So a thing that stuck with me during class was just how unprepared folks were for how bad “The Great War” ended up being. The difference in tone and attitude between, say, Pope’s “The Call” and Owen’s “Disabled” is so jarring, and the imagery that is now-forever trapped in my brain from Rivers’ accounts of shell-shocked veterans (yeah, definitely wanted to think about unintentional cannibalism via a ruptured stomach casing to the face, thanks) so stomach-turning, that it’s kind of hard to imagine that the British populace could have ever pictured World War One as some sort of pleasurable outing across the Strait.
Then again, I’m also part of a culture that has now lived through what, five, six separate protracted combat scenarios, of or above the viciousness of the First World War? (For those curious, that would be the Civil War–which decimated North America’s male population at the time and was our wartime wakeup call–WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and whatever name you choose to give the whatever-it-is-now that started as Desert Storm) To people of my generation, “War is hell” isn’t just the depressed revelation of a general who had done great and terrible things to win (William Tecumseh Sherman–look ‘im up), it’s a deeply-ingrained fact of life.
That… wasn’t exactly the case for pre-1914 Great Britain, though.
The image up top there is an artist’s depiction of a medieval siege, the most common form of “war” to Brits up until 1914. Sure, there were lots of quick, one-off battles, like the Battle of Agincourt (which technically is a part of the Hundred Years War, which is itself a catchall term for a mostly-cold war that would make the US and Russia green with envy), but for the most part, “war” to the Brits meant one group of guys sat outside the gates of a city, while another group of guys sat inside the gates of said city, and occasionally the two groups of guys would shoot at each other.
It’s even less action-packed than it sounds. Books and movies try to make sieges seem like intense, perpetual action (lookin’ at you, Battle of Helm’s Deep), but a lot of sieges took years. The principal purpose of most sieges was not to tear down city walls with catapults while glorious single combat took place around huge ladders or siege towers. The principle purpose of most sieges was for the guys outside the walls to make the guys inside the walls starve, a process that, again, generally took, y’know, years.
Besides, all of those glorious one-off battles were utterly teensy in scale in comparison to The Great War. For instance, high estimates for the number of men involved in the previously-mentioned Battle of Agincourt top out at somewhere around 45,000 to 55,000 combatants. Total. In comparison, one of the most famous battles of World War I, the Battle of the Somme, saw roughly that many British casualties on the first day of combat–out of 141 days total.
So: long-ass sieges and itsy-bitsy battles. That is what Great Britain knew of war (not even the Revolutionary War was all that big–roughly 150,000 men involved overall). Is it any real surprise, then, that “unprepared” is the greatest understatement of about five centuries for how badly World War One caught Britain off guard? I’m in no way trying to excuse the misguided propaganda and frankly-stupid repression “therapies,” but hopefully this at least gives some perspective on why they were what they were.