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Journaling (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

The picture acts as a drop cap for the text. Purple letter J 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'

The very nature of WWI produced a considerable amount of written words in letters and diaries. The WWI war diaries were often a place of self-care, sometimes published – usually by families – after the war, but frequently kept secret for decades. 

The trenches of WWI evoke shelling and the killing of thousands of soldiers at a time. The horror and the death. 
But the very nature of trench warfare is made of long periods of boredom and immobility. 
Sometimes, the front didn’t move for weeks, even for months and among the bursts of shelling and terror were days after days of waiting.
Filling those days with something to do was one of the soldiers’ main occupations, and many used that waiting time to write. 

The population that filled the trenches of WWI was one of the most literate in history up to that point. Many soldiers knew how to write and did write letters home. They also wrote stories and poems, articles for the trench newspapers. And wrote diaries. 

Those soldiers away from home, who witnessed the first mechanised war, something unthinkable up to that point, wanted to record what happened to them. They wanted to leave a trace. To feel closer to their loved ones at home. And also to make sense of what they were living through. 

WWI diaries as a place of self-care

Pinterest Pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation—Journaling." The black-and-white picture shows a soldier from WWI writing a letter, sitting on a sand sack.

Many soldiers wrote diaries, recording what happened to them and their thoughts and feelings. Letters home were often censored, both by the army and by the writer himself, who didn’t want to worry his family. But diaries were often kept secret, and therefore, they became receivers of more candid, more personal thoughts. They were a separate place where thought could be explored, and external censorship didn’t apply.

Yet, self-censorship still applies for different reasons.
Sometimes, because the diary was a safe place, the soldiers didn’t want to ‘mar’ it with dark thoughts. Whether the decision was conscious or not, soldiers didn’t write down the most horrid experience in the diary. Some diaries read more like travelogues, where the soldiers describe the places they find themselves in as if they were travellers, focusing more on the wonders and discoveries rather than the challenges of warfare.

Besides, the mechanised war was so new and shocking that the soldiers didn’t have the words to describe it. 
Many diaries are full of the ‘absence’. What is not there is as loudly present as what is in there. 

But some other soldiers recounted their experience as best they could, painful as it was. Some diaries stop abruptly, even when the soldier did come home. 

Whether it received what they were actually experiencing or what they would have liked to experience, a soldier’s diary was often a place of sanity. 
They helped men keep track of time in a place where days flew and merged into each other. Many entries are just one-liners saying, “Same as yesterday.” But the mere fact of writing it down and putting a date to it helped them grasp reality.

However a soldier treated it, his diary gave him comfort and a safe place to be himself, whoever they wanted to be. 

Diaries after the war

The black-and-white photo shows a group of British soldiers taking a rest on the side of a dirt road. One of them is writing a letter.

This huge literary production exchanged in letters often found its way to publication after the war, mostly by soldiers’ families who wanted to commemorate their lost ones. 
These memorial volumes became very common in the years immediately after the war. Many of them contain poetry. Many of these soldiers, who – we have to remember – often come from universities around Europe and beyond – wrote poetry, though in many cases, they died too young to flower as artists (but there are some who survived or lived long enough to produce a corpus of works). These memorial books are often anthologies of works from different soldiers who only produced (or left – a lot of material was certainly lost) a handful of poems. 

The diaries had a different fate.
They had been secret when they were written in the trenches, and they continued to be secret, often until the end of the soldier’s life. As the vessel of their inner-most thoughts and fears, their more personal and intimate experiences, many soldiers kept those diaries hidden for the rest of their lives. They felt that it was useless to make them public. Only people who had been in the trenches knew what it meant. Nobody else would understand. 

Journaling (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) – The very nature of WWI produced a considerable amount of written words in letters and war diaries that were often kept secret #WWI #history Share on X

The Lost Generation and the words of WWI

The black-and-white photo shows a young soldier balled up in a trench, writing a letter, while beside him, a fellow soldier sleeps on a cot half buried in the mud.

The Lost Generation, as well as the world they lived in, were profoundly affected by the experience of war and the artistic production that came after – but especially the artistic production of the 1920s – was drenched in that experience. 

WWI coloured the way Western societies understand war ever after, even in our time. It changed how nations fought their wars and how war touched their national life. 
Today, most Western societies refuse war and, at the very least, think war is bad and should be avoided at all costs. And this comes from WWI. It was not so before it. 

It all started with the Lost Generation – from the artists and novelists and poets who became popular in the 1920s and whose popularity often lasted well after WWII. 
Many of the writers and poets who wrote and became popular in the 1920s possessed a sense of senseless brutality, a way to look at reality, removing all the vails that came from the ordeal of WWI. 


RESOURCES

University of Rochester – How the Great War altered memory and memorialization
Military History Now – Wars of Words – Ten Must-Read Memoirs from the First World War
The Collector – World War I: The Writer’s War
Read&Co – The Lost Generation: Literature of the American Jazz Age

Sylvie Crinquand, First World War Diaries : Making the Private Public (PDF)


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".

12 Comments

  • Timothy S. Brannan
    Posted April 11, 2024 at 01:47

    Yesterday I talked about the Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. A lot of that was written as part of a journal during his time in WWI. There is a lot of that war and his experiences in it in this novel.

    Tim Brannan
    The Other Side: 2024 A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 19:27

      Ahhh! It wasn’t The Hobbit that was probably written in the trenches. It was The Fall of Gondolin. But indeed, both The Hobbit and The Lord fo the Rings are full of references to the Great War. I once read an article saying that The Lord of the Rings is one of the most important novels about WWI. I tend to agree.

  • D.A.Cairns
    Posted April 11, 2024 at 08:05

    Terrific. It’s so interesting to read of the different ways those men used their written words to help them: to pass the time, to deal with stuff, to feel connected. Fascinating. Thank you.
    https://dacairns.com.au/blog/f/a-to-z-blogging-challenge-j

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 19:28

      Indeed, it si fascinating. The written word is truly so powerful.

  • Viktor Steiner
    Posted April 11, 2024 at 19:09

    “Filling those days with something to do was one of the soldiers’ main occupations, and many used that waiting time to write.” – I’d never thought of that.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 19:30

      Right? We often think about trench warfare as a continuous fight. But it was more complex than that.
      Sooner or later, I want to explore the life in the trenches more in detail. It’s strangely fascinating.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 13, 2024 at 18:34

    I love that last paragraph. Yeah, writing has healing properties.

    Ronel visiting for J: My Languishing TBR: J
    Ghosts

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 16, 2024 at 15:53

    Journalling is such a powerful outlet for one’s private thoughts and recording the unfolding of history. I’ve been regularly doing it since September 1989, and I love reading published journals from historical figures and ordinary people.

    Welcome to My Magick Theatre

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 19, 2024 at 19:24

      WOW! From 1989!
      I’ve never been much of a diary keeper, but recently I’ve started keeping a journal. I agree with you. It’s surprisingly helpful. I’m not surprised that so many soldiers kept one.

  • Anne E.G. Nydam
    Posted April 16, 2024 at 19:26

    This is fascinating and such an important reminder of the fact that warfare is composed of individual humans. I’m guessing a lot of those journals were destroyed after the war, either by survivors who wanted to put it behind them, or families who didn’t want private thoughts made public.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 19, 2024 at 19:26

      That’s probably true. Yet many, many survived. Some are even accessible online.

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