Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Gas, Honor and Industrial Killing

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One hundred years ago, on 31 January 1915, the German Army initiated the first large-scale gas attack against the Russians at Bolimów. The attack was a failure; the chemical failed to vaporize when released because the weather was too cold.

Use of asphyxiating gas was in war was already forbidden under international law. The Russians should have reported the incident to their allies, but did not, more likely out of bureaucratic inertia than willful concealment.

Back in August of the previous year, few people in any of the participating powers believed that the fighting would have gone on this long without resolution. Men thought they would be “home before the leaves fall.” The few voices that questioned these beliefs were drowned out in the patriotic euphoria.

Both sides went on to use gas on each other. As the war dragged on with no prospect of victory, the belligerents reached for any means to prevail over the other side. After all the sacrifices that had been made, peace without victory was unthinkable.

The realities of the war were an experience for which the participants were not prepared. Never before had such mass armies been set against one another. There were no flanks anymore. The Western Front became a continuous wall of entrenched soldiers from the Channel to the Swiss border. The Eastern Front was more fluid, as it was typically about four times longer than the Western Front and the combatants could not be strong along the whole front.

There was no room for an elegant military maneuver now, little scope for an inspired tactical stroke. The two sides would bleed each other white until one or the other dropped from exhaustion. Battles ran together into relentless campaigns. A German soldier wrote:

Those who are only at home cannot possibly imagine it. There is no day, no night, no Sunday, no weekday.

Pre-war standards of courage and honor had not reckoned with mass armies backed by the industrial might of modern nations. Before the war, the French thought that cran — nerve — would carry all before it. In Britain, Lord Baden-Powell had founded the Boy Scouts on the belief that they could win the next war if they could find the young men who would “be prepared to die.” As the war bogged down and men settled into prepared positions, valor could turn to folly in an instant. An entire battalion of brave soldiers could be mown down in minutes by two pairs of raw recruits entrenched with machine guns having interlocking fields of fire.

The education of young men had not prepared them for anything like this. The change can be seen in art and literature. This is a translation of the part of the Odes from which the phrase Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country) is taken:

To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian’s dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant’s matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain’d in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!”
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death’s darts e’en flying feet o’ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake.
— Horace, Odes, 23 BC

British recruiting poster for World War I, 1915

British recruiting poster for World War I, 1915

Jessie Pope wrote poems to encourage her countrymen to enlist in World War I. “Who’s For the Game” was one of her more reknowned efforts at the time.

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?

Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?

Who knows it won’t be a picnic, not much,
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?

Come along, lads— but you’ll come on all right—
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.
— Jessie Pope, 1916

Wilfred Owen was an officer who served and died on the Western Front. He wrote poetry about his experiences that was published after his death. He would have known Horace’s Odes from school, and was familiar with the work of Jessie Pope, for whom his remarks to “my friend” were originally directed.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
— Wilfred Owen, 1917

What did honor mean in a situation where being honorable meant being first in line to die a gruesome death? Was there some sort of perverse natural selection at work, so that the honorable would die and the shirkers and hangers-behind would live?

"The Trench", Otto Dix, 1923

“The Trench”, Otto Dix, 1923

Otto Dix was a German non-commissioned officer who had served on the Eastern and Western Fronts. He saw action during the Battle of the Somme. After the war, he painted scenes that captured the sensations of being in battle. When the Nazis came to power, they banned his work as “degenerate art.”

Generals could work at their desks far behind the lines, but captains and lieutenants had to lead from the front. In 1914, Austria-Hungary lost almost 20,000 officers; three out of four were junior officers. The other great powers experienced similar distributions of loss. Graduates of the English public schools, such as Eton and Harrow, fell at a greater rate than did the British as a whole. These were the young men who, in the pattern of previous generations, should have become the political and economic leaders of their nations in the thirties and forties.

Nor could anyone see an honorable way out of the impasse. How could the French or Russians make an honorable peace with so much of their territory under German occupation? How could the Germans honorably give up their hard-won gains? So the combatants sought to pull others in on their side: neutral nations dreaming of territorial gains, alienated peoples in Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, exiled Russian communists hoping to seize power. Both sides hoped for eventual victory where, as one German bureaucrat wrote, the victors would make good their sacrifices with a Carthaginian peace and the defeated side would pay “the leaden weight of billions” in reparations.

In October, 1917, a senior official in the German Foreign Office wrote in his diary:

Where is the world headed? I try to think about this in order to transform this nonsense of Europe’s demise into some kind of sense. I do not succeed. The nonsense is too nonsensical. Only one thing is certain: Europe will either come to an understanding or it will go under. The first is impossible and so the second follows.


Written by srojak

January 31, 2015 at 3:05 pm

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