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Dulce et Decorum Est- The Old Lie in World War I


Image of WIlfred Ownes from Wikimedia CommonsWorld War I was the most horrific war in human history. World War II was more terrible in terms of scale and overall destruction, but World War I, the first truly industrial age war, was more horrible in terms of senseless slaughter. In Britain and France it produced a public outcry unrivaled until the US debacle in Viet Nam. This resulted in artistic movements such as the Dadaists in Britain and France that questioned, not only societal values that allowed war, but the nature of reality itself (Dada). The rightness of W.W.I was questioned not only by Dadaists, but by soldiers engaged in the day to day conflict. "Dulce et Decorum Est" questions the societal value that led many young Englishmen to join the army. Written by Wlfred Owen, who volunteered for military service in 1915, it "voiced righteous rage at the horrors he witnessed" (Champion). His poem challenges Horace's maxim, "It is sweet and meet to die for one's country," as "the Old Lie" which caused men "to die like cattle." The horrors witnessed by Owen occurred on a scale unmatched in any previous war with assembly line efficiency.

The assembly line revolutionized industrial production. In America, Ford mass-produced cars. Across the US and Europe, arms factories mass-produced weapons and ammunition, and in France, the battlefield became an assembly line for the mass production of death. Overhead, airplanes patrolled the skies, ready to rain death upon the soldiers on the ground and to attack the planes and pilots of the enemy. Machine guns laid overlapping fields of fire against which frontal assault proved suicidal. Concentrations of artillery, more massive than any used before, rained steel and death on enemy lines, trying to break the lines and the men that guarded them. One artillery barrage fell with such intensity that it buried a company of soldiers in their trench. To this day, tourists can view the rows of bayonets sticking up from the ground- all that was left after the barrage to show where the soldiers lie buried (Garb). The most insidious and terrible devices of this great killing machine were not mechanisms but newly developed military gases. Owen describes the sound of "disappointed shells that dropped behind" and the sudden terror of gas attack: "Someone . . . floundering like a man in fire or lime . . . as under a green sea, I saw him drowning."

There were several chemicals used as military gases in World War I; they are classified according to their mechanism of action. The tear gases are irritants. They produce itching skin and mucous membrane inflammation. At least in the 1970's, they were used by the US Army to teach about chemical warfare countermeasures. Nerve toxins are much like modern household pesticides. When absorbed through the skin, they produce paralysis or seizures that can lead to death. Victims can be treated by injection of an unpleasant antidote (U.S. Army). When chlorine was used in World War I, it caused tens of thousands of casualties, of which one-third were fatal (Parkinson 118). While shot and shell rended and tore, chlorine killed by suffocating its victims. More deadly in its effects was mustard gas. Mustard gas was first used by the Germans in July of 1917. It produced hideous burns on contact with skin and lungs, resulting in "incurable sores on innocent tongues" and "froth-corrupted lungs."

The effects of poison gas were not limited to the body. They burned the spirit as well. Victims of chemical warfare include my maternal grandfather and Adolf Hitler. Like many poison gas survivors, my grandfather went back home to raise a family and try to forget the war. As one veteran puts it, "'We never talked about it, never talked about the bad things. . . . It's better that way, you just let it rest'" (Champion). Unlike my grandfather and most other survivors, Adolf Hitler never really went home. By the time he had been released from the hospital, W.W. I was over, and Imperial Germany had been destroyed. The suffering he endured and the destruction of Imperial Germany kindled a smoldering hatred for those he held responsible: the Jews (Hitler). Although poison gas was not used in large scale for military purposes after W.W.I, it was used against civilians by Germany in the Holocaust. In the gas chambers of W.W.II, Hitler avenged not only his own W.W.I. gassing, but the destruction of Imperial Germany.

The industrial revolution led to mass-production of weaponry on an unprecedented scale. This great efficiency was translated onto the battlefield, where modern engines of war made the battlefield an assembly line for unprecedented horror. The traditional mass killers, the machine gun and the artillery, were joined by an even more hideous killer: poison gas. Men like Wilfred Owen, the flower of a generation, died in countless battles for gains of only a few yards- yards that were often lost in subsequent battles. In other men, like Adolf Hitler, smoldered a hatred and desire for revenge that would ignite twenty years later in the terrible conflagration of World War II.

Works Cited

  1. Champion, Chris. "Forgotten Heroes of a Fearful War." Alberta Report / Western Report Vol. 23. Online. The Research Zone. AOL.11 Nov. 97.
  2. "Dada." Microsoft Encarta. CD-ROM. 1994.
  3. Grab, Ernest O. "Letter to the Editor in Perspectives." In Military History. Oct. 1996
  4. Parkinson, Roger. The Encyclopedia of Modern War. Stein and Day. New York. 1973.
  5. "Hitler in World War One, The Rise of Adolf Hitler." The History Place. Online. 12 Nov. 1997
  6. U.S.Army Drill Instructor. Chemical Warfare Preparation. Lecture. Fort Dix, New Jersey. ca. Oct. 1976