The movie 1917 is a great show in the genre of war films. It was co-written and directed by Sam Mendes, grandson of Alfred Mendes, an outstanding Trinidad writer of the 1930s. Alfred was a leading member of the “Beacon” group which included stalwarts such as CLR James, Albert Gomes, and Ralph de Boissiere. The group’s name was derived from the literary magazine, The Beacon. Be warned. This piece is not a review of the film but focuses on the futility of war and the hell it is. A survivor of World War I (WWI) labelled it “organised murder and nothing else.”
Mendes served in WWI and witnessed its horrors. Referencing WWI, HG Wells wrote a book entitled The War That Will End War, later converted into the catch phrase, “The war to end all wars.” We know how that turned out. War has been with us since time immemorial and celebrated writers have concluded that it is due to the frailty of human nature.
Some historians consider WWI a misnomer because there was little fighting of great consequence outside of Europe which suffered greatly. The Great War, as it was also called, broke empires and launched new nations on the international stage. Ten million military personnel and over seven million civilians were killed.
Destruction accompanied death on land, in the sea and from the air. Trench warfare was customary and fortifications like the Hindenburg line were built to deter invading forces. Tanks were useful in this type of warfare but such a line may be outflanked by the enemy. Heavy artillery was fired upwards to fall on the enemy in trenches and mines and barbed wire were used to deter, maim, and kill.
On the seas naval ships and submarines carried out economic warfare by sinking enemy naval warships, and enforcing blockades against enemy shipping.
In the air Zeppelins (rigid airships) conducted commerce but were later used to scout and bomb the enemy. The Germans upgraded the Zeppelins to airplanes in early 1915 and bombed London to smithereens. Airplanes were a more lethal instrument of death.
On the pockmarked terrain sometimes caked with mud, young profiles in courage saw a soldier stuffing a letter in his pocket for his loved ones. The next minute he was lying lifeless on the ground. He, like his compatriots, had been regaled with patriotic stories about fighting for king and country or serving the country of ideas, science and culture—the Fatherland.
Away from the wretched battlefields there was suffering and intense emotion in makeshift wards. A soldier asked the nurse for his colleague’s amputated leg. The nurse directed the question to the doctor who replied: “How should I know, I’ve already amputated five today.”
Europe was the main theatre of the war but there were also combat zones in the Middle East and in Africa. When the war broke out in 1914 King George V called for “men of class, creed and colour” to join the fight against Germany. Soldiers from the British West Indian Regiment volunteered, but Britain’s War Office initially opposed recruitment of West Indian troops. In 1915, finally given the green light to serve, 15,500 volunteers were deployed to the war zones. Twelve hundred lost their lives.
The volunteers fought on two fronts—against racism and the enemy. Initially, they worked as labourers and prison guards, and eventually as fighters in combat. On one occasion when they were unfairly denied a pay raise, they mutinied. Capt Andrew Cipriani, who had helped to recruit them at home, assisted them in their travails. When things settled down the men proved to be good fighters. A commanding officer praised the work of West Indian gunners for “their coolness under fire.” Several were awarded medals for bravery.
Some positive social and political effects followed the war. With men on the front, women accessed jobs (clerical positions, sales, garments and textile factories) previously denied them. Suffragettes in the United States agitated for the vote; in 1920 the 19th Amendment extended universal adult suffrage to them. In 1928 their British counterparts were the recipients. Woodrow Wilson had gone to war “to make the world safe for democracy” with self-determination in mind.
Recently researchers found a trench buried below a church. The location was where the Battle of the Somme was fought in 1916. They found boots, helmets, beautiful French mementoes and functional German signs. Other notes reflected a conspicuous absence of hatred for the enemy. In different circumstances these young soldiers might have knocked back a few pints while discussing their hopes and aspirations. But not in the hell of war.