Haunted by dreams of the trenches
Throughout the First World War, men on the western front lived and fought in dark, muddy trenches. After enduring the worst of the physical landscape, many then sought refuge in its grandeur and beauty. After the war, 14 Lake District summits were donated to the National Trust as a memorial, while climber-poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young dedicated the space to comrades united in “the fellowship of hill and wind and sunshine”. The Zone Rouge, stretching across north-eastern France, is a very different memorial to war. After the armistice, the area was declared unfit for human habitation on account of the devastation. Even today, there are areas scarred by unexploded bombs and ammunition dumps, and the soil and water is still poisoned by chemical waste.
These contrasting legacies reflect the range of human reactions to years of industrial warfare. Approximately 8 million men were killed in the First World War, and about 20 million were wounded, some of them many times. Homes, businesses, farms and whole communities were obliterated. In Britain more than 80,000 were diagnosed with shell shock – a number that grew due to the lasting effects of combat trauma There were refugee crises and epidemics, and in eastern Europe there was mass starvation as the old empires disintegrated. On top of this, 20–50 million people died worldwide as a result of the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, while many men were prematurely aged or debilitated after years of war service.
Suffering and stigma
Physical injuries sustained in the conflict were often life-changing and traumatic. Young men returned home blind, disfigured or with missing limbs. “What a useless individual I am and how hard it comes to me to know that at my age I am simply an old crock,” wrote a facially wounded soldier to his mother at the end of the war.
There were psychological scars, too. In Britain alone more than 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock, and the numbers grew after the armistice due to the long-term effects of combat trauma. “I cannot forget it, no matter how much I skylark,” confessed one soldier to his doctor. The stigma of mental wounds compounded these feelings. Being treated for shell shock “made me feel like a bloomin’ kid” complained one soldier, echoing the sentiments of many. The war also had a psychological impact on the families who lost sons, brothers, husbands and friends, or (more often) had to accommodate the return of men irrevocably transformed by war. Even those who suffered no loss had spent years in fear, worried that friends and relatives could be killed or maimed.
How did this affect the children of those men and women whose lives had been so damaged by the war? In her 2008 book Alfred and Emily, Doris Lessing created a Britain that had not endured the First World War. It was a response to her own family history, which was dominated by her father’s war wound, and provides a glimpse into the profound psychological costs of the conflict. It was not simply that her father had lost his leg, but that he was unable to forget the war. For the rest of his life he slept badly, disturbed by dreams of the trenches. At the breakfast table, Lessing writes, he would announce that he had been dreaming of “Tommy”, “Johnny” or “Bob” again.
In Germany, the psychological impact of the war on society as a whole was recognised most fully in the early years of the Weimar Republic, when the Social Democrats tried to create a Volksstaat (‘people’s state’) in which soldiers and civilians were united by their collective war experience. Yet veterans were hostile to a welfare system that conflated their needs with those of women, and insisted on the primacy of the combatant’s suffering. This trauma was made manifest in expressionist film, in surrealist art and in the short-lived but potent Dada movement. All were ways of declaring that the world no longer made sense.
The First World War was not, as many contemporaries hoped, the war to end all wars. Yet the survivors were not just battle-scarred and broken. Returning soldiers – most of whom were young men – wanted to live their lives to the full. The psychological cost of the conflict was a huge burden for them. At the same time, many were determined to enjoy whatever “hill and wind and sunshine” they could find.
An injured soldier uses belt crutches in September 1917. The physical injuries sustained were often life- changing