Ok so a Frederick Nietzsche quote as the title is a bold move… but bear with me…
As we all know, life is rarely black and white. Some people have a faith in religion so strong that they are unflinching in their resolve and have no questions. For others, each day is a struggle to simply survive. Like most people I’m somewhere in the middle I suppose. I view life as a complex, chaotic, beautiful yet vicious unfathomable thing and it is hard to find the answers at times. I am often driven mad by the questions (never mind the answers) and to me the Battlefields have become somewhat of a sanctuary.
The war was such a big event, I don’t just mean in military terms or even socio-economic, but something more than that. It touched the lives of millions of people. The men who fought and died, the men who fought and survived. The families who lost – loved ones, homes, livelihoods. The men who lost – purpose, belief, futures. Any event that has such powerful consequences leaves an indelible mark on space and time. Of course it wasn’t a single incident, it was an innumerable chain of actions big and small.
The path to war was a maelstrom of events. Political decisions driven by visceral human emotion in a time when morals were held to a different standard and the culture of nations was in some ways unrecognisable to that which we know today. To say the outbreak of war was written in the alliances forged in the years preceding 1914 is an over simplification. Yet given the militaristic zeitgeist it was certainly a driving factor – after all in forming an alliance you naturally form an adversary.
The early 20th century was a time of imperialism. The European power houses saw themselves as superior to all foreign nations and there were no ethical concerns about dividing and conquering other countries. Nationalism was a given, your country was the best, your people were worth 10 times that of your neighbour and so why shouldn’t you make that land yours? Consider how human nature would impact the actions of a single man who holds this attitude when he feels threatened, now consider that in terms of national government. As mentioned, a by product of forming alliances is alienating others – Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy formed the Central Powers alliance which caused great alarm to their neighbours. France, Russia and Britain formed the Triple Entente in response. This escalated tensions further. The geography of this alliance poured petrol on the glowing embers of national aggression and with this all this combined (and more), it took only the death of one man, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to act as the catalyst that would plunge the world into a conflict that would last 4 years.
That’s the big picture, but I find myself drawing parallels often with the small, individual events that followed and how that effected the people involved. There is no justification or reason that the complex political and social events described above should lead to a boy of 16 receiving a bullet square between the eyes, a Mother left without her only son. Or a wife struggling to comprehend the heartbreak she feels when a Husband who returned without physical ailments, seems unrecognisable because of the trauma he’s faced. But it did, these things happened. There are endless stories, endless consequences and when I feel in life that I don’t understand something, or have that most childlike of responses to circumstance – ‘why me, it’s not fair’ – I find that on the Battlefields, with the echos of so much, I am able to gain a perspective that I cannot find elsewhere.
You can look at the Great War in terms of hard facts. Military strategy, divisions and dates and the order of battle – and all that is great to know – but to me it’s when I begin to interpret what all this really means on a human level that I get so much from this subject. It helps me to apply a philosophy to my life that, although doesn’t provide answers, helps to better understand the questions. It’s this outlook that I hope to share with people. I may not know as much about the war as a lot of people and I question daily whether I’m good enough to guide as a result of that, but I can only do this in the way that makes sense to me and hope that it is worth something, to someone.