In 2020, when all you have to do to make up a new insult is to attach “bro” to the end of any word, 1917 has a rather unusual message. “Young men are good.” Indeed, not only do Lance Corporal William Schofield and Lance Corporal Tom Blake manage to keep their humanity in the middle of the apocalyptic hellscape that was northern France in 1917, they’re positively noble, two heroes right out of a recruiting poster. 1917 is a love letter written by Sam Mendes to his grandfather, the writer Alfred Mendes who served as a messenger in the British Army during the First World War and died in the early 1990s at the age of 94. It’s also a throwback to the shallow romantic nationalism that allowed Europe to blunder into a war so catastrophic that it essentially destroyed European civilization.
In The Great War and Modern Memory, the classic study of the literature of the First World War, Paul Fussell argued that in 1917 British poets and fiction writers did not possess the aesthetic tools necessary to describe the hell in Northern France that had swallowed up an entire generation of young men. While decades before Mark Twain had savagely mocked the romanticism of Walter Scott and the “Lost Cause,” the ideology that had blinded so many Americans to the reality of the killing fields of Gettysburg and Chickamauga, British poets like Rupert Brooke were still writing about the industrial slaughter of the Western front in terms of traditional chivalry, of knights in shining armor dying a glorious death for king and country. For Brooke, even the thought of being transformed into actual dirt was lyrical and romantic.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
It was only decades later, Fussell argued, after the Second World War, with the emergence of post-modern writers like Thomas Pynchon, that the English language found the words it needed to express what it felt like to have been a British soldier on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, where over 17,000 young men were slaughtered in a few hours. In such a world there could be no chivalry, romanticism, or comradeship. There was no basic human decency or even for that matter any kind of fundamental human consciousness. To be a soldier in the trenches of the Somme, Verdun or Passchendaele was to be a piece of meat shortly to be devoured by giant rats. It was to be a a lump of shit or a piece of scrap metal. Theodore Adorno once speculated about whether or not you could have poetry after Auschwitz. You could in fact have poetry after the First Battle of the Marne, but it would never again be the same.
Before the war, as he reminds us, “[t]here was no Waste Land, with its rats’ alleys, dull canals, and dead men who have lost their bones: it would take four years of trench warfare to bring these to consciousness. [. . .] There was no ‘Valley of Ashes’ in The Great Gatsby. One read Hardy and Kipling and Conrad and frequented worlds of traditional moral action delineated in traditional moral language”
Sam Mendez gets to have it both ways. In 1917, he puts his two noble young heroes on stage in the middle of the apocalypse, and yet their spirit isn’t consumed. The First World War was so senseless that we still don’t understand its causes. In 1914, for some reason, millions of western Europeans gathered together in northern France and started to kill one another. It probably had something to do with imperialism and capitalism but honestly your guess is as good as mine. Blake and Schofield, however, two enlisted men in the British army, fight for the reasons most soldiers fight, for their fellow soldiers. As the film opens, both of them are called into a meeting with their commanding general, and given a mission. In the aftermath of a German retreat, he has sent two brigades across No Man’s Land into an advance position, in anticipation of the final “big push” that will win the war. But the German’s have not retreated. As confirmed by aerial reconnaissance, they have set a trap, and established a more defensible position. If the forward British troops proceed with the attack, they will be slaughtered, probably to the man. Worse yet, the Germans have cut the phone lines, making it impossible to notify their commanding officer of new intelligence.
Blake, idealistic patriot though he is, has good reason to accept what will almost certainly be the most dangerous mission of the war. If the attack goes ahead, his older brother, a junior officer in one of the advance brigades, will probably die. Schofield, on the other hand, who’s older, cynical, and most experienced, gets dragged along, largely against his will. Nevertheless, paradoxically, as they descend into the hell of no man’s land, he becomes, not more cynical, but more determined to finish the mission he had reluctantly agreed to accept. The depiction of the trenches, which are littered with dead bodies, gigantic rats, dangerous, abandoned scrap metal, German booby traps and German stragglers, toxic water and mud left me feeling palpably uncomfortable. Of course course it wasn’t the same as actually being in the trenches, but at times it felt so dirty and so unbearable I just wanted to walk out and take a shower. Yet Schofield and Blake forge ahead, working together better and better as a team and drawing closer to each other emotionally the closer they get to death. They are sleep deprived, hungry, dirty, and miserable, yet they both know what the stakes are. If they fail, thousands of their fellow soldiers will die needlessly.
Eventually, Schofield finds himself alone, as determined as Blake had been reach the advanced brigades, and deliver the commanding general’s message to stand down. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he finds a young French woman living in the heap of mud, dead bodies and scrap metal that had once been her hometown, caring for an orphan baby she had found in the wreckage. When Schofield asks the baby’s name she says that it’s “Je ne sais pas.” I don’ know. In war there are few things more dangerous for a young woman alone than a soldier she doesn’t know but the young French woman has nothing to worry about from Schofield. She attempts to patch up a bruise on his head. He offers her all the food he has, including a canteen full of milk he had taken from the abandoned German trenches, and then proceeds on his way. What makes this scene so powerful is not only the compassion Schofield feels for the woman and the helpless baby, but the realization that while the young woman will probably survive, the baby probably won’t. The apocalyptic hell that consumes the bodies of strong young men probably won’t spare an abandoned newborn.
In the end, however, I don’t think I like the politics of 1917. In the age of Brexit and the ongoing surge of right wing nationalism in Europe, the way Mendes uses the technology of cinema to have it both ways, to have his antiwar message and yet eat his patriotic cake too, to depict the horrors of war while giving the soldiers of the British Empire back their innocence and nobility, seems regressive. While the Germans of 1917 live in the reality a Thomas Pynchon, becoming as much a part of apocalyptic hellscape as the mud, rats, and scrap iron, the British live in the world of Rupert Brooke. Blake is doomed by his compassion for a German soldier, by his refusal to commit a war crime. This is not to say that 1917 is anti-German or even pro-war, but does, in a sense, erase the memory of what the trenches did, not only to the bodies of a generation of young Englishman, but to their souls. As powerful an evocation of history as the film is, it is also, paradoxically, a denial of history.
Of course liberals despaired. The trenches were the fruit of their regime, worldview. They looked backwards into history for a substitute anchor. But revolutionaries in the day were furious, angry and determined. They saw the trenches as the rotten fruit of a system expiring. They looked forward, had grim optimism that this waste and wreckage of the old regime would be replaced by the birth of a new revolutionary future. See Jack Reed and his lot.
And so we have today. The liberals fighting a desperate last trench defense of a failing regime. They can’t believe that the corruption which profits them, gives them status and wealth and security might fail and cast them adrift. But, while we have rising numbers of resistants only a few are looking forward to the better days of a new system. As always in such conditions tomorrow’s revolutionaries express themselves though the vision of defending the old historical-romantic ideals of the current systems fantasy infancy.
This carries on for a time. Until some become exasperated with its limitations. And fashion a vision of a new Tomorrow. They, who cast off the past and unreservedly look forward. And know they must fight for that. In the middle of WWI these were few in number as now. But they were the Bolsheviks. And even now such ranks are being drawn up.
Robert E. Lee actually invented trench warfare (and the traverse trench) in Northern Virginia. But in 1864 progressive capitalism in the form of Lincoln and Grant was strong enough just to overpower him.
In 1914, you had something odd. Democratic France was allied with Czarist Russia and the British Empire, supposedly fighting a “war for democracy” against Imperial Germany. The United States under Wilson essentially became a totalitarian state in order to get into the war on the side of the British and French.
It’s kind of the classic Marxist pattern except for a twist. The more advanced, democratic states held together on the western front and Russia and Germany, the more backwards, reactionary states, fell apart. Of course Germany was simply overpowered but what was clear is that the French got little out of their alliance with the Czar. The Russian empire wasn’t equipped to fight a modern war.
Here you have a British liberal in the age of Brexit in the form of Sam Mendes digging back into history to resurrect the noble young soldiers of the British Empire (the movie could have been written by Rudyard Kipling) even as he accurately portrays the apocalyptic hell created by capitalism (in the richest, most, advanced part of France).
You’re right. He can’t look forward. And if you go to the YouTube comments under any clip or review of this movie, there’s always a strain of British chauvinism wondering what the soldiers would have thought of the multicultural liberal Britain of today.
You are certainly right about Lee and trench warfare. But Grant kept moving to his left and until Five Forks. After Sheridan destroyed Early in the Valley and Sherman took Savannah. Grant was always the better general.
At Versailles the Allies ever feared insurgent Bolshevism. They had to de-mobilize while the insurgents mobilized. Stopped only at the gates of Warsaw and by the incompetence of the German Spartacists. A very near thing.
The nationalist Brits celebrate their retreat from Europe. They think to restore their faded glory their focus on a revival of the dead past. It will not save them as they sink into decay. Their resistance must pass through a Yellow Vest phase. Working poor, downward lumpen bourgeoisie, gig-timers – a fugue of a class. United by what they are against with little idea of what they are for.
But as with the U.S. the UK has an economy that is rooted in consumer purchasing power. When people stop spending because they are in debt, or are paid poorly or just go on strike they threaten the machine that makes the wealthy rich. Yes, they may put more of their own out of work but who cares? If folks just stop buying stuff the System’s fuel is undermined.
If the banks or corporation are bankrupt they just print more money. But if individuals go bankrupt they stop buying and their debt weigh on the books as in student debt. If everybody declared bankruptcy the debt consequences could not be written off or paid off. It would crash the system. If the stock markets crashed it would overwhelm the ability of the the central banks to intervene. So, the irreconcilable debt from many directions threatens stability.
On a state level both Russia and China are taking measures to protect themselves against the collapse of debt bubbles. But individually, in the west such would mean severe hardship. Loss of employment, pensions, bank failure. That equals explosion. People have already taken as much as they will. Crank up their pain and we move to serious unrest.
So then. Forwards or back in vision? When shit hits the fan. Which it will. Socialism or barbarism?
The real difference I think is that the North had what was for that time a sustainable economic system and the south didn’t. The German and Irish immigrants who enlisted in the Union Army were fighting for that land in the west the US stole from Mexico. They’d have the Homestead Act, the Morrell Act, and the very real (at that time) possibility for upward mobility. The blacks in the south, on the other hand, were never going to fight for their masters the way the poor whites did. The poor whites hoped t own slaves some day. After Benjamin Butler declared runaway slaves “contraband” the blacks in the south started a slow motion general strike that lasted for years and crippled the south’s economy. The only thing you wanted was to get away from the plantation and get behind Union lines. Once Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that pretty much sealed the deal.
In World War I the weaker states, Russia, Austria Hungry and the Ottoman Empire, were ruled by aristocracies and resembled the Confederacy more than the Union. The stronger states, Britain and France, were great capitalist powers like the North. German was a major capitalist power that was ruled by an obsolete aristocracy. Had the revolution in Germany prevailed history would have been much different, and probably a lot better.
Very well put. The raw power of rising commercial, industrial and finance capitalism versus the weak power of the slave plantation economy. In 1860 it would take you over two weeks to travel from the Mississippi to the Atlantic coast through the south. Because there were few railroads, that didn’t connect and all using different track gauges. There were six rail lines to Richmond but none of them connected and they were using different gauges and so couldn’t exchange hardware anyways.
I like your use of the slow moving general strike by blacks. When part of the Souths leadership tumbled to the notion of offering a kind of emancipation and to form black military units they were stunned to find that their slaves preferred the certainty of being surely freed by Lincoln’s military. As Sherman learned while marching across Georgia the black general strike involved the defection of tens of thousands of slaves who followed him along.
How far and fast had public opinion in the north moved in only a few years. Lincoln, always mindful to keep moving but to also retrain the insurgent radicals. Hence why he fought through the 13th Amendment under the last session of the outgoing lame duck Congress. An end to slavery, yes, but not the right to citizenship. He knew if the measure had been left to the incoming more Radical Congress then such would have been included. As it was, the 14th Amendment needed the fuel of Lincolns’ assassination and military victory to later effect those measures.
On the power of consumer spending to hold up the Regime, Charles Hugh Smith wrote yesterday (https://www.oftwominds.com/blogjan20/dow10K-1-20.html}:
” U.S. companies may find their products are not available in the expected quantities and at the expected prices. Since 90% of American wage-earners have stagnant incomes, Corporate America has no pricing power, i.e. ability to raise prices and make them stick, so profits will be slashed as sales stagnate along with wages.
“The hubris-soaked fantasy that the Fed will jack up stock valuations forever regardless of sales and profits will run aground on the unforgiving shoals of reality and all the hidden fragilities in America’s economy will emerge: too much leverage, too many zombie companies kept alive by debt, too much debt and not enough collateral, too many small businesses one tiny tipping-point away from closing for good and laying off all employees–the list is nearly endless.
While Murray Smith at Counterpoint weighs in with:
“Very few on what passes for today’s ‘left’ wish to consider, much less accept, this assessment. To the contrary, most would-be progressives cling desperately to the notion that ‘neoliberal capitalism’ is but the ugly mutation of a set of short-sighted policies that the capitalist ruling class may prefer but might also be pressured to abandon in favour of a more humane, just, and equitable species of capitalism. For this reason, the established, reform-oriented left is loath to characterise neoliberalism for what it is: a predictable and inevitable strategic response on the part of capital and the state to a deepening crisis of the capitalist profit system – a crisis that has been unfolding now for several decades.
And probably the greatest Confederate victory after First Bull Run was Chickamauga, where Lee sent Longstreet and 2 divisions by train to Tennessee to reinforce Bragg (who turned victory into defeat by splitting his army and sending extra troops to Knoxville for no discernible reason).
One question has always been whether Lee should have reinforced Vicksburg instead of invading Pennsylvania but nobody’s ever been quite sure Lee had the capability of sending an army in force to Vicksburg from Virginia.
The general who really learned from the United States Civil War was Von Moltke. The Prussians crushed the French in 1870 because they studied what Sherman did with railroads in Georgia. Then the French turned it around at the First Battle of the Marne with their taxi army, the first time a major power used trucks to move troops instead of railroads.
Funny thing is they were 30 years ahead of time. There was no fully mechanized army before the United States in 1944 and maybe the Russians (who had enough American lend lease trucks to move troops faster than the Germans, who still used horses).
Well Von Moltke was actually ahead of Sherman, way ahead.
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”
How true. Just as Cromwell’s revolution under Henry VIII hearkened back to the days of Brutus and the Leveller’s of that later Cromwell longed for the days of yeoman freedom.
Only Marxist socialism sloughs of the past’s burdens and looks forward unfettered to a better way of living.