In 1909, the British scholar and later Nobel Peace Prize winner, Sir Norman Angell, published a short pamphlet entitled Europe’s Optical Illusion. Subsequently republished a year later as The Great Illusion, Angell argued that the economic cost of a mass war in the industrial capitalist world would be so great, that, if it happened at all, it would be momentary. Angell also thought that the integration of capitalist economies across national boundaries which prevailed at the time made the likelihood of a major European war very low. Economic self-interest would likely outweigh the force of other concerns.
Just four years later, Angell’s thesis was thrown into doubt in the most comprehensive way possible when Europe’s industrialized capitalist countries went to war and didn’t stop fighting each other until 11 November 1918.
I was reminded of this recently while watching Peter Jackson’s new World War I film, They Shall Not Grow Old. This is no ordinary military documentary. Thanks to modern technology, Jackson and his team have been able to transform actual film from the war in a way that had never been done before. The entire commentary comes from the recorded voices of British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand First World War veterans.
As a young boy growing up in Australia, I recall being taken to the local war memorial on ANZAC Day, Australia’s national day to commemorate war veterans. The crowd would watch veterans from the Vietnam War, the Malayan Emergency, the Korean War, and World War II marching past.
Leading the parade, however, and being driven in an open car were a small group of World War I veterans. Everyone went very quiet when they passed. The silence was one of awe.
As I and the other boys at my Catholic primary school had learned from our teachers, a few of these bent and frail men had stormed the cliffs of Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. Others had smashed their way through the Ottoman lines in one of history’s last cavalry charges at the Battle of Beersheba in modern-day Israel in 1917.
Above all, we knew that some of these very old men with grandchildren and great-grandchildren had served in the Australian divisions under the command of Sir John Monash (a son of German Jewish migrants) which had stopped the last great offensive of the German Army in March 1918 at critical and bloody battles such as Dernancourt, Hangard Wood and Villers-Bretonneux in northern France as the German High Command desperately sought to break the Allies’ will to fight before the full weight of a million American soldiers made its presence felt.
These men were, in a word, warriors. Virtually every Australian of my generation had people in their family who had fought in World War I. But it was very hard to visualize them in the black-and-white footage recorded during the war and shown to us at school. The soldiers captured in these images moved in the jerky manner reminiscent of silent Charlie Chaplain movies from the 1920s. Nor could the soldiers’ words be heard. For all intents and purposes, they were trapped in a silent black-and-white world.
Thanks to Peter Jackson, that is no longer the case. By transforming footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, They Shall Not Grow Old literally immerses viewers into the Western Front. Stiff, awkward figures are transformed into real people in real places. Suddenly there is depth to the background. The recorded commentary from long-dead World War I veterans is interspersed by modern actors giving voice to the actual words spoken by the soldiers in the film, which have been captured by lip-readers.
The film starts with the usual jittery black-and-white footage as we see soldiers under training. The conversion into real color, depth and normal-time speed occurs as the newly-trained soldiers start moving into the trenches in France. We now view the war as they would have seen it, both the misery and horror but also the down-times. The same men who went over the top and charged machine-guns also played football, gambled, and played up for the camera whenever they knew they were being filmed.
What’s striking about the veterans’ reflections is the absence of hysterical overstatement, ranting, or jingoism. Rather, their words are calm, collected, and remarkably matter-of-fact. Nor is there a trace of anger, even towards their German opponents. If there is frustration, it is with the civilians who, after the war, simply couldn’t grasp what the soldiers had endured and, in some cases, just didn’t care.
But perhaps the most moving parts are when you look into the eyes of these men brought back to life. Some were incredibly young—18, 17, 16, even 15 years-old. On their faces, you see a mixture of good will, humor, sadness, fear and resignation. In one scene, a military chaplain presides at the hasty burial of some soldiers. He says the profound words that mark Christian burial. Yet you can see and hear that the relentless presence of death has numbed the priest’s sensibilities to the terrible things he has witnessed.
Europe was changed forever by World War I. Centuries-old empires collapsed, free trade disappeared, protectionism became the norm, evil ideologies like Communism and Fascism took root, and the decline in religious belief and practice already underway by the late-nineteenth century accelerated. How, many people asked, could a good God have allowed such things to happen?
That’s not a new question, and Jewish and Christian faith provides, I think, good answers. They Shall Not Grow Old, however, takes us into a lost world in which despair was very comprehensible but also one in which some ordinary humble men did incredibly heroic things.
Go watch this film. I guarantee that you will be haunted and moved.