…The first thing that you found about the dead was that, hit badly enough, they died like animals. Some quickly from a little wound you would not think would kill a rabbit. They died from little wounds as rabbits die sometimes from three of four small grains of shot that hardly seem to break the skin. Others would die like cats; a skull broken in and iron in the brain, they lie alive two days like cats that crawl into the coal bin with a bullet in the brain and will not die until you cut their heads Maybe cats do not die then, they say they have nine lives, I do no know, but most men die like animals, not men.( Hemingway )

The literary generation of the  Great War became the first true generation of American writers. But it was a generation adrift; first into the alcoholism and sexual freedom of the 1920’s and then into the radicalism of the 1930’s.

Eric Kennington. -"peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice"- baruch spinoza. / "standing armies (miles perpetuus) shall in time be totally abolished... to pay men to kill or to be killed seems to entail using them as mere machines and tools in the hand of another (the state), and this is hardly compatible with the rights of mankind in our own person"- immanuel kant.( courtesy Hune at Martin Buber Institute)

Instead of a derivative European voice or a regional voice, America had grown to the maturity of having a national literature. Many young men had a strong desire to be in the middle of the action but were not physically fit for acceptance in an army. Hemingway, who had defective vision in his left eye, expressed these viewpoints when, prior to joining, he wrote to his sister, Marcelline, “But I’ll make it to Europe some way in spite of this optic. I can’t let a show like this go on without getting into it.”

The message here, that the families of those serving overseas were a public obligation, is visually reserved, even Victorian, but also subtly progressive: government's growing financial obligations to veterans and their families, a marked feature of both world wars, was one of the cornerstones of Canada's emerging welfare state.

John Dos Passos was so myopic he couldn’t see the top letter on an eye chart. War was more dangerous than many thought. After getting wounded, a soldier might be sped off to the hospital by a half blind ambulance driver. Somerset Maugham at forty and 5’6″ was both too old and too short to enlist at the beginning of the war. So he joined a British Red Cross ambulance unit attached to the French Army. One of his co-drivers, Desmond MacCarthy, later became literary critic for The Sunday Times.

Paul Nash. We Are Making a New World. "Crosby's biographer Geoffrey Wolff wrote, "Mutilation, vermin, cowardice, relentlessness, insanity, hysteria, and cruelty played in the theatre of his imagination from the time of Verdun till the end of his life, and they were prompted by war." Cowley believed Crosby's suicide related specifically to November 22, 1917, when a shell seriously wounded a man standing beside Crosbyand then, as he drove some of the wounded from the area, shells continued to burst all around his ambulance. Crosby himself said it was that night that changed him from a boy into a man. Could that be true not only regarding Crosbybut also in regard to Seabrook and to Hemingway? Hemingway was seriously wounded by a shell which killed men near him."

They would eventually be known as the Lost Generation; American writers who would express the disillusionment following upon the war. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. Fitzgerald’s characteristic theme, expressed poignantly in The Great Gatsby, is the tendency of youth’s golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment. Fitzgerald also elucidates the collapse of some key American Ideals, set out in the Declaration of Independence, such as liberty, social unity, good governance and peace, features which were severely threatened by the pressures of modern early twentieth century society.

John Singer Sargent. "While this painting, completed in 1919, is not representative of the illustrious portraitist's oeuvre, it has become widely recognised as an embodiment of the pain of war in a strangely serene and dignified manner. Virginia Woolf, in her essay The Fleeting Portrait, wrote of Gassed that it "at last pricked some nerve of protest, or perhaps of humanity". It now hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London."

But that was later. But in 1917, they were all eager for experience, and were on the high before the hangover.  They wanted to see everything so they could write about everything. Their attitudes to the war ran from pacifism to jingoism: whatever the attitude, there was an impatience to get over a see what the war was like and very few of them, proportionately, waited to be drafted. Those who did “get over” served in a variety of military employments, but what did stand out was how many of them enlisted in the French, British, or the Canadian army, and thus remained foreigners in uniform. While facing death they were still, to some extent, the spectators of somebody else’s war.

Van Arno. ---When the writers did go home, it was with thoughts of travel, excitement, and war in their minds, pens, and Smith-Coronas. And they found they could not stay home. "We literary men have been very evil, writing about war," wrote Masefield in a letter to his wife early in the war, "To fight is bad enough, but it has its manly side, but to let the mind dwell on it and peck its carrion and write of it is a devilish, unmanly thin

nd that's what we've been doing, ever since we had leisure, circa 1850."---

But what did they learn? They learned that the French army was sullen and mutinous after the butchery of Verdun and the disastrous April, 1917, offensive on the Chemin des Dames, just as the Italians would be mutinous the following winter, after Caporetto. “Finie la Guerre!” they heard the soldiers growling over their wine. With some of their comrades they learned that revolution was in the air and that people were being arrested on vague suspicions of being disloyal. Communism and anarchism were claiming victims. E. E. Cummings was one of them; he spent three months in prison merely because a friend had a written correspondence with Emma Goldman. Like others, Cummings learned to hate authority as personified in the stupid older men who had ordered the arrests and planned the butcheries. An abyss had opened between two generations.

John Lavery. Hemmingway: I remember that after we had searched quite thoroughly for the complete dead we collected fragments. Many of these were detached from a heavy, barbed wire fence which had surrounded the position of the factory and from the still existent portions of which we picked many of these detached bits which illustrated only too well the tremendous energy of high explosive. Many fragments we found a considerable distance away in the fields, they being carried farther by their own weight.

John Dos Passos: “I’ve decided my only hope is in revolution — in wholesale assassination of all statesmen, capitalists, war-mongers, jingoists, inventors, scientists — in the destruction of all the machinery of the industrial world, equally barren in destruction and construction.

“My only refuge from the deepest depression is in dreams of vengeful guillotines.”

His distrust for Wilsonian platitudes antedated his war experiences, but his protests were high-spirited and gay. Eastbound on the U.S.S. Chicago in June 1917, he professed huge delight at the presence of five Socialists and poked fun at “Archie” Roosevelt and other patrician officers, bloodthirsty imperialists to a man. Were he back at Harvard, he wrote to Arthur McComb, he would be attacking conscription, the daily press, and “the intellectual classes.” After a month’s spell in a French training camp, his mood darkened:

“Politically, I’ve given up hope entirely — the capitalists have the world so in their clutches — I mean the elderly swag bellied gentlemen who control all destinies — that I don’t see how it can ever escape. There are too many who go singing to the sacrifice — who throw themselves gladly, abjectly beneath the Juggernaut. It’s rather a comfort to have given up hope entirely.” ( John Dos Passos, from Daniel Aron )

Art blog by Bob---After nearly dying many times over while fighting for Germany in World War I at the Somme and on the Eastern Front against Russia, Otto Dix had more than his fill of war. Born December 2, 1891, Dix must have laughed at the absurdity of the Iron Cross he received after witnessing such carnage. Nightmares in which he crawled through endless ruins haunted his nights. Taking that laughter and those nightmares, Dix helped found the new German post-war style Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. Along with George Grosz, Dix cast a clear eye on the horrors of war and its effect on society in such works as Storm Troopers Advancing under Gas (above), one of the series of etchings and aquatints Dix published as The War in 1924. The monstrous nature of these soldiers in their gas masks rushing towards death captures perfectly Dix’s view of the vanity and stupidity of war.---

There was great enmity toward the generation of their parents. War, in its new found technological glory, was the excrement of the gilded age of Pure Capitalism. The lifestyles of Ann Wharton characters were  in sharp juxtaposition to the rats, the filth and the death in Europe’s trenches. That strain of sentiment, expressed forcefully in English war poems, would lead to a bloodless but bitter conflict between the young and middle-aged that continued all through the 1920’s and that, after subsiding for another generation, would be revived in the 1960’s counterculture against the children of those rebels.

The Lost fought back with just the sort of sarcasm, ridicule, and cynicism that was bound to rile their elders. Through the 1920s embittered thirty-year-olds fought ideology with desperate hedonism, babbittry with endless binges, moral crusades with bathtub gin and opulent sex. “America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” Fitzgerald bubbled — and John Dos Passos cried, “Down with the middle-aged!” In his 1920 Atlantic Monthly article “‘These Wild Young People,’ By One of Them,” John Carter observed that “magazines have been crowded with pessimistic descriptions of the younger generation” — but added, “the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us.”

Otto Dix. Art Blog by Bob: Dix painted another triptych in 1932, titled Trench Warfare (central panel above). With its imagery of soldiers torn apart and nightmare landscapes of destruction, Dix’s Trench Warfare struck a nerve in a Germany turning to Fascism and the Nazis and readying to launch another world war. Trench Warfare had to be hidden behind a curtain the few times it was exhibited. Adolf Hitler especially loathed Dix’s work, feeling it sapped the will of the German people to go to war, and placed him high on the long list of “Degenerate Art” he wanted wiped from the face of the earth. The Nazis actually arrested Dix in 1939, charging him with plotting to kill Hitler, but released him later. At the end of World War II, as the Nazis conscripted every warm body into their failing war effort, they forced Dix to fight again for Germany.

One service that attracted a considerable number of writers was ambulance driving on the French or the Italian front. It offered an expeditious means of getting to the front- a fact that young writers, with their curiosity and initiative, were quicker than others to grasp- and it also offered a panorama of the battlefields only a little less extensive than that enjoyed by airmen. The ambulance drivers were gentlemen volunteers , detached in spirit from the foreign armies with which they served, and also from the wounded men they carried back from dressing stations to base hospitals. To the end they remained observers, if helpful ones, and the spectatorial attitude is revealed in much of their writing about the war. Hemingway, for example, might be reading from a laboratory notebook when he tells us how the corpses looked after an Italian counterattack.

“Until the dead are buried they change somewhat in appearance each day. The color change in Caucasian races is from white to yellow, to yellow-green, to black. If left long enough in the heat the flesh comes to resemble coal-tar, especially where it has been broken or torn, and it has quite a visible tarlike iridescence. The dead grow larger each day until sometimes they become quite too big for their uniforms, filling these until they seem blown tight enough to burst. The individual members may increase in girth to an unbelievable extent and faces fill as taut and globular as balloons.” ( Hemingway )

William Orpen. " It happened everywhere, on the ground and underground, on the water and under water, and in the air. It was fought using every possible means, from cavalry charges to hand-to-hand trench warfare, from bombardments to assault tanks, using gas or phosphorus. In this war, the warrior was reduced to the dual role of servant and victim of the machine. Europe emerged from the Great War completely changed - exhausted, horrified, and forcibly modernised. The war was a catalyst of revolution; daughter of the industrial and scientific revolution; mother to the political revolutions that gave rise to the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic. It changed the face of central Europe for two decades, until the Anschluss and the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland by the Third Reich. It shaped the world and for some, its after-effects are still with us to this day - the fields of Picardy and Champagne still yield a crop of unexploded shells ready to go off at any moment."

A remarkable number of well known authors were ambulance drivers during World War I. Among them were Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, and Somerset Maugham. Robert Service, the writer of Yukon poetry including The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and Charles Nordhoff, co-author of Mutiny On the Bounty, drove ambulances in the Great War. At least twenty-three well known literary figures drove ambulances in the First World War. If the list were expanded to include those working in medically related fields during the war, such names as Gertrude Stein, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and E.M. Forster could be added.

There were others who did not want to kill. Dos Passos was one of them. But Dos Passos in particular seemed not to mind chancing being killed. He took many chances far beyond the inherent risks of ambulance driving, which many considered risky enough.

Adventure, patriotism, doing what’s right, signing up because others in the same school class signed up, and wanting to participate in what was of significance to the world at the time were all reasons for joining. So was escape. Dos Passos”s father had just died, preceded by his mother. He needed to get away. Harry Crosby considered his life at school and home unhappy and wanted to escape “the horrors of Boston and particularly of Boston virgins.”

The reasons many of these same men returned to participate in Parisian literary circles in the 1920’s were completely different from their reasons for entering the ambulance services. They returned to France after the war because it was cheaper to live there, France did not have prohibition, a wilder life could be led, Paris had the aura as the place to be for anyone artistic, there was less censorship, and France had become familiar to them from their time as ambulance drivers. Also the wild life in Paris could be an attempt to avoid facing what had been encountered in war.

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  1. Dave says:

    go ahead. you have a nice site.

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