Breaking Glass

Back to the Trenches

Stand by for a barrage of centennials.  For some years to come, we will be facing very regular commemorations of the various horrors of World War I and its aftermath, so expect a great many books, documentaries, and newspaper pieces on Sarajevo, the Armenian massacres, the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and on through the 2020’s.  And it would be very surprising indeed if this coverage failed to recycle the standard myths of the era, those oft-recited tales that are generally accepted, however hard serious historians try to demolish them.

One cliché that we can expect to hear very frequently is “trench warfare,” a phrase that has come to summarize the military history of the time.  According to a common stereotype, World War I generals were utterly lacking in imagination or creativity, and forced their troops literally to dig themselves into holes in the ground from which they hardly ever emerged.  They and their enemies took turns in repeatedly launching futile attacks against impregnable fortifications, with inevitably dire consequences.  “The trenches” are fundamental to the view of the war as an exercise in futility, and ultimately a classic object lesson in the virtues of pacifism.  So thoroughly have subsequent generations rejected the patriotic interpretations prevailing during the war itself that, in 2001, Great...

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