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Glimpses of the Catastrophe of 1914/1918

Updated: Mar 9

In reaction to the horrific killing burning across Europe, in 1916, Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote his Inextinguishable Symphony, inextinguishable meaning the 'elemental will to live', that life would not be extinguished in that gathering darkness. Hope would overcome despair.

The great cataclysm of the early 1900’s, the Great War, is now just a hundred years past us, and the soldiers who survived WWI are all in their graves. They have long seemed hopelessly remote, in their black and white photos and sparse, jittering, grainy footage.

I would like to recommend to you the new documentary about those neglected soldiers, They Shall Not Grow Old. It came out in Britain in 2018, and is now showing in the United States. The director, Peter Jackson, is better known for his Lord of the Ring movies, but he has brought the daily life of those soldiers remarkably, vividly to life, and let them, as much as possible, speak for themselves. He restored the crude, blurry, jerky old clips of the war to crisp sharpness, colorized it up the levels of some 1950’s films; thanks to lip-readers, we even hear what the soldiers were saying to each other as the camera was rolling.

Here are two trailers that give you a sense of what the film is like, and what daily life in the trenches was like, in a way that removes that hundred years of distance:

They Shall Not Grow Old

The trailer bringing home how much such a movie brings these men's lives back to life.

and in high-definition: [edit: the video originally included below has been removed from YouTube]

Peter Jackson could only get through the archival footage for the infantry; he didn’t include any of the aerial or naval footage, nor much of the home fronts, and he focused on the British lines. It was his hope that others would come forward and do the same for the French, the Germans, the Italians and the rest.

Some of that is happening, and here is a 7-minute video of German footage, with a voice-over in English of a German medical student drafted into the Kaiser’s army and his terrible experience of, as a healer having to kill.

World War 1 (in Colour) Rare German Combat Footage 1916-1918

with a survivor's memories

[edit: the video originally included below has been removed from YouTube]

That young medical student, Stefan Westmann, moved to England and became a doctor, and recorded his experiences in English. Excerpts used in this video are:

[0:48] In February1914, I, as a medical student received my call up papers ordering me to report for military duty in a clean state and free of vermin at an Infantry Regiment in Freiburg in Baden. The first of April I joined up and after approximately four months military training I was a full soldier in my regiment.

[1:27] We had no idea of any impending war. We had no idea that danger of war exists. We served in our blue and red uniforms but on the 1st of August 1914 mobilisation orders came, we had to put on our field grey uniforms and at 2 o’clock in the morning of the 4th August, 1914 we marched out of Fribourg with torches. Silent, without any music, without any singing. No enthusiasm.

[2:21] One day we got orders to storm a French position. [2:25] We cut zigzag lines through our barbed wire entanglements and at noon we went over the top. We got in and my comrades fell right and left of me, but then I was confronted by a French Corporal. He with his bayonet at the ready and I with my bayonet at the ready.

For a moment I felt the fear of death and in a fraction of a second I realised that he was after my life exactly as I was after his. I was quicker than he was. I tossed his rifle away and I ran my bayonet through his chest He fell, put his hand on the place were I had hit him and then I thrust again. Blood came out of his mouth and he died.

I felt physically ill. I nearly vomited. My knees were shaking and I was quite frankly ashamed of myself. [3:49]

[3:53] What was it that we soldiers stabbed each other, strangled each other, went for each other like mad dogs? What was it that we, who had nothing against them personally, fought with them to the very end and death?

We were civilised people after all. But I felt that the culture we boasted so much about is only a very thin lacquer which chipped off the very moment we come in contact with cruel things like real war. To fire at each other from a distance, to drop bombs is something impersonal.

But to see each other’s white in the eyes and then to run with a bayonet against a man it was against my conception and against my inner feeling.

[5:09] I woke up at night sometimes drenched in sweat because I saw the eyes of my fallen adversary, of the enemy, and I tried to convince myself what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been quicker than he, what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have thrust my bayonet first into his belly. [5:38]

The full transcript is not very long, and you can find it online, such as on the Telegraph’s site. It is worth a read; among other things, it also includes moments of kindness between opposing sides.

After being reminded of the horror of war, Carl Nielsen's vision of inspiration amidst tragedy, offers renewed hope. His fourth movement of his first symphony even better captures that sense of life blossoming forth, against all ruin, inextinguishable.


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