Turning Points

A couple of weeks ago, this blog passed a quiet milestone. I really enjoyed past five years but I don’t know what to make of this. It has taken five years, and this is the big one. There are no other milestones to  hit.

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A hundred years ago today, two archducal lives were cut shot in a remote barbarous corner of the world. A month later, the world was engulfed in a conflagration it could neither have imagined or comprehend. It was the last war of the pre-industrial age, and the first war of the age of assembly lines.

The war claimed sixteen million lives, maimed twenty million more. It was deadlier still when taken into account the pandoran tragedies it unleashed, from rise of the Soviet Union to economic depression to Hitler’s Third Reich. We covered that pivotal moment of June 28, 1914 back in 2009.

The black and white photo above does not to much justice to awe and terror the German advance portrayed in the photo might have caused in France and Britain. Within a month since the declaration of war, the German were almost to Paris; they wore uniforms of faint gray — a color almost impossible to identify in snipers and binoculars. (This camouflage was especially effective at the time when the French were wearing conspicuous hussar colors of dark blue and red pants). And they loudly sang “Fatherland, My Fatherland” in absolute rhythm and beat as they advanced across Belgium.

At Mons in August, the British fought their first battle in Europe since the Crimea War. It was a moral victory where an outnumbered British coups managed to withstand the German advance for 48 hours, but a strategic retreat. British propagandists swiftly compared it to Agincourt. But it would take another disastrous battle, at Marne, in September to stop the advancing Germans.

Soon winter set in. Defying financiers and economists who predicted that the war would have to be stopped when gold reserves run out, and disappointing their footsoldiers who expected to be home by Christmas, the generals and politicians dug in — literally — into four years of trench warfare.

The Siege of Verdun

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February 21st 1916. Germany forces launched a massive attack on French fortifications defending the city of Verdun. The battle continued for months and despite huge casualties on both sides–2,200 German dead and wounded in a single day–the last fortress never fell.

This most famous picture about the Siege of Verdun captured not only the moment of one soldier’s death, but also of the death of old-fashioning ideologies about war, courage and human agency. It shows a French officer being machine-gunned as leads his men in a counterattack on German position. Taken from a film footage, this image of frontline action became so famous that Stanley Kubrick recreated it in his Paths of Glory (1958).

In the art of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix in Germany, or Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill in Britain, the men who threw themselves at then enemy became dehumanized, mechanical monsters. In the First World War, and in this photo, the nineteenth century notions of courage and patriotism were challenged by and collided with stark modern reality. The mechanical efficiency of defense with machine guns, artillery fortifications and barbed wires was so much greater than the resources of attack with soldiers who had nothing to protect them but tin helmets. It was the end of an era, the end of an illusion.