August 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, which marked the life of millions. Described by the Italian soldier, politician, and writer Emilio Lussu as being “Big game hunting of men by men,” much has been written about its legacy. The deluge of books in English is such that writing from the other countries involved tends to fall by the wayside.
No Man's Land: Writings from a World at War, chosen and introduced by Pete Ayrton, brings together in one volume a selection of superb writing from all over the world―up to 1945―about the conflict, some of which is unpublished in English. Henri Barbusse, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1917, and Gabriel Chevallier (French), Carlo Emilio Gadda and Emilio Lussu (Italian), Stratis Myrivilis (Greek), Prežihov Varanc (Slovene), Liviu Rebreanu (Romanian), Jaroslav Hašek (Czech), Miroslav Krleža (Croatian), Miloš Crnjanski (Serbian), Ömer Seyfettin (Turkish), Mulk Raj Anand (Indian writing in English), Ernst Jünger (German), Isaac Babel and Viktor Shklovsky (Russian), are alongside Erich Maria Remarque, D.H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, Wyndham Lewis, Rose Macaulay, William Faulkener, Dalton Trumbo, Willa Cather . . .
Two and a half years in the making, this collection of stories about those who participated in the conflict, as well as those left at home, is an urgent and compelling way of grasping the lessons of our past for our future. No Man's Land is decidedly different from the “standard” historical work and should be mandatory reading in high school. Ayrton: “[The First World War] determined the history of the 20th century. The war changed all aspects of people's lives―it changed the relations between the classes, between the sexes, and between the races, in Europe and beyond. It led to the growth of the evils that spread through Europe in the following decades: fascism, communism, anti-Semitism and genocide and it redrew geographical boundaries . . . rewarding the more powerful, it showed that might is right.”
It is estimated that up to ten million men lost their lives on the battlefield, and another twenty million were wounded. Almost every village in France has a memorial commemorating those killed. The appalling cruelty and carnage comes alive in No Man's Land through very powerful, very graphic writing. The New Zealand journalist Robin Hyde’s Passport to Hell is based on Private J.D. Stark's experiences of fighting in the Gallipoli campaigns, during which “Men lived like rabbits in the trenches, the mud walls pitted with the little holes where they slept.” Not for the faint-hearted, she uses strong, unadorned language to describe shrapnel attacks, the men on No Man’s Land “stone blind and crazy with gun flashes,” and fly-blown, rotting bodies decaying where they fell or sat in “huddled attitudes.” The American writer Mary Borden’s descriptions of amputations and injuries based on her experiences in a field hospital are beautifully written: “Men with gas gangrene turn green like rotting plants.” An extract from William Faulkner’s short story Crevasse, about a small party of men on the march who fall into an underground warren of chalk caverns on to the remains of Senegalese troops gassed during the fighting of May 1915, is an Apocalyptic Hieronymus Bosch painting in words. Stratis Myrivilis, in his war novel written in journal form, Life in the Tomb, describes the bestiality of a Bulgarian gas attack on the Greeks, “A frenzied mass of pale, blinded mud-bespattered humanity, rolling about and bellowing as though in the last throes of rabies.” This piece is followed by some exceedingly dark humor: Sergeant Zafiriou gets drunk, goes for a pee in the small hours of the morning, falls into a latrines trench and dies “wrestling with allied Franco-hellenic shit.”
Soldiers from the colonies served as essential cannon-fodder. The French writer and art critic Raymond Escholier, who took part in the battle of the Marne and Verdun, raised a question which still resounds today: “By which right, in the name of the so-called benefits of civilisation, that we bring them, do we ask Africans to give up their lives for values that have nothing to do with them?”
As is invariably the case with war, there were those who capitalized from it. Siegfried Sassoon wrote, “Some non-combatants were doing themselves pretty well out of the war. They were people whose faces lacked nobility as they ordered lobsters and selected colossal cigars.” Wyndham Lewis derided the Bloomsbury Group, “All exempted themselves in one way or another. Yet they had money and we hadn’t. Ultimately it was to keep them fat and prosperous―or thin and prosperous which is even worse―that other people were to risk their skins.” In Le grand troupeau (To the Slaughterhouse), Jean Giono shows how the conflagration devastated Provençal sheep-farming communities as men were herded like animals to fight on the Western Front. When a handsome well-built man returns home he is skinny, weak and useless―his right “plough” arm has been amputated. His wife laments, “Too many have died. Too many. It doesn’t seem possible. And we’re all involved.”
As the war dragged on, soldiers returned to Britain horrifically maimed and shell-shocked. It is hard for us to understand numerous decades later quite how many young people of that generation were lost, and what the impact was of over 500,000 British children losing their fathers. In her memoirs, On the Wilder Shores of Love: Sketches From a Bohemian Life, the late Lesley Blanch wrote, “As our losses mounted, a stygian gloom enveloped the streets which became noticeably empty, the few pedestrians were mostly in black or wore black armbands, denoting mourning, while hand carts or barrows were taking the place of tradesmen’s carts, for all horses had been commandeered by the Army―bloodstock, big dray horses, tradesmen’s horses and ponies alike.”
Gabriel Chevallier's Fear, (winner of the 2013 Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from the French), and Her Privates We, by the Australian novelist Frederic Manning, are extracted in the anthology, which is published by Serpent's Tail. Ayrton founded the company in 1986 to publish voices neglected by the mainstream. Pegasus Books will release No Man's Land in the US in September.
As the US and UK wage a remote-controlled “War against Terror” that blights the lives of civilians thousands of miles away, it is clear that some lessons have been learned from the mass slaughter at the beginning of the last century. When young British and American soldiers come home in body bags, public opinion turns against the government. The use of air-sea-land military drones―an imperialist's dream come true―is a tidy way to deploy military force in countries safely outside our geographical frontiers, out of sight and out of mind.
Wyndham Lewis’ words are apt, “Most wars were stupid and had only benefited a handful of people . . . Any intelligent man objects to being killed (or bankrupted) for nothing. That is insulting.”