Patriotism, Glory, and Other Lies
Author: Billy Smith
Many themes, in World War I literature, hinge on the distinction between the soldiers and the elite. Soldiers in World War I were, metaphorically, the swords with which elites of opposing countries would strike each other: the swords were continually bloodied while the hands of the elite remained immaculate. Since the soldiers were doing the grunt work for the elites, they were able to witness, first-hand, the atrociousness of war. This atrociousness was, however, in contrast to what the soldiers had been told about war; concepts such as glory were mysteriously absent from the trenches on the Western front. War, rather than being portrayed as the dehumanizing tragedy that it is, was portrayed as a glorious adventure. Not too long after a soldier experienced their first bombardment did they realise that glory had nothing to do with war. War, it could be seen, was merely a game played by the elites at the expense of the working-class.
The glorious perception of war was grossly incongruous with what the soldiers perceived. To a soldier, the war was devastating; yet, the elite were oblivious or neglectful of this devastation. This notion is exemplified by the following quote from Base Details: "`Poor young chap, ... I used to / know his father well; // Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap.' // And when the war is done and youth stone dead, // I'd toddle safely home and die - in bed" (Course Kit, p131). Apathy to this extent is repugnant to people outside of a war; however, amongst soldiers, this is a necessary mental tactic. Yet, this quote was not by a soldier, it was by an officer. The irony thus lies in the lack of association with the soldier by the officer. It is unlikely that the officer feels any sorrow for the individual; if there is any sorrow, it is for the loss of the potential killing that this figurative war machine could have produced. This objectification of soldiers as instruments of death is echoed in Siegfried Sassoon's Counter Attack: "Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned, // bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed" (Silkin, p130). The fact that this poem ends with the statement, "The counter-attack had failed," indicates that this individual's death, viewed from a macroscopic perspective - that is, the perspective of the elites - is insignificant: significance is seen to lie in the fact that this killing-machine's production had been halted, and it's task remains incomplete. Two additional quotes implying the insignificance of soldiers is in A Working Party: "He was a young man with a meagre wife // And two small children in a Midland town..." (Silkin, p94) and in All Quiet on the Western Front "...almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks....