In France, in 1918, Grandpa continued to train as he waited for “the move” into battle zones along the Western Front. He certainly had heard about what to expect, but could he really picture what lay ahead?
A hundred years later, I’m watching movies and reading books to imagine what he would soon know, the unspeakable horrors of that war.
The 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front was based on the 1929 novel written by Remarque, a German veteran of the war. Remarque’s main character is Paul Bäumer, a young man convinced by his teacher to join the army and defend the German fatherland. The war he fights has little to do with national pride or any other lofty ideals, he learns. Instead, it is a daily struggle to stay alive, to find food and to avoid death. When he goes home on leave, he is horrified that civilians don’t understand the war. He quickly returns to the front, to a place that now feels like home. The last scene shows Paul smiling at the sight of a butterfly. He reaches for it, and in that instant takes a bullet and dies.
The subject of war’s futility and violence shows up in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929. I last read this in college. All these years later, I am still captivated by the way Hemingway uses snippets of dialogue and terse descriptions to tell a story. Based on his experiences as a Red Cross ambulance driver, Hemingway’s main character drives wounded soldiers to hospitals along the front in Italy, in the mountains that separate it from Austria. He meets men who see no purpose in the war and show no obvious heroism. Desertion becomes the ticket out for Hemingway’s double, a decision that makes sense (to me) in a situation that seems devoid of reason.
Both of these first-hand accounts lead to the same place: common men, often very young men, don’t know why they’re fighting.
Pat Barker’s three books, forming her Regeneration trilogy, date from the 1990s. My friend (and neighbor) recommended I read these, and she also chose the trilogy for her book club. We met up last week to share ideas. As background, Barker’s work weaves together the experiences of historical figures involved in the war with fictional characters. We meet Dr. Rivers, a medical doctor who practices a kind of talk therapy to “regenerate” soldiers (with what we now call PTSD) and send them back to the front. This creates a horrifying juxtaposition between healing and harm, we all agreed. We talked about Pat Barker’s use of historical fiction (instead of nonfiction) to explore the war. It gave her the freedom to create characters and new relationships to the conditions of the war, we thought. And it provided, some of us thought, a way for us to look at our own notions of war and violence and sexuality through the lens of WW1.
I’ve just started listening to Good-bye to All That, 1929, a memoir and war commentary by the British poet Robert Graves. He shows up in Barker’s book as one of the historical figures who opposed the war.
As an aside, and especially for my family, Graves’s father was also a poet. Our great Aunt Mattie—one of Grandma’s sisters—visited the elder Graves, Alfred Perceval Graves, at his home in Harlech, Wales in 1931, shortly after his son wrote Good-bye to All That. She was spending a study year in London working on advanced studies in English literature. Aunt Mattie sought out Graves to help her understand a poet she was researching, but first Graves had to set the record straight on his son.
In her diary, Aunt Mattie wrote, “His son Robert Graves had written Goodby to All That, a war book and his own life story. The father and mother were greatly hurt by it. They say that he has been unfair to them. ‘I don’t see how Robert could have done it,’ his mother said. The father felt that he must present the other side, and so wrote his autobiography. The editor of the Athenaeum suggested the title; and his publisher said, ‘By all means.’ So it was that To Return to All That came out when Mr. Graves was eighty-four.”
The Great War forced nations and people to take sides. Even after it ended, fathers and sons, like those in the Graves family, couldn’t agree on central questions. Just why was it fought? To what end? Who holds the answer? Families? Historians? Authors?