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Silence (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

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The Great War indelibly marked the Lost Generation. Everything this generation did or said was directly or indirectly affected by the terrible war experience. Yet, the Great War was such a horrible new experience that expressing it was almost impossible. The Great War was ‘unspeakable,’ and therefore, ‘silence’ was an important element of the post-war experience. 

The Great War is often described as the ‘unexpressible’ war, referring to the fact that it was so novel, so unexpected, so unmanageable and reached unthinkable levels of dehumanisation and destruction that the people who went through it simply didn’t have the words, the very language, to describe it. 

Personal experience, in particular, became difficult to share with people who hadn’t been there. 
How do you describe to a non-combatant the feelings and the pain of shell shock? How do you describe the sensation, the smell, the sounds, the dread of no man’s land? How do you share the terror of going over the top? Or how to describe the mangled bodies and the sense of impotence to help or even give relief to those wounded? 

Besides, people who were there often tried to shield their loved ones from the horror of war, both because it was terrible and because they didn’t want to worry their family and friends at home. 
In the same way, official accounts of the war were diluted and tainted by propaganda. 
The outcome was that people who weren’t on the battlefield didn’t know what was actually happening – and there was a sense that they didn’t want to know. Soldiers perceived this in the way disabled soldiers, particularly shell-shocked soldiers, were treated. When they came home, whether because they were discharged or demobilised, people – even their families – had a very hard time understanding their condition and judging what happened to them. So, they ended up judging them based on all previous war standards rather than by the very peculiar WWI circumstances. 

No wonder that veterans often chose silence. Many never spoke about their war experience, and others wrote about it in memorials, but only many years, sometimes decades later. 
This absence of words was a characteristic of the interwar years and the Lost Generation’s experience. They should be grateful to be alive, they should be grateful to have a future, no matter what happened inside them. 
Even the ones who chose not to be silent – like artists of many disciplines – found it hard to express what war had done to them and their peers and what had done to the society they were living and that was willingly blind to these feelings. 

Silence (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) – The Great War indelibly marked the Lost Generation. Everything this generation did or said was directly or indirectly affected by the terrible war experience #1920s #WWI #History Share on X

The interwar years and the culture of absence

Pinterest pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation—Silence" The black-and-white picture shows the WWI Portsmouth Guildhall Square Memorial.

A loss for words wasn’t the only absence in the cultures of the interwar years. The inability to properly mourn was another. 

The peculiar characteristics of the war, mainly that it was fought away from the national soil, meant that often there wasn’t a body to mourn and even to bury. Very early in the war, a policy of body non-repatriation was enforced by basically all the armies, and in time, army cemeteries were created on foreign soil. 
This made it impossible to have a tomb to care for or even a funeral to celebrate. These were terrible absences in the life of the bereaved. 
A funeral is when death is acknowledged, and family and community say farewell and assume a new identity – for example, that of a widow. 
In the permanent absence of the body, this could never be performed and left family and friends of the deceased in a kind of limbo, where nothing found a closure or a new beginning. 
Tending a grave is the most traditional way of mourning, and the inability to do so heightened the sense of disorientation that naturally comes with death.

To try and handle that disorientation and sense of unclosure in some places (particularly in France), emerged the habit of the dead relatives to follow the funerals of the ones who did come back, even if they were total strangers. 
This habit certainly factored into the post-war creation of cenotaphs (’empty tombs’) and the Unknown Warrior memorial, which appeared all over Europe. These memorials became symbolic places where all the war fallen could be memorialised and remembered. It was a way to come to terms with and internalise the permanent absence.

The Lost Generation came of age in this environment. To them, the inability to speak their feelings and the unlikelihood that even speaking them up produced listening was a fact of life. Another expression of that disconnection between the public and the private sphere. 

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)

WebDoc – “Modern Understanding:”Gender and Race Politics in American World War I Writings by Karsten H.Piep (Miami University)

Golden Charter – How WW1 changed British attitudes to death
The United States World War I Centennial Commission – War Isn’t the Only Hell: Telling the Truth about African American and Lost Generation Experiences

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".


  • Kristin Cleage
    Posted April 23, 2024 at 00:59

    I believe soldiers of the wars that followed were also reluctant to talk about their experiences. Did earlier soldiers share what happened to them with those who hadn’t been there?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 23, 2024 at 18:59

      It is indeed common to soldiers of all wars. But also I think it was a particularly heavy burden for the soldiers of WWI just because the war was so unexpected, new and difficult to handle on all levels. Also, it was impossible to draw on past experience as a guide, because no war had been like this before.
      In many ways, ‘it was the first time that–‘, and I think this made it particularly difficult to handle and express on an emotional and psychological level. .
      Just my feeling.

  • D.A.Cairns
    Posted April 23, 2024 at 07:59

    Given the high level of awareness about mental health issues nowadays, I wonder if we’d do a better job of looking after those broken hearts and minds, or would it still be overwhelming? Would the scale be too great? Surely, we would do better now as a society. We are doing better, aren’t we?

  • Viktor Steiner
    Posted April 24, 2024 at 13:22

    A very perceptive analysis. Thanks.

  • Anne E.G. Nydam
    Posted April 26, 2024 at 01:04

    I think society as a whole still acts like veterans should come home and be normal and happy and proud of being heroes and everything’s great… when really being at war cannot ever be great or leave one unscathed heart and soul. There are certainly a lot more resources now than there were then, and acceptance of things like PTSD, but the brutal truth is that those of us who have never experienced it don’t want to deal with it.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 3, 2024 at 18:39

      That’s certainly true.
      And yet, there are also stories of moving acceptance. I work in a publishing house and a few years ago, we published a memoire by a doctor from the Italian Army who served in Afghanistan for more than one year. He told the story of a soldier who lost an arm in combat. He was so ashamed that it couldn’t tell anyone at home, He finally got on a videocall with his girlfriend. When the girls saw him, with an arm missing, they stood silent for a long, long time. Finally, she said, “But I will marry you anyway.”

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted May 14, 2024 at 13:23

    Silence is probably a contributing factor to history repeating itself.

    Ronel visiting for S: My Languishing TBR: S

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