From “The Little Drummer Boy“, Chapter 18, ‘De Bello Gallico’
The opening battles of the Great War had made it plain to see that this conflict of industrialized nations had no resemblance to the short, victorious and honourable war patriots cheered for and generals had promised. Not only had the latter, in every country, gravely underestimated the expenditures of modern war in regards to ammunition, gear and victuals, it became shockingly clear that, in the age of mechanized war, infantry attacks over open fields would produce casualties in numbers never beheld before. Poison gas was soon to add one more horrific dimension to the suffering.
One of the great contrasts that this war produced was that of ages. While the industrialized countries of Europe conscripted their young men by the age of twenty, in war below that age, the chief generals of the Great War were of, comparably, biblical ages.
On the German side in 1914, Moltke was 66 years old, Hindenburg 67 and Kluck and Bülow both 68. On the side of the Allies, Joffre and French were 62 and Gallieni 68. Their advanced age was not a matter of chance, but the expression of the pre-War belief in “experience”, the preeminent value in what Stefan Zweig called the ‘World of
Security’ before the war.
The world about and above us, which directed all its thoughts only to the fetish of security, did not like youth; or rather it constantly mistrusted it. … Austria was an old state, dominated by an aged Emperor, ruled by old
Ministers, a State without ambition, which hoped to preserve itself unharmed in the European domain solely by opposing all radical changes. …
So arose the situation, incomprehensible today, that youth was a hindrance in all careers, and age alone was an advantage. Whereas today, in our changed state of affairs, those of forty seek to look thirty, and those of
sixty wish to seem forty, and youth, energy, determination and self-confidence recommend and advance a man, in that age of security everyone who wished to get ahead was forced to attempt all conceivable methods of masquerading in order to appear older.
The newspapers recommended preparations which hastened the growth of the beard, and twenty-four- and twenty-five-year-old doctors, who had just finished their examinations, wore mighty beards and golden
spectacles even if their eyes did not need them, so that they could make an impression of “experience” upon their first patients. Men wore long black frock coats and walked at a leisurely pace, and whenever possible
acquired a slight embonpoint, in order to personify the desired sedateness; and those who were ambitious strove, at least outwardly, to belie their youth, since the young were suspected of instability.
It didn’t occur to anybody’s mind that this was the first mechanized, “World War”, for any rank, corporal and general alike.
But as long as the generals insisted on sending unprotected men to attack, over open fields, other men, who had the advantages of being protected in entrenched positions, secured by barbed wire and supported by rapid-fire arms, casualties were to mount. This was “the simple truth of 1914-18 trench warfare.” What rankled the troopers was the Olympian aloofness shown by some of the principal commanders.
The impassive expressions that stare back at us from contemporary photographs do not speak of consciences of feelings troubled by the slaughter over which those men presided, nor do the circumstances in which they
chose to live: the distant chateau, the well-polished entourage, the glittering motor cars, the cavalry escorts, the regular routine, the heavy dinners, the uninterrupted hours of sleep. Joffre’s two-hour lunch, Hindenburg’s
ten-hour night, Haig’s therapeutic daily equitation along roads sanded lest his horse slip, the STAVKA’s diet of champagne and court gossip, seem and were a world away from the cold rations, wet boots, sodden uniforms, flooded trenches, ruined billets and plague of lice on, in and among which, in winter at least, their subordinates lived.
Sooner or later, inevitably, the soldier will seek responsibility for the conditions he is exposed to not only with the enemy but his own higher-ups. All of the three early C-in-C’s on the Western front of 1914 were eventually replaced, Moltke in September 1914 [his successor Falkenhayn at the end of 1916, ¶], Sir John French in December 1915, and Joffre, who was promoted to the honourable but hollow position of “Marechal de France”, in December 1916.
Alas, their replacements tended to be not much younger either of age or intellectual freshness. The British press coined the expression of
describing the BEF as “Lions, led by Donkeys,” and nobody mistook the generals for the lions. War, to paraphrase Yeats, is “no country for old men”, but, over most of its duration, the Great War was.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19, Quotations etc. see The Little Drummer Boy, Chapter XVIII and Appendices)