Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War – World War I.
It was the great disaster of the 20th century, the one that summoned or forced the disasters that would follow, from Lenin and Hitler to World War II and the Cold War. It is still, a century later, almost impossible to believe that one event, even a war, could cause such destruction, such an ending of worlds.
History still isn’t sure and can never be certain of the exact number of casualties. Christopher Clark, in “The Sleepwalkers” (2013), puts it at 20 million military and civilian deaths and 21 million wounded. The war unleashed Bolshevism, which brought communism, which in time would kill tens of millions more throughout the world. (In 1997, “The Black Book of Communism,” written by European academics, put the total number at a staggering 94 million.)
Thrones were toppled, empires undone. Western Europe lost a generation of its most educated and patriotic, its future leaders from all classes—aristocrats and tradesmen, teachers, carpenters and poets. No nation can lose a generation of such men without effect. Their loss left Europe, among other things, dumber.
My understanding of the Great War comes from two sources – Jock Taylor, my great-grandfather, lived with my parents and I in the early 1970s and had fought in the conflict and would tell me of his war-time experiences in the evenings. One of his brothers became a German prisoner of war and his other brother was killed by a shell.
My second source comes from reading Charley’s War in the 1980s.
The tension between what Charley’s War can initially appear to be and its radical polemical purpose may make it a tough book to warm to at first. The fact that it’s an exceptionally emotionally literate tale told in what seems to be the form of a traditional boy’s gung-ho war comic is challenge enough. It’s a story that speaks to an audience of literate children with the conviction that it could be enjoyed by adults as well, and the needs of the two often inevitably clash. Its pages are marked by the most sophisticated writing, and yet, that’s by necessity expressed, at times, as clunky exposition constantly reiterating the who, why, where, and what of it all. Similarly, subtle characterization is also matched with melodramatic and even occasionally mawkish set-pieces, allowing each week’s episode to create the thrills necessary to keep it popular with its youthful audience. And so, Mills and Colquhoun were constantly pushing the bounds of what they could say and show while making the most of the constraints they were working under. It’s difficult not to constantly be aware of the limitations of the boy’s war comic form, as well as noting how it’s being deliberately and inventively subverted.
See the Wiki entry too.
For a perspective of what the world lost due to the Great War – read Stefan Zweig’s The world of Yesterday.