January 18, 2020
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Watermark 1916: The War Foundry

Exactly a hundred years ago, the Great War was in full blast. The shock waves it set off still influence ‘modern’ sensibility.

Watermark 1916: The War Foundry
Verdun, 1916
“Exploding charges of 75 mm shells/Ring out piously like bells” — Guillaume Apollinaire
Photograph by AP
Watermark 1916: The War Foundry

A hundred years ago, in 1916, the First World War came into its own and cemented its terrible reputation. The British and the French had spent a year-and-a-half in chafing and sniping at the Germans across barbed wire, along a line of trenches stretching from the North Sea coast of Belgium to the Swiss border in France. As the British and the French firmed up plans for an attack along the line of the river Somme in Picardy, the Germans were putting in place the final touches on an assault on the town of Verdun, in Alsace, on a loop of the Meuse, which lay in a salient on the front, and was thus vulnerable on three sides from German attack. If the Allies, so thwarted in their frontal  assaults on enemy trenches, wanted to pursue the chimera of a ‘war of movement’, the Germans were concerned at the replenishment of manpower and materiel of its two adversaries. The enemy had to be ‘bled to death’.

The punishing assault on Verdun started on February 21, and, in spite of early German success, it degenerated into an awful slanging match. Verdun was unique in the sense that it was a battle of small groups, rather than massed battalions, and as such, perpetually smoke-masked areas of the battlefield as the quarries of Fleury, the Chapelle Sainte-Fine or the Bois du Chapitre took on a hellish reputation. The only road that supplied Verdun and its ring of forts, the Voie Sacree (the Sacred Way), stood for a country’s determination to fight on. Through it passed columns of soldiers and wagons feeding the battle’s terrible maw, and through it limped by a bed­raggled trickle of glassy-eyed revenants. The Germans kept on attacking, out of habit; the French kept on def­ending, out of habit. When, after 10 months, they exhausted themselves, 3,01,440 men lay dead. “If you haven’t seen Verdun, you haven’t seen war,” said a Poilu. At the end, German gains were negligible, and it reinforced the supreme irony of this most ironic of wars—the immense sacrifices made would devilishly wink at the paltry returns. Any victory would be Pyrrhic.

Gen Douglas Haig’s plan for an assault on the treeless, undulating plains of the Somme valley was strikingly similar to Gen Falkenhayn’s in Verdun: a soul-shattering bombardment on German lines, then hurling 22 divisions across to tear holes in their lines, then strike out for the rear. July 1—enshrined by the British as the ‘first day on the Somme’— proved a horrible reb­uke to the British high command. The massive barrage expended itself mostly in vain, for the majority of Germans snugly waited it out in secure dug-outs deep below. As massed infantry app­roached in dense formation, they were shot down with impunity. As the months rolled on, savage assaults met with savage defence. In November, when the assault was called off, a mere seven miles’ gain was bought by an awful cost—4,20,000 casualties for the British, 1,94,000 for the French and 6,00,000 for the Germans. Verdun and Somme—which sounded warnings for future conflicts—can be seen as separate wars inserted in the Great War, with the Somme neatly fitting in within the duration of Verdun. Furthermore, in Britain and France, they are seen today as key events in national history. Somme was the greatest disaster in British military history, and is ritually memorialised in every media. In France, Verdun has hardened into a symbol—of national sacrifice, a trial by fire, even of the futility of war.

Compared to the West, the Eastern Front saw a war of movement. It had to—the vastness of the Russian interior saw to that. Russia, with its vast resources, huge standing army and rapidly industrialising economy, had had a mixed war. Even though it was beaten squarely by Germany in its northern frontiers—losing Poland and retreating hundreds of miles—it had done well on its southern frontier against Austria-Hungary, especially in 1915, when its victories in the Carpathian passes ultimately threatened the Hungarian plain and brought about a real crisis. In June 1916, as fighting raged in Verdun, the Russian commander in the south, Gen Brusilov, opened a great offensive on a wide front against four Austrian armies. It was a great success by WWI standards—a million casualties were inflicted and a swathe of Russian territory 60 miles deep was retaken. But all was not well with the Russian bear. Socio-economic privation, multiplied manifold by the war, was bringing crucial change at home, while on the fronts, millions of conscripts were at the end of their tether. Bad food, clothing, equipment, crippling losses and a loss of confidence in their officers led to an overwhelming desire for peace. Widespread tension and food riots, transformed by the revolt of the Petrograd garrison, morphed into Russia’s great February revolution. Though it led to a fresh flush of bellicosity and new offensives later in 1917, these were ineffective before the German armies. When the Bolsheviks, who had wanted to end the war all along, took over in November, Russia was militarily teetering at the edge. The formal end, at great sacrifice of Russian territory, came at the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

The Islamic world—much of it under colonial rule—was split after the Turkish ruler, Sultan Mehmed V, also the venerated Caliph, declared a very political jehad in Nove­mber 1914, pitting troops in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Niger (under the French), and Egypt and Sudan (British) against their brethren in the vast Islamic lands of the Ottoman empire. Explicit German foreign policy towards a cleave made things worse. The Senussi of Libya attacked (British) Egyptian territory and were repulsed after years, and the French faced revolts in Morocco and Niger, which they brutally suppressed. Though the aims of a global jehad came to a naught, it was a scare for the British, for 30 per cent of Indian soldiers of the expeditionary forces in Mesopotamia were Muslim.

The Indian army suffered their worst defeat in Mesopotamia in 1916. Maj Gen Townshend’s expeditionary Force D had pushed up from the south of the Turkish territory along the Tigris. At Ctesiphon, in November 1915, it was confronted by a Turkish army. The overextended and bloodied Townshend retreated to Kut-al-Amara. There, in a loop of the Tigris, the force—assailed by the heat, mosquitoes, cholera, scurvy and malaria—awaited relief as the Turks encircled them and lay siege. Between January and March, four attempts by a relieving force were beaten off by the Turks, as lack of food, water, medicine and clothing, as well as Turkish attacks and sniping, made it a living hell for troops. Soon, the annual floods put the Mesopotamian plain under water, and Kut was stranded. Hundreds died like flies. Townshend surrendered on April 29, when he ran out of food. A horrifying experience lay ahead for the 10,000 PoWs. As the skeletal men were forced to march towards Ras al-’Ayn (in modern Syria), scores fell out of the line and were left to die. While Muslim troops were sent off to PoW camps in Anatolia, the rest were put to work at Ras, also notorious for being a centre of the Armenian genocide. Very few of the 10,000 were to get back to India. Kut would be ret­aken later in the year, when 2,00,000 British and Indian troops went after a 10,000-strong Turkish force. Even Mesopotamia consumed far more resources than was warranted. Turkey, victors at Gallipolli and the first round in Mesopotamia, would end on the losers’ side. In coming years, the Ottomans were to be beaten by the Russians in the Caucasus and driven out of their territories in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. The dissolution of the Ottoman empire heralded the inauguration of a spectacularly enforced modern secular republic that was to see a transformation of every fabric of life—from dress codes to a new Latinised script—under Kemal Ataturk.

The great sacrifices of Indians towards what was an imperial war—around 70,000 were killed—and the invaluable shipping of Indian resources to Europe, coupled with the salutary role played by prominent Indians, including Gandhi, in the recruitment drive, raised great expectations of a generous reward for India—that of liberal rule, with some measure of self-rule. In 1916, in what came to be known as the Lucknow Pact, the Congress and the Muslim League agreed to demand home rule. Pressured thus in the middle of a crucial war year, a promise was made by Britain of ‘responsible government’ to India in 1917. In the event, the ‘Montague-Chelmsford’ Reforms of 1919 were a laughable window-dressing that offered no real power. It deeply disappointed Indian opinion and forced Gandhi to launch the non-cooperation movement which, coupled with the Khilafat movement that aimed at pressuring the British to protect the Turkish caliphate, saw mass protests across India. Besides, the reforms were twinned with the anti-­sedition Rowlatt Act, which curbed free speech, and the ruthless crackdowns on protesters, like at Jallianwala Bagh. The road lay ahead for action towards the goal of poorna swaraj.

The first of the modern revolts against the British empire broke out in April 1916 in Dublin, in what is known as the Dublin rising. Though it was ill-planned, hastily mounted, largely ineffective and roundly abused by the southern, Catholic Irish, in whose name it was fought (because it was almost certain that a liberal government would grant Home Rule to Ireland), it acquired an aura of its own soon. The rich symbol of a blood sacrifice, coupled with the savage reprisals of the British, meant Ireland would not be happy with home rule. After a war of independence with Britain from 1919 to 1921, the Irish Free State was established in 1923, and after a protracted civil war with republicans, the Republic of Ireland took shape in 1937 with a new constitution.     

The military strategy that prevailed in the Great War was one of relentless attack—a veritable cult of elan. Though the Germans had made the first attacking moves in the summer of 1914, they quickly adapted to defence. Necessitated by the need to conserve their resources when they were fighting on two fronts, they were the ones to first dig trenches, and they were the ones to give up valuable ground between Arras and the Aisne to retire behind the fortifications of the Hindenburg Line. As the allies broke themselves head on in futile, frontal assaults, the Germans lay low—except their costly error at Verdun—and learnt valuable lessons. When, in late 1917, the collapse of the Russian armies enabled them to transfer their eastern armies to the west, they prepared for their crucial new offensive in France and developed an effective strategy for that. Learning from the crushing, but ineffective artillery barrages of the Allies, the German art­illery expert Bruchmuller had dev­ised—and rehearsed in Russia—a new, intensive and staggered method of bombardment. The guns were to be ‘registered’ previously at firing ranges, and allowance was made for weather patterns, barometric pressure and wind speed for accuracy—advances beyond the imagination of the Allies. The greatest breakthrough was in infantry tactics: soldiers were to fight a fast war of movement, bypassing strong points of enemy resistance, instead of taking them head on. In addition, attacking divisions had ‘storm’ battalions of lightly equipped men who were to drive wedges through continuous enemy positions, confusing and isolating them, and leaving them to be overcome by forces that followed. This was the kernel of the blitz­krieg, which led to the conquest of eastern Europe in 1939-40, the incredible success of Von Mannstein and Rom­mel in the dismemberment of France’s armies in the summer of 1940, and the grand sweep of the Wehrmacht from the Baltic to the Caucasus in 1941. Such tact­ICS were first used by the Austro-German army against Italy’s rout in Caporetto in 1917, and in the spring offe­nsive of 1918; it led them to the brink of victory.   

The First World War ushered in the modern age in the business of war-making, as it did in social norms, art and culture, politics and even ways of feeling. Though the idea of an all-terrain, caterpillar-tracked vehicle was not new, it was a 100 years ago from now, on the Somme, that 49 Mark I tanks—lumbering monsters belching shell and fire—sparked terror in the Germans. Most would break down too readily to make a lasting impact, but they were to be widely used in the battle of Cambrai in 1917. Tanks and armoured vehicles would spearhead every military strike ever since the Great War. Besides, the symbolism of tanks is unmistakable—on a parade ground, they speak of military might, charred and captured tanks symbolise military defeat, tanks overrun with the joyful masses embody that rare triumph of revolutionary spirit, and the defiance of a lone protester before a tank speaks of individual commitment to one’s ideology.

The certitudes of life, work and national identity the people who went into WWI held were torn asunder by four years of intense bloodshed.

The powered flight by the Wright brothers took pace in 1903, After a mere 11 years, single- and two-seaters were taking to the skies—doing reconnaissance, directing bombardment and dogfighting for air superiority. A pilot with five or more ‘kills’ was an ‘ace’, and leading practitioners of these duels in the skies were celebrated as national heroes. Among them was an Indian, Indra Lal Ray, a 19-year-old with 10 kills, who was shot down over France in 1918. Early military planes were flimsy and liable to break down, but from 1917, aircraft like the French Spad 12 and 13, the German Fokker triplane and the British Sopwith Camel were vastly superior machines that did their job with increased efficiency. In the German offensives of 1918, and in all wars ever since, aircraft were to be pressed into service in aid of ground attacks.

The Great War had no clear political or military objective. It was ignited amidst a rising tide of nationalistic paranoia, imperial jealousy and insecurity. Pejorative character-types of leading nations were given free rein. The ‘sly and perfidious’ English, the ‘arrogant, obnoxious’ French and the ‘brutal and militaristic’ Prussian were used by vitriolic propagandists to devastating eff­ect. Calls for ‘total war’ rang out, so did sordid demands for extirpation of the other. The English propagandist Horatio Bot­tomley proposed a shaming badge for even naturalised British citizens of German origin and called for their children to be excluded from school. Fantasies of subjugating an ‘inferior race’ were also played out in their usual stomping ground—East Europe and Russia. In 1916, German successes against Russia had brought them the control of the Baltic states, where the commander, Gen Ludendorff, had established an occupation economy—reorganising its administration, appointing military governors—and harnessed its productivity for the German war effort. That wasn’t all. Ludendorff had plans to ‘Germanise’ Russian Poland and the Baltic, by large-scale resettlement with ‘volk’ from the fatherland. Poisonous precedence had been set for future leaders of Germany to work with.

War News

An Indian cavalryman gives food to a girl in Mesopotamia

For all the bitter despair sown by the Great War, the bitterest reaped were the seeds and practices of a future conflict.  

A certain state of mind held together the peoples who went into the Great War: a solid certitude—of life and work, nature and culture, of class, duty and honour. Four blood-soaked years exploded those certainties. Yet, what the war brought to the brink of a crisis had been confronting writers and artists since the turn of the century: the alienating and overwhelming nature of modern urban life, as seen through industry, machines and speed, and a growing internationalism keeping pace with growing consumerism. The known world slipping away thus, writers and artists reacted with a frantic search for alternative modes of representation. While the poetry of Mallarme, Eliot, Pound, Rilke and Apollinaire sought to break out of traditional metrical norms to experiment with vers libre, in prose, Henry James, Conrad, Musil, Proust, Woolf and Italo Svevo sought to represent human subjectivity and consciousness, emotion and perception through new techniques, like a highly self-conscious reflexiveness. While Proust, James and Musil would use the long, explicatory sentence, Dorothy Richardson, Joyce, Woolf and later Faulkner used interior monologue, stream of consciousness and the free indirect style for the same purpose. If 1929 was to be annus mirabilis of the Great War novel, 1922 saw a surge of Modernist writing: Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party. For some writers, the crisis in civilisation could only be represented by deadpan semi-bureaucratese, like what Jarioslav Hasek used for The Good Soldier Svejk. The resultant paradox-laden comicality would be sharpened later in the decade into grim alternative realities by Kafka. More significantly, as modernists experimented with avant garde techniques, a profound shift occ­urred in the English prose style after the end of the war: the Latinate, perfectly balanced sentences imbued with gravitas and grandeur, acquired a new, aerodynamic lightness and a freer, lyrical and elastic openness. Its exemplars were the Americans Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, later followed by Britons Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. We are in its thrall still.

German control of the Baltic states led to settlement of ‘volk’ in those areas, setting a poisonous precedent of racial pride.

The gathering forces of change and disruption in life and society were felt by artists early, and the results were apparent from the early 20th century, in shows such as the Paris exhibition of the Fauvists in 1905, characterised by the fierce, non-realistic colouring and insouciant draughtsmanship of Matisse, Derrain, Marquet and Vlaminck. In England, Roger Fry’s exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ showcased Cezanne, Picasso, Gaugain, Matisse and broke the stranglehold of realism in that country. The Neue Secession exhibition in Berlin in 1911, featuring these and Friesz, Manquin, Picasso, and that in Cologne next year, featuring Braque, Van Gogh, Munch, Kirchner, Rouault et al, presented the public with a new aesthetic. Throughout the decade and including the war years, stocks of Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Vorticism, Imagism and Futu­rism would rise and fall, but they were all characterised by a deep ang­uish, a highly-strung and passionate melancholy and cynicism. Art was to lead the charge in a war against realist conventions. The Great War, with its catalogue of horrors, was to show these men that they were right in their apocalyptic prescience—James Ensor’s skeletal grotesques had materialised at last. The horribly mutilated disabled servicemen in Otto Dix’s 1920 canvas were all too real, and so were the criminals in Max Beckmann’s Night (1918). When Oskar Kokoschka handled that most Christian of subjects, the Pieta, also used in a poster for an exhibition at the Salzburger Residenz­galerie in 1916, the result was a horror: Could the anguished figures, with a chill reference to mutilation and murder, be drawn without knowledge of the sufferings a few hundred miles away in the Somme and Verdun?

Unending Night

Pieta by Oskar Kokoschka, is a howl of pain

Just as artists responded to the ructions of the modern age and the violent rupture of the war by forsaking the predictability of Realist techniques, Modernist musicians responded to the lush symphonies of the 19th century with atonalism. The intricate complexity and massive dimension imposed on the classical sonata and symphony by Beethoven and Schubert had been raised to its farthest limit by Wagner in his Ring Cycle. The chief followers in the Wagnerian tradition were Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Yet, Strauss’s operas Salome and Elektra contain the seeds of expressionism, with its compression of form and content and use of cumulative, unresolved dissonances that go beyond the limits of tonality. Similarly, the chromatic music of Mahler, as seen in his great symphonies, is the starting point for Schoenberg’s rejection of harmonic relations. Thus the ground was prepared when Schoenberg—and later his disciples Anton Webern and Alban Berg—revolutionised western music with his twelve-note method, a system that uses all the notes of the chromatic scale and “denies the supremacy of a tonal centre”. Schoenberg’s new direction was apparent in his Three Piano Pieces of 1909, and he perfected his dismemberment of the tonal logic of music throughout the war years, resulting in Five Piano Pieces and Serenade of 1923. But, in some ways, the definitive work that presaged the war was Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, written for the ballet impresario Diaghilev. With its rhythmical energy, fierce angular thematic material and dazzling orchestration, it created a sensation when it premiered in 1913.          

The development of films, the youngest of the arts, was unique in the sense that experimentation with modernist technique went on concurrently with the fashioning of a straightforward narrative for the masses. The opening year of the war was also notable for the release of the first Chaplin film, Making a Living. The great D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, released a hundred years back from now, baffled audiences with its innovative technique and a four-part narrative,  each cutting into the other. It proved to be an enormous influence on the future greats of Soviet cinema, Eisenstein and Pudovkin, whose cinematic language involved tight editing, masterly use of chiaroscuro and a violent, unifying clash between images. The war supplied the subject matter of the first film of cinema’s first great visionary—Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1918), which is also the first great anti-war film, conceived at a time when mutinies at the front and in the industries wracked France. Later, Gance was to make La roue (1922) and his great five-hour epic, Napoleon (1918). One of the most influential films ever made, it used superimposition, slow motion, split-screen, colour and a triple-screen panoramic process that anticipated Cinerama by 30 years. Above all, 2016 is also the centenary of the first war documentary, The Battle of the Somme, shot by Geoffrey Mains and John McDowell. Put to great use as propaganda by the British, it was almost certainly the most widely watched film of its time—within six weeks of its release in August 1916, it was seen by 20 million in Britain and millions of others in 18 countries. As suggested, it shows the early stages of the offensive, bombardment, equipment and common soldiers marching, resting and jesting before the camera. Most significantly for a propaganda film, it showed disturbing images of the war dead that shocked viewers. Yet, perhaps the most celebrated scene of the film, that of British soldiers ‘going over the top’ on July 1, was staged later, behind the lines. It thus underscores the uses of artifice in constructing the ‘real’, something the medium was to excel at in the next century.

The galvanic effects of the Great War would leave untouched nothing. If modernity seemed suddenly to arrive via motorcars and the Charleston in the 1920s, the holocaust of the war was the bridge across which it arrived in most lives.

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