Scars of Europe


Phillip Capper, CC BY


Beneath the trenches scarring Europe’s fields languish the corpses of young men subjected to the barbarity of a global catastrophe glossed over as the Great War. Despite the visibility of these haunting earthen wounds, U.S. perceptions of the First World War are distorted by the alleged triumph of democracy and freedom – that is, if Americans can even recall the supposedly insubstantial world war. Likely due to the U.S.’ prolonged neutrality and the distance between North America and Europe, many Americans escaped the trauma of trench warfare. By the time American soldiers arrived on the Western Front in 1918, they had evaded years of crawling through serpentine troughs as enemy shells roared overhead. Therefore, when the conflict came to its bloody denouement, bringing promises of freedom to enshroud the terror, many would forget the typhoid fever, dysentery, and cholera. They would forget how these diseases picked at men more rapidly and aggressively than bullets and convulsing mines. More would overlook the lice that gorged on emaciated boys or the rats that gnawed on both the living and the bloated corpses floating along flooded channels. Nevertheless, through the surviving letters of World War One veterans, one begins to fathom the brutality of trench combat. It is through these letters that one discovers that despite promises of democratic equality, lower-ranking soldiers were subjected to dehumanizing conditions unlike their martial superiors. As a result of their direct exposures to atrocities, many of these expendable soldiers sought to escape their misery through fleeting distractions.


Those lacking an advantageous rank – as encapsulated by the diverging recollections within the military hierarchy – were often sent to fight and waste away on the front lines for the territorial benefit of ambitious nations. In 1916, Private Gilbert Williams divulged the inhumanity many lowly soldiers endured while confined in the trenches. According to the Private, soldiers in his company spent more time in the channels than outside them. Furthermore, he recounted that within the maze of trenches, the fighting was so feral that there often was no time to bury the dead properly; as a result, numerous bodies were stuffed hastily into the sides of trenches. So hurried were their burials that as the trench walls crumpled under persistent bombardment, one could see the jutting bones of human legs, boots, and skulls. [1] In the warm weather, the pervading stench of rotting corpses prevailed over the miasma of human excrement and poor hygiene. As a private, Williams constituted the lowest member of his infantry unit. While European powers undoubtedly ventured to conserve as many soldiers as possible to display some semblance of victory over their enemies, senior officers typically escaped the constant fighting on the front lines. Most officers spent their time in administrative positions, limiting their direct involvement in combat. Contrarily, privates with the fewest responsibilities were easily expendable. Therefore, if they died, their corpses ought to buttress trench fortifications because what mattered most to warring nations were the inches they gained on the barren fields of No Man’s Land. In a Machiavellian sense, if the state defeated its enemy, its means justified the end – even if victory warranted the degradation of its civilians.


Getty


Analogously, in the Dardanelles, soldier Thomas Harold Watts relayed his experiences in the Turkish trenches. Like Williams, Watts disclosed he spent the majority of his time crouching in man-made troughs. Even during pauses in combat, he and his comrades had to dig for hours and pointlessly expand their trenches, signifying they had no release from the Hadean channels. Around them, incessant shells threatened to claim their lives; thus, the only outcome of their transient respite was additional physical and mental strain. [2] Further, the permeating stink of the rotting flesh was so repulsive that those lucky enough to possess respirators wore them at all times. Early in the war, Britain shipped its troops to the Turkic Dardanelles to weaken Ottoman forces and purportedly aid allied powers, thereby explaining Watt's deployment. However, this rationale served to obscure Britain’s unflattering ambitions. To elaborate, although the Dardanelles Straits provided strategic access to the Black Sea, enabling the supply of munitions to Russian allies, Britain also coveted the region because Winston Churchill – then the First Lord of the Admiralty – aimed to secure the Suez Canal. According to Churchill and his government, the canal would protect Britain’s oil interests in the Middle East. Thus, due to a misjudgment of Ottoman competence, Britain sent her expendable troops to the Gallipoli peninsula under the guise that they were aiding their floundering ally. Yet, when the plan was exposed, and the Turks slaughtered thousands of unprepared Allied troops, Watts divulged that Churchill humiliatingly surrendered. Nevertheless, rather than recall the soldiers, the infantrymen remained in Turkey to continue fighting in fruitless combat. [3] Not only did the Dardanelles campaigns culminate in attrition, but numerous soldiers would suffer from the loss of limbs and PTSD – not because they gallantly chose to challenge a draconian adversary or to protect the Russians, but because of the interests of competing governments.


The experiences of the two privates starkly contrast with circumstances encountered by soldiers sheltered from the misery of trench warfare; furthermore, the diverging experiences of higher-ranking officers accentuate these stratified differences. In 1915, a British sergeant still posted in colonial India during the outbreak of World War One delineated his enjoyable adventures. According to Harry Beaumont, a Quartermaster Sergeant of the East Surrey Regiment, there was no end to the unit’s gaiety in Rawalpindi. In addition to “Cinderella” dances which occurred three times a week, Beaumont partook in whist drives and tennis parties. [4] He also commented on the feelings of dismay subsisting amongst the British regiments not ordered to France. Spared from the horrors of trench warfare and seduced with scenic expeditions through India, men like Beaumont were under the naive perception that the war would end quickly and with minimal devastation. Only a few could conceptualize the horror that the Great War bred. Moreover, it is necessary to note Beaumont’s military position. Not only was he geographically safeguarded from the misery in France, but as a Quartermaster Sergeant, the higher-ranking Beaumont would likely evade the slogging and trauma crippling privates such as Williams and Watts. Instead, his duties would have consisted of supply management and the preparation of war documents. During combat, he would have likely been positioned near the company wagon to safeguard its supplies; thereby, Britain’s military stratification would have spared him from a direct encounter with WWI atrocities.


East Surrey Regiment rest after returning from enemy territory, 16 December 1943. Imperial War Museums.


The recollections of Staff Sergeant James Kibblewhite in 1917 further underscore this stratification. While stationed in Malta – a Mediterranean archipelago spared from combat during the Great War – Kibblewhite wrote that he enjoyed his new painless position. However, because of his previously unpleasant experiences on the front lines, he found his novel task of sending troops to the Western front to be distressing. [5] As a soldier promoted to staff sergeant, Kibblewhite’s responsibilities included the full exploitation of his soldiers’ potential. His seniority granted him the privilege to dispatch inferior soldiers while remaining removed from combat. Yet, dissimilar to the sheltered Beaumont, Kibblewhite’s prior experiences contribute to the festering discomfort he alluded to in his letter. Kibblewhite likely witnessed the gore and filth bred within the western trenches. These experiences would explain why he welcomed dysentery while serving on the front lines. As an outcome of the trench putrefaction which nearly killed him, Kibblewhite was relocated to Malta, promoted to staff sergeant, and spared from withstanding more of the War’s misery. Thus, Kibblewhite’s recollections demonstrate that trench warfare was so brutal for the common soldier that any means of escape – even severe bacterial infections – were desirable.


The seemingly everlasting brutality of the Great War yielded escapist coping mechanisms that distracted soldiers from the persistent bombardments and reminders of death. For example, Gilbert Williams began his correspondence by thanking his recipient for the letter and magazine he sent. [6] Then, after describing the bombings he witnessed, Williams quickly shifts topics, choosing to inquire about the state of his uneventful town. At first, one might presume Williams’ appreciation for the magazine and his queries serve as polite speech. There surely might be an element of propriety in the private’s letter, but it is likely Williams sincerely treasured the simple gift and the mundane exchange. As established, infantrymen slogging in the trenches were continuously exposed to chemical weapons, malnutrition, diseases, torture, and death. Beyond these physical ailments, trauma corroded their sanities, leaving soldiers susceptible to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Therefore, magazines offered momentary respite, distracting men like Williams from the protruding skulls, deafening explosions, and the gripping feelings of trepidation familiar to those under fire. Moreover, his inquiries about his predictably quiet town could serve to comfort Williams with the knowledge that his loved ones remained safe and far from the terrors of trench life. Additionally, Thomas Watts disclosed that during his allotted rest times, his superiors required he continued digging. [7] Although strenuous, not only did this task repair the trenches, but it also alleviated some of the permeating disquietude prompted by inactivity. Soldiers like Watts sometimes welcomed these routines because, like magazines and correspondences, tasks also provided momentary relief from the swelling casualties and injuries, the trenchant starvation unsatisfied by meager rations, and the months of unabating shelling that placed tremendous strain on one’s nerves. Like Williams, when Watts concluded his letter by asking his friend where he intended to spend his holiday, this too may be interpreted as a yearning to momentarily break free from the hellish scenes and continual banging reverberating throughout the Turkish trenches.

As the years continue to widen the gap between the Lost Generation and contemporary ones, the U.S. fails to recollect the nature of the Great War, insufficiently characterizing the conflict as one which centered around the courageous defense of democracy. While partially true, this incomplete encapsulation disregards the grim trauma of trench warfare. Solely through the lingering correspondences of soldiers can one accurately conceptualize the barbarity of World War One. By sifting through these harrowing letters, one discerns that subsidiary infantrymen were coerced into dehumanizing conditions and sacrificed for the territorial advantages of ambitious nations – a reality delineated by the contrasting recollections of frontline soldiers versus those spared from the trenches. As a consequence of the continuous savagery they witnessed, soldiers clung onto any remnants of their humanity and eagerly embraced distractions to escape their misery.

[1] Gilbert Williams, “Letters from the First World War,” Letters from the First World War (National Archives), accessed June 4, 2020,

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/letters-first-world-war-1916-18/trenches-veritable-maze/.


[2] Thomas H Watts, “ Letters from the First World War,” Letters from the First World War (National Archives), accessed June 4, 2020, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/letters-first-world-war-1915/dardanelles-everlasting-nightmare/.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Harry Beaumont, “ Letters from the First World War,” Letters from the First World War (National Archives), accessed June 4, 2020, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/letters-first-world-war-1915/india-time-life/.


[5] James C Kibblewhite, “Letters from the First World War,” Letters from the First World War (National Archives), accessed June 4, 2020, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/letters-first-world-war-1916-18/malta-bathing-boating/.


[6] Gilbert Williams, “Letters from the First World War,” Letters from the First World War (National Archives), accessed June 4, 2020, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/letters-first-world-war-1916-18/trenches-veritable-maze/.


[7] Thomas H Watts, “ Letters from the First World War,” Letters from the First World War (National Archives), accessed June 4, 2020, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/letters-first-world-war-1915/dardanelles-everlasting-nightmare/.