World War I:
A New Kind of War

Part II
Lastly, combat violence, suffered but also inflicted, caused irreparable psychological damage. Psychiatry at that time had at best only primitive explanations of the stresses and traumas of the battlefield. Germans had a quite sophisticated concept of Kriegsneurose, or war neurosis, but the principal interpretative tools among the British and Americans was the simplistic notion of "shell shock," and, among the French, commotion and obusite ("shellitis"), in a context where exacerbated patriotism caused physicians invariably to suspect soldiers of simulating insanity, or at least of engaging in an unconscious psychological and bodily ruse in order to escape duty.

It is now known that soldiers on a battlefield can hope to preserve their psychological equilibrium for only several months at best; the strict selection process notwithstanding, one-tenth of mobilised American men were hospitalised for mental disturbances between 1942 and 1945, and after thirty-five days of uninterrupted combat, 98 per cent of them manifested psychiatric disturbances in varying degrees.

As it happens, the combatants of 1914 - 18, when they were lucky enough to survive, were constantly sent back to the trenches, often in the same areas, even after they had already been wounded several times. This prolonged immersion, unprecedented in duration, constitutes another specific aspect of their experience of violence.

More than half of the 70 million soldiers engaged in the Great War suffered physically from its violence, whether it killed them or "only" wounded them. And, if we are to trust present-day epidemiological studies on the invisible consequences of combat, we should not rule out the possibility that almost half of the survivors sustained more or less serious psychological disturbances. All these factors, as Keegan emphasized, show the extent to which, starting in 1914, the battlefield had become the site of a much more extreme terror than ever before. The greater range of weapons changed the very conception of "battlefield;" the Somme in 1916 --- the site of one of the most costly battles of the century --- was ten times more spread out than Waterloo.

The circumstances and conditions of combat were thus completely transformed. In the big battles of the early twentieth century, commanders could no longer grasp in its entirety the scene of the conflict. A hundred years earlier, soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, but now they were dispersed over the terrain, isolated, and almost entirely lost when the confusion of battle set in. Sometimes, when the tactical links were broken, they were completely on their own, as in Verdun, where infantrymen were scattered haphazardly wherever there were shell-craters. True, battlefields of the past were always scenes of horrendous terror for the combatants, as shown by the panic that so often gripped the contending parties. And there have also always been sites of massacres, including "pointless" ones perpetrated by victors when, at the sight of their enemies surrendering or turning their backs, they lost control.

Yet before the battles of the Great War, the confrontations had never been so totally dehumanised. A combatant's skill and training, his courage and prudence, played no small part in his ability to survive a raging battle. But given the immense increase in fire-power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this individual know how counted for very little. It was not entirely useless, however, as the high death toll of novice soldiers in the trenches shows.

In 1914 - 18, the disparity between the methods of killing and methods of self-protection became overwhelmingly disproportionate. Given the fire-power's new intensity and the width of the terrain swept by bullets, shells and gas, escaping the onslaught becomes a mere matter of chance. Even buried in the ground, men had fewer defences than ever before.

Moreover, the periods of extreme violence lengthened spectacularly, going from a few hours to several weeks or months. The first confrontations of 1914 put an end to the brief, brutal clashes that were characteristic of what Hanson calls the "Western way of war." The Battle of the Somme lasted for more than five months; Gallipoli, more than eight; Verdun, around ten; and the third Battle of Ypres, in 1917, four months.

Paradoxically, what this adds up to is the death of battle in the traditional meaning of the term. Battles were transformed into a series of sieges in open countryside, during which the besieged could resupply freely, receive transport reinforcements and build new lines of defence (as the French did at Verdun in 1916, and the Germans on the Somme in the same year). The depth of the rear, some ten kilometres wide, permitted an efficient resistance to almost any enemy attack. On the Somme, in July - November 1916, an enormous force of 4 million men could thereby take turns, on both sides, in supplying a front line some forty kilometres wide. More than a quarter of them were killed, taken prisoner, or listed as missing.

These "sleges" left the areas of confrontation completely devastated and devoid of life over thousands of square kilometers. It could be said that battle in the traditional sense died of its own violence, since the intensity of the bombardments, drastically changing the terrain as it did, forbade or made extremely difficult any forward movement by the artillery, in spite of the fact that artillery support is indispensable to any infantry advance. Movement was now not possible. Even the German offensive of March 1918 in Picardy, with its spectacular initial results, progressively lost momentum before finally being halted by the entry of Allied reserves on the front lines. Until the combined intervention of tanks, aircraft and American forces in the summer of 1918, which enabled the Allies to drive back an adversary weakened by the last-ditch efforts of the preceding months, no genuine return to movement had been possible on the Western Front since the autumn of 1914.

Was a new type of battle born in the Great War? We lack an adequate vocabulary to talk about the change that took place. Field-Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, astounded by their visit to the Somme in September 1916 --- for until then they had known only the Eastern Front --- coined the expression "battle of equipment" (Materialschlacht) to try to define the great break. Does the term adequately express what really happened from 1916 on? The soldiers spoke spontaneously of Verwvüstungschlacht, a difficult word to translate, which combines the ideas of ruin, devastation and butchery and that emphasizes the human slaughter involved. We could also suggest the term "total battle." We lack the words to explain that a form of warfare which since antiquity had seen battle as a climactic moment, condensed in time, was now called into question. The violence of the 1914 - 18 confrontation was magnified tenfold as a result of this change, for the demise of the old types of battle, far from reducing the suffering and casualties, multiplied them in unprecedented proportions. The Western world's entire relationship to war was permanently and drastically altered.

Thus a certain kind of war died with the twentieth century, at least in that part of Western Europe that had already produced so many atrocious innovations in warfare and where, since the late eighteenth century, more than 150 conflicts and about 600 battles had taken place. It died as a result of its own violence, of its own paroxysms. In spite of the extraordinary brutality of the Napoleonic battles, the soldiers of the Empire could still spontaneously use the term "field of glory" to designate the place where they had fought, been wounded, or lost their comrades. Could the term "field of glory" be applied after Verdun or the Somme? An æsthetic and ethical code of heroism, courage and battle violence vanished in the immense cataclysm of 1914 - 18.

--- From 14 - 18
Understanding the Great War

Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau
Annette Becker
Catherine Temerson,
©2000, Hill & Wang
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