A War to End All Innocence

Roundup
tags: World War I



“I feel like a soldier on the morning after the Somme.” This line of dialogue, from an episode in the second season of the BBC series “Call the Midwife,” caught my ear recently as an especially piquant morsel of period detail. It is uttered by a doctor to a nurse after they have just assisted in a grueling home birth, an experience that is compared to the four-month battle in a muddy stretch of Picardy beginning on July 1, 1916, that was, at the time, the bloodiest episode of combat in human history, generating 60,000 casualties in a single day of fighting on the British side alone. The doctor’s comparison is surely metaphorical overkill, but it also represents a familiar style of wit, a habit of linking the challenges we regularly endure with calamities we can scarcely imagine.

But why choose that particular calamity? “Call the Midwife,” based on a popular series of memoirs by Jennifer Worth, takes place in the late 1950s, not long after a war that, in terms of the sheer scale and extent of global slaughter, far eclipsed its predecessor. It is interesting that for this youngish doctor and nurse, the earlier conflict comes more readily to mind. The Somme is more accessible, and perhaps more immediate, than Dunkirk or D-Day.

The allusion may require a footnote now, but its occurrence in a television program that is acutely sensitive to historical accuracy is a sign of just how deeply, if in some ways obscurely, World War I remains embedded in the popular consciousness. Publicized in its day as “the war to end all wars,” it has instead become the war to which all subsequent wars, and much else in modern life, seem to refer. Words and phrases once specifically associated with the experience of combat on the Western Front are still part of the common language. We barely recognize “in the trenches,” “no man’s land” or “over the top“ as figures of speech, much less as images that evoke what was once a novel form of organized mass death. And we seldom notice that our collective understanding of what has happened in foxholes, jungles, mountains and deserts far removed in space and time from the sandbags and barbed wire of France and Belgium is filtered through the blood, smoke and misery of those earlier engagements.

One person who did notice the lasting and decisive cultural influence of World War I was Paul Fussell, a literary scholar and World War IIinfantry veteran whose 1975 book, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” remains a tour de force of passionate, learned criticism. Fussell, who died in 2012, combed through novels, memoirs and poems written in the wake of the war and found that they established a pattern that would continue to hold, consciously and not, for much of the 20th century...




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