War and whipping-cream
Meanwhile, not far away, their fathers, brothers and husbands were cowering in ditches, terrified of being vaporized or torn to shreds by the next five-kilogramme lump of high-explosive iron. Nearly seven million of them were right.
Paris in 1916 was a riot of colour: the Spring Flower Festival resumed after a two-year pause. Theatres, night-clubs and restaurants did a roaring trade, though the art world was not quite so lively; Braque injured, Leger gassed, Gaudier-Brzeska dead, Apollinaire fatally wounded.
But on the whole, civilian life went on as it always had.
Soldiers on leave from the front in London, Berlin and Paris couldn’t believe their eyes. It was another world. Some reacted positively: this was the civilisation they were dying in droves to protect. Others were disheartened: was it for this that they were living in an abattoir?
We know from their letters that most soldiers didn’t try to describe trench conditions to their families at home. It would only worry them; also, there was no point. It was impossible to convey even a fraction of the carnage and misery. Nothing like it had ever happened before; there was no frame of reference. It would have been as incomprehensible to civilians as it was to the soldiers themselves.
The way in which the war was imagined at home has been explored by historians, notably Paul Fussell. Truth was concealed. It took years for authors to begin exposing reality: Graves, Remarque, Giono, Blunden and other survivors, writing in the twenties, depicted a startling counterpoint to the memoirs of the generals. War-poets shocked a world audience by describing the horrors of 1914-1918 from a raw, personal perspective.
It was hard for people to accept that the war had made no difference. France regained Alsace and Lorraine… Germany was punished… the Austrian Empire was disassembled… Russia turned inwards… Britain continued to rule the waves…
Yet it had to mean something. Those ten million soldiers… ten million civilians. They could not have died for nothing. Surely,this was The War to End War. Statesmen said so. Large sums were spent on memorials and cemeteries, concrete monuments to the inconceivable loss of life.
The British government gave war-widows railway tickets to visit their husbands’ graves (third-class). The supreme sacrifice had been made in the best possible cause. Dulce et decorum est.
But soon enough, sure enough, there was honey for tea again at Grantchester and whipping-cream in Berlin.