When I think about British soldiers during the First World War, I often imagine the conversations that must have taken place as they were being called upon to defend their traditional enemy, the French. “Well, you see,” a former army recruiter may have explained, “a Serbian revolutionary assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, so Austria has attacked Serbia.”
“What has that to do with me?” a confused young Englishman would reply.
The recruiter would then go on to teach him about the entangling European alliances—of Russia’s promise to defend Serbia against Austria, of Germany’s promise to defend Austria against Russia, of France’s promise to defend Russia against Germany, and finally of Britain’s promise to defend France.
Frankly, I would forgive this imaginary soldier if he still did not understand why he needed to go fight (and possibly die) on the European killing fields. What meaning would the war have for him?
What Is it Good For?
The recently released blockbuster movie 1917 perfectly encapsulates the sheer absurdity of World War One. Directed by Sam Mendes, the film follows two British soldiers in early April 1917 as they hike through the battlefields of eastern France. They witness the disruption and destruction of normal life wrought by a brutal war.
Tasked with delivering a message to a contingent of 1,600 British soldiers who are about to walk into a German trap, Lance Corporals Tom Blake and Will Schofield face a host of dangerous challenges as they trek across enemy lines. The mission is made all the more urgent because one of the possibly-doomed soldiers is Blake’s brother.
The events—that are based on real life—of the film take place about two and a half years after the beginning of the war. Great Britain had been at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire since August 1914. Millions lost their lives fighting over a few square miles.Britain was mainly concerned with defeating Germany, however, which posed the greatest threat to its world empire.
Though many contemporaries predicted the war was going to be gloriously short, they slowly realized there would not be a quick and easy victory. The German advance into French territory became bogged down as the defenders dug in, constructing miles of seemingly impenetrable trenchworks. The Germans, not wanting to lose the ground they had already gained, also dug in.
Trench warfare henceforth became synonymous with the First World War. Massive assaults would be initiated, only to be repelled by the well-entrenched enemy. Millions lost their lives fighting over a few square miles. After two years of nearly constant fighting, the front line had hardly moved.
Lives for Miles
By the time the film takes place, the soldiers themselves are starting to understand just how futile the conflict is. A scene in 1917 reveals what a typical soldier’s attitude may have been like.
As they’re walking through a field, Blake asks Schofield about a medal Schofield had been given for his bravery during the Battle of the Somme. “I traded it to a Frenchman for a bottle of wine,” Schofield tells him. Blake is bewildered. “Why did you do that?” he asks. “I was thirsty,” Schofield calmly replies. Ever the optimist, Blake tells him receiving the award is a great honor and that he should have at least sent it home to his family.
Of the three million men who fought in the battle, at least one million were either killed or wounded.
But after what he’s seen, Schofield is thoroughly disillusioned with the war. “[I]t’s just a bit of bloody tin. It doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t make any difference to anyone,” he says dryly.
The Battle of the Somme, where Schofield earned his medal, was the largest battle fought on the Western Front. It began with a joint British and French offensive on July 1, 1916, one of many ill-fated offensives throughout the war that were intended to bring the opposing side to the negotiating table.
The Somme offensive turned out to be a dismal failure. Excruciatingly long and costly both in lives and matériel, the battle did not come to a close until November 1916. Of the three million men who fought in the battle, at least one million were either killed or wounded. Almost 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day alone.
And what did the British army gain in exchange for all of these lost and ruined lives? About six miles of territory. It’s no wonder that Schofield did not want to be reminded of that ultimately pointless battle.
Hope Is a Dangerous Thing
In his brilliant book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, historian Christopher Clark argues that through a series of misunderstandings and ill-considered signals, coupled with a pervasive attitude held by many European leaders that a conflict was inevitable, the great powers simply “stumbled” into war. “[T]he protagonists of 1914,” writes Clark, “were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing... yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”
1917 is a film about escaping this all-encompassing fatalism. Indeed, it can almost be thought of as a microcosm for the war as a whole. Much like the incompetent political leaders who started the conflict—and who felt powerless to prevent it—the leaders in 1917 feel similarly powerless to prevent the slaughter of the soldiers walking into the German trap.
General Erinmore, the commander who sends Blake and Schofield on their mission, claims logistical issues render him unable to stop the impending attack. The great tragedy of World War One is that it did not need to happen.Beyond sending the two messengers, the outcome is simply out of his hands.
The commander of the doomed British unit, Colonel MacKenzie, also feels impotent to cancel the assault. Even when he is told to call off the assault, he feels compelled to go along with it, anyway, as though it were a matter of fate. “What’s the difference?” he reasons, thinking out loud. “We will just be ordered to make the same assault in a few days. We are just putting off the inevitable.”
In Colonel MacKenzie’s mind, the senseless violence of the war cannot be stopped by anyone. To postpone the unavoidable battle only gives the troops hope, and hope is a dangerous thing. Hope may make the soldiers think that this brutal war could soon end, but that is just a pipe dream. “There’s only one way this war ends,” MacKenzie declares. “Last man standing.”
MacKenzie ultimately overcomes his fatalism and calls off the attack. His decision amounted to a partial rejection and negation of the war and saved lives.
There are lessons here for citizens of the modern United States. With two major wars still raging in the Middle East, it often feels as though there’s no end in sight. Political events beyond our control have necessitated “forever war.”
But as 1917 teaches us, we have it within our power to reject this fatalistic premise. All it takes is for a few brave souls to stand up and say “Stop!”