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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Introduction. February 1, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, World War One.
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Reitz midway between the Boer War and WWI. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.

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.

Chateau Wood Ypres 1917

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.

Wilfred Owen

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.

Stretcher bearers, Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916

2 – Why take the British side?

3 – The Maritz rebellion

4 – Defeat of the rebels

5 – German South West Africa

6 – German East Africa

7 – Farewell to a brother

8 – Arrival in the trenches

9 – The Irish battalion

10 – Two kinds of courage

11 – “They went forward at a walk”

12 – The loss of a friend

13 – The war’s final weeks

14 – Conclusion


1. Matthew Wright - March 21, 2015

You’re right – the lens through which we now see the First World War is that of the ‘war poets’, further filtered by post-Vietnam anti-war sentiment. Which is valid in many ways, but it screens us from the wider picture. One of the debates in the UK at the moment is over the reasons why Britain fought – and kept fighting despite hideous casualties. The conclusion, so far, is that it was political to the extent that there was a perceived need to stop German imperial ambition. The whole argument is tied with the notion that the First and Second World Wars were two acts of a single conflict; and that the Nazis exploited and intensified an existing direction, rather than creating it from scratch. Lord Vansittart summed it up in 1944 when the British were debating any post-war arrangements for Germany. The issue was more than just stopping the Nazis; the Allies also had to put an end to the Bismarckian ‘Reich’ mentality that, Vansittart argued, had driven Germany since the 1870s and of which the Nazis were merely the latest (and most extreme) expression. He was probably right, and that’s an issue that is being currently looked into historically.

Jenny - March 21, 2015

One way to look at the British motivation for participating in WWI is to study popular fiction of the pre-war period. You can see that there was a growing fear of what was perceived as the “German menace”: novels and even children’s stories were written about Germans invading Britain. I have read some of the novels of John Buchan that deal with the war itself—the Richard Hannay novels. As you might know, he handled propaganda for the British government during the war. His novels express no doubts, no hesitation, that doing battle with the sinister Germans was the virtuous course of action. I enjoy reading Buchan not for the jingoism but because he is a master of describing the challenge of grappling with landscape (one of my big subjects), but it’s also interesting to see the attitudes he expresses. You can look at history from political, social, and economic standpoints, but the uncritical thinking of the average citizen can give us some clues as well.

Matthew Wright - March 21, 2015

More than clues – I think that sort of material is a valuable litmus test relative to popular mood, popular thinking and the attitudes of society. It’s valid! And the ‘schrecklichkeit’ of First World War allied propaganda did not emerge from a vacuum.

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