I am fascinated by World War One, and have been for years. I am not a military historian: the troop movements and strategies and big-picture things like that do not interest me at all (at least not for this time period, not yet). I am much more interested in the little picture: daily life things, both in the trenches and at home.
One of my favourite books ever is Rilla of Ingleside, the last of the Anne series, which focuses on the Canadian home front. Politics and strategies and “big picture” events are just a background to things like soup tureens and green hats and Dog Monday and falling in love. It’s about how the people live and deal with the war. It honours the soldiers without over-glorifying the war. (You could argue that Walter’s role in the book is that of a “glorious sacrifice”, but I don’t think that they sugarcoat it too much. Walter’s enlistment is a huge dilemma for him, Anne and Rilla both struggle with feelings of resentment toward him both for enlisting and for dying, and the trauma of casualties and capture permeate the whole second half of the book. Yeah, everything gets wrapped up shiny with a bow, but I really hate the assumption that literature must be tragic to be true.)
One of my favourite poems of all time is also a Canadian World War One poem (I think the Canadian thing is a coincidence) – “In Flanders Fields”, by John MacRae. This poem does glorify the sacrifice of war, and is kind of similar to Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” in terms of blatant recruitment attempts. But it doesn’t have to be only that. I like the poem because it reminds me that life goes on during and despite war. I also think that the last stanza doesn’t have to be limited to military meaning. “The torch” can be any number of ideas, not just military continuity.
MacRae is not the only “war poet” that I like, though. I love Sassoon and Owen and Rosenberg – anyone who can shine some light on “daily life” of men in the trenches – what they experienced, what they felt, and how they reacted.
World War One is so fascinating to me, I think, because of its ‘transition’ status. It so often gets overshadowed by World War Two (and rightly so, many times; WW2 was horrifying on so many levels) but it really paved the way for a lot of the 20th century. It was the first “world” war, affecting people on nearly every continent. It was the first to use some of the “modern” military equipment like tanks and airplanes. It was also one of the first that recognized PTSD (shell-shock) as a legitimate condition to be treated (granted, there was a lot of misdiagnosis and under-treatment but that definitely still happens today). And let’s not forget that it led pretty directly to the conditions for WW2 – even at the time, people called the Versailles Treaty a 20-year cease-fire instead of a lasting peace.
From a literary point of view, it was the first to really accept daily life/common man poems, not just heraldic glorification of soldiery, as part of the canon. Look at Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” against anything by Sassoon or Owen: the difference in tone is dramatic and far more than would be expected simply from the passing years. It also developed the first cracks in the literary culture that eventually led to “modernism” (and that word is a post in and of itself, not to mention a PhD. For someone else.)
World War One changed the world in so many ways, which is why I think Remembrance Day is such a moving holiday (for me). Memorial Day in the US is so often just another day off, or the de facto start of summer; Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day is still a way to support soldiers and others who serve without necessarily supporting war, as well as remembering others we’ve lost from the world.