeneration, Paths of Glory, King and Country and Oh, what a lovely war!….all of which I highly recommend.
But, for me, none of them compare to my first experience of WWI – Blackadder Goes Forth.
I’ll admit, that seems flippant and silly. But, as a child who barely understood the idea of death or the concept of war, it was an object lesson in loss. As pure and sharp as a psalm or a sonnet or a fable.
They were Blackadder, and Baldrick, and George. They made me laugh…and then they were gone.
There is something strong in the simple horror of four frightened men, going over the top, to what they know is almost certain death. There’s power in showing us characters we’ve shared laughs with getting cut down, for no reason at all.
In its own subtle way, Blackadder is a distillation of the impact that the “Great War” had on the world. Impacts felt to this day, by all of us.
When George says “Sir…I’m scared sir.”…we feel his fear, and the fear of the million of young men like him. The junior officers, the younger sons of wealth. A hundred-thousand fools of a hundred-thousand families who weren’t wise, or lucky, enough to join the clergy. Young men who truly believe the lies that all Empires tell their soldiers: WE are in the right. WE use our power for the good of all. WE must have control, because only we can be trusted with it. Our cause is just. God is on our side. Freedom, family and love are the preserves of our side alone.
When Baldrick asks “Why can’t we just stop sir? Why can’t we all just say ‘no more killing let’s all go home!’? Why would it be stupid just to pack it all in, sir? Why sir, why?” he’s expressing confusion and anger beyond his ability to understand. A stupid man, but decent and honest. Abused by authority he trusted and losing faith in all the systems of society he never questioned before. A miniaturised social revolution, mirroring the collapse of the Russian monarchy and the rise of Communism.
When Captain Darling laments the loss of his future, his job and his fiancée and his cricket club…we feel a pull. A black hole in our collective souls where a million happy lives might have been.
Who knows what we lost?
What undiscovered artists were blinded by gas? What brilliant scientists were picked off by snipers? Or record-breaking athletes blown apart by landmines? How many great unwritten novels shivered out of existence thanks to typhoid or dysentery? We’ll never know.
The tragedy doesn’t have to be huge to be felt.
On a smaller scale, there were smiles and kisses and dreams extinguished. Sons were never born. Daughters never held. Fiancées never married. Christmases and birthdays and summers…ruined. Forever. Millions upon millions upon millions.
And we know it. We all know it, in our gut.
Blackadder was written by, and for, a generation who weren’t born when World War I ended – whose parents weren’t born when World War I ended. It was released to mark the 70th anniversary of Armistice Day. I was less than ten when I watched it for the first time. I was less than two when it was first on television. But I understood.
In a profoundly dishonest society, the shared grief of World War I is one of the few things we all know the truth of. One of the few things we are all honest about. Because it’s important. Because it’s a wound too deep to ignore, a betrayal too lasting to be forgiven.
The Great War was sold to the British public as a just war. Men were sent over to France and Belgium to curb “German aggression and Imperial ambitions”. Every generation since has known that to be an absurd lie.
In the 200 years preceding 1914, British armies had painted a quarter of the world red with blood. We were an Empire, the greatest in human history. A “democratic” Empire where less than 20% of the population could vote. The sun never set on Britain, and yet millions lived in darkness.
It wasn’t just an Empire of bullets and banks, either, but also of marriages. Empress Victoria had spread her (half-German) children, and their watery blood, all across the Royal houses of Europe. The German Kaiser was a cousin of our King who was a cousin of the Russian Tsar. They were all the same, from the beards on their faces to the blood on their hands. Mirror images of each other. Dueling Empires, throwing men into the furnace to fuel their conquests.
Britain was not fighting for values, merely playing the grand chessboard into a horrific stalemate. Every school child has been taught that for decades.
We know that British generals were as callous as they were incompetent as they were out of touch. That when General Melchett looks at the wrong side of a map or Field Marshall Haig sweeps toy soldiers into a dustpan, that we’re only just to the satire side of reality.
Field Marshall Haig, after all, was borderline mad man. He was nicknamed “the Butcher of the Somme”, by his own men. Even Winston Churchill – that gin soaked purveyor of slaughter – thought Haig was too cavalier with the lives of the men in his charge. Butcher Haig was a monster. We’ve been taught that all our lives.
Trench warfare was a hell on Earth. Conditions beyond human imagining punctuated by events of such brutality as to tip-toe the line between tragedy and farce. Events like the Battle of Loos, where 8000 British soldiers died in 4 hours, cut down by machine guns. The Germans didn’t lose a single man.
It was all such a bloody waste. Everyone knows that, has always known that. Nobody ever questioned it.
Reinventing the Past
The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”George Orwell
In 2014, to mark the centenary of the start of the war, then-Education Secretary Michael Gove criticised schools for showing Blackadder as part of WWI education.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Gove lamented the “left-wing myths” propagated by Blackadder and Oh, what a lovely war!, claiming they denigrated “British heroes” who fought valiantly in a “just war”.
Gove praised the “rehabilitation” of Field-Marshall Douglas Haig and objected to the portrayal of Britain’s war efforts as a “misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”.
Later that year, David Cameron attempted to take the censor’s black pen to the history books in the most inappropriate way imaginable – in a letter to the Unknown Soldier. He hit all the same talking points as Gove did, more cloying, less didactic, equally dishonest. Praising the sacrifice of lives for a “just cause” and warning of the “darkness” of the world that might have existed if we had lost. He later repeated those sentiments in an equally abhorrent setting – a speech at a military cemetery in Mons.
In February of 2014 the BBC aired The Necessary War, a documentary in which historian Max Hastings strongly disagrees with what he calls the “Blackadder view of history” – the idea World War I was all a waste of time, fought for no reason.
In an article of August 2013, Professor Gary Sheffield used the exact same phrase: It is time to ditch the Blackadder view of history…Britain was right to fight Imperial Germany in 1914.
There was a general, establishment-backed, push to revisit the First World War, to reinvent it in the public imagination as something more akin to the way most people think of World War II. A battle against evil, a victory for the light, won at great cost.
What’s reassuring, to anyone of sense, is just how badly these efforts failed. Gove was ridiculed in the comments and called out in the media. An open letter, signed by dozens of public figures, castigated Cameron for his tasteless attempts to rewrite history. Even the Guardian contributed.
What’s troubling, to all of the same people of sense, is the motivation behind the push in the first place.
Why would the British government, and wider state as a whole, want people to change their attitude to World War I? Why now?
Is it simply that authoritarian governments require the state to be seen as above reproach?
Is it a manifestation of a compulsive need to exert control over narrative, which goes hand in hand with attaining power?
Or is there a more pragmatic reason behind it?
The More Things Change…
Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.Hermann Goering
It’s important to remember the truth of the Great War.
Not the muddy, bloody, rotting, mangled truth of no-mans-land.
The more distant, ephemeral truth. The part of the war we don’t think about when we’re wearing our poppies or laying our wreaths – it didn’t need to happen.
People could have stopped it…but didn’t.
And when I say “people could have stopped it”, I don’t mean Field Marshall Haig or Kaiser Wilhelm or Winston Churchill or Emperor Franz-Josef. I mean people like you and me. Ordinary people could have stopped the war.
The elites may have wanted the war, they may have started the war, they may have profited from the war…but ordinary people supported the war. Ordinary people gave white feathers to young men, bullied the pacifists and the conscientious objectors. Ordinary people encouraged their sons and husbands and brothers to enlist. Because they were told to, and never thought to question it. Because they bought into the pro-war propaganda without ever examining it.
Because it never occurred to them that they were being lied to.
They weren’t stupid or primitive. They possessed all the same faculties we do. They just existed in a system that denied them both the agency to control their world, and the information to understand it. They believed in their system because they were told there was no alternative.
The world is very different now.
In the last hundred and four years we have made strides previously unimagined. Television and flight and space and the internet. The world was turned from black-and-white to colour. We live in a “now” where bowler hats are extinct, penny-farthings are hilarious and telephones can be kept in our back pockets…but the most important change is the free availability of information.
Ordinary people in the early 20th century didn’t have access to the same resources of knowledge or communication that most British people do today. That awareness, that inter-connectedness, is the reason we’re not at war with Syria right now. Possibly the reason the world isn’t a collection of glowing ashes.
Public intelligence, informed citizens, are a vital limit on the ability of the powerful to pursue their agenda.
That is part of the reason powerful interests want to re-invent World War I, they want to – as Orwell said – destroy us by removing our understanding of our own history.
The lasting legacy of World War I is a decreased trust in authority. A race memory of a lie that killed fifteen million people whilst enriching a few hundred. A deep trauma that proves, beyond doubt, that we are children of a father who does not love us. A wound, unaddressed and unhealed in the century since.
The world is very different now. But it’s also just the same.
Our increasingly authoritarian system of government needs a biddable underclass, people who can be bullied and manipulated into acting against their own interests. Lemmings happy to be herded off cliffs, with broad smiles on their faces.
That’s what pro-World War I propaganda is about…not a war in the past, but a war in the future. The NEXT war. The one they want to be able to sell us, in the same way, when the time comes.
That struggle is behind countless issues to this day. Lowering standards of education. Increased poverty. Debt. Starvation. Racism. Censorship. These are not accidental by-products of greed or corruption or incompetence…but deliberate policy choices. Required ingredients for the type of social structure that has existed for 90% of human civilisation – a system of peasants and kings.
They want a people who pay their meat tax, work their zero hours contracts, and don’t trust the unions. People who hate the people they’re told to hate and don’t mind being spied on. People who believe everything they read in the papers and do what they’re told. Just like in the good old days.
They want people to forget the past mistakes wrought by a complacent, ill-informed populace. They want us to forget the crimes of their past, so they can condemn us to repeat them.
Remember that, next time you share an anti-Assad meme on Facebook, or nod along in horror at the “crimes” of China or “human rights abuses” in Venezuela.
Look at these images, and ask yourself if we’re moving in the right direction:
We need to be vigilant, to remember who we are, and how we got here. Because it could all happen again.
But only if we let it.
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana
Today, the world is as close to 1914 as at any other point in the last 100 years. An old power is crumbling, its time is over, and a dying Empire lashes out. Feverishly grasping at fraying threads of power. An old lion, roaring the last of his energy into an angry denial of his own mortality.
There is a fizz of war in the air, a barely controlled chaos on the verge of cutting loose and destroying us all. A very real possibility of a war that could traumatize the world forever, or leave no one behind to remember.
If we can examine our own past, look at our traumas honestly, perhaps we can stop history repeating itself.
I will leave you with this passage, from the novel All Quiet on the Western Front:
Tjaden reappears. He is still quite excited and again joins the conversation, wondering just how a war gets started.
“Mostly by one country badly offending another,” answers Albert with a slight air of superiority.
Then Tjaden pretends to be obtuse. “A country? I don’t follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.”
“Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg?” growls Kropp, “I don’t mean that at all. One people offends the other
“Then I haven’t any business here at all,” replies Tjaden, “I don’t feel myself offended.”
“Well, let me tell you,” says Albert sourly, “it doesn’t apply to tramps like you.”
“Then I can be going home right away,” retorts Tjaden, and we all laugh, “Ach, man! he means the people as a whole, the State” exclaims Müller.
“State, State” Tjaden snaps his fingers contemptuously, “Gendarmes, police, taxes, that’s your State; if that’s what you are talking about, no, thank you.”
“That’s right,” says Kat, “you’ve said something for once, Tjaden. State and home country, there’s a big difference.”
“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home country.”
“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”
“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”
“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.
“Not you, nor anybody else here.”
“Who are they then?” persists Tjaden. “It isn’t any use to the Kaiser either. He has everything he can want already.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” contradicts Kat, “he has not had a war up till now. And every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous. You look in your school books.”
“And generals too,” adds Detering, “they become famous through war.”
“Even more famous than emperors,” adds Kat.
“There are other people back behind there who profit by the war, that’s certain,” growls Detering.