Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Loss of a Generation

As some of you may know, I have a rather strong fascination with World War I. Due to technological changes, WWII was much better covered than WWI was. But the thing that was absolutely staggering about WWI was the death toll and the outcome. Compared to WWI the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan are quiet afternoons. There were some battles in WWI where 20,000 to 30,000 men died on the first day of the battle and over a million over the course of the entire battle. Some of the more deadly encounters in WWI include the Battle of Gallipoli and the Battle of the Somme.

The sad thing about WWI was that it was entirely needless and accomplished absolutely nothing other than the end of the German and Russian monarchies. With WWII we at least toppled a genocidal regime.

WWI quite literally wiped out an entire generation. As such I've taken quite an interest in reading about some of those who lost their lives during the "War to End All Wars." A couple of figures from WWI that I've taken an interest in are Oswald Chambers and Alan Seeger.

One of the top selling daily devotionals is Oswald Chambers' My Utmost For His Highest. I know not all of my readers are religious, or are as religious as I am, but don't worry I'm going in a different direction than that.

Chambers life was a short but remarkable one. Feeling the call, he applied to the war effort and was accepted as a YMCA Chaplain and was assigned to the ANZAC forces stationed in Egypt during WWI.

Most of the books attributed to him were never written. His wife was an exceptional stenographer who could take dictation at a rate of 150 words per minute. As a result many of his "books" are actually taken directly from his sermons. His spoken word.

Chambers was as remarkable in death as he was in life. Suffering excrutiating pain for three days he refused to seek medical attention because he felt it was more important that the doctors attend to wounded soldiers first. By the time he finally reluctantly relented and sought medical attention it was too late and he died of a ruptured appendix. He was only 43 years old. His widow, Gertrude "Biddy" Hobbs, spent the next 30 years compiling his lessons for publication.

From the published materials that exist of Chambers' lessons he comes across as very articulate. He strikes me as a man who not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk. I have a deep and abiding respect for people who back up their words and thoughts with actions (even those with whom I don't necessarily agree with).

There's an interesting biography of Chambers, Abandoned to God by David McCasland for those who would like to learn more about this intriguing individual.

Alan Seeger was a poet who enlisted with the French Foreign Legion during World War I. He was killed in battle in 1916 cheering on his fellow soldiers even after repeatedly being hit by machine gun fire. He was only 28. His most famous poem, I Have a Rendezvous With Death was published posthumously in 1917 (as were many of his other poems). A recurring theme in many of Seeger's poems was a desire to die young and gloriously. Interestingly poetry must have run in his family. His nephew is famous folk musician, Pete Seeger.

These are just two of, I'm guessing, countless examples of talented strong individuals who never lived long enough to have their talents fully realized. They left behind glimpses of legacies that only our imaginations can fully extrapolate. What songs and poems were we deprived of? What world leaders that might have been able to prevent other wars and further bloodshed?

All in all WWI marked a loss of innocence for the world. I'd argue the world left in the wake of the Great War has been a bit darker, more cynical, and worse for wear. But, of course, we'll never truly know. So we're left wondering what we missed out on. The cost was far beyond the millions of lives lost, it also included the contributions those millions of lives might have made to the world had they lived to have the opportunity.


Susan as herself said...

That's cool about Pete Seeger's relative.

Kevin Moriarity said...

I am a student of WWII history, but no little about the first world war - you make it personal here, beyond just places and numbers.

Perplexio said...

Susan: I found it interesting too. I first discovered Seeger in AP Lit my senior year of high school. We were studying poetry and I stumbled upon I Have a Rendezvous With Death. The poem gave me a chill up my spine when I read that Seeger had died shortly after writing it.

Kevin: My interest in WWI has grown over the years. I think it started with the Stanley Kubrick film Paths of Glory. The interest grew when I read the memoir of A.B. Facey A Fortunate Life (I highly recommend it btw) and later saw the movie Galipoli (as far as WWI movies go, it's the best I've seen... at least thus far). And last year I read the book King, Kaiser, Tsar about the familial relationships and acrimony between King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nikolas II that led to WWI.