One hundred years ago, much of the world was in agony.
My wife and I saw Testament of Youth this past weekend, a film based on Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir. It stars Alicia Vikander, also appearing in the current film Ex Machina, and Kit Harington, the actor who plays Jon Snow on the HBO series Game of Thrones. During the war, Brittain left Somerville College Oxford to serve as a civilian nurse in what was called the Voluntary Aid Detachment. She worked in hospitals in England, Malta, and France, where she cared not only for her wounded countrymen but for German soldiers as well. Her beloved brother Edward died in the war, as did her fiancé Roland Leighton. She became a pacifist as a consequence. Testament of Youth was published in 1933.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that in the past several years, the so-called Great War has received somewhat more attention in Britain and the U.S. I’m thinking of film (e.g., War Horse), television (e.g., Downton Abbey, Birdsong), literature (e.g., The Regeneration Trilogy by novelist Pat Barker), and even a video game (Verdun). The centennial may be one reason. But I wonder whether there might be others.
No doubt someone has explored this suggestion in depth and with greater cogency. But after decades of often self-congratulatory depictions and explorations of World War II, the so-called Good War, the West has lived through terrible wars stemming from the legacy of colonialism and efforts at national liberation, proxy wars promoted by competition among superpowers, civil wars and tribal battles that modern weaponry has made far bloodier than they would have been in an earlier era, ideology-fueled clashes such as Korea and Vietnam, and now the “long war” against global terrorism. And due to the miracle of modern mass media, the horrors of war are beamed directly into our family rooms.
What I’m suggesting is that the catastrophic debacle that was World War I — the Battle of Verdun is thought to have resulted in more deaths among French troops alone than the United States suffered in the entirety of the Vietnam War, and at the Battle of the Somme, the number merely of British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered, 73,367 out of a staggering 419,654 total British casualties, is far greater than the 58,220 U.S. fatalities in Vietnam — may seem more relevant now than it did in the immediate aftermath of World War II and during the rise of American power during the mid-20th century. The mistrust of officialdom and questioning of authority that Pat Barker’s World War I novels portray so well (I highly recommend these books) have a strong resonance for a nation that recently fought a costly war to take nonexistent weapons of mass destruction from a petty thug made out to be a madman.
Here are snippet views of The Daily Telegraph issued on this very day — July 14, 1915 — exactly a century ago. If you go to see Testament of Youth, you will notice that Vera Brittain buys a newspaper and opens it to the pages on which the casualty lists appear. Allowing for some Hollywood license, it’s not that different from what you see here, which gives the casualties for just two days, July 7 (officers) and June 27 (NCOs and enlisted men):
And here, elsewhere in the same paper, the names of the British casualties (my screen shot can capture only a partial view):