The Impact of World War I: A Context of Waterland

Josh Newell (Feb. 14. 1991, Eng. 34)

Henry Crick becomes a hospital case. Henry Crick limps and blinks and falls flat on his face at sudden noises...He expects the ground to quake and heave under his feet and become a morass. He is sent home for chronic neurasthenics. [Waterland, 16]

Henry Crick suffers from shell shock caused by the horrors of World War 1, an all too common experience for many soldiers. Largely due to extensive shelling and the abnormal conditions characteristic of trench warfare, shell shock afflicted the minds of thousands of soldiers. Commonly labeled the War of Attrition, World War I witnessed armies attempt massive offensives, only to be stopped after gaining a few yards of territory. The cost of these battles was dear since human losses often ranged in the hundreds of thousands. Axis Powers would launch massive counter-offensives to regain lost land, leaving Allied territorial gains short lived. It soon became clear that whichever side could exhaust the other's men and resources would win the war. Soldiers risked their lives and witnessed the deaths of millions, yet gained little or no territory from their enemy. War strategy for many a common soldier seemed utterly senseless.

Due to the sheer irrationality of war strategy coupled with the tremendous devastation to European cities and its people, the war had many of the effects of revolution. Although its psychological impact remains difficult to assess, there exist countless accounts by intellectuals of what one historian has called "minds scorched by war."(The Western Experience, 1987, 991.) Many viewed the face of Europe as changed forever; existing political structures, social norms, and accepted beliefs were no longer viable. Small circles of intellectuals throughout Europe attacked outdated cultural symbols. In the realm of political philosophy, Oswald Spengler's extremely popular Decline of the West (1918) predicted that "the world war was the beginning of the final act and considered the very institutions the liberals had declared as progress to be symptoms of decay"(The Western Experience, 991). Spengler's work, like many of those which came out of this period, was extremely critical of the progressive theory of history, namely, the idea that man and his accomplishments followed the gradual upward spiral towards perfection. The ugliness and irrationality of the war revealed that even in the modern age man remained capable of deeds so barbaric that they shock even the cruelest of imaginations. Graham Swift's Waterland refutes this progressive theory of history by citing World War I and other contemporary events.

United Kingdom