Confusion, chaos, rumor, fear, hope, terror, perhaps that’s exactly what you’d expect of war, but far more real when you’re reading ordinary people’s diaries, not accounts of generals or dry facts of history.
Even though I’m old enough not to have seen TV until grade school, I’m so used to cell phones and breaking news, that it’s a bit of a shock to be thrown back a century into a world where no one was sure what was going on — where news traveled -slowly and might not be correct.
I also shook my head at all the young men so eager to fight, excited about war. Those with doubts kept their thoughts to themselves. Although an American who volunteered in the Italian army was told he was nuts by his fellow troops.
Many accounts are of typhus, smallpox, and other diseases, magnified because people were weak from malnutrition. This was partly because so many farmers were fighting, but also because the farmers still growing food could sell it on the black market at extremely high prices. Townspeople were particularly affected since they had nowhere to grow their own food. Some of them broke into shops to get food. But if you want luxury goods, no problem, they’re in abundant supply – corsets, high-heeled shoes, silk ribbons, chamois-leather gloves. But forget about buying butter or eggs.
Having your fate decided by the officers above you is very frustrating
One of the horrifying aspects of WWI was how commanders forced groups of soldiers to attack over and over again in battles that were clearly hopeless. One such fight is described on page 173. An officer with only 25 men left out of 250 asked permission to fall back, but was denied permission told to attack with his remaining men yet again.
Paolo Monelli, a trooper in the Italian army, writes “it is not the risk of dying, not the red firework display of a bursting shell that blinds us as it comes whizzing down, but the feeling of being a puppet in the hands of an unknown puppeteer—and that feeling sometimes chills the heart as if death itself had taken hold of it. Chained to the trench until orders to be relieved arrive as suddenly as a cannon shot or a snowstorm, tied to ever-present danger, to a fate that is inscribed with the number of your platoon or the name of your trench, unable to take your shirt off when you want to, unable to write home when you want to, seeing the most modest needs of existence governed by rules over which you have no influence—all this is war. The press correspondent who visits the trenches does not know this war; the officer from the general staff who ops up to ensure that he gets a medal by being with us does not know this war. Once they are hungry or tired or think they have done their job, they take out their watch and say, ‘it’s late, I have to go no.’ “
35-year-old Laura de Turczynowica, American wife of a Polish aristocrat
Throughout the book civilians are on the move, trying to escape the clash of armies, as Laura describes: “the population was pouring out of the city in long files. On carts, on foot, on horseback. Everyone making shift to save himself. All of them carrying away what they can. And exhaustion, dust, sweat, panic on every face, terrible dejection, pain, and suffering. Their eyes are frightened, their movements craven: ghastly terror oppresses them. I lie sleepless at the side of the road and watch this infernal kaleidoscope. There are even military wagons muddled into it, and on the fields retreating military, routed infantry, lost cavalry. Not one has his full equipment.” (page 16)
Because there were so many rumors flying, people often didn’t flee until they heard the sounds of battle. They couldn’t get news because telegraph lines had been cut, and often ignored the early warning signs, such as hordes of peasants fleeing from the border with all their animals. Laura, an American woman in Poland describes it as: “men, women, children, dogs, cows, pigs, horses, and carts all mixed up in one grand mélange,” as they passed by her home.
When Laura hears artillery fire are realizes she’s waited too long to flee, she suddenly she announces that everyone must leave within 15 minutes. She has servants and children, they all help load what they can onto 2 farm carts. Outside, there’s a chaos of military wagons, soldiers, and a “vortex of humanity—people running—laden like horses—getting tired of the weight—dropping it—but going on”.
Her family and the servants rode in the first wagon, their luggage in the second, but halfway to the rail station, a man she knew beat up the driver of the second wagon and absconded with all the luggage.
When the enemy was pushed back, Laura returned. Since she was quite wealthy (married to a Polish Count), the opposing army officers stayed at her home, where she found everything to be “torn, smashed, ripped out, spilled, hurled around, knocked over and fouled. Every drawer pulled out, every wardrobe emptied. The smell is indescribably awful. The library has been completely vandalized. The contents of all the shelves have been emptied and the floor is invisible beneath a layer of torn books and papers, scattered documents and engravings. All of it trampled by rough boots.” Every dish and plate was hurled on the floor after they were used. In the pantry glass jars that used to have jam, honey, and vegetables had been eaten and replaced with human excrement.
As time passed, Laura began to run out of food, though luckily hadn’t found the food she hid in the sofa. Even though she still had some money, she often couldn’t find anyone willing to sell food for money. Potatoes and eggs cost astronomical prices.
Then the enemy returned before she could flee, and the enemy soldiers came back to live and throw wild parties in her home, while she and her children cowered in a small room at the back of the house.
Minorities in war
Currently news headlines every day are about the government and NSA spying on citizens. Although I’m not worried about this now, what happened in WWI when war broke out gives me pause. It’s in hard times and war that this information gets used in a bad way. Consider what happened in Germany after war was declared. Danes were a minority there and seen as a potential problem. Hundreds of leaders were rounded up and arrested.
Destroy food and water
Throughout the book, villages are burned, forcing the residents out, and as they flee, they block the roads that the military needs to take to get to battle. Setting fields and towns afire is a way of destroying sustenance of the opposing army – and there are other teams running around destroying water supplies as well.
Sometimes people are able to remain, mainly by hiding in their cellars. Towns no longer have street cleaning, so there’s rubbish and filth everywhere. Streets are littered with abandoned furniture and other stuff.
I had no idea that in addition to bullets, explosions could drive just about anything into a soldier, including clothing, stones, wood splinters, and so on. One surgeon complained of patients who wanted a bullet or shrapnel to be taken out as a trophy to show people, when it would be safer to leave the projectile in his body, untouched.
Although 13% of battlefield injuries were head wounds, they accounted for 57% of deaths. No great surprise, given that the head was the most exposed part of the body in the trenches, where soldiers spent a huge amount of time in. In fact, the reason that soldiers hair was cut short wasn’t because of lice, but to make it easier to treat head wounds as quickly as possible. Finally in 1915 soldiers started being supplied with helmets to reduce head injuries.
Over and over again, because no one has maps, officers have no idea where they are supposed to go or how to get there, and sometimes blunder into situations where they’re trapped, as Lobanov-Rostovsky does when he takes his men into a ravine with Germans on either side of them. Luckily the Germans are confused and fire on each other, allowing them to escape (34-36).
Here’s a new image of the battle trenches for you: soldiers ransacked homes for loot and luxuries to decorate the trenches with, including sofas, chairs and beds. Officers were allowed to loot first, then the rest of the troops were allowed in.
Now and then wives tried to follow their husbands to the front line, but in France, the only women allowed do that were prostitutes. Some desperate wives said they were hookers so they could stay in touch with their husbands.
At times in these accounts, women prostitute themselves for food, or even salt (i.e. p 209). Meanwhile the men are increasingly coming down with syphilis and other veneral diseases. Some of them on purpose, in fact there are women who charge more because they have a disease and the soldier wants to get infected to not have to go back to the front and fight. Soldiers smeared gonococcal pus on their genitals or in their eyes (which often caused lifelong blindness) to be sent to the hospital and get out of fighting.
Rafael de Nogales came all the way from Venezuela to fight – not his first war, plus he’d panned for gold in Alaska, worked as a cowboy in Arizona, among other things. But the Belgians didn’t want him, nor did the French, the Serbians, or the Russians. Not wanting to go home, he joined the Turkish army, because they were willing to take him.
Ottoman genocide against Christian Minorities in Sairt
The Ottoman genocide against Christian Minorities occurred in Turkey between 1913 and 1922. Over 3.5 million Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians were massacred in a state-organized campaign of destruction and genocide, aiming at wiping out native Christian populations. “This Christian Holocaust is viewed as the precursor to the Jewish Holocaust in WWII. To this day, the Turkish government denies having committed this genocide.” — Prof. Israel Charney, President of the IAGS
Warning: the following account of the massacre in Sairt written by Rafael de Nogales is so gruesome you may want to skip it:
“The slope was crowned with thousands of half-naked and still bleeding bodies, lying in heaps, tangled, as if in a last embrace in death. Fathers, brothers, sons and grandsons lay as they fell from the bullets or swords. Heartbeats were still pumping the life-blood out of some slashed throats. Flocks of vultures sat on top of the heap, picking the eyes out of the dead and dying, whose rigid gase still seemed to mirror terror and inexpressible pain, while carrion dogs sank their sharp teeth into entrails still pulsing with life.” The field of bodies blocked the road and the horses had to jump over mountains of corpses. Meanwhile the Muslim part of the population is busy plundering Christian homes.
I finished the first 300 of 500 pages and then had to return the book to the library. I haven’t checked it out again, because it was too hard to follow the narrative thread, which jumps randomly between 20 different diaries, with each long chapter representing a different year. I would have rather have had each chapter follow one person throughout the war, it’s too hard to return to this book and pick up the thread again.
And besides, I “get it”. Knowing the state of the world makes me want to understand what the future might be like, which is easiest to figure out by reading about failed states, wars, and history (which I’ve read a lot about, see my energyskeptic booklist).
There are patterns, it’s clear to me what will happen at some point on the Net Energy Cliff and from rising sea levels, or even sooner if nuclear or cyber war and other potential strike first.
I partly read these gruesome books to figure out a way to survive if I live long enough to see such times, but so much of it is luck and being young and healthy enough to survive the diseases that move like fire through the population.