In August of 1914, the German Emperor promised his departing troops: “You will be home before the leaves fall.” In late September of the same year, the leaves were beginning to fall with no end to the war in sight. The Battle of the Marne had halted the German advance, but the staggering losses sustained by all sides, not to mention the ammunition shortages, destroyed any hope that the deadlock could be broken. The war, which had started so dynamically, was rapidly degenerating into an exhausted stasis. Already, trenches—the enduring symbol of the Great War—were beginning to appear as troops everywhere tried to escape the deadly hail of shrapnel and bullets. As September 1914 came to a close, the Great War lurched unsteadily towards stalemate.
Despite this, people continued to volunteer for service in the Army. Knowing what we know about the course of the war, it’s tempting to ask “why?”
There is certainly much to be said about effect of aggressive government propaganda campaigns—of public attempts to shame men into joining the fray. But to focus inordinately on coercion and manipulation as a means of recruitment seems to diminish the fact that a great many volunteered without such heavy handed tactics. And just like people throughout history, they had their own reasons.
Alan Seeger was one of countless thousands who volunteered for combat. He did not have to go. Even though he was in France at the time, no draft letter had his name on it. Alan Seeger was an educated American and made his living as a poet. He had been class-mates with T.S. Elliot in Harvard. However, when the war broke out Alan Seeger almost immediately joined the French Foreign Legion. On the 27th of September he wrote to his mother:
Nature to me is not only hills and blue skies and flowers, but the Universe, the totality of things, reality as it most obviously presents itself to us, and in this universe strife and sternness play as big a part as love and tenderness, and cannot be shirked by one whose will it is to rule his life in accordance with the cosmic forces he sees in play about him. I hope you see the thing as I do and think that I have done well, being without responsibilities and with no one to suffer materially by my decision, in taking upon my shoulders, too, the burden that so much of humanity is suffering under and, rather than stand ingloriously aside when the opportunity was given to me, doing my share for the side that I think right…” (1)
Seeger’s mother was not the only one to receive a letter like this. Franz Blumenfeld, a young student of Law in Freiburg, Germany, wrote a similar letter to his mother while a train sped him to the front lines. He began with a goodbye:
“My dear, good, precious Mother, I certainly believe and hope that I shall come back from the war, but just in case I do not I am going to write you a farewell letter. I want you to know that if I am killed, I give my life gladly and willingly. My life has been so beautiful that I could not wish that anything in it had been different.”
His mother must have wondered why he—a 23 year-old law student with a bright future—would throw aside all that he had to fight in the Great War, even as it ground down to a deadly impasse. He explained to her:
“Of course it was not from any enthusiasm for war in general, nor because I thought it would be a fine thing to kill a great many people or otherwise distinguish myself. On the contrary, I think that war is a very, very evil thing, and I believe that even in this case it might have been averted by a more skilful diplomacy. But, now that it has been declared, I think it is a matter of course that one should feel oneself so much a member of the nation that one must unite one’s fate as closely as possible with that of the whole. And even if I were convinced that I could serve my Fatherland and its people better in peace than in war, I should think it just as perverse and impossible to let any such calculations weigh with me at the present moment as it would be for a man going to the assistance of somebody who was drowning, to stop to consider who the drowning man was and whether his own life were not perhaps the more valuable of the two. For what counts is always the readiness to make a sacrifice, not the object for which the sacrifice is made.” (2)
Neither Alan Seeger nor Franz Blumenfeld would survive the war. Theirs’ were just two among millions of promising lives snuffed out on the killing fields of Europe.
That the Great War was a futile and pointless extermination of an era’s best and brightest, is an article of faith so strongly held that it has coloured our perception of the war. The contrast between the cost of the Great War and its accomplishments was so profound that it led angry Oxford students in the 1920s to pledge never again to fight for King and Country— to some extent, this cynicism and disillusion has survived and is still within us today. The experience of the Great War has helped to build a natural skepticism towards war within the 21st century mind.
Because we cannot comprehend the idealism and innocence that sent men like Seeger and Blumenfeld to war, people too often explain the motivations of hundreds of thousands of volunteers by pointing to lies, coercion, manipulation, and jingoism. In essence, they say that people were tricked into the slaughter by their governments. This is demonstrably true in many cases.
But even though the war was “horrible, inhuman, mad, obsolete, and in every way depraving,” (3) thousands of men and women saw value in what they were doing. Alan Seeger and Franz Blumenfeld left promising futures to sacrifice themselves in the name of their ideals. To them, what they were fighting for was worth it—it was worth their lives, even if we can’t comprehend why. We may not understand, but nor should we condemn or call their sacrifice foolish. They did what they thought was right. That’s all we can ever ask of people.
1. Alan Seeger, Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), 2 – 3.
2. Franz Blumenfeld, in German Students’ War Letters, Philipp Witkop, ed., A.F. Wedd, trans. (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 18 – 20.
3. Blumenfeld, German Students’ War Letters, 20.
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