“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon
Could the First World War be described as farce? Farce is a kind of comedy. To describe the mechanised slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men as comic might seem like a sick joke.
11th November is known as Armistice Day and millions around the world use this day to commemorate fallen soldiers. How do we process the horrifying scale of human misery and suffering of that war? Surely a war so tragic could never be described as farcical.
But there is a sense of grim comedy about the First World War. I’ve never forgotten the first time I heard the intensely sarcastic poem by Siegfried Sassoon beginning with the line:
“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead…
The poem continues but ends abruptly with tragedy. We see this ill-placed, breezy and devastating confidence in General Melchett (Stephen Fry) in the show Blackadder, one of the UK’s most popular sitcoms, which sets an entire series in the trenches on the Western Front. Captain Blackadder finds himself trapped, yearning for an end to the:
“mud, death, rats, bombs, shrapnel, whizz-bangs, barbed wire and those bloody awful songs that have the word ‘Whoops’ in the title.” (Private Plane)
Is it a unique quirk of the British to portray this awful war as a comic? Perhaps Karl Marx, who lived and wrote in London, may have absorbed this national characteristic, causing him to write the famous line about history being repeated as farce.
The fact is the First World War is indeed a repetition of history. At the town of Mons on 21st August 1914, John Parr of 4th Battalion Middlesex Regiment became the first Commonwealth casualty of the First World War. Part of a reconnaissance team on bicycles, he was spotted by a German unit and killed in the exchange of rifle fire.
History was repeating itself, almost in the same place. Just a day’s march to the north-east of Mons is Waterloo, the site of the battle a hundred years earlier that ended the Napoleonic Wars. This was war as bloody, brutal and global as what we now call the First World War. And lasted even longer.
But the repetition is more tragic still. After 1914, the front line waxed and waned over the course of war which ended just over four years later. But in that very same town of Mons, two minutes before the Armistice took effect at 11am on 11th November 1918, Private George Lawrence Price of 28th Battalion Canadian Infantry was killed. He was the last allied fatality just a short walk from that first casualty.
Naturally Netflix has timed its release of the highly acclaimed All Quiet on the Western Front for this time of year. A German perspective on the war, it is emphatically not a comedy. The experiences of the German soldier were arguably even more harrowing than that of the British, French, Canadian or Australian who could bring more and more resources to bear as the war went on, including fresh American troops. The German soldier had to ensure one thing the Commonwealth soldier did not: defeat.
Eminent historian of the First World War, Gary Sheffield, had to remind his readers of this, doing so in the title of his book, The Forgotten Victory. The war was so overwhelming in the cost of life and trauma, the outcome can be obscured.
Perhaps the line between tragedy and comedy is fine because victory is every bit as costly as defeat. This is why the Duke of Wellington said his famous words about the reality of war following the Battle of Waterloo:
“Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”
Winning is painful. We want it to be easy and without cost but know that this is rarely the case. Our western society is built on the Christian story, at the heart of which is a troubling image of intense suffering. We use it to commemorate the dead on the battlefields of Flanders: the cross.
Although the cross is a symbol of Roman punishment, it’s hardly an outlier in the stories we read in the Bible, which rival the stories of the Western Front in terms of sensibility, if not scale. But the pain is never without purpose. And we know that our sufferings are not meaningless. That is why we try to make sense of them with narratives either tragic or farcical.
Perhaps the First World War is ultimately tragic, not least because history repeated itself yet again. In 1940, German troops swept through Mons once more. So much for ‘The War to End All Wars.’ History repeats again and again.
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