The Last of ManyBy James Irwin
May 05, 2011
I don’t know much about the First World War. I know about Ypres and the Somme, and that it was started with Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand… but the details are sketchy and vague… my knowledge of The Great War is a fraction of what I know about The Second World War.
The Second World War is generally considered somehow more exciting. It’s certainly more cinematic; there are hundreds of films set during WWII, and hundreds more that feature Nazis as the villains. I suspect this is largely because the Nazis are easily identifiable villains locked in a clear battle between good and evil. The Waffen SS— literally Nazi death squads— wore, as well as the black uniforms with sinister slashes of red on the left arm, skull and crossbones on their uniform in an almost comical caricature of villainy.
The start of WWII is also easier to understand. Although a lot of Hitler’s military actions were driven by the desire for revenge over the terms of the German’s surrender and Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, put simply the Nazis invaded Poland, Britain declared war on the Nazis, and every country in Europe (aside from Ireland and Switzerland) picked a side. Once the party was in full swing the US turned up fashionably late, just in time to inject new life into proceedings.
Although a lot of British people still don’t like to accept it, the Allies would have lost the war without American intervention. Without their troops, funding, or munitions we would have run out long before the end and we wouldn’t have been able to keep mass producing the Spitfires and Hurricanes that won the Battle of Britain.
The high involvement of the US in WWII probably explains the high ratio of Second World War to First World War films. The U.S contribution to WWI was vital, but their role always seems less prominent. They were also much more reluctant to get involved the first time around. Although these days American foreign policy has ramifications on a global scale, under Woodrow Wilson the U.S government followed a policy of isolationism. Essentially this made their foreign policy ‘well, that’s not our problem…’
I feel quite guilty about my WWI knowledge gap, particularly given the vast amount of time— in and out of school— I’ve spent learning about WWII. I’ve been to Nuremburg, seen the sight of the Munich putsch, and I’ve been inside the attic that Anne Frank hid in. I’ve spent hours at the Imperial War Museum marvelling at Spitfires, and recreations of the trenches.
I watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve seen one about a man who broke into Auschwitz and survived. He still has nightmares some sixty years later. I’ve seen a documentary about four Jewish men who escaped by stealing SS uniforms, equipment, guns, and a car. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.
War is a terrible thing, but it unites and brings out the best in people. Whilst the Nazis were displaying the absolute worst humanity was capable of, so many in the Allied forces were demonstrating the absolute brilliance humanity was capable of.
That brilliance lives on, even today in the 21st century. There aren’t many left, but those who are meet up occasionally— men from both sides. One of the best things I’ve ever seen is a wheelchair bound ninety-four year old Englishman called Henry Allingham sitting in a room with a ninety-four year old German man sharing memories of the war. At one point they realized they were both fighting in the same battle, firing shots across no-man’s land at each other. And they both laughed; they found it hysterically funny, and joked that neither of them could have been much good with their weapons.
They laid a wreath together at a local war memorial to remember the fallen. I’m sure that even if Henry had the mobility to dance he wouldn’t have danced to the deaths of the German’s former comrades. I’m fairly confident that when the Allies finally won the war Henry danced to the end of the war, not celebrating the end of people’s lives… revelling in the end of the suffering, rather than the thought of it.
We have Remembrance Day in Britain primarily to remember those who sacrificed themselves in the World Wars. There are very few towns in the country that don’t have memorials to those who died. Some are bigger than others. In the village where my parents live there’s a very small plaque and although there are fifteen different Christian names, there are only four different surnames. The majority of the names are from the First World War.
The guns fell silent across no man’s land twice during that war— once on Christmas day when the two sides played a game of football, and for a final time at eleven a.m on the eleventh of November 1918.
There was one surviving veteran of World War One.
He was Claude Choules, a British man who was known by his comrades as ‘Chuckles.’ He joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen, and served on the HMS Revenge where he personally witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy.
He later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and saw active service in the Second World War.
He died in the early hours of Thursday May 5th 2011.
And now there are none.
Shortly after writing this I learnt that Claude Choules never celebrated the Armistice, and refused to participate in memorial marches. After witnessing so much suffering and death he became a pacifist; he objected to violence and the glorification of war. I don’t really know what to make of that. I just know that it makes me feel incredibly glad that the last man standing was a good man.
One of our best.
A great tribute. The First World War does seem to be more difficult for people to wrap their heads around, with less readily cinematic bad and good guys.
On a side note, having just written about WWII, I’m glad to see another eerie TNB subject convergence. I’ll need to get my hands on that documentary now.
you just wrote about WWII? I shall have to give that a read right away…
It’s so weird how there seems to be a convergence of thought on TNB! You guys must be attuned to a wider cosmic consciousness!
Nice piece, Jim. WWI has a huge significance for us in Australia/New Zealand because of Gallipoli and the massive loss of ANZACS on that front. It still boggles my mind.
I do like it when several of us all write about similar topics for no apparent reason. It’s very strange…
I think I somehow manage to omit the fact that Claude Choules lived in Australia most of his life. His service in WWII was to protect the coast if Japan invaded. The plan was to actually blow up an entire harbour should they approach…
Fortunately it never came to that.
I think it’s impossible to fully comprehend the loss and sacrifice of those wars. To be honest I don’t want to be able to.
Primo Levi once said ‘One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.’
I think if anyone could feel the extent of the horror and the suffering, even for one second, they would cause irreparable damage to their faith in humanity.
If only if we were classy enough to express joy at the end of suffering rather than the death of a terrorist the way the oldest generation of people were.
I wanted to say that, but felt stating explicitly might come off as a touch preachy. But definitely, yes.
Sadly, my knowledge of WWI is fading with every year that passes since my high school history classes. WWII is a little fresher in the memory. You’d hope that by the end of those we’d have all learned just to stay clean of war, but no… I guess it’s part of the human condition. We fight. Interesting to see that he became a pacifist and that he took a stance against the glorification of war. I think that’s a huge problem today. Especially for young men and little boys, war seems something so different to what it really is.
I read a quote from Jon Stewart recently relating to how many people imagine war and how it actually is… That when a soldier dies a man suffers great pain and his life ends, he doesn’t turn into more ammo.
I’m fascinated by war, but thoroughly opposed to it.
But a caveat: it is not for the faint of heart.
The Great War is much more interesting than the sequel — more complex, less good vs. evil, and indirectly responsible, by its armistice and imposition of debt on Germany, for installing Hitler.
There’s also a great book by Paul Fussell on the cultural impact of the war…after WWI, people began to swear a lot, for example.
That’s pretty cool. I’d never given it much thought, but I suppose somewhere along the line it must have happened…
I had written around three paragraphs on the Treaty of Versailles, the Young Plan, and the Dawes Plan but felt it was a bit much… Showing off almost….
I’ve seen a few pictures of Claude Choules in the last couple of days, on Yahoo!, otherwise known as Kids Give the News. Unfortunately, he doesn’t, facially, much inspire one to want to live to 100.
I think WWI was simply eclipsed by its sequel, which had bigger and better weapons and, as you say, a clearer narrative. Also, WWII enjoyed the advantage of occurring when the movie industry was more developed than it was in the late 1910s. There were a few great, or anyway very good, films made about WWI, but those that date from the silent era are rarely watched now, and there isn’t as much documentary footage as there is of WWII. It seems as though every time I’ve ever flipped past the History Channel, the program concerned WWII.
If you ever get a chance to see Paths of Glory, don’t miss it. Then again, I’m not sure you’d like it, seeing that, in past discussions about movies, you’ve mentioned that you’re not such a fan of “serious” stuff.
The poor man was deaf and blind by the time he was 100. I’d be happy to fall short of the century in all honesty…
Yes, the advancement of film had a helping hand.
I’ll keep an eye out for Paths of Glory. It’s not that I don’t like serious films, I’m just quite particular and I do prefer to watch lighter films. I’m not the lowest of the low brow, but I lean towards that end.
I read serious books though, which I think is arguably better than vice-versa…
I remember, James. I said “stuff” instead of “movies” (after “serious”) because I’d already written “movies” a second before, and I was trying to, you know, not be repetitive. And stuff.
I always try and avoid being repetitive, although I have a tendency to tell the same stories over and over. Usually as a result of losing track of who I’ve bored with it before.
I have more time for more serious films than I used to, although it is kind of the case that I don’t watch many films and when I do I like to sit back with an unchallenging action film, or sometimes classic horror. A while ago a channel here showed a Bond film every day of the week.
I can’t even begin to describe how much I love the Bond films. And the thing is pretty much all of them are terrible movies. It goes deeper than that though. Almost enough to write a TNB post on. They have a cultural importance I don’t suspect exists across the pond.
I never saw that film about the Christmas soccer match, but what a wonderful story it is. Really life re-affirming, you know?
Apart from the fact that the commanders transferred the units away to prevent anything like that ever happening again.
Which, you know.
Is pretty fucked up, when you think about it.
I was just watching a documentary this morning about VE day. Apparently in a lot of places German soldiers celebrated the end of the war with Allied troops. Because most of them weren’t fighting through choice.
The football match is one of my favourite war stories though because it simply and effectively shows us that these were just normal young men, on both sides. They weren’t really any different from each other… just human beings trying to stay alive…