In Flanders
Leon Wolff

World War I Posters
Libby Chenault
(University of North Carolina)
Early 1917 would have been a splendid time to stop the war. Both sides were exhausted. A military stalemate existed. The causes of conflict were demonstrably trivial and implausible; one is reminded of Orwell's 1984, in which the people no longer remembered why they were fighting but only knew that they had to continue. Certainly the war which had begun in 1914 had little enough to do with the welfare of the ordinary people of Europe, who could scarcely hope to benefit through victory in riches, security, culture, pleasure, social advancement, or in any other way. Those called upon to fight and die, to work, to be maimed, to be made homeless and bereaved were instructed to do so (in effect) with no clear explanation of the need for such sacrifices....The propaganda was in the vein of the Old Testament. People were warned by their rulers with stories of sundry fates worse than death unless the enemy were crushed. There was remarkably little promise of happiness or even loot upon the achievement of victory; only its negative rewards were stressed.
--- In Flander's Fields

It was the first of the modern "great" wars. It began with the random assassination of a minor royal figure, and would destroy a system based on royalty for all time. The generals said it was going to be done and over with in six weeks --- but it stretched out to more than four years. Most of it was waged in and around a long, filthy trench that snaked from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland, some 300 miles in length. Great battles would be undertaken in which the army would advance no more than a few yards, and a hundred or two hundred thousand young men would die in the mud. When the battles were not being fought, the soldiers did war with rats, lice, trench-foot, random bombardment, boredom, and --- at quiet times --- the sound of the dying:

    During the lulls the wounded called and groaned in No Man's Land, lingered for as much as a week, and usually died there, and sometimes screamed in their incoherent agony; while above them sounded the joyous songs of birds. The thrushes, especially, twittered wildly each morning, for they were used to the guns.

During the battles, the various artillery could be recognized, shells could be identified by the sounds they made:

    There were shells that screamed, shells that hissed, gas shells that exploded with a simpering pop, shells that whistled, and shells that wobbled across heaven rattling like a share drum. Finally there was drumfire, reserved for special occasions, when all the instruments blended into one homogeneous mass of sound of such intensity as cannot be described.

It was the first war to utilize tanks and airplanes and balloons and radio transmission; it was the first war --- in other words --- of high technology. The tools of the trade were brought to high art form. With a machine gun, three men could decimate a whole battalion. It was the testing ground for poison gas which was so ruinous to men's bodies and men's morale that even the most bitter enemies of the next conflagration (the same players as in WWI) never seriously contemplated using it. There would be limits that were observed --- there are limits to what men, even those being led like sheep to battle and death, will put up with.

It was the greatest war, up to that time, to be recorded with camera, film, sound. There was, too, a new generation of writers trained in the simple use of simple words who described, for the first time since Homer, the sheer passive rage of battles and war and death:

    In No Man's Land the wounded still lay in the mud. Their shouting and sobbing kept everyone's nerves on edge. Those in shell holes generally drowned there. Slowly they slipped down the muddy banks into the water below, too weak to hold themselves up....As time went on No Man's Land thus became converted into a vast limbo of abandoned dead and dying. Each shell hole with blood on its water usually meant another corpse entombed below.

Authors who tried to write of the battles were forced to exorcise or limit their narratives, not because of censorship (which was real and invasive) --- but because of the ennui that can set in when trying to describe yet another barren confrontation in the mud and rain and cold of Flanders:

    So desolate, so meaningless were these August struggles that the record of them in histories and memoirs fills one with a certain weariness. Listlessly the men assemble at the jump-off tapes. Behind the same familiar barrage they advance through the same narrow porridge-like strip of ground. The same hidden machine guns greet them; the same whiz-bangs open up at them. Here and there a strong point is captured, a new outpost is reached, to which a few riflemen forlornly cling. Some of these are held, and occasionally the line is advanced a few hundred yards. Brownish masses of German troops slog forward and everywhere nasty hand-to-hand encounters take place. The men on both sides are lacerated and punctured, bleed and die, in numbers that baffle the imagination. Nameless new beings take their place, but nothing else changes.

The decimation of the land, the smells and tastes of it are equally as bleak:

    Gaunt blackened remnants of trees drip in the one-time forests. The shells of countless batteries burst deafeningly and without surcease; the dank smell of gun-powder, wet clay, poison gas, and polluted water spreads over the battleground and drifts eastward. The men hardly know what they are doing or how affairs in general are progressing. By mid-August [1917] they were told even less than soldiers are usually told: Move up there. Start walking that way. Occupy those shell holes. Wait near the barn. Surround that pillbox. Relieve those chaps (you can't see them from here) behind the canal and wait for further word. After two weeks such was the status of Haig's grand offensive which was to have burst out of the salient, bounded across the ridge, released the prancing cavalry steeds, and with flying banners captured the Channel ports.

The rare breaks that were allowed the men only added another dimension of futility and bleakness to the day-to-day futility and bleakness of the war:

    In Y.M.C.A. tents kindly old gentlemen in vaguely military uniforms served cake, cocoa, and packets of real British Woodbines. The men swam in the canals and in little lakes such as the Zillebeke and the Dickebusch, bargained with the farmers' daughters, got drunk, haggled over souvenirs. Far behind the restless front, where the big guns were only a rumble, it was a carnival time for troops who would soon be back at the business of war. In wonder and joy and with aching hearts they absorbed those common sights and sounds so long forgotten --- leafy trees, splashes of sunlight on outdoor cafés, green fields, people at work at home and in their orchards. They polished their boots, scraped dirt from their uniforms, and filed into washing sheds singing that immortal ballad:

      Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
      Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
        Wash me in your water
        That you wash your dirty daughter
      And I shall be whiter than the whitewash on the wall.

§     §     §

The names of battles and battlefields are meaningless to us now, but for a whole generation of French, German, and English ex-soldiers, the words would give terror: Poelcapelle, Passchendaele, Ypres, Poperinghe, Messines. And, even today, in the (again) verdant fields of Flanders,

    The millions of shell holes have never quite leveled out, and anyone who walks through the fields south and west of the ridge can still sense the undulations caused by shells that blasted this ground in the First World War.

Generals such as Joffre, Nivelle, Haig, Mangin, Gough sent so many of their countryfolk to their graves that the choice of using war as a means of resolving international differences was obliterated --- at least for two decades. Yet it was, ironically, the doubt of leaders who remembered, who didn't want to create further slaughter and were called traitors that made it possible for Hitler to convince his countrymen that they had been tricked into signing a peace treaty that was, indeed, an emotional and financial rape. It was the bitter conditions imposed at the peace table that laid the seeds of the next war; yet it was the lack of such onerous conditions at the end of World War II (it is possible to learn) that made for our present peace, a peace that has lasted more than a half a century.

    It remains to be said, as usual, that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. It had meant nothing, solved nothing, and proved nothing; and in so doing had killed 8,538,315 men and variously wounded 21,219,452. Of 7,750,919 others taken prisoner or missing, well over a million were later presumed dead; thus the total deaths (not counting civilians) approach 10,000,000. The moral and mental defects of the leaders of the human race had been demonstrated with some exactitude. One of them (Woodrow Wilson) later confessed that the war had been fought for business interests; another (David Lloyd George) had told a newspaperman, "If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow, but of course they don't --- and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship wouldn't pass the truth. The thing is horrible, and beyond human nature to bear, and I feel I can't go on any longer with the bloody business."

§     §     §

In Flanders Fields gives us the taste and smell (and futility) of the war that was to end all war. Wolff proves to us --- if we need proof --- that World War I represented the ultimate in the process whereby men of one country are encouraged to murder another set of men of another country under the most gruesome conditions. The other side of this (and there must always be an other side) is the propaganda. There must be something to ennoble the struggle, to beautify the warriors, to stir the hearts of those making sacrifices at home.

Given the technology of 1914 - 1918 --- propaganda was limited to books, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and films. Battlelines includes some two hundred posters printed and distributed by the sixteen belligerents. In the book's foreward, Arthur Link points out that each of the nations had its own style:

    The German posters try to reflect the might and power of German arms. They are heroic and blunt. The British posters reflect the "Bulldog" spirit, a tenacious determination to see the war through to victory. The French posters are more artistic and poignant in their depiction of the human toll of war, a feature totally absent from the German posters.

Some of these posters are just downright garish. One, for the Third Liberty Loan (United States) entitled




shows houses in flames, bodies in the roadway, dead mother, dead child, broken teddy bear sprawled next to dead child. A bit more positive, but out of the same mold, is the clear-eyed soldier shaking hands with a bearded Colonel Saunders,

Good Bye, Dad, I'm Off
To Fight For Old Glory,
You Buy

The Germans were given to posters of semi-naked men and jut-jawed soldiers; the French to semi-naked women with swords and helmets. A favored theme for various Loan programs was the enemy buried under big bags of francs, schillings, marks. One English poster shows General J. C. Smuts of Boer War fame saying, "The success of the South African Brigade at Messines Ridge is one of the glories of the War" --- despite the fact that the battle at Messines was just yet another bloody stalemate. Women and children were portrayed not only as those being defended from rapine and murder --- but as urging action. A 1915 poster from England shows mother and curly-headed boy, both noble of eye, with the words,

SAY --- "GO!"

A grim-faced man, dressed in white surplice (complete with cross) is surrounded with the words

    Der alte Kampf beginnt aufs Neu',
    Nun, Deutscher, seidem Deutschen treu!
    Bildet deutsche Volksräte!

("The old fight begins anew. Now, Germans, be true to Germany. Build the German Popular Government!")

Peter Cushman draws a baby boy saluting his breakfast cereal, and orders, in motherly fashion,

    Little Americans. Do your bit.
    Eat Corn meal mush-Oatmeal-Corn flakes
    Hominy and rice with milk.
    Eat no wheat cereals.
    Leave nothing on your plate.

The Connecticut State Council of Defense weighs in with a picture of mother and daughter, sitting against what looks to be a blown-up brick house. In the distance, under the splintered tree, three crosses. The message:

    Tired of Giving?
    You don't know what it is to be Tired!

And one of the strangest of them all: the announcement of a 1916 benefit for the "Roemaekers au profit des oeuvres de Guerre Franco-Hollandaises" showing a moustached gentleman, pikestaff in hand, stepping out of what looks to be an egg, or an eye, pointing his weapon at a bellied and chested Kaiser, whose decidedly feminine breasts are heavy with spikes and armaments. The braid-haired fraulein is crying "Kamerad."

§     §     §

Propaganda is most fascinating after the fact. History gives us the necessary distancing so we can look at the pictures and wonder how anyone in their right mind could have accepted that which was being palmed off on them as the truth. "The war which had begun in 1914 had little enough to do with the welfare of the ordinary people of Europe, who could scarcely hope to benefit through victory in riches, security, culture, pleasure, social advancement, or in any other way," Wolff tells us. But conflict builds its own force. It becomes a moral as well as a mortal battle. After a certain time, after a certain number of men are killed --- in a spirit of Old Testament justice, more have to be killed. Four years of war produced so much anger that it seemed that nothing could stop it. It was a juggernaut that ran on and on, and ran France, Germany, and England ragged in the process.

The number of soldiers and civilians who were obliterated in World War I is equal to the population of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii today. It was a numbing, mud-encrusted mega-death combine, built on battles that never seemed to end, battles that never seemed to stop destroying the flower of the belligerents, battles that went endlessly into nowhere.

There are lessons --- surely --- but they were, perhaps, not learned well enough. The next war was just as bloody, and those who tried to stop the bloodlust (Neville Chamberlain, for one) were pilloried, are still being pilloried, and those who encouraged the blood-lust (Winston Churchill, for one) were and are still honored as "heroes."

The lessons that WWI taught the world were perhaps no more than a prelude to the lessons that came out of the next; astute historians state that the Second was just a continuation of the First. We did, however, never try again to fight a trench war after Ypres and Flanders and Poperinghe. If one must fight, we learned, do it in a tank, or on a ship, or out of an airplane; but never again do it with mud-coated boots among the poppies of Flander's spring and summer and fall.

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