The Lost Generation. The generation of the trenches. The generation of the front. That experience defines the youths that took part in the war. Their souls, their behaviours, the way they saw the future, everything was heavily impacted. Among the many things they had in common was the inability to express their war experience.
The generation of the trenches produced an impressive amount of documents about the war. Letters, diaries, and in later years, memoirs and autobiographies. And still, that generation was characterised by the inability to actually expressed their experience.
The protagonists of those events, the soldiers, who lived this global carnage in first person, often show the lack of a vocabulary that was able to describe what was unspeakable.
The authority and themselves put in place many limitations to the expression of the soldiers’ feelings. Censorship was very strong. “Somewhere in France” is a common expression in many letters because soldiers were not allowed to say more.
Self-censorship was also very strong. Soldiers often had no desire to translate into words what they saw every day around them. It would make it more real. Besides, most soldiers didn’t even know how to express what they were living through, so new it was. Often they tried to express the inexpressible by making up a new language. A language that tried to circumvent all kinds of censorship (including the self-imposed). A language that could express what didn’t exist or hadn’t existed up to that point. A language that could speak the void.
Historians today point out how WWI was a limited experience. It was a caesura from the past and the first step towards something new, and therefore somehow lived in limbo. In that space, the old language was useless, and the new language hadn’t emerged yet. That’s how so many soldiers were robbed of the possibility to express themselves and share the experience.
In the past, where fight and death had been a one-to-one experience, glory and honour could still exist. A soldier only fought against another soldier and had the opportunity to prove to be braver, more skilled, more determined. In this way, even his death found a meaning, not just inside the conflict but especially inside his community. His death could be recounted, absorbed by his community and become part of it as it was shared. Sharing was the way to cope with the loss.
Not so in WWI. As one-to-one combat disappeared into the industrial destruction of thousands of live in the same moment, both the soldiers and their community were robbed of the meaning and the means to express the loss.
A chasm opened between the soldiers and the home front. Nobody could understand what the front meant if they hadn’t been there because it was such a new experience that no known language could express it. Robert Graves noted that “home was awful because you were with people who didn’t understand what this was all about.” Even describing the noise of the bombardment was impossible because nothing was like it. There was a feeling that the soldier belonged to the front, and away from it, his life lost meaning and weight. Veterans could find solace and comfort only with other veterans. Even their families were strangers to this feeling.
The experience of the industrial war was so new, so unthinkable, so unexpected, that it became inexpressible.
Absence and void
And yet, that inability to express became the very expression of that experience.
Those who ‘did not speak about war’ often lapsed into silence, the ‘thousand-yard stare’, ‘the vacant look’, all characterised by a lack of communication.
This ‘absence’ eventually translated into the communal commemoration of the war. The empty tomb of the Cenotaph, the absent name of the Unknown Warrior, the open space in the centre of so many architectural memorials, as well as the two minutes’ silence on the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, everything speaks of that void, that loss, that absence of means. The ’empty space in the centre’ became the defining motif of the expression of the experience of war.
Enzo Travero, A ferro e fuoco. La guerra civile europea (1914-1945), Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008