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Armageddon - Twelve Years After

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

Armageddon: The World War in Literature. By Eugene Lohrke, New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $5.00. Good-Bye to All That. By Robert Graves. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $3.00. A Roumanian Diary. By Hans Carossa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. It’s o Great War. By Mary Lee. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00. As I Saw It. By Alden Brooks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00. Retreat. By C. R. Bcnstead. New York: The Century Company. $2.50.

In the past two years the literature of the World War has grown to such vast proportions, and has been the center of so bitter a controversy, that it has come to be considered a separate body of literature. The battles that have been waged over it, bound up as they have been with individual conceptions of patriotism and pacifism, and the desire to forget that which is distasteful, have been as vehement as, if less bloody than those of the War itself. The final phase now seems to be setting in—that of satiety; and the prediction has already been made by those who point out coming literary fads that the war book will soon be outmoded. And although reminiscences of the War, and novels using it for a background, are still being published, and probably will continue to be published as long as there are people living who remember it vividly, it is true that we are not likely to witness again another panic like that of last year, which led to the uncritical production and consump- . tion of war books that could be numbered in the hundreds. But whether we consider war books a temporary fad or a reasonably, permanent fashion, there remain already these hundreds of volumes, to be judged as literature, as human testimony about an important event, and as products of some common reaction to the general enigma of war.

The problem of the actual value of war books, and the reasons for their having been written, seems to me to be bound up in the equally interesting problem of why they should have been demanded—and demanded in 1928 rather than in 1925 or 1921. In speaking of war literature I am using the term in the specialized sense that it has recently acquired. It refers, not to the official reports or the semiofficial biographies and autobiographies of statesmen and generals, which have been regularly following the political or actual deaths of their heroes ever since the War; but to those diaries, narratives, and novels which have aimed to portray the War as it appeared to the ordinary individual involved in it. That there was a public taste for such literature can hardly be denied. .Publishers’ blurbs, the phenomenal success of some of the earliest published war books, or the mere desire for something new, may account in part for the intensity of the craving; but the craving itself existed before all the artificial stimulants of it. There has to be some emotional background and motivation behind every mob.

Beyond the bare outline of the history of war literature— the war-time interest in the human side of the War, the strange dearth of war books between 1921 and 1927, and the subsequent revival of interest following “The Case of Sergeant Grischa”—we get a picture of a world too exhausted physically and emotionally to be greatly interested in the details of its calamity. In Europe it was the physical exhaustion of men and nations taxed beyond endurance; in America it was rather the nervous exhaustion that follows hysteria. Perhaps the lack of interest on the part of those at home was increased by the returned soldier’s inability to find words in the face of a cheery “How was it?” followed immediately by a “Well, let’s back to work.” A good part of the turbulent social history of the ‘twenties can be deduced from the profound cleavage of the generations that these phrases imply. At any rate, in Europe the necessity for physical rehabilitation, and in America the urge to cash in on her new position of world dominance, led to a shelving of this problem of the clash of generations for more pressing needs. Returned warriors adjusted themselves as best they could; if they were too adventurous or too unassimi-lable for peace times, they turned to commercial aviation or tampered with the moral code of their elders. For the most part, they kept their silence about the War. It was not until the late ‘twenties that Europe considered itself stable enough, or America felt rich enough, to afford the luxury of glancing either to the future or the past. Given this breathing space, the world gazed romantically forward to a future of world peace, and romantically backward to the World War. It is not mere chance that the revival of interest in the War coincided with a new and romantic efflorescence of international good humor, as exemplified in the Kellogg Pact, the proposal of a United States of Europe, and, in America, a willingness to cooperate with, if not to participate in, the League of Nations. Both tendencies are symptomatic of that stage of invalidism in which the patient can enjoy the details of his malady and at the same time looks forward hopefully to good health.

This desire for the details was backed up by a romantic inquisitiveness on the part of the post-War generation, which had grown up to feel that it had just missed “the big show,” to know more of the ra^je of giants that had preceded it. At all events, the War generation had found its audience, after seven years of comparitive silence. The genesis of the majority of war books was this realization, signalized most emphatically by the success of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” that the long pent-up emotions of the post-War days could be safely expressed to a public remote enough from the actuality of the War to be not only tolerant but inquisitive. The force of their emotions gained impetus with each expression of them, as it does in any mob, and the natural argumentativeness of mankind made each person wish to voice the uniqueness of his own reactions to the War. Many wrote from the simple desire to confess and explain. Many others wrote to relieve themselves of the accumulated venom of post-War disillusionment. Still others wrote from the honest if mistaken notion that a horrible picture of war might promote the cause of peace. Finally, there were undoubtedly some who were prompted to write by the desire to gather in the publishers’ scraps that fell from the table set for Messrs. Zweig and Remarque. Such literary hangers-on are always lurking about, and the War provided the necessary first-hand literary material for thousands of potential hacks. But I am convinced that, for the most part, war literature is the product of earnest, if not always wise or gifted men. Predominantly, it is an attempt to state a case that the world was too busy to sit upon ten years ago. If the case has been distorted during the passage of time, that is what might be expected to result from a delayed hearing.

It is natural that the public should be satiated with the voluminousness of this testimony, but along with the satiation there have arisen misconceptions about war books as a whole that should be corrected. The commonest criticisms are that they are monotonously the same, that they are uniformly poor as literature, and that they exaggerate the horror and discredit the motives and leadership of the War. The absurdity of the first charge would be apparent to anyone who took the trouble to contrast the calm and mystical introspection of Carossa’s “A Roumanian Diary” with the bare objectivity of Scanlon’s “God Llave Mercy, Upon Us,” or the distinctive humor in such books as Hasek’s “The Good Soldier: Schweik” or the anonymous “Schlump” with the nerve-racking seriousness of Remarque’s book. Another, and easier, way to gain some idea of the richness and variety of war literature would be to glance at Eugene Lo’hrke’s ably edited anthology of war literature, “Armageddon,” which incorporates extracts from some sixty writers on the War. Not only does it provide a kaleidoscopic variety of backgrounds, but almost every conceivable shade of emotional reaction and nearly every angle of intellectual approach. Except for those contemplative perspectives that time alone can give, war literature already furnishes as many moods and attitudes as any other section of literature.

The question of the quality of war literature as a whole is more difficult to decide, partly because we are too close to it to render final judgments, and partly because any judgment of books relating to so important an event must bear in mind history as well as literature. Of some forty or fifty war books of last year’s publication that I have read (and my selection has been haphazard enough to make this a representative group), I could pick out eight or ten that appear to me to be, not masterpieces, but works of sound literary craftsmanship, of utter integrity, and of genuine interest as expressions of the human soul. Of the remainder, a fair portion stand out, either for the facts they convey or the attitudes they, express, as books of value to anyone interested in the human side of the conflict of 1914-18. This is far from being a condemnation of war literature. If any reader had the temerity and stamina to read forty books picked at random from a general list of book announcements, I do not believe the proportion of worthwhile books would be much larger.

There remains at last the most difficult problem of all— the question of the final value of war books as human testimony. The difficulty here is that we have no standard with which to measure the ultimate “truth” about the War. When we read these war books of the late ‘twenties it is easy enough to see that they have been shaped as much by the disillusionment of the post-War decade as by the War itself. Their horror and brutality is horror and brutality remembered and exaggerated in the bitterness of a disappointing peace. Their emphasis on the stupidity of the War is an emphasis that has grown greater as each year has shown more clearly how far short of its declared purpose the War has fallen. Their obsession with the discreditable features of the War is the product of long pondering on the apparent uselessness of their exposure to these discreditable tendencies. In short, theirs is a version of the War which could not have been written in 1918 or even 1920—a version biased by, the conviction that the War bought no advantages worth the cost. . . . But if the emotional accretions of the ‘twenties have colored men’s memories of the ‘teens, that coloring is no more intense than that which the War itself gave to its passing events. If it can be said that the War books of 1927-30 exaggerate the horror of trench warfare and the inefficiency of its leadership, it can also be said that war correspondents’ stories and official reports exaggerate the enthusiasm of the troops and the omniscience of generals. And yet they too are part of the “truth.” The version of the War given by writers today may be considered the story of a wild party as told by a man with a hang-over; but the hang-over version of 1930 is no less necessary for the full truth than the intoxicated version of 1918 or the thoroughly judicious but dimly recollected version of, say, 1950. It too is one of the many, truths about the War, and the historian of our times cannot afford to neglect it when he seeks the elusive “reality,” of the World War.


In the majority of war books that have so far been written, the War appears in microcosm, as a succession of highly personal sensations and impressions. Whatever motives made men go to war (and all but a fraction were in effect conscripts), whatever their notions may have been that they were participating in an event of world-wide scope and significance, the need of self-preservation, the extreme complication of the war machine, and the terrific demands War made upon their inner resources, quickly inhibited any but the most limited outlook. Even statesmen and generals frequently saw only that which lay directly before their noses. To those who did not participate, this narrowness of vision is one of the most surprising characteristics of war books, even those written years after the event. In a book like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” this turning inward to oneself (not necessarily to the inner self) is carried to such a point that to many sensitive people it becomes unbearable.

Robert Graves’ “Good-Bye to All That” gives one of the most convincing pictures of the War in microcosm that has yet been written. This is not only because Mr. Graves knows how to write and writes with a sincerity that at times becomes fierce, but also because his autobiography has a further virtue which most war books lack—that of completeness. He sees the first thirty years of his life as a unit, and he spends as much care on the story of his boyhood in pre-War England and his manhood in post-War England as he does on the life-shaping period of the War. As the title suggests, every word in his book forces home the point: Here is the story of a life that is complete in itself, regardless of what may happen to this particular man at any future time; a life into which the War entered before it could hardly be called a life, and which ended forever when the War and its aftermath were over. A sense of the unre-traceable fatality of war as it shapes the individual life gives this book a poignant and somber power.

The author of “Good-Bye to All That” does not look with pleasure on the life of his hero. The public school system of pre-War England stifled the poet in him, the War wrecked his body and shattered his nerves, and post-War England offered so little that he had to go to Egypt to earn his bread. Mr. Graves must have realized that the tale verged on the pitiful, and sought earnestly to escape it, for he almost bends over backward in his effort to avoid an appeal to sentiment. Although he is engaged in the most personal kind of writing, he strips his narrative to a bare record of events, seldom gives us a glimpse of any inner life, and voices his comments with a mordant restraint. And the curious result of this reticence is that what might have been merely a pathetic tale becomes a story that has in it the elements of universal tragedy. In the terse narrative of the life of Robert Graves we see symbolized the lives of a generation of aspiring young men grown old and broken in performing a task which they cannot understand but which they must complete.

Hans Carossa’s “A Roumanian Diary” is as incomplete from a chronological point of view as Graves’ book is complete, but it has a completeness of spiritual revelation that makes it an even more fully consummated creation. It is the journal of a middle-aged German medical officer, and it covers only about two and a half months of the period in which his unit was withdrawn from France to carry on the winter campaign that overwhelmed Roumania. Its author is a man of keen and accurate perceptions and of extraordinary power at description, and he was in an excellent position to observe this spectacular campaign, which was wilder and in some respects more full of hardships than the battles in France. And yet there is no more striking example of the turning inward characteristic of war books than can be found in “A Roumanian Diary.” But Carossa has the true inwardness of the mystic rather than the personal preoccupation of the mere egotist; his is one of the few spiritual records that have come out of the War. His descriptions of warfare in the snow-bound Transylvanian mountains are among the most striking in war literature, and are all the more remarkable for having been written in the confusion of an ever-changing battle front; but the emphasis throughout this fascinating book is on the man’s inner struggle to preserve his spiritual integrity.

Some writers have sensed the limitations imposed by the microcosmic point of view in describing so vast and complicated a structure as the War, and have tried to achieve panoramic effects. None of these efforts has been completely successful, but Mary Lee’s “It’s a Great War” and Alden Brooks’ “As I Saw It” are examples of the panoramic treatment at its best. Miss Lee has chosen the fictional form for her book, but it is permissible to assume that the experiences of her heroine are based largely on her own. “It’s a Great War” is a novel only in the broad sense in which the word is applied nowadays: it is really a succession of episodes loosely woven around the life of an individual, beginning with a childhood ten years before the War and ending in 1920. Through the eyes of this woman, who was a secretary in hospitals and military bureaus and later a canteen worker behind the lines, we see the working of the vast machinery that was necessary to carry on the War. We see it, though, not in neat outlines as it appears in military blueprints, but as an intricate pattern of human desires and disappointments. In and out of the focus of this book passes the whole array of those whom the War involved, from soldiers going to the front and wounded returning, to staff captains, clerks, refugees, and Y. M. C. A. men,— and each adds its element of comedy or tragedy to the picture. Miss Lee’s book is an extremely long one, but it moves with cumulative speed as episode follows episode, and it holds the unflagging interest of the reader to the end.

As an officer in the French heavy artillery and later a liaison officer between French and American artillery units, Alden Brooks had an excellent vantage point for observing the War in its final year. “As I Saw It” is the result of his observations and it is outstanding both as a picture, in bird’s-eye view, of the warfare of 1918, and as an intelligent layman’s criticism of the military conduct of the War. He is not concerned with individual emotions or the ethics of war, but primarily with the inordinate inefficiency of the war machine. His book presents many points of argument for amateur and, professional tacticians, but his general charge—that the War produced no tactical leadership which could master its complexities—is one that will be admitted, I think, by all but the most conservative. But Mr. Brooks is not solely concerned with animadversion. His descriptions of individual battles such as the March retreat and the battle of the Marne have the pictorial vividness of well-executed paintings, and he writes always with a clarity and an abiding sense of humor that make his book delightful reading even when he is dealing with the more technical phases of his work.

C. R. Benstead, in “Retreat,” has attempted a compromise between the panoramic and the introspective. Like Mary Lee, he uses the novel form, but “Retreat,” unlike “It’s a Great War,” is a novel in the strictly traditional manner. For his background, Mr. Benstead uses the March retreat of 1918, and his story recounts the spiritual disintegration of an idealistic chaplain under the stress of that debacle. Mr. Benstead chooses extreme conditions: his chaplain is a religious bigot and a moral prig, and he arrives at his first post on the very eve of the retreat; but if these not impossible conditions are allowed, the story follows with an impressive fatality. Against the spectacular background of an entire army in retreat, we watch the progressive steps in the breakdown of Chaplain Warne, beginning with his realization that his priestly services are useless in such a disaster and ending with his spiritual and, later, his physical death. Mr. Benstead’s talents are in the best tradition of the English novel; his story moves forward with complete assurance, his descriptive passages are vivid but never wordy, and his characters stand out in full-rounded reality.

“Armageddon” is a synthetic attempt to overcome the limitations of the individual war book. By selecting extracts from a large number of writers, Mr. Lohrke gives us a variety of backgrounds and an intricate pattern of micro-cosmic pictures of the War; and he arranges his selections in a manner to emphasize the larger dramatic movement of the War which was not apparent to the individuals who were involved in its machinery. Within the limitations of any collective work, “Armageddon” is successful. It has less than the usual scrappiness of the average anthology, for most war books are episodic in construction and lend themselves easily to the anthologist. And “Armageddon” does give the reader an idea of the world-wide scope of the War’s activities and a sense of its organic rythm.

So far there has been no Tolstoi or Hardy to give us a complete picture of the World War as a drama involving both men and nations. Such a perspective will come with time, though there is no reason to assume that there will necessarily, be a great creative artist on the spot to use that perspective for another “War and Peace.” And so, until that problematical date, we shall have to content ourselves with anthologies like Mr. Lohrke’s, or with such books as the five I have discussed; though they lack the God-like lucidity with which our descendants may write about the War, they are full of the human passion that has moulded our generation.


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