2014 marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War; for this reason the upcoming Remembrance Day commemorations seem to me to be all the more poignant. The poppy sellers from the Royal British Legion will be out on the streets raising money for a cause that many of us feel is worthwhile supporting, owing to the sacrifice that was made by the Armed Forces in the Great War. However, will we ever fully understand why so many young men signed up and were willing to give their lives for their country? Or have you considered the impact that this so-called ‘Lost Generation’ has had on society?
When war was declared in August 1914, many young men were convinced by their parents, peers and teachers that it was their duty to serve their country. Others believed that it would be a big adventure in comparison to their ordinary lives in villages and small towns, which were much more common at the beginning of the twentieth century. Additionally, the propaganda used to entice these soldiers was great, such as the poster of Lord Kitchener saying ‘Your country needs you’, which has become synonymous with World War One. Remember that in this period, the British Empire needed to be defended, as we had control over two fifths of the world, meaning that the desire to fight for Britain was great. One must also appreciate that the Great War was the first war of its kind; it began traditionally on horseback, but battles were soon being fought with machine guns, aircraft and tanks- as the war progressed, so did technology. Nobody could have been expecting the kind of warfare that these men were faced with, which is why illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder were not recognised at the time. This is what makes the First World War such a turning point in history.
One in 8 of the six million men from the British Isles who served in the Great War perished between 1914 and 1918, amounting to around 750,000 deaths. Included in these casualties were young up-and-coming politicians, such as William GC Gladstone MP, who had been seen as one the next big leaders for Britain. Moreover, the loss of young artists and poets such as Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen have led to many reflecting on the waste of such talented individuals and the destruction of a generation that had so much promise.
Sadly, the loss wasn’t just felt by the gap left by those who were killed in action; the statistics of those who survived the conflict and actually made it home are equally shocking. In Britain there were 65,000 victims of shell shock, 1.5 million men were seriously injured and by 1929, 2.5 million were claiming disability pensions. The sight of blind, limbless and mentally-scarred soldiers was to be seen all over the place, with many feeling as though they had no purpose after giving up everything to fight for their country. This shaped the social and economic landscape that eventually led to World War Two beginning in September 1939.
The writer Siegfried Sassoon wrote a trilogy of memoirs following the war to tell the story of his experience; he is also well-known for the poems he wrote whilst in the trenches, as is his contemporary Wilfred Owen’s. The latter’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ brings to light the horrendous things that occurred on the front line, but also the mentality of those who were fighting. The experiences were used as inspiration for novels such as ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulkes. In this book the lead character, Stephen, struggles to return to everyday life after the war, and his inability to grow close to his own daughter emphasises the psychological damage that warfare had on an entire generation of young men. Furthermore, it shows the extent of the effect that it had on society as a whole, as the families of the soldiers had to learn to cope with how the war had changed them.
As Gertrude Stein stated, ‘lost means not vanished but disoriented, wandering, directionless’. I feel that this not only epitomises the great confusion and aimlessness felt by survivors during the post-war years, but also allows us to reflect on those who died. They did not vanish, their graves can be seen all over the world, and their legacy lives on a century later.
Trying to gain an understanding of the impact of such a huge point in history is challenging, but I’ve done my best. I fully respect those who gave their lives for the cause, but I also admire those who survived; together they make up this lost generation, and without their sacrifice the world would not be what it is today.