Everything to Nothing
The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution,
And the Transformation of Europe

Geert Buelens
David McKay, Translator

One of my university teachers said that historians have been continually confounded by the events in Europe in the summer of 1914: namely the inability of the five great powers to communicate with each other as one ultimatum followed another, with key messages misplaced, vital telegrams being sent to the wrong official, important documents lost in desk pigeon-holes, confusion in essential transcripts, verbal orders garbled or ignored, and top officials on summer holiday. One would almost think that the people involved wanted to go ahead and crank up a war just to get it done and over with. If the entire European body politic could be seen as human, it would be one that was blind, insensate, delusional --- filled with a passionate hunger for bloodshed.

Perhaps it was partly fatigue. The near-war confrontations of the previous decade between the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance were enervating trumpet-calls that were only muted at the last moment. These include the two Moroccan Crises (1905, 1911), the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, the Balkan Wars (1912 - 1913) and finally, the precipitating July Crisis of 1914.

Not only was war expected, it was often anticipated with ill-concealed delight. According to historian Charles Townshend, "Some statesmen welcomed the war in the belief that it would act as a social discipline purging society of dissident elements and encouraging a return to patriotic values." Those who should have known better greeted it with what might be termed 'rapture.'

The ostensible reason for the declaration of war was the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, but there were numerous writers and thinkers who welcomed it with enthusiasm. Herman Hesse said it was an escape from a "dull, capitalistic peace." Freud wrote, "All my libido goes to Austria-Hungary." Thomas Mann testified that he was "tired, sick and tired" of peace.

The neo-romantic Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his prose-poem "The Lay of the Love" what the editor calls "a remarkably virile celebration of the ecstasy in which life and death can be experienced, written from the point of view of a young ensign who goes to his death as a model of courage and heroism, his flag still burning beside him on the battlefield.

"Each soldier," Rilke offered, "undergoes a gefürsteter Tod --- an ennobled death, a death made princely." Several other young bohemians assisted with this quick elevation of the common foot-soldier to nobility. One, according to Everything to Nothing, was a young man named Gavrilo Princip.

He had serious ambitions to be a poet, had read Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, knew Nietzsche's poems by heart. His most famous poem, though, was a series of chance shots fired into the breasts of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife. It was verse composed on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo and was published to the world immediately. "He was," writes Buelens, "in tune with an age when poetic and revolutionary aspirations often went hand in hand, [proof that] a man of letters could also be a man of action."

Around the same time, the German poet Alfred Lichtenstein wrote,

    Suppose war is coming. There's been peace for too long
    The things will get serious. Trumpet calls
    Will galvanize you. And nights will be ablaze.
    You will freeze in your tent. You will feel hot all over. You'll go hungry.
    Drown. Be blown up. Bleed to death. Fields will rattle to death.
    Church-towers will topple. Horizons will be in flames.
    Winds will gust. Cities will come crashing down.
    The thunder of heavy guns will fill up the horizon.
    From the hills all around smoke
    Will arise and shells will explode overhead.
Buelen emphasises that poetry was not a distant, somewhat fey preoccupation of a small band of poetasters as in our own time, but was taken seriously, published everywhere as if it were news. Even the smaller daily newspapers devoted considerable space to verse. At the same time that 5,000,000 German and Russian troops were being mobilized, historians and anthologists (Julius Bab, Albert Verwey) tell us that during the summer of 1914, some 50,000 poems were being written in Germany about the potential for heroism on the battlefield. One writer claims that for all of August 1914 the number of poems published in the entire country may have been closer to 1,500,000.

    In early twentieth-century European culture, poetry was central to the educational system, and on special occasions newspaper often devoted prominent space to poetry.

"So the outbreak of mass versification at the start of the war was not really all that strange...The magnitude of the event made ordinary people wax lyrical." A typical paean from one Heinrich Lersch (a boilermaker!), went

    Farewell all, farewell!
    When we fall for you and for our future,
    Let these words re-echo as our last salute:
    Farewell all, farewell!
    A free German knows no cold compulsion:
    Germany must live even if we must die!

§   §   §

Time was soon enough able to smother these rhapsodic voices. The war that all thought would be over and done with by Christmas managed to drag over into the next year, and then the year after that, and on into the years after that. Those who had written so heroically about the nobility of sacrifice became somewhat muted, and by 1918, there would be a new band of poetry and prose --- the likes of Fernando Pessoa (who wrote under a variety of names, including Alberto Caeiro) to imply that war/death/nobility might not be all that it was cracked up to be:

    But war, more than everything, wants to alter and alter a lot
    And alter quickly.
    But war inflicts death.
    And death is the Universe's disdain for us.

Buelens cites the starkness of the rhythm of the daily death figures with the following math: "So that was the First World War: two hundred and fifty fresh corpses every sixty minutes, a Twin Tower every afternoon. On an average day, 900 French soldiers died, 1,300 Germans and 1,459 Russians. For the survivors, life on the front as typically tedious, anxiety-ridden and dirty." It also consumed time, turned its stalwarts old and wan. Wilfred Owen was to write in "Dulce et Decorum est,"

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

The less well-known Corporal Daan Boens was to write,

    Vanish you moon! --- I long for night and darkness,
    so that the world around me chars to coal forever
    and the life within me dies --- no hope, and no distress,
    I want the mighty windless void, sheer nothingness.
    No no more rubble --- I myself am rubble . . .

But the very freedom to write such was limited. "Any piece of writing that had anything to do with war or the army --- and most emphatically, anything that might disturb the Burgfriede, Germany's version of the union sacrée --- had to be vetted prior to publication," Buelens tells us. "In Berlin alone, more than 250 civil servants were working full time in the censorship office to enforce such rules." The ban on Anton Schnack's poem "Verdun" was not lifted until 1919, with its realist depiction of the battlefield:

    Uncanny, never seen before, full of cruelty; in its skies strings of fire, streamers of smoke, white arrow lines, a greenish glow;
    Its name: agony, bleeding-to-death, a thousand forms of death, a running sore, place of murder, grave, butchery, evil labyrinth;
    Sent up from way behind their targets, on winter nights
    monstrous, crazy, infamous, rumbling, full of ice and wind
    And with no moon suddenly fired upon by the candles sticking up out of the woods, big, ponderous; brutal.

And a certain Carl Zuckmayer was to write (and publish sixty years later):

    I haven't eaten for seven days
    And shot a man right in the face.
    When I scratch, the bright blood runs.
    I'll soon be turning twenty-one.
    When I'm drunk, I'll plant my fist
    In those pasty faces. Rage is my hymn.
    Lice and fleas eat from my shins. My stubble sprouts like garden cress.
    And so I take my seed in my hand ---
    Europe's future, black-specked spawn;
    A god drowns in a sludge-filled pond! ---
    And shit my legacy on the wall.

Buelen's thesis is that there were poets involved in the war in all its aspects, not only in shooting and mauling each other from the trenches, but involved in the revolutions, in the streets, in the vanguard. They provided commentary on the 1914 peace --- let's be done with it --- and, subsequently, on the war, 1914 - 1918. And they were involved in the profound changes that came about during the conflagration, even those of fashion, the change of costumes of the trenches:

    In 1914 the British soldier went to war dressed like a gamekeeper in a soft cap, armed only with rifle and bayonet. In 1918 he went into battle dressed like an industrial worker in a steel helmet, protected by a respirator against poison gas, armed with automatic weapons and mortars, supported by tanks and ground-attack aircraft, and preceded by a creeping artillery barrage of crushing intensity. Firepower replaced manpower as the instrument of victory. This represented a revolution in the conduct of war.

The poets were to write horror, but they also composed satire right out of Jarry, a premonition of the Dadaists from 1916 who --- even as the soldiers were collecting bullets, trenchfoot, and despair --- were hamming it up in the rathskellers of Geneva, giving inspiration to writers of the new century, and even after. Like Jarod Kintz, who could, in 2012, write a believable letter from the front lines, as "A Story That Talks about Talking Is Like Chatter to Chattering Teeth, and Every Set of Dentures Can Attest to the Fact That No..."

    Dear Mary Duende,

    It's freezing here in the trenches, but loneliness is colder than any hyperthermia. Gunshots and shrapnel have become my companions. But life is better now than it was when I was at the law firm. How are our children? Does Pierre still spend his days roaming the countryside collecting cattle skulls? Maybe one day people will see the value of making soup bowls out of skulls. Pay no attention to the blood smears on this letter, for it is neither mine, nor any other human. We had to sacrifice our sheep to gain some ground. The blood kind of looks like spaghetti sauce in the light of the setting sun, but I wish it tasted as good as your spaghetti sauce. I'm sorry I slept with your sister. I didn't realize she was an invalid. Even though her hair smelled like horse entrails, I still should have refrained myself. I have no hobbies now, so I've taken up biting my fingernails as I ponder life's many psychological constructs. I have enclosed some of yesterday's fingernails, so you could put them in your brassiere and think of me as they scratch your bosom the way I used to do in jealousy when you were nursing Pierre. The Germans are shooting at us again, so I'd better close here. I send my love in the form of a bloody sock off my left foot. Think of me as you huff it. I miss the way your hair smelled as it would fall across my face. When are you going to send me some more clippings and glue, so I might attach it to my forehead? It brings me great luck in combat.

--- With Love,
Lorca Duende

§   §   §

Too, in the distant future, there would be critics even of the war poets, those that many of us once saw as near-perfect adepts:

    Yet in fact the writers of the trench memoirs and novels collectively gave a highly subjective, unbalanced and misleading version both of the experience of the Western Front, and of the British army's reaction to it. For the war writers were not in the least representative of the men of the British army as a whole; they were writers and poets, and with few exceptions they came from sheltered, well-off, upper- or upper-middle-class backgrounds, the products of an upbringing at home and at their public schools which had given them little knowledge or understanding of the real world of their time, but rather a set of unpractical idealistic attitudes. They were indeed flowers of English liberalism and romanticism, all living spiritually at Forster's Howard's End, and having delicate emotional responses to the aesthetic stimulus of landscape. It would be hard to guess, for example, from the writings or verse of Sassoon, Blunden or Graves that the English landscape they loved in fact represented British agriculture in distress and decay; or that Britain in 1914 was an overwhelmingly urban and industrial country with profound social problems, where one-third of the population lived in poverty. The social, aesthetic, intellectual and moral world in which the war writers had lived before the war was wholly unreal --- as artificial as the pastoral idylls of the French court before 1789. Hence army and trench life...was often their first real introduction to the world of struggle and hardship, as most of mankind knew it...the war writers were not representative of the army as a whole in their reaction to the experience of the Western Front; that their books gave a distorted impression of the soldier's experiences and state of mind.
--- Correlli Barnett in "The Collapse of British Power"
Finally, there would even be a permissible mix of terror and grief and high art and nature-lore:

    He saw the delicate blades of grass which the bodies of his comrades had fertilized; he saw the little shoots on the shell-shocked trees. He saw the smoke-puffs of shrapnel being blown about by light breezes. He saw birds making love in the wire that a short while before had been ringing with flying metal. He heard the pleasant sounds of larks up there, near the zenith of the trajectories. He smiled a little. There was something profoundly saddening about it. It all seemed so fragile and so absurd.
--- Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory

§   §   §

Everything to Nothing is a solemn book, as befits its subject. It's also solidly written, and, in its way, gripping, as love and war are always gripping.

Its primary thesis seems to be that poets and poetry were everywhere interwoven into the very fabric of what they dared to call The Great War. They were the soldiers, the commentators, the detractors, the supporters, the visionaries, and ultimately, the ejecta, those wasted by the whole bloody process. It was all of these --- German, French, English, Italian, Astro-Hungarian, American --- who lived the war "and wrote about it," the odd mix of realism and symbolists and traditionalists and nationalists, this last "a political movement that since its origin has been interwoven with literature." It is just as Buelen concludes so shrewdly,

    poetry is not an ornament fabricated by and for aesthetes, but a source of knowledge about the past and a demonstration of how that past was shaped by words.

--- L. W. Milam
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