We often think of the Great War as a collection of battles or a great political and economic event. And it certainly was. But it was also a great social event. The Great War was, above all, about human beings, their fears and their dreams, their flaws and their qualities, their strength and their powerlessness. It was the first mechanised war, the first industrial war, but naked humanity was at its eart.
WWI exposed the vulnerability of human beings like never before and therefore allowed humanity to come to the fore like it rarely happened before or after.
The Great War is a compelling read. Chilling, fascinating, controversial; Sarah Zama has brushed back the well-trodden ground of battles and statistics to bring a fresh look at the impact of the war on the people caught up in its deadly grip.
This is especially epitomised by the soldiers’ experience, which then touched all strata and sectors of society. Indeed, the experience of the common soldier and the volunteers who surrounded him – who were, very often women – is at the centre of this book. This is especially about them. Thrown into a situation they had no means to manage effectively, the soldiers in the trenches had to find a way. Sometimes, they had to invent it. Some other times, they had to accept social situations that were considered inappropriate by the society they come from so to have a chance at surviving, not just physically, but also – I would argue, especially – emotionally. The mechanised war stripped them of so many social mores and accepted behaviours that brought them to the very edge of humanity. They had to shed all those cultural structures to look their vulnerability in the face, realise what being human means and find a way to work with that naked humanity.
The book is organised alphabetically. Every word covers an aspect of the Great War that characterised it uniquely. It isn’t meant to be exhaustive in any way, but I hope it may help to give a digestible introduction to what was a very complex event in the word history. Such an enigmatic event – as it has been described – that not even historians are yet able to explain it completely.
You’ll find here:
- The soldiers’ experience in the trenches
- Shellshock and how it was understood and cured during WWI
- The new role of women How WWI produced positive things we still enjoy today
The Great War, the destructive technology and the strength of naked humanity
It is normally quite easy to understand why wars break out and who is pitted against who. Not so for the Great War. The reasons why the war even broke out are so complex and so entangled that historians still debate about them today. They all agree on the point that nobody wanted or expected this war to be what it turned out to be. But it happened, and it was terrible.
Not without reason, it has been defined as one of the most enigmatic events in contemporary history.
The industrial revolution was one of the most determining factors.
Scientific and industrial processes had evolved much during the 1800s. At the beginning of the 1900s, technology was far ahead of what the population could or was allowed to use. But it was used in the war in the attempt to get out of the stalemate trench warfare (an innovative strategy before the war, made dramatically outdated by the new technologies) had imprisoned all armies.
Nobody expected the destructive power of these new technologies. Nobody really knew how to use them properly. Wildly innovative, the new weapons were implemented in outdated tactics and strategies that belonged to the previous century.
It was carnage.
What the new weapons could do to the human body was something beyond horror. And yet every army used them, and nobody knew how to defend themselves from them.
This is why I say the Great War is especially about human vulnerability. It exposed all the flaws of human nature, its different limitations – in terms of understanding and also of foresight. But also its strength, its ability to find solutions even to the unexpected.
At the end of the war, the destruction of human lives was devastating. Of the 60 million European soldiers mobilised in 1914-1918, 8 million had died, 7 million were permanently disabled, 15 million were seriously injured. An estimated 5 million civilians had died for causes connected to the war.
I always find the mere numbers horrific.
It was a horrible, mindless carnage that changed the souls of all the nations involved forever, a dramatic breaking point as few had been in the history of the world. Although the old Victorian ideas and social mores still persisted, they were utterly ineffective in guiding this new world.
The world that emerged from the Great War was a new place that few knew how to navigate.