The first Battle of Ypres, like so many battles of the Great War, was inconclusive. The British held onto the town of Ypres, but the Germans had captured the areas to the east, north, and south, forming a rough, “C” shape around the British positions—an area that would become known as the “Ypres Salient”. As November wore on, the fighting gradually petered out due to exhaustion and cold weather. Both sides had resigned themselves to the fact that no decisive blow would be landed before the New Year, and the war, which had started at such a blistering pace, bogged down into a kind of stasis. Trenches now extended in an unbroken line from the English Channel all the way to the Swiss Alps. It would be years before the line that was established at the end of November changed by more than a few kilometers here or there.
To call this state of being “stasis” is, perhaps, a little misleading. There was still continuous fighting going on all along the line. Casualties were still being taken by all sides on a daily basis. But by and large, the fighting was mostly local action—harassing artillery fire, small units jockeying for position or trying to scout out enemy lines or capture prisoners. In the absence of large-scale battles designed to take and hold ground, the war settled into a dull tedium of work, food, and death. Alan Seeger, an American serving with the French Foreign Legion, explains:
“This style of warfare is extremely modern and for the artilleryman is doubtless very interesting, but for the poor common soldier it is anything but romantic. His role is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible. Continually under the fire of the opposing batteries, he is yet never allowed to get a glimpse of the enemy. Exposed to all the dangers of the war, but none of its enthusiasm or splendid élan, he is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow and hear the shells whistle over his head and take their little daily toll from his comrades.” (1)
This “little daily toll” that Seeger references is only little in comparison to the massive battles of August, September, October, and November. In the month of December, when Seeger wrote this passage, the British Army saw 2,930 men and officers killed and 11,079 wounded. That is an astonishing number when you consider that it represents the casualties of one army during one month, especially when you recall the fact that there was no major battle ongoing during that particular month. This means, on average, the British lost roughly 96 men killed and 357 wounded every single day of December—a supposedly quiet month on the front.
In the trenches, death was a constant in a way that is almost entirely unique in history. In the past, armies would clash and then move apart—battles might be over in a few hours or perhaps one day. In the Great War, for the first time in history, armies clashed and remained in contact for weeks, months, and years. In these circumstances, mortality lost its mystique and became common. German soldier Rudolf Fischer wrote:
“The whole life here at the front is permeated with a sublime solemnity. Death is a daily companion who hallows everything. One no longer receives him with pomp and lamentation. One treats His majesty simply and plainly. He is like many people whom one loves even though one respects and fears them. Nobody will come out of this war without being changed into a different person.” (2)
The constant shelling and the ever-present spectre of imminent death had a powerful effect on people. The fragility of life, made so obvious by the war, caused many to begin questioning their place in the cosmos more earnestly than they ever had. In the letters and journals of individual soldiers it is possible to see them begin to commune more intently with the supernatural. For a young German soldier named Werner Liebert, this communion kindled a new found faith. After he learned of his brother’s death in combat, he wrote to his parents.
“Your letter of the 26th brought me the sad certainty that my dear brother had died a hero’s death for Germany’s victory… My pain is inexpressible. I am not to be comforted. I can’t yet realize that I shall not see Hans or hear his voice again. The thought that the dear fellow, who went off so full of joy and hope, will never again see his home … is intolerable. Of you and your sorrow I cannot think without tears. Only one thing comforts me a little: Since I have known that my dear brother is no more, a wonderful change has taken place in me. I suddenly believe in immortality and in a meeting again in the other world. Those conceptions were empty words to me before. Since the day before yesterday they are objects of firm faith. For it cannot be that death should part one forever from those one loves. What would be the use of all love and affection … if they are to be destroyed for ever in an instant?” (3)
In this instance, Werner’s reflection on the afterlife was positive; but it was not always so. Vera Brittain, a British Oxford student-turned-volunteer nurse, lost her fiancé Roland and her brother Edward during the war. After all the years of exhaustion and fear imposed on her by the war—her brother was killed in 1918—not to mention her own experiences nursing badly wounded men, her faith in a Hereafter was shattered. In her famous memoir Testament of Youth she wrote:
“Edward, like Roland, had promised me that if a life existed beyond the grave, he would somehow come back and make me know of it… But he had sent no sign… nor did I expect one. I knew now that death was the end and that I was quite alone. There was no hereafter, no Easter morning, no meeting again. I walked in a darkness, a dumbness, a silence, which no beloved voice would penetrate, no fond hope illuminate.” (4)
General Sherman, from the American Civil War, is credited with coining the phrase “war is hell.” If he was right, then maybe it isn’t surprising that the supernatural had its place in the trenches. The Great War itself served as a spiritual crucible. The ever-presence of death on a mass scale was a very real reminder of life’s temporary nature, which, in turn, encouraged a greater reflection on the larger questions of life and death. The answers that people found could reaffirm religious feeling, or perhaps destroy it, but in either instance these questions and the answers people found had a profoundly transformative quality.
At the beginning of December 1914, the first stage of the war had ended; open war had given way to trench war—the 19th century to the 20th. As the war raged on, one thing became very clear: the Great War was knocking down the structures of the old world and re-making society anew. Whether it was faith in God or the afterlife, or faith in politicians, kings, aristocrats, ministers, or political systems: no-one and nothing could escape this transformation. Rudolf Fischer was right: “Nobody will come out of this war without being changed into a different person.”
1. Alan Seeger, Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), 29.
2. Rudolf Fischer, in German Students’ War Letters, Philipp Witkop, ed., A.F. Wedd, trans. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 15.
3. Werner Liebert, in German Students’ War Letters, Philipp Witkop, ed., A.F. Wedd, trans. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 25.
4. Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (London: Phoenix, 2014), 387.
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