At this years Glebe Society ceremony for Remembrance Day, historian Max Solling spoke of how in 1919 the local community grappled with the proper way to remember their lost generation.
As Glebe’s citizen soldiers returned home in 1919 the local community grappled with how to remember their lost generation. The tragic loss of life in the war spawned Remembrance or Armistice Day, first observed on 11 November 1919.
The war was a literary as well as historical watershed. Carnage on the Western Front convinced many European poets and novelists that the long tradition of heroic battle literature, stretching back to Homer’s epic of war and masculine virtue, The Iliad, was no longer valid. And they questioned the nature of war, and its significance to Western culture. Technological advances in weaponry made warfare such an impersonal enterprise, and after the war the martial hero was fast disappearing from war writing abroad. Gallipoli elevated the Anzac to a supreme place in the pantheon of national heroes. The image created by English war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett of a rampaging ‘race of athletes’ storming the beach at Gallipoli was nurtured by Charles Bean who did much to establish the Anzac legend. The Anzac Book (1916) that Bean edited indicated a shift in literary tastes from the meekly colonial to the stridently patriotic. Returned-soldier groups played important roles in constructing meanings of Gallipoli which filled a deeply felt need for those Australians in an emergent nation who had longed for the day when they could prove themselves in battle.
Robin Gerster, in his book adapted from a doctoral thesis, has argued Australian war writing during and after the First World War was peculiarly obsessed with perpetuating the ideal of noble Anzac sacrifice and bravery. The Antipodean experience was unusual because so much post-war literature in France, Germany, the USA and Britain focused on the futility and senselessness of war. Back in Australia the returned servicemen’s journal Reveille campaigned vigorously against this sort of literature spread by foreign writers. The war created a wealth of literary output from those who fought on its battlefields and a new breed of well-educated soldier who vividly chronicled their first-hand experience. The old epic assertiveness and inflated rhetoric was transformed by English poets into subjective lyric mode which registered war’s impact on the private sensibility.
French, German, American and English novelists sought a means of representing the ‘alienated’ and senseless world ushered in by war. Henri Barbusse, Under Fire (1916), Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1929), as well as painters such as Paul Nash, all combatants, stressed the waste and futility of war. These novels contrasted with an enormous amount of creative energy devoted to elaborating a particular ideal of the Australian soldier, its heroic traditionalism. However more than a few Europeans, such as John Galsworthy and Rudyard Kipling, clung to older themes of sacrifice, patriotism and social permanence. For Samuel Hynes, the war and immediate post-war years were a time of contest over how the war was to be ‘imagined’. A few in Australia were independent enough to question the heroic creed; the first dissenters came from the ranks of non-combatant poets John Le Gay Brereton and Frank Wilmot, especially Brereton’s attack on mindless chauvinism in The Patriot. A fusion of memoir, autobiography and fictionalised versions of both about the conflict flooded the international literary market. Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is among the most powerful. A story of a young German soldier conscripted at the age of 18, wounded several times, and living through the terror of the war and the alienation he feels at the prospect of returning home afterward. First serialised in a German newspaper in l928, it appeared in novel form in 1929 and sold two and a half million copies in 18 months in 25 languages. We see the daily routine of soldiers who seem to have no past or futures apart from life in the trenches, and Remarque demonstrates through the character of Paul Baumer, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, how war had obliterated almost an entire generation of men. He presented surrealistic images of halves of human bodies impaled on trees, of dismembered limbs scattered around emplacements, of the uncanny company of the dead in the trenches. A feature of the narrative is its laconic understatement, expressed in a cool, terse style, recording a world where daily thousands were mowed down by machine guns.
The German novelist recounted his aim in All Quiet on the Western Front was ‘simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war’. Based on his experience in Flanders in l9l7, Lewis Milestone’s epic film made from it in 1930 carried a pacificist message, proclaimed in a self-consciously American accent designed to break down the national barriers between former enemies.
Its extraordinary appeal may stem from Remarque’s success in universalising the soldiers’ experience – that the war was the same for all who fought. It also articulated the alienation felt by combatants from the societies they were supposedly defending. Remarque fell under attack by the National Socialists in Germany who were appalled that he had failed to glorify German militarism. He joined the mass exodus of artists and intellectuals who were repressed and persecuted by the Nazis in 1933 when his book was consigned to be publicly burnt, and in 1938 he lost his German citizenship. He had found refuge to Switzerland in 1932, and in 1939 emigrated to the USA where in 1947 he became a citizen. Remarque revisited the themes and ideas of All Quiet on the Western Front. In both novel and film form his ideas continued to cause great consternation and anger to oppressive governments and kept in the public eye the tremendous sacrifice, death, horror and destruction caused by war. There were active campaigns to suppress modernist sensibilities born of war, and there was a climate antagonistic to alternative views. For example in the interwar years All Quiet on the Western Front was banned from sale in Australia. Erich Remarque, described as the war’s ‘recording angel’, created many works about the terror of war. He died on 25 September 1970 at Locarno, Switzerland, aged 72 years.
Henri Barbusse (1873-1935), raised in a household devoted to the ideals of the Enlightenment, and already an established novelist, voluntarily enlisted in the French Army in 1914 at 41 years of age. The real war hit him in the first week of 1915. Wounded in action, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery but became thoroughly disillusioned with the reality of life in the trenches. He turned his painful experiences into a searing realist novel, Le Feu (Under Fire), first published in serial form in 1916 and based on three months of combat. It follows the fortune of a battalion of ordinary men thrown together from all over France. A narrator lets the experiences and thoughts of his comrades take centre stage. ’What a life. Mud, earth, rain. We are saturated, dyed, kneaded. One finds dirt everywhere, in pockets, in handkerchiefs, in clothes, in food. It is a haunting memory, a nightmare of earth and mud, and you have no idea what a weird-looking fellow I am. My gun has the air of being sculpted in clay.’ Hemingway thought it was the ‘only good book’ to appear in the war, and the novel proved that one could protest about ‘the gigantic useless slaughter’ in the form other than poetry. Siegfried Sassoon, deeply stimulated by Under Fire, was encouraged to find that, at last, ‘Someone was really revealing the truth about the Front Line’. A lifelong friend of Albert Einstein, Barbusse moved to Moscow in 1918 where he died on 30 August 1935, aged 62 years.