When I previously thought about the participants of World War I, I imagined brave, young men fighting fearlessly for the country they believed in. I envisioned the war fields dotted with machinery, trenches and fortresses that helped to protect the heroic men who fought continuously until the end. I pictured the victorious soldiers returning home to accepting and joyous companions whom they had been away from for so long. Not once did I think of the women volunteering for the war. I figured they simply sat at home praying for the safe return of their loved men.
However, in closer examination of The Great War, I have learned of my naivety. In reality, women were as much a part of the war as were men. Although women played distinctly different roles, their experiences were often virtually indistinguishable to those of their male comrades. For example, women and men had the same pressure put upon them to volunteer for the war. Once involved in the war, both genders were forced to question their previous beliefs and their learned virtues while discovering that this great war wasn t what had been expected.
Men and women had to suffer from extremely horrible living conditions, face the fact that they were simply a number to the country they were fighting so valiantly for and learn to psychologically deal with experiences nobody had ever fathomed before. And when those who were lucky enough to survive returned home, they had to reevaluate their relationships with those they had left behind, often times discovering that the only thing that war had provided was an uncertain future.
I often wonder if as many men and women would have volunteered for the war if they had known what they were up against beforehand. Deductive reasoning tends to tell us they would have been more reluctant, but the pressures from their countries were so intense that many may not have had much of a choice but to enlist. Volunteers entered the war in order to please their families and peers at home; entering was equated with pride, bravery and selflessness.
Messages were given similar to those introduced by Anarchists of the late nineteenth century, making volunteers for the war men of courage willing not only to speak but to act, pure characters who prefer prison, exile or death to a life that contradicts their principles, bold natures who know that in order to win one must dare (Tuchman 32). And not only were citizens expected to enlist, but were intended to prepare to die for their country: It will be more beautiful and wonderful to live forever among the heroes on a war memorial in a church than to die an empty death in bed, nameless (Bond 76).
Women, as well as the men, were to go on doing [their] bit, because England [was] proud of her brave daughters (Smith 31). But as thousands lined up to show their respect and honor for their country, possibly with their very lives, others already involved in the battles discovered that war wasn t all it was cracked up to be. The men and women, who had been so eager to fight for what they believed in, soon understood that those at home did not fully comprehend the realities of war. Oh, the people who were sleeping in a bed and who tomorrow, reading their newspaper, would say joyously they are still holding!
Could they imagine what that simple word hold meant? (Horne 177). Every truth, every virtue, every principle that they had held before becoming direct participants was questioned. Some even began to resent the country that had sent them there. It seemed while those at home were admiring the members in battle, those actually taking part in it were disgusted with those who had put them there. Nevertheless, because many chose not to elucidate the realities of the war, most citizens were oblivious to the atrocities facing their own allies.
One woman ambulance driver explained, tell them all the ideals and beliefs you ever have had have crashed about your gun-deafened ears and they will call you a hysterical little girl (Smith 30-31). But in keeping the actualities hidden from those on the outside, the men and women who had come to hate their own societies were essentially contributing to it. So what were the men and women of war experiencing that made them transform into whole new human beings? Maybe the most horrendous aspects of war were the unbearable conditions that both men and women had to endure on a daily basis.
Food, drink, sleep and warmth were all luxuries of very few. Sickness and illness went untreated, reinforcements were lacking and wounds were not properly cared for. As a soldier in Verdun remembers, I saw a man drinking avidly from a green scum-covered marsh, where lay, his black face downward in the water, a dead man lying on his stomach and swollen as if he had not stopped filling himself with water for days (Horne 183). Probably the vilest condition that was faced was in being forced to live among the dead.
The sheer number of corpses was enormous and often there was not enough space, time or manpower to properly bury all those that had died. You found the dead embedded in the walls of the trenches, heads, legs and half-bodies, just as they had been shoveled out of the way by the picks and shovels of the working party (Horne 176). Women also had to cope with injured or deceased men every day and often had to see their own colleagues die as well. Images of shelves of mangled bodies filthy smells of gangrenous wounds shell-ragged, shell-shocked men men shrieking like wild beasts came to be a bit too common for both men and women.
As if these intolerable living conditions weren t bad enough, participants in the war had to learn to deal with the fact that they had become numbers to the country they were fighting for. Those living long enough to observe the specific technicalities of the war effort, soon realized that humans were being disregarded just as fast as they had been embraced. The dead were simply replaced with younger men while another new and eager volunteer substituted for a woman who had taken leave. One can only imagine the feeling of unimportance, the feeling of being a piece of machinery only to be replaced by a better or newer model.
One soldier so aptly illustrates these feelings: In the middle of combat, one is little more than a wave in the sea a stroke of the brush lost in the painting (Horne 168). Everyone was dealt with the same way, making it almost impossible to stand out as an individual when even the dead were to be made numbers in a row of muddy earth mounds in a bare tract of hastily fenced-off ground (Smith 116). Although the physical conditions were alone enough to make one go crazy, the emotional and psychological issues that both men and women had to face were even more trying.
In having to deal with a multitude of agonizing experiences, participants virtually became desensitized to the happenings around them. Those living were internally dead, emotionless bodies of flesh merely going through the motions. Thoughts of one women volunteer describe a common trait among both males and females, I do not care. I am flat. Old. I am twenty-one and as old as the hills. Emotion-dry. The war has drained me of feeling. Something has gone from me that will never return (Smith 169). Becoming internally lifeless was perhaps the only escape that could be made.
Sights and sounds that would normally drive one insane had to be endured every single day. And in day after day of dealing with these awful occurrences, many men and women felt death would be a welcome relief. One volunteer talks of the recently deceased: Fortunate perhaps in that they died, for once belief is shattered it is better to die. We young ones doomed to live on without belief in anything human or divine again are the ones to be pitied (Smith 116-117). No longer do these men and women regard life as special; death does not alarm them only the fear of dying.
What is it I fear? Not death. No, I only wish with all my heart I were dead and safely out of this hell. No, I do not fear death. Then what? I do not know. The dying, perhaps (Smith 156). That first goal of victory for a better nation was thrown out the window only to be replaced by a want or need for the end. Whether it be a soldier or a woman volunteer, the only hope was that there would be an end to the misery that had become all too real. Having despaired of living amid such horror, we begged God not to have us killed the transition is too atrocious but just to let us be dead.
We had but one desire; the end! (Horne 187). Those not having to suffer such hardships were slow to understand the changes that occurred in those who had partaken so completely in the war. Many women and men that returned from the war only had to undergo another hardship as they were forced to reevaluate their relationships. Not even words could appropriately describe what the participants in the war had faced and many struggled to relate to those who weren t aware of their experiences.
The only people who could possibly understand what they had to tolerate on a daily basis were those who had been right beside them. Unspoken bonds between the men and women of war were something unexplainable to those na ve to the realities. Serving in the war came to define a certain type of man and woman, to the point that [they] felt as if they belonged to some exclusive monastic order whose grim rites were simply beyond comprehension of the layman (Horne 190). A soldier at the battle of Verdun perfectly described this phenomenon:
It seemed to us then as if a quite exceptional bond linked us with those few who had been with us at the time. It was not the normal sensation of affinity that always binds together men who have endured common hardships It derived from the fact that Verdun transformed men s souls. Whoever floundered through this morass full of the shrieking and the dying, whoever shivered in those nights, had passed the last frontier of life, and henceforth bore deep within him the leaden memory of a place that lies between Life and Death, or perhaps beyond either (Horne 326).
So what was to come of these men and women of the war? They returned not knowing what was in store for them. They returned not knowing what the purpose of their service was or how they were to handle everything that they were forced to experience during their time in battle. They came home feeling as if they had entered a whole new country leaving their old home behind forever. The following sentences describe what many of them felt: What is to happen to women like me?
I am twenty-one years of age, yet I know nothing of life but death, fear, blood, and the sentimentality that glorifies these things in the name of patriotism (Smith 164). Women were not sure of their place in society now that they had participated in new and revolutionary roles. Men were expected to regain their positions as if nothing had happened. Both men and women had to deal with the persistent thoughts and visions of the war that would continue to plague them until they day they died; the nightmares [of war] inspired lingered perniciously long years after the Armistice (Horne 173).
In examining the experiences of men and women in World War I, it is clear to see that they played very similar roles. The same pressures were put upon them, they were forced to reevaluate their whole belief system and they learned that participating in war wasn t what many thought it to be. They endured the same horrible conditions of men and learned to deal with the fact that they were simply a number in a pool of volunteers. The souls of men were not the only ones to be desensitized as many women also had to deal with great emotional and psychological pain.
After the war, women also had to learn to fit into a society in which they felt like they didn t belong. Although women are far less recognized than men, they contributed equally to the war and thus had to suffer equally. Never again will I only imagine a war of only men at battle. Instead I will envision a more encompassing event in which both men and women participated fully in a great turning point in the history of the world.