As Paul Fussell reminds us, centuries don’t begin on time; the Twentieth didn’t start promptly on January 1, 1900; it began in the trenches of France. Whole forests have been cut down to supply paper for books on the origins of the Great War. I never spent much time on the matter. For whatever reason men took to arms in 1914, the cause was changed by the Battle of the Somme.
The First World War was truly a global conflict. And the ranks of soldiers were filled with people from all over the world. As the war took its toll on the belligerent nations, the Great Powers drew men and supplies from all over the world. Each group of replacements had its own reason for replenishing the ranks – reasons which didn’t account for a dead arch duke.
Colonials arrived in France to fight for independence back home. African-Americans enlisted to demonstrate Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that all men are created equal – theirs was a fight for equality, not the defeat of a Kaiser. Women supplied labor for the armaments industry with no plans to return quietly to the kitchen; theirs was a fight for independence of a different kind.
And as the world was ripped asunder, so were traditional ideas about Western art. The seeds of modernism had been planted in the twilight of empire, but the pace accelerated after the war. As Reed Johnson notes in his excellent Los Angeles Times piece about post-war art, the “Great War of 1914-18 tilted culture on its axis.”
The blundered strategies of politicians and the outdated tactics of generals had its most profound affect on the men in the lines. And as a result, the cultural narrative switched from the wealthy elite to the common man. And as Reed notes, the war’s most enduring legacy was its “emphasis on the personal stories of the nontitled individuals who actually fought and died in it.”
Reed Johnson: Art Forever Changed By World War I
Paul Fussell: The Great War And Modern Memory
Modris Eksteins: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age