The First World War: Memories
The First World War was, among other things, truly remarkable for its scope and cold mechanical efficiency. Armed with mass produced machines of the industrial age, the patriotic young men who set off to fight in the summer of 1914 did so with an unprecedented, limitless and thoroughly unexpected ability to kill. They carry within themselves the heroic ideals of the classical heroes of past times, marching with an increasing insistence on defeating the enemy and gaining honour and glory for their country.
However, the shockingly savage nature of the opening weeks shattered these beliefs, as in the wake of artillery barrages, machine guns fire and poison gas, honour, glory and the acts of the individual lost all meanings. Instead of a quick and easy war promised by the politicians, the lost generation of Europe found themselves waiting to be killed by faceless enemies as they crouched miserably in muddy, rat infested holes. Death hovered them day and night, and they were surrounded by the horrors of the air raids and missiles as they are crouching in their trenches without any hope. “There is nothing in all this inferno but mud and thunder”.
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Owen wrote to his mother describing their suffering in the trenches of the front lines. British trenches, “dug where the water tables were highest, were always wet and frequently filled with several feet of water contaminated by feces, urine, and rats so that a soldier was continually wading in filth.” The air, too, had a swampy, diseased quality. “You could smell the front line miles before you could see it,” Paul Fussell writes, explaining that besides the rats and the human refuse, the “stench of rotten flesh was over everything.” Corpses of rats, horses, and men might stay unburied and rotting for months. The narrow trenches offered no escape from any of these horrors. Even the sky above, so often a metaphor of freedom and beauty, offered no release from these horrors, but, on the contrary, symbolizes death from above for the soldiers. Enemy’s bombs could arrive anywhere at any time. “Heaven” Owen writes, rather than a symbol of hope, became merely “the highway for a shell.”