As Great As Any War Can Be

This week marks the centenary of America’s entry into World War I, also known as The Great War. (Whether this week marks our entry into a new war is another matter.) Above is an image of what Brooks Brothers did that fateful year of 1917. Its Christmas advertisement took special note of soldiers, and seems to suggest that the gifts could be sent overseas for practical use by soldiers in the field, who could certainly enjoy a pipe to calm their nerves.

In college I developed a fascination with the 19th century — particularly the end of it — that remains to this day. But it was during a course called The Novel In France And Germany that a professor shared her own fascination with World War I, and passed it on to me. It’s known as “the last gentleman’s war,” and to illustrate the point my professor showed us one of the great World War I films, “La Grande Illusion,” made by Jean Renoir in 1937. I’ve watched it several times since, and there’s a pivotal scene when two officers — one French, one German — discuss that although they are enemies, they share the class bond of being European aristocrats. And as such, their days of power and influence are coming to an end. It is the kind of bittersweet twilight of the gods that always makes my spine tingle.

There are many fantastic Great War films, and I’m sure we can collectively list them in the comments section. Another I’d like to offer, that may have flown under your radar, is the fantastic “Joyeux Noel” from 2005, about a temporary cease-fire for Christmas Day. Oh, and speaking of “Noel,” there’s also Noel Coward’s play and film “Cavalcade.”

And being a huge fan of American popular music starting with Scott Joplin, I also enjoy the songs associated with World War I. “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding” was written by two Yale students a few years earlier, and became associated with the war. It’s hard to imagine young men called upon to summon the courage to face death would sing these beautiful songs together, but the past is another world, as they say.

And now one final personal anecdote. My first writing job was as a reporter for a regional business magazine in my home town north of San Francisco. Sometime around ’97 or so I pitched my editor a story about people who never retire. I rounded up a group of men at least into their seventies from a range of professions. One was an upholsterer, bright and alert as can be, in his early nineties, which means he was born in the first decade of the 20th century. He was raised in a small town in the Midwest, and could remember the time when he was a child and an airplane flew overhead and the whole town ran outside in awe to watch it, because of course no one had seen an airplane fly before. To hear someone tell you that kind of story, and to imagine yourself in his place, is just amazing. He then told me an even better story so unbelievably of another era. When he was 16 he ran off to join the Army; this was around 1922. When he arrived he was devastated to learn that they had just cut the cavalry — he’d joined so he could be a soldier on horseback! But World War I was the last war to use horses. Future wars would involve machines of death, and eventually, pushing buttons.

Oh, and when I asked the old man the secret to his longevity, he said it was being made of good old-fashioned peasant stock. His wife had died many years ago. “She was delicate and aristocratic,” he said in fond remembrance. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

33 Comments on "As Great As Any War Can Be"

  1. I most admired Ernst Jünger’s “Storm of Steel” among accounts of the First World War until I went to war myself. Then “All Quiet on the Western Front” made much more sense. The 1930 film won two Oscars, I think. I believe that the best war movies are those that reflect each combatant’s internal need to justify their actions; it is something about which Remarque writes eloquently and it is echoed in the film.

  2. Robert Hill | April 7, 2017 at 11:54 am |

    I recall as a boy being introduced to a man who had fought in the Boer War and like you I have never forgotten the moment. My maternal grandfather did serve in a cavalry regiment in Egypt in WW 1 having lied about his age, as so many did. Unfortunately he died before I was born so know nothing of his experiences fighting the army of the Ottoman Empire.
    Powell and Pressburger’s, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp is another film with a similar theme to the ones you mention, I expect you know it.
    Thank you for the blog and Facebook page which are always interesting and fun.

  3. “Colonel Blimp” is a great movie, as is everything by P&P.

  4. “My Boy Jack” is an excellent movie about what happened to Rudyard Kipling’s son-the dude who plays Harry Potter plays Jack Kipling

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0851430/

  5. An interesting detail of that ad is that the term “trench coat” was already in use in New York by 1917. Very interesting that the term was already known even before any American officers had returned from Europe.

  6. @cameron- I imagine the association of “trench” with modern warfare would have been commonplace as the war in the trenches had begun in the Fall of 1914 during the Race to the Sea.

  7. Two great songs of the era from this Noel Coward medley:

    Goodbye Dolly Gray
    Goodbye My Blue Bell

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jePdx5AQx-M

  8. Another great WWI movie is the silent film “The Big Parade.”

    Brooks Brothers had a store in Newport, RI to provide uniforms for those of us attending Navy Officer Candidate School. I understand from a Brooks rep that the store in Newport is still providing uniforms for Navy officers.

  9. More pics from Brooks catalogs, brochures, and ads of this era are most welcome. The era of Oxford Bags. I’m ready for a return to fullness-of-fit.

  10. It’s a book, not a movie, but I tentatively recommend “Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew”. I say tentatively, because the book is thorough to the point of being interesting perhaps only to academics specializing in early 20th century British poetry. But I bring it up, because it does hammer home that the “aristocracy” most certainly participated in WWI, and for the most part would not think to do otherwise.

  11. Nick Willard | April 7, 2017 at 2:23 pm |

    Early Kubrick: “Paths of Glory” with Kirk Douglas.

  12. Paths of Glory is indeed excellent. I can recommend also All Quiet on the Western Front, Joyeux Noël and The Blue Max.

  13. Mitchell S. | April 7, 2017 at 2:53 pm |

    I love Great War era fashions: trench coats, tank watches, and Dunhill lighters.

  14. For those who like French films about WWI in colonial Africa, “Black And White In Color” is one of the best…..

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074972/

  15. @Eric – of course “trenches” were firmly associated with the war, but the “trench coat”, referring to a coat styled like a military greatcoat but in a lighter fabric, was a new thing, and I didn’t think the name was widespread until after the war, when demobbed officers were seen wearing them around London and Paris. But I guess the name became well known during the war, well-known enough to cross the Atlantic.

  16. I imagine most readers here are familiar with and have seen “Galipoli,” the Peter Wier movie starring a very young Mel Gibson. Tells the story of the ANZAC troops and the devastating slaughter at the attempts of the British Commonwealth to gain a foothold in the Dardanelles. Churchill would refer to it in the future as his worst mistake.

  17. WWI stays relevant with each passing day. Recent events only serve to remind us of the mistakes made before, during, and immediately after “The Great War”. I became aware of the social impact of the war through reading the works of the “lost generation” who yearned to become part of something much bigger than themselves, but ended up losing their sense of self and (almost) there sense of humanity. It has been said that the drunken revelry of the 20’s was an attempt by the “sad young men” to forget the horror of what they experienced. For others, their failure to participate (either by design or circumstance) become a motivating factor in how they developed as men. The sentiments expressed in Le Grande Illusion were given much more attention ironically through Downton Abbey. Though I suspect many of the most ardent fans did not understand the connection.

  18. Growing up in Canada, we learned a great deal about WWI as Canada didn’t have much involvement in WWII. We watched bag film “Joyeux Noel” and that scene always stuck out to me, beautiful film. We also had a Remembrance Day assembly every year and we had to recite John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” It was very moving and about as patrotic as Canadians get, don’t have too many wars to boast about. Luckily, I’m a dual citizen.

  19. Also, I had an ancestor fight and die in the Great War. Shot threw the back while on patrol at night in France by a “hun.” I was fortunate to come into possession of letters of correspondence between my great-great-grandmother and my great-great uncle’s commanding officer. He wasn’t killed in a gentlemanly fashion, rather a cowardly one, but I’m sure he was a gentleman and I do believe this was truly the last gentleman’s war.

  20. There’s also another approach when dealing with the Great War: it was the first military conflict that gave use to the mass production and technical innovations that came with the Industrial Revolution, and at a global scale too. Tanks, submarines, aeroplanes, artillary… it was a huge leap in armament and increasing greatly its deadly potential. Chemical warfare also was used (Mustard gas in Ypres in 1915). It was a war fought with ultramodern equipment for its time but the tactics were nearly Medieval in their conception, one of the reasons that explains the high figures in casualties and the psychological impact it had on soldiers. Paths of Glory, which Nick and James have mentioned, brings up the topic. I think the most gentlemanly episode in WWI was the Christmas Truce in 1914, but for the rest you can sum it up in the last verses of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est.
    P.S. Having read your blog on a nearly daily basis for the last two years or so, and being this my first comment, I’d like to compliment CC on your highly informative and entertaining pieces.

  21. Chariots of Fire. I forget the quote. Two (lucky) Cambridge students, both of them bound for the Olympics, board a train. They’re assisted by a couple of (less lucky) men who, it is suggested, suffered their injuries while fighting on battlefields. One man, scarred and limping, turns to the other while pointing at the aristocrats. He says something to effect of–that’s why we fought the war, to give young men like that a good education. Not an ounce of flippancy. Perfectly ernest. The war was over and all eyes were on the future…

  22. An interesting article on the wrist watch and World War I.

    http://boingboing.net/2015/03/04/how-wwi-made-wristwatches-happ.html

  23. If you’ve ever been in a war you would never call any war “a gentleman’s war,” last or otherwise. There is no such thing.

  24. The trailer from “The Big Parade” mentioned in an earlier post of mine regarding great WW I movies:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_-BvxzdOr4

  25. The Burberry trenchcoat were first used in the Boer War in 1895, they were invented soon after Thomas Burberry invented gabardine in 1879. After the Crimean War 1850 where long heavy serge greatcoats proved ill suited for the desperate conditions British officers began looking for something else. In time the Burberry later became approved for military use although officers had to purchase their own. While British military officers have worn the trenchcoats since the 1880s Burberry didn’t propose a government contract till 1901.

  26. >as Canada didn’t have much involvement in WWII

    Really? Juno Beach at Normandy, The Invasion of Italy, The Battle of the Atlantic, The Battle of Britain, the liberation of Holland, 44,000 dead, 54,000 wounded – that constitutes not much?

  27. Dixon, for the most part I grew up in Canada our History courses focused a lot more on WWI. It was taught to us that this was the war that Canada had more involvement in out of the two. I think it was an overall more important war for Canada as it helped it become more symbolically independent. Didn’t mean to rustle your feathers, just speaking from experience.

  28. GS – “this was the war that Canada had more involvement in out of the two” isn’t the same as “didn’t have much involvement”. I wouldn’t argue with the proposition that WWI was more significant as a part of creating a sense of national identity (the same can be said of Australia) but to say that Canada didn’t have much involvement in WWII is simply wrong. In 1944 the Canadian Army had responsibility for one of the five beaches in the invasion of Normandy and possessed the fourth largest navy in the world. I would call that involved. My feathers remain largely unrustled – for a start I am a Brit not a Canadian. You will have also gathered I am a military history nerd.

  29. As someone commented, there’s no such thing as a gentlemen’s war. I have a book, written in 1914, “Causes of the Great War.” War back then cost a million dollars a day, according to the book. A great waste of men and material, just like modern conflict.

    Copies can be gotten on Ebay very reasonably.

    Combat is only romantic and an adventure to those not involved. As a noncombatant draftee during the Vietnam era, I was chastised repeatedly by combat veterans for my “admiration” of their honor. I quickly lost my admiration of their plight.

  30. I realize this may be about film, but sensing a larger context, I’ve always believed that Barbara Tuchmann”s “The Guns of August” and “The March of Folly” should be required reading for all, and especially for those entering the foreign service, if we continue to have one.

  31. Dixon, I have gathered that you are a military history fanatic and, again, from what I was taught WWI was more important in Canadian history. And maybe I didn’t rustle your feathers but you’ve certainly got your knickers in a twist. I believe you did that yourself, however.

  32. René Lebenthal | April 10, 2017 at 10:22 am |

    A movie that Shows the obviously less glamorous side of the is “La chambre des Officiers”, “The officers ward” in english.
    A sensitive, slowly ongoing movie that tells the story of a french officer who is blessed just after the outbreak of the war and his recovery et a military hospital far away of the trenches….

  33. I hope the Brooks catalogue had a good selection of riding crops; just the accessory for any new lieutenant wanting to look his pompous best. I wonder if they carried monocles as well? 😉

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