Today, French troops re-enter Mulhouse in a bitter street-to-street fight that presages many battles to come on the Western front. This is France’s furthest advance into Alsace-Lorraine, and the small corner of it that they have captured close to the Swiss border will be the only piece of Germany held in allied hands until the Armistice. Within days, France will withdraw from the city to more defensible lines. Meanwhile, German troops reach Tienen on their way to Brussels, and Austro-Hungarian troops are embarrassed in Serbia by a smaller, savvier foe. A million men clash in Galicia, where the Tsar’s horde is attacking the Hapsburg Empire in response to the threat against their ethnic and religious cousins.
The war is off to a bloody start, but it has hardly begun, for the machinery of mobilization is just now hitting full stride in combatant nations. Men are lined up for induction everywhere; their training periods will vary, and all nations abbreviate it during the war, but a British man joining today may not reach the battlefield until next year. Germany and France, which have conscripted men by age cohort for a generation, are still bringing reserve units of past classes into depots to kit them out for war and send them to the front. Their economies are now being redirected towards munitions and supply, turning out every material item of war from the hundreds of millions of bullets and shells and bayonets to the shaving kits that soldiers will use. National industrial output will be challenged to innovate and mass-produce whole new technologies, including helmets and gas masks.
These countries have become war machines, their populations mere bullets to be jacketed, loaded, and fired against the enemy nations.
Practically everyone knows that machines will figure large in the war, but today British newspapers publish an essay by author, poet, and journalist D.H. Lawrence. With the Guns captures the essence of the new struggle as “an affair entirely of machines, with men attached to the machines as the subordinate part thereof, as the butt is part of the rifle.” Describing military exercises that he witnessed while visiting the continent a year before, Lawrence’s essay is a study in what would come to be called ‘combat psychology.’
Every moment came the hard, tearing, hideous voice of the German command from the officer perched aloft, giving the range to the guns; and then the sharp cry, “Fire!” There was a burst, something in the guns started back, the faintest breath of vapour disappeared. The shots had gone.
I watched, but I could not see where they had gone, nor what had been aimed at. Evidently they were directed against an enemy a mile and a half away, men unseen by any of the soldiers and the guns. Whether the shot they fired hit or missed, killed or did not touch, I and the gun-party did not know. Only the officer was shouting the range again, the guns were again starting back, we were again staring over the face of the green and dappled, inscrutable country into which the missiles sped unseen.
What work was there to do?–only mechanically to adjust the guns and fire the shot. What was there to feel?–only the unnatural suspense and suppresion of serving a machine which, for aught we knew was killing our fellow-men, whilst we stood there, blind, without knowledge or participation, subordinate to the cold machine. This was the glamour and the glory of the war: blue sky overhead and living green country all around, but we, amid it all, a part in some iron insensate will, our flesh and blood, our soul and intelligence shed away, and all that remained of us a cold, metallic adherence to an iron machine. There was neither ferocity nor joy nor exultation nor exhilaration nor even quick fear: only a mechanical, expressionless movement.
And this was how the gunner would “let ’em have it.” He would mechanically move a certain apparatus when he heard a certain shout. Of the result he would see and know nothing. He had nothing to do with it.
Then I remember going at night down a road, whilst the sound of guns thudded continuously. And suddenly I started, seeing the bank of the road stir. It was a mass of scarcely visible forms, lying under a rush. The were lying under fire, silent, scarcely stirring, a mass. If one of the shells that were supposed to be coming had dropped among them it would have burst a hole in the mass. Who would have been torn, killed, no one would have known. There would just have been a hole in the living shadowy mass; that was all. Who it was did not matter. There were no individuals, and every individual soldier knew it. He was a fragment of a mass lying there, solid and obscure along the bank of the road in the night.
And I remember a captain of the bersaglieri [ed: light infantry] who talked to me in the train when he had come back from Tripoli. The Italian soldier, he said, was the finest soldier in the world at a rush. But — and he spoke with a certain horror that cramped his voice — when it came to lying there under the Snyder fire you had to stand behind them with a revolver. And I saw that he could not get beyond the agony of this.
“Well,” I said, “that is because they cannot feel themselves parts of a machine. They have all the old natural courage, when one rushes at one’s enemy. But it is unnatural to them to lie still under machine-fire. It is unnatural to anybody. War with machines, and the machine predominant, is too unnatural for an Italian. It is a wicked thing, a machine, and your Italians are too naturally good. They will do anything to get away from it. Let us see our enemy and go for him. But we cannot endure this taking death out of machines, and giving death out of machines, our cold blood, without any enemy to rise against.”
With the Guns is an important portion of Twilight in Italy and Other Essays, a collection of Lawrence’s travel notes and cultural observations of Europe published in 1916. Two of the component essays had been declined by newspaper editors who saw them as too provocative in the tense prewar atmosphere, but now they become a wartime pamphlet. Recently married to a woman of German parentage, and too frail to serve, Lawrence himself is seen with suspicion, and wild rumors about the couple lead to problems with wartime authorities. They suffer internal exile, leaving England after the war.
Lawrence’s opposition to British imperialism and promotion of personal freedom are balanced by a dim view of democracy. In fact, Britain is the most democratic nation to declare war so far, and the war remains popular as long here as anywhere else. Undeterred by high casualties, or perhaps even inspired by them, millions of British men will voluntarily become bullets in the machine.
Why blog about the Great War? Because the depersonalization of armed conflict is much, much older than our ‘Nintendo generation’ or our drones. Even in the age of ‘information warfare,’ we forget this at our peril.