World War I:

The Lost Generation's Legacy in Literature



Sara Rutkowski



Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori--it is sweet and glorious to die for one's country. (1) This is the message with which European young men and women of the early twentieth century were indoctrinated before the start of World War I. By the end of the war, however, most realized that this had all been a great lie. This change in thought is reflected in literature and art produced during and after World War I illustrating that the people of the early twentieth century felt their governments had used them and wasted their youth on a war that left the world feeling dehumanized and lost.

World War I was the first war that greatly affected almost every country in our world. It was a war whose magnitude no one, including the soldiers themselves, truly understood until it was too late. When many of the young soldiers entered the war, they were doing so with dreams of glory, unaware that they would be entering a war that was unlike any history had ever seen before. By the war's end, these young men's optimistic war-glory dreams had been replaced by battered, war-fatigued realities. This transformation is reflected in the literature from both during and after the war by such authors and poets as Wilfred Owen, W. N. Hodgson, Ernest Hemingway, Ernst Junger, Herbert Read, Erich Maria Remarque, Helen Zenna Smith, Wilfred Gibson, and T.S. Elliot, along with many others.

Wilfred Owen's poems capture the anger that many felt toward their national powers. This anger was exemplified in two of his works, Anthem for a Doomed Youth and Dulce et Decorum Est. In Anthem for A Doomed Youth, Owen made his point known from the very beginning with a title that encapsulates the message of the entire poem: the soldiers, these young men, are doomed to die. He reiterated this point by asking rhetorically, "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" "Only the monstrous anger of the guns" is his answer. (2) The use of the word cattle symbolizes the fact that the leaders of the great European powers were sending their soldiers into battle as animals being led to the slaughter. Indeed, they cared little about the lives of those young men who were dying on their behalf: "Nor [was there] any voice of mourning" upon their deaths other than the "shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells." (3)

In Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen criticized the lie that war is glorious and something to be championed: "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." (4) This is the final stanza of the poem and appears after Owen has depicted a violent and graphic scene of a soldier dying from mustard gas. In these closing lines, the use of the word "children" is significant because it illustrates not only that these soldiers were young, but also that they were innocent. These young soldiers were putting complete trust in their governments, much as a child would do in a parent, and this innocent, unquestionable loyalty was being corrupted. With his words "high zest," he portrayed a sarcastic and biting tone that hints at the inherent immorality of lying to young men about what they were going to experience when they went to fight. Owen's criticism of the painted, glorified image of war contrasted sharply with the realities of the battlefields of that day. This angered revelation was reflected throughout Europe during and after the war.

The poet W. N. Hodgson presented a message similar to Owen's when he criticized the war in Before Action. However, Hodgson used a wistful tone rather than Owen's angry one. The intent of this seemingly joyful message was subtly to illustrate that these soldiers were na´vely full of dreams before they entered battle because they saw the war with "uncomprehending eyes." (5) They had no idea what they were getting into. His criticism was clear as he stated, "Make me a solider, Lord. By all of man's hopes and fears/ . . . . Make me a man, O Lord/ . . . By all delights that I shall miss, help me to die, O Lord." (6) With the words, "help me to die," Hodgson illustrates that these young boys are begging for the chance to be brave soldiers, to become men, but they were doing so without fully understanding the reality of war. They were, in actuality, begging to be sent to their deaths, oblivious to the horror and brutality that they would face on the battlefield. Hodgson's literature demonstrated, just as Owen's, that people had been given an idealistic image of battle, and that these soldiers were being sent to war with little preparation or regard.

A new trend in literature developed during and after the war called "modernism." (7) Modernism was a style of literature and art that strayed away from any of the literary or artistic trends of the nineteenth century, disregarding order, romanticism, and logic. (8) Literature also started to become more and more graphic. The new weaponry of World War I--mustard gas, tanks, trench warfare, machine guns, and artillery shells--had the ability to cause more damage than any previous technology of war. In a similar manner, the authors and poets of this time depicted their realities in a graphic manner that was new to popular literature. Ernest Hemingway used this new trend in A Farewell to Arms as he graphicly depicted the violence and unforgiving, necessary brutality of war. (9) Hemingway had served as an ambulance driver in World War I. His critical portrayal of the war within his book reflected both his time of service and also his mental state after he returned home from a journey that seemed unworthy of the tremendous sacrifices made by so many.

Another example of a graphic portrayal was in Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel. In one standout scene, he described facing off against British Indian soldiers and taking them as prisoners while they screamed from wounds--suffering as they struggled to live or die. He went on to illustrate the unapologetic harshness of men at war: "the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation--had something primordial about it. This wasn't war, it was ancient history." (10) Here Junger encapsulates the reaction of the soldiers during this "Great War," which had reduced them to their base selves in a scary, seemingly unnatural, way. In some aspects, the sheer brutality of this war had taken men back to an uncivilized time. An even more serious problem was that this relapse into an uncivilized world would be temporary. Eventually, these men would have to return home, where they would be expected to adhere to the norms of "modern civilization" once again.

Herbert Read's poem, The Happy Warrior, follows this popular violent trend: "He cannot shriek. / Bloody saliva / dribbles down his shapeless jacket. / I saw him stab / and stab again / a well-killed Boche. / This is the happy warrior, / This is he . . . ." (11) Just as Junger's words illustrated soldiers' primordial "jubilation" as they were participating in the violence, Read's senseless, stabbing soldier was happy as well. In these lines Read exemplifies the wavering mental states these young men were experiencing as they terrifyingly fought under constant attack. The "happy warrior" was happy because he had broken from reality and was reduced to the base sense of self that is solely driven, and pleasured, by the instinct to fight and kill one's enemy. The poet demonstrates that to be a "good" soldier--to be "happy" in war--a man must suppress the part of himself that separates us from senseless animals, our humanity. This revealing depiction of men at war, coupled with the popularization of violent literature, exposed more and more people to the realities of war back at home. Rather than garnering support for the war effort back home, this exposure to what these sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers were going through only added to their criticism of the war effort.

After the war, people were unsure how to reshape society. This uncertainty turned into societal criticism for the lives and innocence that had been lost during the war, which was reflected in literature. In 1928, Erich Maria Remarque published All Quiet on the Western Front which became extremely popular: "both the novel and the film version that appeared in 1930 decisively shaped how the war was remembered and understood, as the utter waste and indeed betrayal of a young and idealistic generation." (12) The book exposed the internalized and undiscussed feelings of the soldiers during the war and how they felt going home. A glimpse into the returning soldier's conscience was captured when Remarque wrote, "Had we returned home in 1916, out of suffering and the strength of our experience we might have unleashed a storm. Now, if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way home." (13) Remarque's character has yet to return home, but he was writing this book from a postwar perspective that allowed the reader to infer that Remarque, and veterans like him, had felt weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope when they had returned home from war. This book, like other literature of this era, resonated with those who had experienced war first hand, even as it also fueled criticism from those who did not fight during the war, but who now nevertheless experienced its residual effects. Individuals such as Helen Zenna Smith, who gave a feminine response to All Quiet on the Western Front in which she suggested that others, including non-combatants, were also deeply affected by the violence and the tremendous loss of life that occurred during the war. Her perspective was quite controversial, for at the time there was great animosity between combatants and noncombatants. Susan Grayzel notes that Smith's work "illustrates [that] the war generation's attitude toward authority, its skepticism about heroism, and its appreciation of war's futility and waste" was felt by everyone who lived through the war, and was not singularly applicable to only the men who were killed. (14) Smith's work captures that criticism of the war that was prevalent throughout Western societies. Individuals from all walks of life, not just the combatants, felt that their inner feelings and the trauma that they had experienced as a result of the war were going unheard and ignored.

Beyond criticism, postwar literature illustrated just how much these men who lived through war had lost in the spiritual and mental--and not just the physical--realm, along with the bleakness they felt as they returned to an uncertain world. In Wilfred Gibson's Back, he wrote, "They ask me where I've been / and what I've done and seen. / But what can I reply / who know it wasn't I, / but someone just like me, /who went across the sea / and with my head and hands/ killed men in foreign lands . . . / though I must bear the blame, / because he bore my name." (15) As demonstrated by Junger's and Read's works, during war men were expected to dehumanize themselves as they were forced by the war to tap into a darker side of human nature. Gibson's poem illustrated that to return to one's pre-war self--to jump back into society as if one were unchanged and unaffected by the violence and killing partaken during the war--was virtually impossible. These men were no longer the same innocent, na´ve individuals who had gone off to the war, yet neither could they remain the men they had been compelled to become during the war. Gibson's reflection represented the uncertainty of the future and the fear that a lot of men felt after the war during this assimilation period, feelings that were reciprocated worldwide.

Another literary example illustrating men's attitudes during the postwar period was T. S. Elliot's The Waste Land, which has been praised for its accurate depiction of postwar society by critic I. A. Richards. Richards felt that Elliot's work represented the shared postwar "sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavor, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed." (16) T. S. Elliot's work showed that these men returning from war were having difficulty assimilating back into their society and experiencing this postwar emotional tension. Yet few were talking about these troubles and emotions with which these men were struggling with except authors such as Elliot, Remarque, and Gibson through their expressions in literature. (17)

Some would say that postwar literature does not represent postwar society because, after the war, many countries had economic improvements and a lot of social progress. Here in the United States we refer to the postwar era as the roaring 1920s, that decade that witnessed Prohibition and the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. However, these times of gaity were short-lived and, within two decades, unresolved feelings from the war came once again to a head. Tensions left over from the war, discombobulated societies, and the uncertainty felt by these war-battered soldiers is arguably what enabled men such as Hitler to rise to power. He capitalized on people's pain and promised a better future where the sacrifices that these men made would be valued, which found a ready audience at the time in the disenchanted soldiers who had fought in the first war. This culmination of feelings that would eventually come to head shows that, while the postwar era may have seemed like a time of prosperity, simply looking at the physical aftermath and political events occurring after the war neither adequately explains how the average person felt at the time nor does it accurately reflect the feelings of veteran soldiers. The literature of the time, on the other hand, captured the difficult emotions and inner tensions of society because it was produced, and consumed, by those who had experienced the war, and its effects, firsthand.

The First World War was unlike any of those conflicts that had preceded it. As can be seen through the world's na´ve way of handling postwar society, it truly shocked the world. Those who came back from the war were returning to an unrecognizable world in which they were not supported. The literature of the war showed that young men were being sent to fight with an idealistic view that glorified fighting and were unprepared for the horror they encountered. Many perceived this lack of preparation as a manipulation of the powers that be, and this garnered a massive criticism of the war. Literature directly reflected the soldiers accounts of the true and accurate horror of war. The legacy of World War I was not one of glory, but rather, one where a whole generation had been lost either in death, or else within the unrecognizable world to which they returned. Through World War I and postwar literature we learn that we must recognize that soldiers need understanding, support, and the space available to properly assimilate back into peaceful, civilized society. If we do not make these necessities available, then these soldier's unsettled feelings will culminate into anger, distrust in government, and may even lead to another war.

1. Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est, Internet Modern History Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1914warpoets.asp#owen21 (accessed November 9, 2016).

2. Wilfred Owen, Anthem for a Doomed Youth, Internet Modern History Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1914warpoets.asp#owen21 (accessed November 9, 2016).

3. Ibid.

4. Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est.

5. W. N. Hodgson, Before Action, Internet Modern History Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1914warpoets.asp (accessed November 9, 2016).

6. Ibid.

7. Otto Dix, Flanders Field, in The First World War: A Brief History with Documents, ed. and trans. Susan R. Grayzel (Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's, 2013), 147-148.

8. Robert M. Kirschen, Modernism, https://faculty.unlv.edu/kirschen/handouts/modernism.html (accessed November 9,2016).

9. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929).

10. Grayzel, The First World War, 152.

11. Herbert Read, The Happy Warrior, Internet Modern History Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1914warpoets.asp (accessed November 9, 2016).

12. Grayzel, The First World War, 153.

13. Ibid., 157.

14. Ibid., 158.

15. Wilfred Gibson, Back (1878-1962) Internet Modern History Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/1914warpoets.asp (accessed November 9, 2016).

16. See the discussion of Richard's criticisms in Pericles Lewis, "The Waste Land," The Modernism Lab at Yale, available at: https://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/The_Waste_Land (accessed November 9,2016).

17. A notable exception here was Charles S. Myers ("A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock," The Lancet, 1915, vol. 1, 316-320), who along with others first began talking about "shell shock." At the time, however, this condition was ill-defined and poorly understood. Interestingly, the poet Siegfried Sassoon and also Wilfred Owen spent time studying such patients at the Craiglockhart War Hospital.