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First World War: Same Protests of Futility, Folly Heard Today

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be July 1, 1916, the first day on the Somme. (Photo: Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company)

About Series

This series features the voices of soldiers and veterans from armed conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, voices whose moral fiber and clarity were forged in the crucible of war.

Watching Londoners reveling in the streets on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, the war critic and pacifist Bertrand Russell commented that people had cheered for war, then cheered for peace – “The crowd was frivolous still, and had learned nothing during the period of horror.” (1)

World War 1 was the first industrial war, with poison gases, flamethrowers, aerial bombing, submarines, and machine guns intensifying the scale of war wreckage and setting the norm for 20th century war. It quickly became a total war, moving inexorably toward total defeat, with no political space or will for early truce. By policy, British war dead was not sent home lest the public turn against the war. Instead, they were buried in vast graveyards near battle sites in France and Belgium. Even today, Belgian and French farmers plowing fields in places of intense, interminable fighting and mass death on the western front unearth an estimated one-half million pounds of war detritus and soldiers’ bones each year.

In Britain, a vast, unbreachable gap arose between war-ruined soldiers and war-fevered citizens suffused and infected with martial music, uniformed parades, and war propaganda – a chasm widened by pervasive government censoring of soldiers’ mail. A pliant media shamelessly published false accounts that turned mass battle losses and defeats into victories. War-loyal British editors were rewarded with knighthoods and peerage; and it was wryly noted that the war couldn’t have lasted more than a month without the newspapers. (2)

From the unyielding ugliness and butchery of World War I emerged soldier poets, notable among them Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose unsparing style and content severed them from the traditions of epic war poems and British romantic poetry. Living and dying in a trench war fraught with dead bodies and rats that fattened on them, with rear guard commanders who sent battalions of teenage boys into the slaughter of machine gun fire, the soldier poets castigated their homeland’s war-mongering politicians and industrial profiteers. Their sense of betrayal encompassed not only politicians giving war orders securely from home and complicit generals holed up in remote chateaus, but also war-clamoring citizens. Among these were patriotic mothers, recruited to publicly shame unenlisted young men into joining and to heckle war resisters and pacifists. The war poets’ realism countered – but never superseded – the homeland novelists, artists, playwrights and poets, among them the empire-loving Rudyard Kipling, procured by the government to ennoble the war through facile appeals to patriotism and uniform, glory for country and honor of serving.

Sassoon was initially lured by the romance and rousing propaganda of war and enlisted the first day. But he soon absorbed its fatal futility. He wrote of fellow soldiers doomed to die, with “dulled, sunken faces . . . haggard and hopeless” whose obedient actions are “murdering the livid hours that grope for peace.” The junior officer Wilfred Owens described golden boys under his command turned into “hapless sacrificial victims” of an ugly, vast slaughter machine. (3) Both poets drew from a reservoir of love and respect for the shared humanity of brother soldiers who, side by side with them, faced death with a noble courage . . . “challenged death and dared him face to face.”

WWI soldiers had only each other in the face of death – a reality clarified by the war’s soldier poets and writers – and incarnated in the 1914 Christmas truce spontaneously initiated by British, French and German soldiers facing each other in trenches. The epic war poems from antiquity forward, which hailed war as the penultimate expression of masculinity and mythic national greatness, were displaced in this early 20th century war, with simpler lyric poetry portraying war as solely generating the “wasteful heroic.” (4)

The German Veteran Voice

“A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends.” All Quiet on the Western Front (5)

The unique comradeship of war lingered also with Erich Maria Remarque, who enlisted at age 19 in the World War I German army. He, too, admits bitterly that a sense of ideal and almost romance of war, propagated by the state’s total propaganda campaign, turned high school boys into willing recruits for slaughter. Some 10 years after the war’s end, he published his first (and what some consider the greatest) anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. In subsequent novels, he continued to expose the ruination of war for those who fight in it and the willful deceit of those who incite it, mandate it, and seek stature from it. Remarque’s 19-year-old soldier protagonist acutely observes the corrupt dynamics of war: “I see how peoples are set against each other . . . foolishly, innocently, obediently slaying each other . . . . While they [the promoters and boosters] continued to talk and write, we saw the wounded and dying . . . . The wrong people do the fighting.” (6) Of the educated class in countries at war, he observes that “the finest brains” are used to “invent weapons and words” to make war “yet more refined and enduring.” (7)

This siphoning of science talent for militarism became a modus operandi throughout the 20th century of hot and cold wars. By some estimates, one-third of all US engineering and science talent was employed in the military industrial complex through the 1980s. (8)

In perhaps the most incisive moment of Remarque’s novel, a young German soldier gazes upon a young French soldier he has killed and ponders their common humanity, with words that undercut the war’s hard-bitten hatred and national chauvinism. “Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony.” (9) All Quiet on the Western Front was banned in Nazi Germany.

War Is a Racket

“I spent 33 years in the Marines, most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers.” (10) Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler

War profiteering in World War I was mammoth; and no one nailed the profiteers and racketeers so head-on as the straight-talking, bemedalled Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler. He described his Marine Corps-officer role in the early 20th century as a “bully boy for American corporations,” leading invasions into China, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti on behalf of American banking, oil and sugar interests. Later, during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era, he became a staunch advocate for homeless and unemployed WWI veterans who had not yet received promised bonuses from the federal government. When these hapless veterans marched on Washington, Generals Patton and MacArthur – of storied WWII fame – called out the US Army, which burned their “Hooverville” shanties and attacked them brutally. Two people were killed, one an infant; and hundreds of veterans were injured.

Smedley D. Butler’s most notable work is a pamphlet-like small book, War Is a Racket, written from the clear-eyed vantage of post-military life, as war clouds were again gathering over Europe. With unsparing prose, he assailed the war industries for the blood on their hands – fomenting war abroad and securely pocketing its profits at home – as bracingly as any ardent pacifist. He cites the gunpowder giant DuPont, the fortunes of which increased nearly 10-fold during the World War I, and General Chemical Company, the wartime profits of which soared by 1,400 percent. (11) Leather, bootmaking, garment and metals industries, as well as airplane, engine and ship builders – all the outfitters of armed conflict – enjoyed immense profits.

“Making the world safe for democracy,” Woodrow Wilson’s mantra, sold US entry into the war to a public that had re-elected him in 1916 to stay out of war. Butler described Wilson employing the same tactics used so thoroughly in Britain and Germany: shaming young men not yet in uniform, jailing pacifists, severe erosion of civil liberties, enlisting film stars and clergy to assure that “God is on our side” and producing xenophobic propaganda.

As Butler saw it, war is first and foremost about making the world safe for war profits. It is the oldest, most profitable racket, he declared – one in which billions of dollars are made for millions of lives destroyed. Of the estimated $52 billion cost of World War I, industry war profiteers pocketed nearly one-third. More than 21,000 new American millionaires and billionaires emerged from the human ashes of the war, while the federal government was mired in post-war debt – a debt paid for by working people’s taxes. (12)

Butler’s analysis maintains its sharp sting – only war-industry profits have grown, and with them, the national budget for militarism. Given the sacred cow status of the military entitlement program within the federal budget, a palpable difference between wartime and “peacetime” economies no longer exists. In 2011, 27 cents of every federal tax dollar went to military expenses while 2.5 cents, 1.9 cents and 1.2 cents, respectively, supported education, energy and environment, and international affairs. This calculation does not include the associated costs of war, such as veterans’ benefits, reconstruction in the Iraq and Afghanistan, assistance to allies, interest on war-related debt, impact of Iraq war on cost of oil, and so on. Further, one of the two primary drivers of the current federal budget deficit is the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the other being the Bush tax cuts. Interest paid on the debt for the wars has reached $185 billion and could reach $1 trillion by 2020.

Toll of war

“…the Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’ “

Thomas Hardy (13)

World War I, if anything, was an immense and complex setback for democracy. In his acclaimed chronicle of the war and its resisters, To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild collates the direct and collateral death, injury, enmities, and poisonous legacies of this total war.

  • Between 8.5 and 9.5 million soldiers overall were killed; 21 million were wounded, many mangled and disfigured; 12-13 million civilians died.
    • Elevated rates of suicide followed the war.
    • The Turkish genocide of Armenians – to be replicated on a much larger scale against European Jews – and the Russian civil war, with fatalities between 7 to 10 million, were triggered by the war.
    • 400,000 African laborers, forced to carry war supplies, died from disease and from being worked to death. Their death rate was higher than that of British soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of African women and children died from famine resulting from the theft of animals and grains by rival armies – all victims of the empires at war.
    • Europe’s landscape and land resources were ravaged: Germans in retreat employed a scorched earth policy in Belgium and France. Russians did the same in retreating from the eastern front.
    • Unexploded shells in Belgium and France in areas of intense, prolonged fighting along the western front continue to kill. French bomb demolition specialists destroy an average of 900 tons of the war’s ordnance per year, a hazardous occupation that has killed hundreds of these specialists. Patches of untouched forest and scrub carry perimeter signs warning hikers to avoid these areas containing live shells.
    • Massive government propaganda campaigns on all sides engendered a deep cynicism after the war and contributed to public dismissal of early rumors about German death camps in WWII.
    • Total, industrial war broke through the limits of what many Europeans thought morally permissible in war against other white Europeans, and it seasoned warring countries for conducting atrocities in future wars. Germany torpedoed neutral ships; both sides used chemical warfare, which presaged Agent Orange in Vietnam; the British blockaded Germany to starve the country into submission; and cities were bombed – a tactic which would be replicated and augmented to extreme levels in World War II, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    • The 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide, spread more rapidly by enormous numbers of troops on the move.

The Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, and it was stipulated that hostilities along the western front were to stop at 11 AM (French time). Even so, soldiers on both sides continued shelling each other throughout the day – such is the vengeful habit of a long, grinding war, a reflex not yet entrenched in the teenage soldiers of the 1914 Christmas truce who laid down arms and played soccer together like friends and brothers.

The Paris Peace Conference began in January 1919 and lasted the year, with the victors dividing the spoils of war, redrawing the defeated empires’ boundaries, devising conditions for a treaty with Germany and the other losing powers, and designing a doomed international body, the League of Nations, to mediate future disputes between nations. Countries from Finland to Czechoslovakia emerged from fragmented European empires. The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was parceled out, with three provinces opportunistically patched together as the new British protectorate of Iraq. German colonies in the Pacific and Africa were divided among the winners. High-minded Allied rhetoric about self-determination of European peoples was not applied to African or Asian colonies or to oil-rich Arab territories.

The Treaty of Versailles was forged by the Allies and signed by a reluctant Germany on June 28, 1919. It established the reduction of German territory and its disarmament. It also required Germany to make huge reparation payments and to formally admit guilt for starting the war. The punitive peace treaty has been widely described as sowing the seeds of World War II: “The tragedies of the future [were] written into it as if by the devil’s own hand,” stated historian-diplomat George F. Kennan. (14)

The Folly of War

In December of 1916, Woodrow Wilson offered to negotiate a “peace without victory” among the warring powers. Millions of soldiers had died for advances or retreats measured in meters of land along the western front; Germans were surviving on potatoes and conscripting children 15 years of age. Yet no side was willing to agree to a settlement that would forfeit them some prize for the sacrifice in lives, including financial reparations – given the near bankrupting cost of the war. Further, a stalemated peace without victory would likely instigate popular revolt in all countries drawn into war against “the throne, the military caste, the landowners, industrialists and barons of business.” “[O]nly a war of gain offered any hope of their survival in power,” notes historian Barbara Tuchman in her epic analysis of war from Troy to Vietnam, The March of Folly. (15) Even revolution in the losers’ country was feared by the Allies because of its infectious nature. Thus, the World War I victors would leave machine guns in an otherwise demilitarized Germany at the end of the war for the government to quell burgeoning socialist protests.

Tuchman contrasts the punitive winners-take-all Treaty of Versailles with the “peace without victory” proposed by Wilson. And she speculates: “For the world, the alternative would have changed history; no victory, no reparations, no war guilt, no Hitler, possibly no Second World War.” (16)


After a week of travel along the western front and walking among miles of cemeteries for British, Belgium, French and other soldiers killed in war, Adam Hochschild finds a lone, out-of-the-way plot with a large cross and a dozen small ones honoring the 1914 Christmas truce, spontaneously celebrated by soldiers on both sides. He notes that the modest memorial was near where they had played soccer together and that on one of the small crosses someone had carved the word “imagine.” And thus prompted, he imagines another cemetery filled with the thousands of women and men war critics, pacifists, and conscientious objectors from Britain, Germany, and the United States, and the thousands of soldiers and sailors on all sides who mutinied, refused to fight, or simply left the front – over the war’s futility and folly. “This would be a cemetery,” he wrote, ” . . . of those who often knew in advance they were going to lose yet felt the fight was worth it anyway, because of the example it set for those who might one day win.” (17)

Adam Hochschild. 2011. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p.342.


Laurie Goldsmith. 2003. Dismantling Glory: Twentieth Century Soldier Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press. p.18.

Goldsmith, p.3.

]Erich Maria Remarque. 1982 edition. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Fawcett Books. pp. 193-194.

[6.]Ibid. pp. 263,13,41.

Ibid. p. 263.

John Kenneth Galbraith. 1994. A Journey through Economic Time: A Firsthand View. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. p.201.

Remarque, p.223.

[10.] Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler. 2003 version. War Is a Racket. Port Townsend , WA: Feral House. Cover quote.


Ibid. pp.28, 29.


Ibid. p.31


Cited in Hochschild. p.343.


Cited in Hochschild. p.357


Barbara Tuchman. 1984. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Ballantine Books. p.27.


Ibid. p.29.


Hochschild. p.376

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