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Mourning (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

The picture acts as a drop cap for the text. Purple letter M with a laurel wreath, representing the A to Z Challenge blogging event. Text below the logo says 'Blogging from A to Z April Challenge' and 'a-to-zchallenge.com'

Post-WWI society – and particularly European societies – was drenched in a culture of death. In Europe, basically, no family had remained unscathed by loss and bereavement. Coping with this became a primary need throughout the 1920s and even into the 1930s. 

The absent dead

In Europe, where the battlefields of WWI were located, practically no household escaped war losses. No family came out of the war without losing at least one member – and many families lost more than one.
It’s part of the European Lost Generation’s experience to confront with loss and its meaning and with a society that had to come to terms with the absence of large strata of its population. 

Pinterest pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation - Mourning." The black-and-white picture shows a group of women dressed in 1910s fashion, crying while embracing each other. They walk in the street, possibly in a funeral procession.

One of the defining characteristics of death during WWI was the absence of the dead. 
Determining the exact circumstances of a soldier’s death in combat was incredibly challenging, often downright impossible. Most soldiers were laid to rest far from their homes, with some even buried in the trenches where they fell. In some cases, there was nothing left to bury. Over time, military cemeteries were established near the front lines, but many of those interred there were marked only by a simple cross with no name on it.

Many fallen were young men. Men who were supposed to build a family, support them, care for their elderly parents, and create wealth for their family and their nation. The fact that they fell in staggering numbers started to be perceived as unnatural by their society, and it became increasingly difficult to cope with this reality. In addition to this, the permanent absence of the dead – because they fell and were buried away from home – made traditional forms of mourning impossible, leaving the bereaved in an unfamiliar dimension of mourning.
Without a body or a grave, and when religion and patriotism weren’t enough to allow any kind of coping, people had to find different, new ways to handle their grief. 
Spiritualism, which had been very popular in the mid-1800s but had progressively waned in the last part of the century, had a huge resurgence. But also, communal ways to mourn became more common, as communities came together to commemorate all their losses. 

Some grief-stricken relatives followed the funeral cortèges of soldiers unknown to them as if they could fill the void left by their own members. And slowly, the idea that one dead soldier could symbolise all those who had died took hold. 
Nearly all European post-war societies started commemorating the Unknown Warrior as a symbol of remembering all lost and fallen. 
The idea originated on the battlefield itself, where a war chaplain saw a tomb marked with a simple cross and the words “An Unknown British Soldier” on it. After the war, the chaplain wrote to the Dean of Westminster suggesting that an unidentified British soldier be buried in Westminster Abbey in place of the hundreds of thousands who died on the battlefields of the Great War.
Many other nations soon adopted this idea, and today, most European countries have a sachel where an unknown WWI soldier rests as the herald of all those who fell like him for his country. 

Mourning (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) – Post-WWI society was drenched in a culture of death. In Europe, no family remained unscathed by loss and bereavement. Coping became a primary need #WWI #history Share on X

Interwar societies in mourning

Interwar European societies were largely in mourning. 
They had holes in them, where the younger generation of men, but also a good part of the older generation, had simply disappeared. They were societies made up of widows, orphans, and parents without support. But also, they were societies left with young women who could not get married and children who were never born.
These societies felt the loss profoundly, and the Lost Generation was right there, experiencing it. 

This generation, who was on the brim of adulthood, found themselves on the brink of a precipice, which was both a reminder of vulnerability and of the impelling end. 
The Lost Generation of Europe had to deal with a concrete absence. And the interwar years were mostly spent trying to fill that void. 

Through those two decades, families and friends would try to find an answer in many different ways: through pilgrimages to the theatres of war in search of the burial place of their loved one, through adherence to alternative beliefs like Spiritualism, but also through living a wild life for themselves and for those who were not there anymore. 

In many respects, the Lost Generation’s rebellion and decadent life were a form of mourning. 


RESOURCES

Jay Murray Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995

Oxford Academic – Imagining the Absent Dead: Rituals of Bereavement and the Place of the War Dead in German Women’s Art during the First World War by Claudia Siebrecht (pdf)

Golden Charter – How WW1 changed British attitudes to death
Nursing Clio – Considerable Grief”: Dead Bodies, Mortuary Science, and Repatriation after the Great War


Horizontal banner for the book "The Great War". On the left-hand side is the photo of a group of soldiers standing in a WWI trench. A Yellow button reads, "Go to Shop". On the right-hand side is a picture of a stake of two books, of which only the spine is visible, and the cover of a book standing upright, with the same group of soldiers standing in the trench. The stake of books stands against an olive green background. A big title in yellow reads "The Great War", and a smaller text reads "The updated ebook".

6 Comments

  • Kristin Cleage
    Posted April 15, 2024 at 21:46

    It would be difficult to have no body, no story of the death, no grave.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 19, 2024 at 18:54

      I do think it was terrible. Be left with nothing, just like that.
      It reminds me of the first wave of Covid.

  • Vince Rockston
    Posted April 16, 2024 at 14:42

    You write well, Sarah, on a delicate topic. Indeed it must have been very hard not only to miss a dear one but not even to know exactly how he died nor where he was buried, if at all.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 19, 2024 at 18:55

      Thanks for your kind words, Vince.
      This relationship with death and life, and sorrow, is one of the aspect that most touches me when I research the Great War.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted May 14, 2024 at 13:15

    Sounds like a complicated time.

    Ronel visiting for M: My Languishing TBR: M
    Manticore

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