One hundred years ago this month, the guns finally fell silent over Flanders as the exhausted powers of Europe declared an armistice to end the First World War. This solemn occasion is remembered annually with two minutes of silence, a practice begun in South Africa. Its symbol, the poppy, was popularized by a determined Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, and American professor Moina Michael, who vowed to always wear one in remembrance.
In Canada, we repeat the words of John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”: “If ye break faith with us who die . . .”
But a century later, we have no one left who was there. Florence Green, the last World War I veteran, died in 2012; Claude Choules, the last combat veteran, in 2011; and Harry Patch, the last combat veteran of the war in the trenches, in 2009. All we have left are the dry, impersonal facts from history class — the decay of the balance of powers and an assassinated archduke. Absent those who were there, is it inevitable that we break faith with them?
We turn to literature for that emotional connection, and World War I left a wealth of literary legacy in the verse of the war poets. From Rupert Brooke, we had dreams of noble sacrifice; from Wilfred Owen, the bitterness of suffering; from Alan Seeger, a numb expectation of the inevitable; from Siegfried Sassoon, the continuing struggle of haunted minds; from many other voices, many other perspectives.
In prose, we had Hemingway and Remarque.
In the decades immediately after the war, these voices gave powerful witness to their experiences. They put a face on the statistics and made tragedies of them. But serious literature turns academic over time, thrust upon us in high school as something we had to know, rather than something we wanted to know.
And as Armistice Day became Veterans Day in the United States, subsequent wars overshadowed our relationship with World War I, nowhere more so than in film and television. Great war movies tend not to be Great War movies. Instead, our popular war stories tend to come from World War II: “The Great Escape,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Band of Brothers,” to name just a few. Their characters impress themselves and their experiences on our consciousness. We feel that we know this war because we know Private Ryan and Major Winters. It’s a broader and more deeply felt emotional connection than what we have with World War I.
But distance lends enchantment, they say, and perspective, too. Today, a resurgence of storytelling in books, television and movies has picked up the torch, bringing to life again the themes of World War I and its impact on soldiers and civilians.
Last year’s “Wonder Woman” surprised fans by setting itself in the First World War, rather than the Second. Doing so abandoned the “good vs. evil” narrative common to World War II stories in favor of an exploration, through the eyes of the outsider Diana, of humanity’s capacity for evil. World War I left an estimated 10 million military personnel dead and 21 million wounded. Related civilian deaths were estimated at another 10 million. The use of mustard gas and other poison gases would be considered a war crime today. None of this could be justified by a worthy cause or laid at the door of a conveniently villainous “other.”
But the World War I narrative is as much about its aftermath as about the actual hostilities. I learned this after I chose to set my novel “A Gentleman’s Murder” at a prestigious club for veterans in what I thought would be the glamorous world of postwar London. The marks of war were on these men as they raised gilded glasses with trembling hands.
Turn to the grimy postwar Birmingham, England, of Steven Knight’s “Peaky Blinders.” Here, too, we see the lingering effects of the war, including shell shock, which might be described as an extreme form of post-traumatic stress disorder. About 80,000 cases of shell shock were handled by the British army, not including the cases of men whose symptoms were attributed to cowardice and who were executed for desertion. The facts come alive when — minutes into the pilot — a shell-shocked man explodes into a bar like an artillery shell. It’s only because of their shared military experience that the series’ protagonist, Tommy Shelby, is able to calm the man, a connection that draws out compassion from Tommy’s hardened criminal soul.
The German television series “Babylon Berlin,” based on novels by Volker Kutscher, tells a similar story from the German side. Inspector Gereon Rath, who recognizes his own PTSD-induced trembling in a suspect, has to listen to the chief inspector, himself a war veteran, sneer at the “cowardice” of “tremblers.” If the 1920s were roaring in Germany, it was from hunger: The war left Germany deeply in debt and with massive reparations to pay. Inflation sent the exchange rate from about 50 German marks per U.S. dollar in 1919 to 4 trillion per U.S. dollar in 1923. The squalor in which we meet the female lead, Charlotte Ritter, is not atypical. Even after landing a temporary clerical job, she has to prostitute herself to make the rent on the slum apartment she shares with her family.
One hundred years after Armistice, as memory of the First World War seems set to fade away, these stories remind us of its realities. The original soldier-poets are gone, but we carry on. We must not forget. In the words of John McCrae:
. . . To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Christopher Huang is the author of “A Gentleman’s Murder” (Inkshares), which is now in development for television.