Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Introduction. February 1, 2010Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
Tags: Deneys Reitz, First World War, Pat Barker, Paul Fussell, World War I
This is the introduction to a series. (See bottom for links to its parts.) There are two sides to it. One is that quite a few people are familiar with the exploits of Deneys Reitz in the Boer War,* but not so many know about his experiences in the exponentially larger conflict that started twelve years later—and these experiences deserve wider attention. The other side is that I’d like to present an alternative to the way of looking at WWI that has been in fashion for quite a few years.
Many people would agree that the war was caused by a series of errors and misjudgments, and that it was horrifying in the scale of its casualties—around 33 million total on both sides if you include the wounded and prisoners as well as deaths.
It is also easy to be dismayed by the nature of trench warfare on the Western Front, which is the part of the war that Anglo-Americans pay attention to. We have all seen pictures of the duckboards meandering through the bottomless mud, the skeletal trees, the corpses trapped on the barbed wire or rotting in the trenches. These things seem grotesque, and the chain of events that led to the war seems absurd. In the prevalent way of seeing the war, that is where we stop: with the grotesque and the absurd.
Ever since Vietnam, we Americans have seen wars that way. During the Sixties Vonnegut and Heller showed us how to see WWII as grotesque and absurd, in Slaughterhouse Five and Catch-22. We mostly ignore WWI, which left us nearly unscathed, but the British had their war poets and war writers to reread and reinterpret: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden. Although many of their writings could not accurately be described as “anti-war,” this was the spin that was put on them in the late 20th century. The Anglophile American Paul Fussell wrote about these figures in The Great War and Modern Memory, and the British novelist Pat Barker incorporated Owen and Sassoon in her prize-winning trilogy, Regeneration.
The mood of these late 20th century works is sentimental beneath a brittle shell of irony. The courage of soldiers is presented in order to say that the courage was swallowed up by meaninglessness. We are meant to feel melancholy.
But reading Deneys Reitz on his experiences in WWI is far from a melancholy experience, even though he describes many scenes of death and devastation. His account is down-to-earth, detailed, and sometimes humorous. And it never has a trace of jingoism.
He was a born soldier, and his writing indirectly shows exactly what that means. He exercised individual competence within a broader frame that was under no one’s control. When the juggernaut of WWI finally stopped, the western world was nearly unrecognizable. New states were formed, colonies redistributed, monarchies toppled, republics created, economies wrecked, populations shifted. This to me seems not so much an occasion for the wringing of hands as an example of the geological weight, the astronomical scope, of history.
But how can the experience of one soldier be weighed against the whole war? I’ll come back to this question at the end of the series.
* For a bit of background, click on the “Boer War” and “Transvaal Citizen” page tabs above.
10 – Two kinds of courage
12 – The loss of a friend
14 – Conclusion