"Can on exaggerate the horrors of trench life? Many have supposedly done so and been reprimanded by others for producing in their accounts nothing other than ‘mud and blood’ sensationalism. Some veterans of the Great War never experienced an attack; some never even saw the enemy, despite lengthy front-line duty; a few survived the whole war without more than a few scratches. Some parts of the front were indeed very quiet. Some men never lost their sense of romance and adventure. Some never lost their sense of humor. Thus, to concentrate on the horror of Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres, say the critics, is to distort the reality of the war. Even in these sectors, which were not, they claim, the norm, massive artillery bombardments and attacks were rare. Most of the time men were occupied by the humdrum problems of trench existence and essentially by boredom.

Part of the problem in this debate is a matter of definition and semantics. What sort of experience does one classify under ‘horror’ and what constitutes ‘boredom’? Cannot one man’s horror be another man’s boredom, and vice versa? If one insists that horror is the sensation aroused solely by the unexpected contradiction of values and conditions that bestow meaning on life, and that in turn boredom is the inevitable upshot of routine, even of routine slaughter, then the question can never be resolved, because no sense of horror, even one caused by this war, can remain constant. After several weeks of frontline experience there was little that could shock. Men became immunized rather rapidly, to the brutality and obscenity. They had to if they were to survive. As Fritz Kreisler, violinist and Austrian infantry-man, put it:

'A certain fierceness arises in you, an absolute indifference to anything the world holds except your duty of fighting. You are eating a crust of bread, and a man is shot dead in the trench next to you. You look calmly at him for a moment, and then go on eating your bread. Why not? There is nothing to be done. In the end you talk of your own death with as little excitement as you would of a luncheon engagement.'

And John W. Harvey, a Quaker from Leeds who was with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, wrote from Ypres, ‘I am having a wearing time amid sights that would be too full of horrors and pity to bear but for human nature’s capacity to get hardened by familiarity to anything.’

Hence, even horror can turn to routine and bring on ennui - the sense that one has seen it all before and that existence no longer holds any surprises. ‘There is nothing left in your mind,’ continued Kreisler, ‘but the fact that hordes of men to whom you belong are fighting against other hordes, and your side must win.’

Even when things seemed quiet, the casualties continued to accumulate - from sniper activity, from random artillery fire designed to keep the enemy on edge, and from accidents. It was this attrition, precisely when nothing of any consequence seemed to be happening, that horrified some soldiers the most. Death seemed totally without purpose. In the war diaries of army units there is often a terrible irony lodged in the terse one-line reports for the day’s activity: ‘All quiet. Three casualties.’ As the anguished American ambassador put it in a letter from London, ‘When there’s nothing to report from France, that means the regular 5,000 casualties that happen every day.’

The dichotomy set up in the ‘horror versus boredom’ debate is a false one. What is crucial is the broader significance of the 1916-1917 phase of the war, its relationship to previous forms of warfare, to expectations and values; and here it is hard to deny that the ‘front’ experience of 1916-1917 was indeed a ‘frontier’ experience, and experience of something that was, in its implications, completely new. Of course soldiers continued to classify sensations according to previously existing categories - this was an instinctive reaction - but the actual experience as a whole was crucial, and that, in its broader context, was novel.

With time the former categories and the accepted relationship of the war to previous history wore thin and collapsed. The rate of this deterioration varied among the belligerents and among people, depending on the resilience and resonance of existing values, but everywhere, even if only in the postwar period, in the cauldron where purpose, memory, and outcome brewed together, the validity of former categories disintegrated.”

-Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.

(Image source.)