Otto Dix The Trench

Otto Dix – Der Schützengraben (The Trench) (1920-23)

As I mentioned in the course description, one of the more regrettable ‘firsts’ resulting from the First World War was the use of trench warfare. Shortly after the Allied power stopped the German march through Belgium and France at the Battle of the Marne, each party took their positions at the front and began digging the first trenches on September 15, 1914. Soldiers spent days, weeks, and even months digging 7 foot deep by about 6 feet wide trenches on the Western Front to hold off their respective enemies. These trenches stretched all along the front lines on either side of the conflict, from the northern coast of Belgium, all the way down to Alsace, a mountainous region on the border between France and Switzerland (which remained neutral in this conflict).

trench raider

If you imagine yourself to be a soldier standing in the trenches, a few hundred meters in front of you would lay the faint line of enemy trenches. Stretching out between you and the enemy laid ’No Man’s Land,' so-called because no one person or country could lay claim to it. If you entered No Man’s Land without any adequate cover, you almost certainly died. If you stuck your head above the seven feet of trench wall, you died. Enemy marksmen, perched evenly along the front, were constantly watching your trench parapet for just such an event.

Mirroring the very gridlock and obstinance of the combatant countries involved in the war, soldiers would spend days and months waiting in the trenches, going slowly insane, until they were commanded to go into No Man’s Land on perilous reconnoissance missions, or occasionally ordered to make a run at the enemy line, or: in either case, death was incredibly likely, and progress was nearly non-existent from 1914 all the way to 1918.

That said, for this module, I would really like us to consider the symbolism of 'the trench.’ In the various poems and films we’re going to watch, what is the trench a metaphor for? A division or separation? Or obstinance; boredom; A grave; a cancer; Death itself? Think about the many ways the trench is invoked here, both in the poetry and in the films.

Otto Dix The Trench

Otto Dix – Der Schützengraben (The Trench) (1920-23)

As I mentioned in the course description, one of the more regrettable ‘firsts’ resulting from the First World War was the use of trench warfare. Shortly after the Allied power stopped the German march through Belgium and France at the Battle of the Marne, each party took their positions at the front and began digging the first trenches on September 15, 1914. Soldiers spent days, weeks, and even months digging 7 foot deep by about 6 feet wide trenches on the Western Front to hold off their respective enemies. These trenches stretched all along the front lines on either side of the conflict, from the northern coast of Belgium, all the way down to Alsace, a mountainous region on the border between France and Switzerland (which remained neutral in this conflict).

trench raider

If you imagine yourself to be a soldier standing in the trenches, a few hundred meters in front of you would lay the faint line of enemy trenches. Stretching out between you and the enemy laid ’No Man’s Land,' so-called because no one person or country could lay claim to it. If you entered No Man’s Land without any adequate cover, you almost certainly died. If you stuck your head above the seven feet of trench wall, you died. Enemy marksmen, perched evenly along the front, were constantly watching your trench parapet for just such an event.

Mirroring the very gridlock and obstinance of the combatant countries involved in the war, soldiers would spend days and months waiting in the trenches, going slowly insane, until they were commanded to go into No Man’s Land on perilous reconnoissance missions, or occasionally ordered to make a run at the enemy line, or: in either case, death was incredibly likely, and progress was nearly non-existent from 1914 all the way to 1918.

That said, for this module, I would really like us to consider the symbolism of 'the trench.’ In the various poems and films we’re going to watch, what is the trench a metaphor for? A division or separation? Or obstinance; boredom; A grave; a cancer; Death itself? Think about the many ways the trench is invoked here, both in the poetry and in the films.

The Reading

So for the reading, I thought we would begin with a poem by Isaac Rosenberg – considered to be one of the finest 'trench poets' in England. He also died in WW1, fighting in the trenches of France. His poem below makes direct reference to life in the trenches:

Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)

Note the reference to the poppy plant, which grew freely in the fields of France and Belgium when Spring came, in spite the war and its trenches. In fact, it was the disruption in the soil from the digging of trenches and explosion of artillery that allowed poppy plants to thrive in the soil of the Western Front, owing to their ubiquity. This is one reason why the poppy is such an enduring symbol of remembrance for World War I, especially on Armistice Day.

John McCrae makes a reference to the poppy in his famous poem, In Flanders Fields, written while he was languishing in the trenches at Ypres:

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

And lastly, Attack, again by Siegfried Sassoon. Pay careful attention to Sassoon’s tone in this poem, written much later into the war than Absolution (2015, from Module 1).

Attack (1918) by Siegfried Sassoon

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

The Watching

soliders in trench

Above: Men of the Seaforth Highlanders resting with a dog in a trench, near La Gorgue, France in August 1915

 

For the past two modules, we’ve been watching films that came out during, or within a decade of the Great War. As we know from the reading, at the start of the war, film wasn’t really all that respected, and was seen as more of a novelty that would be found at fairs or carnivals. After the war, however, film gained new respect as not only a powerful propaganda tool, but also a critical art form, capable of beauty, emotion, and expression. As the newly minted Russian ruler Vladimir Lenin said, "of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.”

Keep in mind that the films we are going to watching for this module were made some time after the war and, therefore, the artistry of film has – in some cases – many decades to develop into its own. This is why I’m excited to present the three films for this module: they are some of the most incredible movies I’ve ever seen, period.

Note: the following three movies can be found in the LEH 353 - WWI in Film library on Plex.

 

Paths of Glory (1957) by Stanley Kubrick

If you’re anything like me, then you love Stanley Kubrick. I’m a child of the Eighties and my dad was a total nerd (which makes me a nerd), so I was raised on 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, etc. All amazing classic of cinema that are often referenced and emulated, but never quite duplicated.

paths of glory theatrical poster number one 1957 color added 2016 david lee guss

I was just like you – still in college – when Stanley Kubrick passed away. That’s when I first really started exploring his earlier films and came across the incredible – and somewhat overshadowed – Paths of Glory. Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, and starring the incredible Kirk Douglas, this antiwar film tells the story of a French battalion who refused to leave the trenches during an ordered attack, and the subsequent military court proceedings that followed.

During WWI, you could be court-marshalled and shot for refusing to leave the trenches when ordered to – what the French called 'cowardice in the face of the enemy.' The problem is, were you to leave the trench, you would almost certainly be shot. From the perspective of the French army, who wallowed in these trenches for four years, as wave after wave of attacks just led to more bodies being piled up with little change in the shape of the front, the war had become nonsensical and a paradoxical; the feckless military leadership remaining obstinate, uncaring, and obsessed with protecting their own careers, as they sent millions of young men to die. Aside from being a classic war film, Paths of Glory perfectly sums up this paradox, with all its frustrations and humility.

Lastly, the title of this movie, or more correctly of the book from which it was adapted, actually comes from a famous 18th century poem by Thomas Gray entitled Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751):

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

 

this dude loves his horse

War Horse (2011) by Steven Spielberg

This epic war film by the American master of epic war films, Steven Spielberg, is an emotional roller-coaster that will bring us from Devon, England, to the trenches of Flanders. It is a beautiful film, based on a novel and a play. Pay special attention to the horses in the film, as they are important symbols, in addition to being characters in and of themselves.

 

A Scene from 1917

1917 (2019) by Sam Mendes

Lastly, we’re going to watch the most recent film you’ll be watching in this course: 2019’s feat of cinematography, 2017. This amazing film follows two soldiers as they complete a very critical mission: to deliver orders to a colonel on the front line that he must call off his planned attack before it’s too late, and 1600 men are senselessly killed. The film, written, produced, and directed by Sam Mendes, was based on his grandfather’s autobiography entitled ‘Autobiography of Alfred H Mendes 1897-1991.’

The film itself makes use of a technique called ‘continuous camera,’ appearing to have been shot in just two long takes. This incredible achiecement won Roger Deakins the 2020 Oscar for Best Cinematography. Among this film’s many other awards, it also took home the 2020 Golden Globe for Best Picture.

And though the cinematography certainly sets a new standard for how war films will be shot, do pay special attention to the set design in this movie: the trenches, No Man’s Land, the German positions, and even the Northern French countryside…their accuracy, and the behavior of troop movements, is all made possible because of films like 1916’s Battle of the Somme.

Lastly, this film has received a good amount of well-deserved critique for how it, in some ways, glorifies war. Whereas Paths of Glory casts its gaze on how deeply ineffectual and self-serving those in charge were, 1917 regards that as mostly an afterthought in favor of highlighting the epic the adventure of war. Though the story itself is rooted in truth – there was a Battle of Poelcappelle, which this events in this movie preceded; during Operation Alberich, the Germans did in fact move back and shorten their line to free up their ranks for a major push elsewhere; and these events did in fact happen in 1917, shortly before the Battle of Passchendaele.

Unfortunately, that battle resulted in the deaths that range from 500,000 to 800,000 soldiers alone. This makes the heroic sparing of 1600 British soldiers admirable, but certainly does tarnish the overall picture. Herein lies that danger with inspiring epics like War Horse and 1917 – by threading dramatic narratives and epic heroism into an incredibly sad and regrettable historical event, the truth of the Great War can easily be overlooked.  

The Questions

After reading the above poems and watching these two films, complete the following questionnaire. You will only need to answer these questions once, commenting on – and sometimes comparing – both films in your answers. You can access the questionnaire for Module 03 in another window here.